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Agenda item

Citizens' Advice Bureau Presentation

To consider the annual update on Citizens’ Advice Bureau activity in the borough.

Minutes:

38.1          The Chair welcomed the Chief Officer from North and West Gloucestershire Citizens’ Advice Bureau (CAB) to the meeting.  Members were reminded that Tewkesbury Borough Council had a service level agreement with the CAB which had been in place for a number of years and it was awarded a grant on an annual basis for the services provided to residents.  The Committee received an annual presentation which provided Members with information about the work of the CAB.

38.2          The Community and Economic Development Manager explained that the previous Chief Officer for the CAB had sadly passed away during the year and would be sorely missed.  Tewkesbury Borough Council had always had a very good working relationship with the CAB and he was confident that would continue with the appointment of the new Chief Officer who would be speaking to the Committee today.  The Chief Officer from North and West Gloucestershire CAB explained that she had worked for North and West Gloucestershire CAB for 10 years prior to taking on the role; she had started as a volunteer so had experience at various different levels of the organisation.  The CAB was made up of 277 individual charities of which the North and West Gloucestershire CAB was one and covered Cheltenham, Tewkesbury, Gloucester and the Forest of Dean.  There was another CAB which covered Stroud and Cotswold.  She went on to give a presentation reflecting the work undertaken by the North and West Gloucestershire CAB during 2020/21 which covered the following key points:

·           Aims - To provide the advice people need for the problems they face; to improve policies and practices that affect people’s lives.

·           Principles - The CAB service provided free, confidential, independent and impartial advice to everyone on their rights and responsibilities.  It valued diversity, promoted equality and challenged discrimination.

·           Pre-COVID service: The majority of customers were seen face-to-face with a small number via telephone and an even smaller amount by email.

·           Locations – CABs operated from 15 locations: Tewkesbury Public Services Centre; Prior’s Park; Bishop’s Cleeve; Winchcombe; Brockworth; Northway; Churchdown; Cheltenham (town centre); Up Hatherley; Gloucester (city centre); Cinderford; Coleford; Lydney; Newent; and St Briavels. 

·           Service from March 2020: 78% of contact was by telephone, 21% via email and only 1% was face-to-face; COVID-19 had meant that staff and volunteers had been forced to work remotely and measures had been put in place to support those who did not want to leave their houses e.g. freepost envelopes etc; 3,664 issues dealt with in total for the year for the residents of Tewkesbury Borough (3,370 previous year).

·           Employment status: Employed – 39.3% (38.3% previous year); self-employed – 4.7% (5.9% previous year); carers – 6% (6% previous year); retired – 9.8% (20.8% previous year); permanently sick – 21.7% (13.6% previous year); not working – 18.4% (15.5% previous year).  This was fairly consistent with the previous year albeit with a slight reduction in the number of retired people seeking assistance.  A lot of the issues raised had related to employment and loss of income which was not something which had been raised previously.  The amount of permanently sick people seeking assistance was much higher than normal – these people may still have been working so there may have been an impact on their employment in the last year, for instance, if they were self-isolating or had caught COVID-19.

·           Disabilities – Physical disability – 9.4% (10.1% previous year); mental illness – 9.1% (8.6% previous year); long-term health – 39.5% (22.4% previous year); not disabled – 42.1% (58.9% previous year).  The long term health issue category had seen a significant increase whereas all other categories remained fairly consistent with the previous year.

·           Top six issues during COVID-19 – Welfare benefits – 803 (923 previous year); Universal Credit – 336 (384 previous year); debt – 454 (702 previous year); employment – 465 (291 previous year); relationships – 360 (140 previous year); housing – 319 (83 previous year).  Welfare benefits and Universal Credit issues remained high whereas issues with debt had decreased in every district during 2020/21 as a lot of measures had been put in place to protect people e.g. bans on housing evictions, mortgage repayment holidays, no bailiff action being taken etc.  Employment and relationship issues had both increased significantly - CAB staff had become experts in furlough almost overnight and there had been increased domestic violence with COVID-19 and the various lockdowns exacerbating difficult family situations.  There had also been a massive increase in housing issues during the first part of the year when people were concerned about being able to afford rent and mortgages – people had felt insecure about housing even though evictions had been paused.

·           Significant issues during the year: employment issues; clients facing immediate crisis – 107 food and fuel vouchers issues for people in Tewkesbury Borough (34 previous year) although this did not reflect all of the vouchers sent out as a national telephone line had been set-up for that purpose; housing – concerns about eviction; Universal Credit; relationship issues; complications of giving advice remotely – staff went above and beyond to continue to deliver services for really vulnerable people.

·           Service post-COVID: Retain telephone helpline service but also ensure people who were vulnerable could continue to be seen in person - face-to-face contact had been reintroduced that week; continue to provide advice via email; continued hybrid working for staff and volunteers - new volunteers joining the CAB during the pandemic had been able to work in their normal jobs whilst also spending time offering advice by email which had worked really well; working with partners so that they could book appointments with really vulnerable people on behalf of the CAB so staff/volunteers could go to them if they could not access a telephone appointment.

