Citizens Advice Bureau: Why severing these lifelines to the most vulnerable is an act of folly - Martyn McLaughlin

Citizens Advice Bureaux are often the final safety net for the poor and the marginalised and are needed more than ever as the Covid-19 recession bites, but some face closure and staff cuts, writes Martyn McLaughlin

There has been a surge in demand for support from CABs during the pandemic.
There has been a surge in demand for support from CABs during the pandemic.

If you open your doors – and your hearts – to the public, it is only inevitable that you will bear witness to some of the more aberrant qualities of the human condition.

The network of Citizens’ Advice Bureaux (CAB) specked across Scotland is no exception. A folk story passed down generations of volunteers at the Drumchapel hub tells of the panicked phone call from the wee auld man in such a fluster, it took several minutes for him to gain his composure. When he did, he explained that he had lost his goldfish.

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Then there was the Argyll woman whose passing interest in genealogy had hardened into an unhealthy obsession. Insistent that she was a descendant of Donnchadh, a 13th-century nobleman, she implored her local bureau for help in claiming a centuries-old aristocratic birthright.

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Calls such as these are irregular, though not uncommon, and provide levity for an army of volunteers. Most people who approach the bureaux are at their wits’ ends, and in truth, the eccentrics and the misfits are no different; desperation manifests itself in many different ways.

For the most part, the work of the 59 bureaux across Scotland is unremittingly bleak, and the problems they field are altogether more grave. They hear distressing, despairing stories of households on the brink, and of those that have already fallen apart, crippled by debt, unemployment, and above all else, a sense of hopelessness.

It is not just the scale of the calls and visits that stands out, even though the numbers have jumped sharply since coronavirus exerted its stranglehold on the economy. It is the complexity of the cases.

A single event, such as redundancy, often acts as a catalyst for a sharp, downward spiral. Exorbitant loans are taken out, repayments are missed, the mortgage falls into arrears, and a family which seemed about as stable as, well, mine or yours, can find itself disintegrating. The situation is so overwhelming that people often do not know what type of help they need.

It is CABs which help untangle the knots of bureaucracy tightening around the necks of the poorest, the vulnerable, and the marginalised. Their volunteers have heard it all, and are able to offer practical support and avenues for financial assistance. It is, in short, a lifeline service.

In light of the current economic climate – the deepest recession in living memory, according to the Fraser of Allander Institute – it is astonishing to consider that this vital, decades-old institution finds itself under threat, particularly in those areas where it is needed most. But with a tranche of the bureaux in Scotland’s biggest city either under threat, or facing swingeing cuts, that is the reality.

Proposed funding cuts by Glasgow City Council would result in the closure of five bureaux within the city’s boundaries. Swathes of the east end, where deprivation is at its most acute, would be disproportionately hit, with bureaux in the communities of Easterhouse, Parkhead, and Bridgeton all facing the axe.

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Meanwhile, the three bureaux in the city which would remain – Glasgow North West, Drumchapel, and Pollok – would all face a programme of cuts come October, the same month the Covid-19 job retention scheme is scheduled to come to an end.

The potential consequences are catastrophic, as CABs have experienced a major upsurge in enquiries during the pandemic. Between April and July, the 59 bureaux in Scotland experienced a 191 per cent rise in the amount of redundancy advice it dispensed to those at risk of losing their jobs, up from 543 enquiries to 1,584.

The threat to these hubs is made especially galling by the fact it has been imposed by design. Having approved a five per cent hike in council tax earlier in the year, Glasgow’s councillors have yet to ratify the programme of proposed funding cuts, but are expected to do so later this week.

The supposed concept is to allocate more funding for the “wider third sector” and support those groups involved in “the frontline fight against poverty, inequality and injustice”. If there is a better definition of Citizens Advice Scotland and its tireless volunteers, I have yet to hear it.

Indeed, the significance of CABs extends beyond the one-to-one support they provide. They are powerful advocacy groups, able to translate the lived experience of their clients and provide perceptive scrutiny of legislation. As the writer Darren McGarvey has pointed out, the centres function as grassroots “early warning systems”, capable of highlighting problems with the likes of universal credit.

Since the planned cuts were leaked at the tail end of last week, a petition preemptively calling on the council to reinstate all funding to the CABs has amassed several thousand signatures. It may yet change minds, and the rallying calls of staff who point out they have never been busier may help.

If not, the Scottish Government should step in. This is, after all, the city where Nicola Sturgeon worked as a lawyer at Drumchapel Law and Money Advice Centre. By coincidence, that organisation is also facing a threat to its funding. Ms Sturgeon’s government cannot talk about fairness and social justice, while allowing something like this to pass by.

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Glasgow, like every local authority, is being squeezed from on high, and there is an argument that CABs should receive core funding from central government, if only to allow future planning and recognise the vital role they play. It is, however, an argument for the future. As things stand, the local authority has difficult choices to make, and no matter how good its intentions, it is pitting charities and third sector groups against one another.

Some 80 years have passed since the first CAB in Britain opened its doors. Fittingly, it was located in Glasgow, set up in the shadow of war to help arrange evacuations, trace missing people, and help rehouse families whose properties were obliterated in bomb raids.

Now, even in peacetime, the crisis facing communities across the city is unprecedented. They will need all the help they can get.

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