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Investing in CABs is investing in people

by Derek Mitchell, Chief Executive of CAS.

This article first appeared in the Herald on 9 December.

In the years ahead, many conversations will be dominated by how we build back better after the pandemic, with politicians facing difficult funding decisions and households difficult spending decisions to balance the books.

One of the best ways to make those discussions less grim would be by protecting the resources of the Scottish Citizens Advice network. The network is made up of 59 bureaux across Scotland, as well as our Extra Help Unit helping consumers with specialist energy and post advice.

Figures released by Citizens Advice Scotland this week show that our network unlocked a staggering £170 million for people in the financial year 2019/20. That’s a £40m increase on the year before.

These gains mean that for every £1 invested in core advice funding the network delivered £16 for people and communities.

That’s an extraordinary return of investment and real value for money, as well as a means towards inclusive growth, with these gains being unlocked for people more likely to be struggling financially in the first place and ensures wider dignity and well-being. 

Additionally, these returns are spread throughout communities across the country, rather than focused in one place. Building community wealth across every corner of Scotland. 

We know councils in particular face incredibly difficult challenges when it comes to spending, and their statutory duties often means much of that spending is often accounted for before officers or councillors can consider other priorities. We have seen this year real collaboration across all sectors to deliver outcomes, and for me it is simply not an option to go back in these challenging times to previous habits of viewing statutory services as more important than other public services such as CABs.

The pandemic and demand for essential services, particularly CABs, means the idea of having to prioritise fixing potholes over funding anti-poverty measures is outdated and needs to be addressed.

Some may read this and think “hold on, you would say that.” But I say it because it is simply true. Funding CABs is a sound investment from an economic and social justice perspective. It’s putting money into people’s pockets that can be spent locally and reduces strain on other social services as a result and, through increased awareness of their rights, hard-wires future resilience into local communities.

Many of our clients turn to us at a point of crisis, suffering from serious anxiety and worry, and CABs actions reduce costs which would otherwise fall on other organisations.

When CAS researched client satisfaction earlier this year, people told us about the difference friendly, calm, knowledgeable and understanding advisers made. One client said: “When the adviser said she could definitely help, I started to cry. But she was so comforting and patient and I was able to go on. She has phoned me since to see if I am alright.”

People were less anxious having had help from a CAB, even when an issue couldn’t be resolved to their liking – it gave them certainty and peace of mind.

The survey found 95 per cent of clients were satisfied with the service provided by CAB, and would recommend the service to others. It would be fair to say we are all proud of these findings. 

The restrictions that have been so necessary this year fundamentally changed the way of life for many of us. There was a risk people could be left behind, but CABs across Scotland didn’t miss a beat, with thousands of people transitioning to remote working and advising by telephone, email, web chat. Since August, face to face advice for the most vulnerable clients with the most complex needs has resumed. As a result of that, the network has issued over 643,000 pieces of advice since April up until the end of November.

The challenges of this crisis means nearly two thirds of people accessing our services today have never used a CAB before.  We welcome this, but it brings the need to be properly resourced to continue to provide the modern, holistic services we have become known for.

We unlocked £1.3 billion for people in Scotland in the decade following the financial crash, despite 'austerity', welfare reforms and the growth in insecure work over that period. We could do so much more if the mistakes following that crisis are not repeated and governments truly do invest to deliver inclusive growth.

National and local policymakers grappling with how we come out of this pandemic with a stronger and fairer society should understand that an investment in CABs offers fabulous value for money and is in the best interests of communities across Scotland. I understand the enormous challenges governments face, but enabling us all to reach that better future, safe in the knowledge that we will always strive to provide for all, despite the difficulty of the conversation across government benches or household dinner tables, is the goal if we work together.