Madness to cut lifeline many will turn to when falling on hard times

You may have been helped by it, know someone who has or you may just be aware that it has a presence in your area. You may not even be familiar with it, although that is highly unlikely.

For millions of people facing financial difficulties and with nowhere else to turn, Citizens Advice has for more than 70 years been an invaluable source of help and guidance.

But now our increasingly reckless, irresponsible government is forcing cuts on the very organisations to which people will turn when they suffer the financial consequences of its austerity regime. Between local authority spending reviews and reduced grants for advice agencies, funding for the guidance and support that so many people need is set to be slashed.

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Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) handled more than half a million new enquiries in the 2009-10 year alone, a quarter of which concerned debts. As unemployment rises the service is getting busier by the week, with its clients five times more likely than the general Scottish population to be unemployed.

About six in 10 clients are women and almost half are homeowners. And there's no question that in the months and years to come, Scots will need access to free support more than ever before.

The government's spending cuts have already made a sizeable dent in consumer confidence and several surveys last month pointed to growing pressure on household finances.

More than 200,000 Scots have been forced to use their credit cards in the past year to pay their rent or mortgage, according to recent research from Shelter Scotland, as incomes struggle to keep pace with inflation.

And that's with interest rates at 0.5 per cent - any rise and thousands of Scots already struggling to keep on top of their debt repayments will be pushed to the brink, triggering a surge in insolvencies and repossessions.

In that context, the cuts that Citizens Advice and other such services are suffering cannot be anything other than disastrous. Just last week CAS revealed it faces making people redundant at a time when its resources are already at full stretch. The changes at CAS - which is the umbrella organisation for the bureau service - do not at this point mean there will be fewer advisers, although it makes it harder to support those that are on the front line.

However, your local bureaux are almost certainly being asked by their local authority to make cuts. Councils are under huge pressure to shrink their budgets and it's inevitable that most or all will reduce the grant they give to their CABs. This is separate to cuts imposed on CAS by the government, which last year slashed CAS's grant by 11.6 per cent, the move that has forced it to make people redundant.

Lucy McTernan, CAS's chief executive, said the government's cuts are affecting bureaux at both the local and national level.She added: "CAS remains vigilant and concerned over this and the impact that this will have on Citizens Advice Bureaux and real people in every community in Scotland."

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The cuts came days after Treasury secretary Mark Hoban announced that the Financial Inclusion Fund, which pays for almost 500 debt advisers based in Citizens Advice bureaux and other not-for-profit advice centres, will close next month.

The fund was established six years to ago to provide more face-to-face services for people in debt difficulties. Now, after helping about 100,000 people a year tackle their debts, it is being shut down when people need help most.

The government points to the telephone-based services provided by the likes of the CCCS, National Debtline and Payplan, but merely passing the buck will produce the same end result - more people stuck in a spiral of debt and left at the mercy of predators such as loan sharks.

What's especially ridiculous is that economically speaking, the cuts are completely illogical. Citizens Advice, the CCCS and their ilk help people tackle their financial difficulties, enabling them to repay creditors and contribute to the economy, whether it's in terms of spending, working or relying less on state assistance.

The homelessness charity Shelter estimates that every family evicted from their home costs the UK government in the region of 50,000.

The shortsightedness is astonishing and the message is clear: we're all in this together … unless you're at the sharp end. Then you're on your own.

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