by Derek Mitchell, CAS Chief Executive.
NB This article was published in the Herald newspaper on 25 March 2020.
It was just over 80 years ago that the first Citizens Advice Bureaux in Scotland opened. Against the backdrop of the blitz and evacuations, those bureaux helped people with rationing, housing and reconnecting families that had been torn apart.
The new CAB network, for example, made the case for the government to provide extra clothes coupons to pregnant women.
80 years on our lives are facing the biggest social and economic disruption since the Second World War as a result of the Coronavirus crisis.
This pandemic is principally a public health one, and the Citizens Advice network would urge people to follow government guidance urging them to stay at home, wash their hands thoroughly and help prevent the spread of this disease which is killing thousands of people across the planet.
But the disruption to our economy also poses an unprecedented threat to people in Scotland on low and insecure incomes, in difficult circumstances around personal debts or facing an unaffordable cost of living.
That is where our network will stand up for people and support them through the problems they face.
First, we will work with Governments and industry at all levels to highlight the policy changes required to help people through this crisis. We were pleased to see the Scottish Government last week boosting the Scottish Welfare Fund and the fund for Council Tax Reduction.
Research for CAS last year showed the staggering problem in our society of working people going without essentials because they had run out of money before payday. 1 in 10 missed an energy bill at least once last year for that reason. Just over a third went without food at least once.
These were figures we were seeing before the Covid-19 virus essentially shut down large swathes of our economy.
So boosting the Scottish Welfare Fund, and easing the eligibility for crisis grants for people facing a financial emergency, is very welcome.
So too is increasing the pot for more people to claim Council Tax Reduction. Council Tax debt is now the biggest debt issue our network sees, with the average client in more than £3,000 of arrears. The average Council Tax bill in Scotland is £1,147. So this extra help for people is essential.
Last week we also outlined a series of emergency measures to the Chancellor to protect household incomes. We were especially pleased to see in his budget the value of benefits such as Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits increased. The value of these benefits had eroded thanks to the freeze on benefits, and in many cases simply were not providing enough support to people. The increase is a step in the right direction.
It was also vital that the Chancellor announced a scheme to retain workers, and we would urge as many employers as possible to access it. There’s still more to do, especially for self-employed people and gig economy workers, but the Chancellor’s announcement last week was a big and bold step which will make a difference.
Retaining workers is clearly a better option for our economy than putting the social security system under additional strain at a time when our welfare state will be tested to its limits. The early readings from Scottish CAB data show that the largest chunk of the queries we are getting for advice related to the coronavirus crisis are employment issues, and with new measures in place to protect businesses we hope to see an end to rogue employers shamefully using the pandemic to make workers redundant. The support is now there so there is no need for this to continue.
But alongside advising what policy responses are needed, we will also remain a trusted source of free, impartial and confidential advice for people.
While face-to-face advice is now suspended, all 59 Scottish CABs are offering advice over email or the phone, and we have our online advice pages which we continue to promote on social media and which people can access at www.citizensadvice.org.uk/Scotland, which is constantly updated to take account of new and emerging decisions or issues.
In the coming weeks, we’ll go further, as we seek to expand our services with a national telephone line for general advice queries. This will move our trusted face-to-face advice to a channel more accessible for people during the crisis. It will be locally resourced and staffed by local bureaux to meet the needs of the country.
This is an incredibly anxious time for everyone. The news is moving fast and our concerns are firstly about the health and wellbeing of our loved ones. A financial challenge or work issue which people can normally just about manage can be all the more distressing as a result. We’re here to help people through this crisis.
The challenges may be new, but our commitment to helping people is as strong as it was when those first CAB opened in 1939.