Review of Debt advice and related services
The Council has a legal duty to provide certain advice and information services on debt, welfare and housing for local residents. Employment rights advice is also provided but there is no statutory duty on the Council to provide this.
There will also be a duty from next year for strategic public authorities to do more to tackle persistent inequalities of outcome caused by socio-economic disadvantage.
In Scotland, it is estimated that in 2015-16 880,000 people (17% of the population) were living in poverty, up from the previous year. Overall, it is estimated that 19% of young people in Scotland live in poverty.
In Highland, wages in remote and rural areas in particular are below the equivalent of the national living wage. This combines in some areas with an over-reliance on seasonal employment and contributes to ‘in-work poverty’. Affordable housing and childcare are significant factors in the cost of living in Highland, and there have been recent increases in fuel poverty in the region.
It is important to recognise that households experience poverty in different ways and to various degrees over their lifecycle. Additionally, the need for advice and support in response to life events is greater among those in poverty than for wealthier households. Households experiencing poverty have fewer financial or other resources, for example skills or social networks, to access in times of crisis. This constrains viable options and intensifies the impact of changes when they occur.
It is essential that quality local advice and information services are available and are capable of addressing problems as a whole. The Highland Council provides a range of debt advice and related services including Debt Advice (sometimes known as Money Advice); Welfare Advice / Income Maximisation (helping customers claim all the benefits to which they are entitled); Housing Advice (e.g. tenancy disputes); and Employment Rights (e.g. employee disputes with their employer).
In the light of the financial and demand pressures, the Council agreed a budget saving in December 2014 of £0.130m for 18/19 for the provision of debt advice.
At the Highland Council meeting of 9 March 2017, Members agreed to undertake a wide ranging review of these services.
Responses to various stakeholder consultation exercises provided evidence for the review. Throughout the consultation process a recurring priority for customers has been the need for advice and information to deliver services which are accessible and take account of a customer’s individual circumstances. This has been especially apparent in the more rural areas within Highland.
The key findings from the review include:
- an emphasis on the need for services to be accessible and flexible in their method and means of delivery in order to meet people’s individual requirements;
- a need for improved awareness raising of advice and information services amongst the public;
- ensure the customer is at the heart of service design and delivery;
- a clearer understanding by local advice and information services in relation to what other agencies operate in Highland to enable a more efficient approach to meeting customers’ needs including correct signposting, referral and effective collaborative inter-agency working;
- consideration of the impact of the continued welfare changes on people’s increasing need to access information and advice services.
Members of the People Committee agreed the report’s recommendations, including an amendment to take the savings over a period of two years - in 2018-19 and 2019-20.
Vice-Chair of the People Committee, Councillor Kate Stephen said: “Quality advice and information is essential to help people who are struggling with poverty and this information needs to be readily and easily accessible to all.
“It is clear that the Council needs to work collaboratively with other agencies and the future delivery of advice and information services need to be pro-active and adopt a preventative approach to poverty by identifying needs and making referrals or signposting people where appropriate. It is also vital to prepare our young people for the future with financial education.”
She added: “It is challenging to make savings in this area but we have to balance our budget. I welcome the decision to spread the savings to be taken over two years and this will allow time for the service to make changes.”
The full report and recommendations can be found at: https://www.highland.gov.uk/meetings/meeting/3888/people_committee
For Debt advice and information on how to manage your money https://www.highland.gov.uk/info/335/community_advice/405/welfare_support