THE UK government’s welfare reform programme has been described as devastating by some and long overdue by others. Charities are warning that hundreds of thousands of families will be affected and will be worse off.
Opposition politicians are lining up to criticise the changes. UK government ministers say reform is necessary and we can’t go on as before.
The debate is polarised, passionate and fierce. Historians will look back and see these welfare reforms as some of the key changes that will define this coalition government.
However, for many it is a debate that rages around them while they face the day-to-day reality of the cuts and changes. For others it is a fight to find the volunteers and the funds to ensure the people who need help and advice receive it.
Without these charities the most vulnerable people in our society will suffer even more and the government’s reforms will come under even greater pressure.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith MP said: “It’s about trying to get as many people as possible out of the welfare trap and into lives they can control themselves.”
As a principle that may be fine, but for many the switch won’t be easy and, as with any complex government changes, they won’t run smoothly. Support to help people cope with the changes is crucial or they just won’t work. The necessary help and advice needs to be readily available. The government’s plans won’t work just because they say they should work. The support mechanisms must be in place.
Each year around 250 trained volunteers for Citizens Advice Edinburgh provide free, impartial, confidential advice to hundreds of vulnerable people on a daily basis. In fact, its staff provided 80,000 hours of service and dealt with around 26,000 enquiries last year. This number is rising and all the evidence shows that it will continue to go up as the welfare reform programme is rolled out.
And yet Citizens Advice Edinburgh relies almost entirely on charitable donations for its core funding. Despite helping people with a combined debt burden of £16.5 million, we rely on the goodwill of others to survive.
As government spending is reduced, more and more people are getting into trouble and our organisation faces a real challenge. We are providing more services while at the same time seeing our own funding stretched to the limit by the very same problems that are causing the increase in demand in the first place.
The charity is based on the principle of citizens advising citizens, so there is a great deal of trust in us and what we do. We’ve been operating since 1939 so have the experience and the knowledge few other organisations can provide, especially across the breadth of issues that we cover including healthcare, debt, employment, housing, welfare, disability issues and immigration. We help people back to work as well as people who are out of work. Our geographical spread across Edinburgh includes five main offices; there are also 15 other outreach locations in places such as courts and hospitals.
Our work is extensive, necessary, valuable and most importantly it contributes to society. It provides a safety net for people who have nowhere else to go, have fallen through the government’s safety net or who just need advice and help. It receives support from some politicians, some organisations and some businesses but, like any charity, support is hard won in the current economic climate.
The Scottish Government and Edinburgh City Council have both been extremely supportive, as have other organisations such as Standard Life, Royal Bank of Scotland, HBOS, Aegon and Edinburgh Partners, but we need more supporters to step forward if we are to provide the required services an increasing number of people are relying on.
The aim of Citizens Advice Edinburgh is to capture this public and private sector goodwill for the long term so that the funding is secure on a sustainable level and the vulnerable people in our society, who are being affected on a day-to-day basis by the government’s welfare reforms, can feel secure in the knowledge that support for them will be available when they need it.
• Sandy Duckett is the chair of the Citizens Advice Edinburgh board