·           Plans going forward: continue to develop telephone and email services; re-open face-to-face services prioritising the most vulnerable; offer support via the Food Bank; establish a network to ensure referrals for the most in need; offer more outreach services.

·           Case study A: Young man with autism, severe mental health issues, including depression and anxiety; client referred by Community Wellbeing for help with benefits – problems with Universal Credit, issue with housing costs and ability to pay rent, client had not applied for Council Tax support, Personal Independence Payment (PIP) incorrect, in arrears with energy bills; outcomes – Universal Credit increased by £341.92 with a £1,000 back payment, secured additional PIP of £62.50 per week, worked with Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to increase housing costs by £108 per month plus backpay of £950, helped client apply for Council Tax benefit and applied to trust fund to pay off fuel debt, resulted in an annual income gain of £8,649; client said he felt less anxious and was grateful for the support.

·           Case study B: single parent with two disabled children initially contacted CAB for her son who had multiple health issues and was unable to work for more than a couple of hours per week; client’s adult child had issues with PIP, client on low income supporting her adult child, problem with Council Tax, client struggling to support her two disabled children and manage work; CAB identified that the adult child could get Universal Credit and helped him make the claim of £324.84 per month, helped son complete work capability assessment for which he received £343.63 per month, assisted son to apply for and appeal PIP so he received a high rate for daily living and mobility of £278.46 per month, helped client apply for Universal Credit herself and reduce her working hours to give more time for caring responsibilities with a total annual income gain of £11,363.16 for the household.

38.3          A Member welcomed the important work done by the CAB which he felt was a service that was missing from the government and should not have to be carried out by a charitable organisation.  He indicated that he was aware of a specific issue with Trading Standards whereby, if a customer had a consumer issue with a company, they had to go via the CAB; however, ultimately the response was that no feedback would be provided by Trading Standards as to whether a case was being progressed or not.  He asked the Chief Officer for the North and West Gloucestershire CAB how many cases the CAB had forwarded to Trading Standards in the last year and how many had a successful outcome for members of the public.  In response the Chief Officer for the North and West Gloucestershire CAB explained that, if a client had a consumer issue, there was a consumer telephone line they could ring and the CAB would refer them to that number; she had contacted the national service for feedback on the figures and had reported the miscommunication in terms of people believing the CAB was the responsible body when it was actually the national consumer advice line. She indicated that another Member had been in touch with the CAB as they had been frustrated with the service provided by Trading Standards to one of the residents in his Ward – the CAB would be working with the client shortly as they had a very strong case.  A Member indicated that he was the Councillor that had been referenced and explained that he had been in communication with the CAB a lot over the past few weeks.  It was not a criticism of the CAB but the fact that customers could not communicate directly with Trading Standards was a real problem as he felt the system was letting people down – a resident had fallen foul of a rogue builder and had lost a lot of money as a result of that.  When he had tried to speak to Trading Standards, he had been told to go via the CAB but that was where the process ended.  He had since found out about a further three others who had fallen foul of the same rogue builder.  He had not realised that Trading Standards could not be contacted directly until he had been approached by the resident so he had been interested to hear how the CAB was dealing with this and thanked the Chief Officer for the North and West Gloucestershire CAB for the work being done.  He noted that Tewkesbury Borough Council provided a grant to the CAB each year and he questioned what the impact would be if that funding was no longer provided.  In response, the Chief Officer for the North and West Gloucestershire CAB indicated that the grant meant that the CAB was able to finance the core service; even with a high number of volunteers, demand for the service did not reduce and one of the biggest costs was quality – volunteers were supported by a big team who checked quality and provided support but people often did not realise that was the case.  The Chief Executive advised that, if the Council did not provide the funding, the CAB service would no longer be available for the residents of the borough and would mean that, in practice, those residents would come to the Council to seek help which would impact its services as well as public services.  The CAB was a direct service which supported very vulnerable people and it was important for the authority to continue to fund that.

38.4          In response to a query about the lessons learnt during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chief Officer for the North and West Gloucestershire CAB advised that one of the team was currently looking at the data and comparing it with previous years in order to map out where to target the CAB service.  One of the lessons learnt was that the CAB could support people by telephone and email – 18 months ago that would have been thought to be out of the question – but it was important to ensure that the very vulnerable people did not slip through the net so resources needed to be targeted effectively.  One of the questions that was being asked was whether the current opening hours of 0930-1630 were still appropriate or if the service should be available later.  She explained that the CAB had an enormous amount of data about people in the borough and mapping that had been really useful; however, it had raised more questions than answers at this point.  Initial discussions had taken place with Barnwood Trust around looking for parallels in data, specifically about disabled people, but it would be a long process.

38.5           A Member thanked the Chief Officer for the North and West Gloucestershire CAB for the amount of work the CAB did within the community helping many people with serious, and often complex, issues.  The Vice-Chair in the chair echoed those sentiments and thanked the Chief Officer for her informative presentation.  Accordingly, it was

RESOLVED          That the North and West Gloucestershire Citizens’ Advice Bureau presentation be NOTED.

Supporting documents: