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Throwing a lifeline of help to 1m Scots in crisis

by Gillian Fyfe, Strategic Lead (Strong Communities).

This article was first published in the Herald on 28 April 2021.

As the song goes, what a difference a day makes. But in this case, it’s a year.

At the start of 2020 many of us may have paid little attention to any mention of coronavirus, not thinking it was something that would greatly impact us here in Scotland.

Fast forward a few months to mid-March 2020, and the whole of the UK was put in lockdown, as schools and offices shut, and we were only permitted outside for essential purposes. 

The Citizens Advice Network in Scotland was no exception to this, with local Bureau who are a focal point in their local community as a place to receive trusted and impartial advice in person having to transition to remote working.

The network acted swiftly to move to providing advice online and over the phone to help ensure people could still be supported, and Scotland’s Citizens’ Advice Helpline was also established. 

We knew that people in every community would still need advice and support possibly now more than ever as the ripples from coronavirus began to be felt all over Scotland.

From people seeking advice on being furloughed, or made redundant, to how to ensure that they were receiving all the benefits they were entitled to, or consumers seeking advice on claiming refunds for cancelled events or holidays, it was clear people still needed advice and support. 

Coronavirus has taken its toll on Scotland and the health impacts and loss of life rightly need to be recognised as the true victims of this pandemic.

However, every one of us in Scotland has been affected in some way by the pandemic, and this is one reason why it is crucial free and impartial advice continues to be made available to communities across Scotland.  As the pandemic began to take hold in Scotland it was clear that timely information would be key. So, CAS began regular monitoring and publication of data outlining what we were seeing across the network in order to understand the key issues that people were facing and where action was needed.

We fed this data to government and other stakeholders throughout the pandemic, and we know it has helped with decision making, particularly around emergency legislation to help private renters and people struggling with debt. We also made the case relentlessly for the £20 increase in Universal Credit to be retained permanently and will continue to do so.  Now in April 2021 we are taking a look back at years’ worth of our data which shows the issues people were concerned about and seeking advice on either from local CAB, or from our public advice site.

It’s sobering reading, and really shows the types of issues people have been grappling with over the last 12 months. But it also shows how the Citizen Advice network has responded and continued to support people over the past year. The network helped people almost one million times during the pandemic, issuing 987,348 pieces of advice to over 165,000 clients. Add to this the 2.5 million unique users who sought advice online through the Advice for Scotland website and you begin to see the huge reach and benefit that the Citizens Advice network brings to the people of Scotland.

This is a huge credit to the dedicated volunteers and advisers up and down the country who work tirelessly to help clients with all sorts of issues such as providing advice on social security, employment, housing, energy, and debt.  It’s also heartening to hear from our survey of over 1,000 CAB clients that the majority were satisfied with the service provided by CAB (95%) and the same proportion (95%) stated that they would recommend CAB to others.

Also, and of huge importance in the current climate is that more than two-thirds (70%) of respondents reported that the advice they received improved their mental health and wellbeing, while 80% said it had relieved stress. We know the huge toll that the pandemic has taken on people’s mental health and its good to know the Citizens Advice Network has been able to help people to relieve some of the stresses they have been facing and improve their mental health and wellbeing, and this will continue to be so important as restrictions begin to ease.

Having provided advice for 80 years the pandemic is the latest crisis were the CAB network has been there for people. Starting the shadow of the Second World War, through deindustrialisation to the 2008 global financial crisis CABs have been there to provide free, confidential and impartial advice and the changing nature of the type of advice they give reflects the challenges in society of the time.

It’s really positive that the vaccine rollout is picking up pace and restrictions are beginning to be eased, but we also know that the economic situation will continue to be challenging for some time to come.  Indeed, later this year our economy will face a moment of real risk, as financial support schemes and protections like furlough wind down and various industries face the challenges of a post-pandemic world.

We’ve made the case during the Scottish election that this risk needs to be treated with urgency early in the next Scottish Parliament. We can build back better, and deliver an economy that is stronger, fairer, greener and more inclusive than it was before if we get the big decisions right.  So while we’re reflecting on a year like no other and how we have responded, we also want to make it clear the Citizens Advice network will always be there to offer help and advice as we have done for the past 80 years.