Letter to Advertiser from CAB volunteers
The volunteers who work for Northumbrian Citizens Advice, in the Berwick office, have serious concerns about the major changes planned for the service in Berwick and the lack of firm information about the future. One or two of us have written to the CEO and every member of the trustee board as individuals and received no reply.
All our dedicated, paid staff are being transferred, made redundant or their contracts will be ending. We will be losing all our specialist benefit expertise just at the time when Universal Credit is to be fully rolled out here and when more and more disabled residents need help to appeal perverse benefit decisions. The complexity of the benefit system and the frequent changes being introduced mean this specialist help is needed more than ever to support voluntary staff and assist clients. There will no longer be anyone in North Northumberland who can represent benefit claimants at tribunal. The figures speak for themselves. Claimants who have representation are much more likely to succeed.
We will no longer have a specialist face to face debt case worker to assist people in negotiating with their creditors. Creditors know that when people seek our help they are serious about dealing with their problems and are much more willing to negotiate.
Apparently the aim is to close all the existing offices in the county by 2019 and transfer face-to-face services to unspecified community facilities in a smaller number of locations, including Berwick, but we see no evidence of a viable plan to recruit, train, adequately support, and retain staff and volunteers to provide even a reduced face-to-face service without a proper base. The service will continue to be delivered as it is until October 2017 when all the current paid staff posts will be redundant. Then who knows?
Recently our face to face drop in sessions have been busier than ever and the demand for appointments higher. Management are developing the telephone service centralised in Morpeth and will be further developing web chat services. We are told that we ‘may see the changes to the traditional method of offering advice as a barrier to some of our clients’. WE DO. The people who come through our doors needing to talk to someone in person are mostly not able to access the internet or deal with an extended phone call and are some of the most vulnerable in our community. These are the people we volunteers feel we are really here to serve. They have nowhere else to go. These include the elderly, those with learning difficulties, those who are mentally ill, those who have been abused, those with poor English or poor language skills, anyone who needs someone to speak for them or give them moral support, and those with multiple and complex problems. We accept it makes sense to provide telephone and digital advice services. They will improve access for busy people and those who cannot attend a session in person, including some vulnerable clients and those who live in rural areas and have no transport. But they should not be at the expense of everything else and will the phone service be free? There is a charge for calls at present and when people are hard pressed they often have no credit on their phones.
This is a ‘top down’ reorganisation about which there has been little or no consultation. No convincing case has been made to justify it on any grounds. We have been told that Citizens Advice Northumberland expects a reduction in income for 2017–18, largely due to the ending of a number of specific projects. However, core funding is stable and total income has increased for the last three years. Where then is the justification for these irreversible changes? We believe they are misguided, excessive and premature.
We feel the paid staff who have provided the specialist advice and underpinned everything the volunteers do have been shabbily treated and the management has lost sight of the needs of many of those we are here to serve.
On behalf of Berwick CA volunteers. Save our Service!