Public support vital for Citizens’ Advice service

ANYONE can experience a crisis. A problem you solve in your stride can appear insurmountable to your best friend. An issue your daughter has no difficulty tackling could cause you weeks or months of worry and concern.

Recession has fuelled a surge in CAB enquiries, reveals Moira Tasker. Picture: PA

The life challenges we at Citizens’ Advice help with – redundancy, unemployment, bereavement, money and housing worries, relationship breakdowns, disability, healthcare concerns – affect all of us, our friends, families and neighbours at some point.

In recent weeks, frontline advice services in the capital received a major boost from the City of Edinburgh Council. In the 1990s, funding cuts to Edinburgh’s CAB service forced bureaux to reduce opening hours to survive. In 2013, thanks to additional support from the local authority, we will be re-opening all our advice centres five days a week, increasing our capacity to help those in hardship by around a third.

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Alongside ramping up our bureau services, we’ve been working to develop our outreach projects in communities across the city. News of welcome funding from the Big Lottery’s Support and Connect Fund brings a CAB service to Broomhouse. The new service will be based at the Community One Stop Community Shop and will work in partnership with the neighbourhood food bank and food co-operative to ensure people in crisis receive the help they need, when they need it.

Last year, our volunteers assisted with a staggering 26,000 enquiries – but the demand for our advice still far outstrips supply.

UK welfare reform and the economic climate is hitting people hard; one in four enquiries at Citizens Advice Edinburgh (CAE) concern welfare benefits. During 2013, this figure is expected to rise by at least 50 per cent.

In April alone, we saw a 133 per cent increase in people seeking information from CAE about crisis grants.

Unprecedented numbers of people are coming through our doors because they simply do not have enough money to buy food, pay their rent and heat their homes. Contrary to popular belief, many people struggling with finances and the benefits system are in work.

Their hours may have been reduced.

They could be on a “zero hours” contract with no certainty of work from week to week.

Short-term contracts often create short gaps in employment but big holes in household budgets.

We see a surprising number of people who are paid below national minimum wage or are working for months without being paid at all.

Our experience is that people out of work want to work but often face considerable barriers to employment. Lack of training, skills, or relevant experience, literacy and numeracy issues, health problems, childcare and caring responsibilities and – critically – lack of opportunity.

When you factor in things like delays to benefits processing, tax credits errors, the rising costs of food, utilities and housing, it is easy to understand why so many people and families are struggling. At CAE, our objective is to ensure that high quality, independent advice and support is available to all.

That is why we’ve been working to improve access to advice services – from installing a new phone system to launching an evening employment clinic.

Over the past two years our volunteer numbers have increased by a third. We have created more space to see clients in our bureaux.

Much of this work was carried out by our passionate volunteers with support from in-kind donations.

From turning storage space into additional interview rooms at Pilton and Gorgie to moving our Leith office to much larger premises, the aim is always to increase the number of people we can see.

As a charity, CAE faces an immense and on-going annual fundraising challenge. The need to develop new services is always set against a background of funding uncertainty over existing services.

We rely on the altruism of local businesses, trusts and individuals to support our critical, frontline work – both through funding and through in-kind donations such as office furniture, equipment and staff expertise.

Poverty, disadvantage and hardship can affect anyone.

It is, however, everyone’s business and we need your continued support to help tackle it.

• Moira Tasker is chief executive of Citizens Advice Edinburgh