I work as a debt casework specialist for an independent charity that operates across two boroughs in the Black Country. Our organisation covers some of the most deprived council wards within the West Midlands region.
The funding for the project I work on comes from the Money Advice and Pensions Service (MaPS), which provides free specialist debt advice for people accessing our services with debt problems. For the last few years the contract funding has worked by being extended every 12 months, effectively giving my colleagues and me another year’s work.
Now, things are changing. MaPS are currently recommissioning the services for debt advice, and will award three-year contracts to the successful tenders. This change has created a lot of uncertainty for those who work in the sector, and to be honest, we don’t know if we will still have jobs when the process is concluded.
The limited amount of information we have been given in relation to the new contracts is alarming in respect of the proposed new requirements, and more worryingly, where it may leave some of the most vulnerable people in society, who will need to access free debt advice in the future.
What we do know from the information is that there are going to be swingeing cuts to face-to-face (F2F) advice—in some areas, by more than 50 percent. Locally, we have seen a rise in the demand for F2F appointments as the pandemic restrictions have eased. Compounded by the removal of the Universal Credit uplift of £20 per week, the ongoing price increases for energy, and spiralling inflation has seen demand for our services surge significantly.
The reasons why people need a F2F service are complex, including educational attainment, health issues, and language barriers—there are a plethora of valid reasons. And while telephone or online advice may be appropriate for some people to deal with their debt problems, it isn’t going to work for many of the clients who access help in person at present.
One of the big concerns I have—one shared by my colleagues—is the seemingly bizarre intention of MaPS to move away from F2F advice, and to a more digital based model of delivery. I have clients that struggle to make phone calls, let alone use email or WhatsApp—the thought of speaking to creditors or bailiffs terrifies them.
If there is a reduction in the availability of F2F capacity, there will be vulnerable people within our communities with nowhere to turn. This will have a significant impact both on them and on the local councils who could be left to pick up the pieces if the preventative work we do for clients who can’t be empowered to act on their own behalf is lost.
MaPs have recently released a video in respect of the recommissioning of the contract. Not too much of it focused on the people at the coalface who provide the specialist advice. And as far as I have been able to ascertain, there hasn’t been any meaningful input from those of us at the forefront of the debt advice sector about our thoughts on the process.
As a reaction to the MaPS recommissioning and the impending devastating impact on F2F advice at the community level, Unite members and reps have organised to campaign against these cuts. Unite Debt Advice Network (UDAN) has been formed and connections made by activists from across the country.
In addition to the issue with the MaPs recommissioning, UDAN will also look to strengthen members’ voices within the sector and Unite. As part of our campaign, we were able to get an emergency motion passed at the recent Unite policy conference in respect of the cuts to face-to-face debt services. The six points of the motion called for:
- Suspension of all recommissioning for at least 12 months, to allow independent research into future demand
- Immediate suspension of the bureaucratic quality monitoring process (‘DAPA’)
- Support for the work of UDAN’s campaign to oppose the MaPS recommissioning
- Use of all Unite media and social media platforms to explain the recommissioning process and the impact this will have on debt advice services
- Campaigning for increased funding for F2F community-based debt advice to be increased, not cut, in any resumed recommissioning
- Efforts to ensure that future decisions by MaPS about debt advice jobs and services, include consultation with Unite
UDAN have organised members and reps within the sector over a short period of time to get the campaign up and running. There are coordinated steps being taken regionally and nationally to highlight our campaign, and the hope is to get MaPS to hear our genuine concerns.
Only the people at the frontline of debt advice understand the reality of providing F2F advice—and the social consequences if its provision is cut.