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Peter, Paul and how we treat people in debt

by Polly Tolley, CAS Director of Impact

This article was first published in the Herald on 25 July 2022.

Over the last year the Scottish Parliament’s Social Justice committee has been conducting an inquiry into the problem of personal debt. After taking evidence from a number of organisations, including Citizens Advice Scotland, it recently published its report, ‘Robbing Peter to Pay Paul’. It is a worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in the issue.  

It has three recurring themes. Firstly, it recognises the experience and perspective of people who are in debt to a public body. That experience tends to be a sense of isolation and fear, lack of support and the burden of constantly having to prove themselves against agencies that are unsympathetic and at times inaccessible. On top of the debt itself, all of this puts intense pressure on the debtor and their family. The committee specifically mentions the impact on people’s mental health. 

The second theme, linked to the first, is the need for modernisation in the way public agencies deal with people in debt. There is too much outdated thinking and systems which are unresponsive, driven by targets and not by an understanding of people.  

The third is a recognition of the vital role played in tackling debt by free advice agencies like the CAB network.  

You won’t be surprised to learn that we welcome this conclusion. But the whole report is a good reflection of reality for many people and communities across Scotland and includes a list of practical recommendations for change which we would like to see taken up by UK, Scottish and Local Governments. 

And you may be surprised to learn that this comprehensive report, focused on the public good and with a solid set of recommendations, has been developed by a cross party group of MSPs working together with goodwill and a common purpose. This collaboration seems far removed from the party-political theatre of the debating chambers, FMQs and PMQs. But it is in the committees where the real work is done, and where it is possible to influence change by making a sound, evidence-based case. And this is where we at CAS often work to influence positive outcomes for society. 

The Scottish Citizens Advice network has two broad aims. The first is to give free impartial advice to anyone who needs it. The second, less-known objective is to use evidence from the large numbers of people using our services to exert a responsible influence on public policy. The data showing what problems people bring to our network, and the real lived experiences of our clients, is not political, just factual. By presenting this data (fully anonymised of course) to Committees and Ministers, we can persuade them of the impact that current policies have, and what needs to change.  

The debt inquiry is an excellent example of this. We were closely involved in the Committee’s work from the beginning and were pleased to see it meet front-line advisers from our network and other debt charities to help shape the inquiry. This ensured the work of the Committee recognised the extent and nature of the problems facing many communities.  

This report is just the starting point. Our work now turns to influencing decision-makers to accept and implement the changes needed to create a more sympathetic environment for people in debt.