Citizens Advice is the UK’s largest advice provider, offering impartial help and expertise on an array of issues through its network of over 3,500 bureaux. Of the 28,500 people who work for the service, 21,500 are volunteers. BBC Newsnight visited Coventry CAB, which has been operating in the city since 1940, to find out more about its work.
“I like stress and work. I couldn’t imagine life without some work to do – it just keeps me going,” says Brian Adams, a 75-year-old former miner who has been a volunteer at the Coventry Citizens Advice Bureau for almost 10 years.
But his participation is about more than keeping busy, he says that he finds it “fulfilling to help people”.
It is a feeling shared by three generations of his family. His daughter Sue began volunteering at the bureau three years after her father, and has now made the switch to paid employment as the receptionist.
And his 16-year-old grandson, who is still at school, volunteers too.
Mr Adams currently spends two days a week dividing his time between a triage role, prioritising people’s needs when they first walk through the doors, and holding one-to-one advice sessions.
“There could be all manner of things they’ll come in for – relationships, debts, benefits,” he explains.
“We’re getting more and more people coming to the bureau requiring food vouchers, because of the high cost of energy bills and so on, they’re not being able to have money left at the end of the week to get food.”
Chief Executive Charley Gibbons says that in the last three to four years there has been a 300% increase in the number of people seeking help at the Coventry office.
Nationwide Citizens Advice helps almost 200,000 more people annually than they did five years ago.
But this is happening against a backdrop of diminished government funding. This year bureaux are coping with just three-quarters of the budget they had in 2012.
“One change we are seeing is people in work are really struggling – often the jobs around at the moment are short term jobs, fixed term contracts, agency work.” Mr Gibbons says.
Some clients just need short term relief to deal with an immediate crisis:
“We found that we had a number of clients coming in week by week who just needed £20 or £10 to get them through the weekend. It might be that there was a delay in a decision on their benefits or they just needed some food or they needed something for their electricity meter,” Mr Gibbons says.
To deal with such cases staff at the bureau created a small hardship fund, raising money through sponsored walks and raffles.
“I hope people don’t think that’s big society because I don’t think that’s what big society should be about. That’s what the state should be about, but people just do it because that’s what’s needed,” Mr Gibbons adds though.
Others clients are in need of much more substantial support.
Mary Shine, a caseworker at Coventry CAB for 23 years, works with people who have cancer, helping to make sure they are receiving any benefits they are entitled to:
“I think the benefit system doesn’t meet the needs of people with cancer. We have had cases where people haven’t been paid the correct benefit while they’re alive and then die. And then obviously we carry on so it’s paid to their families, but it just seems wrong that the person who was entitled didn’t actually receive it in their lifetime,” she says.
Without Ms Shine’s intervention Juliane Taylor, a mother of six children aged between seven and 19, who has terminal cancer, may have been one such person:
“When I met her she’d been trying to claim disability living allowance. She tried unsuccessfully to claim the benefit herself, so I went and completed the applications and then luckily she did manage to get the benefit. But it was a real struggle for her,” Ms Shine says.
“I was asking people for their help to fill the forms and they didn’t have the time of day for me at all,” Ms Taylor says. “I told them I had cancer and they said ‘it’s not my problem’, I had to do the forms myself – they didn’t show no appreciation or anything.”
“I wanted to get my child benefit and child tax credit over into my partner’s name so that when I do pass away, he’ll have the money there for the children to give them support and everything.”
To ensure that clients like Mrs Taylor do not have to queue at the bureau Mrs Shine and her colleagues visit them at home or even in hospital.
Support through schools
It is this idea of taking the service directly to where it is most needed that inspired a pioneering partnership between Coventry CAB and a number of the city’s schools.
Teachers in 35 of Coventry’s schools have been trained by the CAB to support pupils and their parents.
They spot problems, offer confidential advice and support and if more specialist help is they are able to arrange CAB appointments for parents.
“It could be for something as minor as helping them fill out the form to apply for a bus pass, down to getting evictions stopped,” says Dawn Ellis, one of the CAB-trained teachers at Lyng Hall School, the first school to join the scheme.
Since Lyng Hall’s programme of close working with families and partnership with Citizens Advice began there has been a drastic improvement in pupil performance:
“Our basic measures of attainment – so if you like 5 A*-C including English and Maths – have doubled,” says headteacher Paul Green. “But perhaps the most significant thing is the impact that it has had on attendance and persistent absence. Our attendance has risen from 89% to 96%.”
And for some, the project has been truly life changing, as one mother, speaking on condition of anonymity, explains:
“It started around January last year when I started getting very depressed. I have a daughter and she started missing a lot of school through my fault, because I wasn’t motivated enough in the mornings to get her up and get her ready.
“I’d been gambling. I’d got myself into so much debt I was being threatened with eviction. I was constantly worrying about all the bills, how I’m going to sort this eviction out, where we were going to live, what we were going to eat.”
Noticing her daughter’s absences the school realised that there was something wrong at home, and one of the CAB-trained teachers got in touch.
“Everything was confidential, I actually opened up and I told them everything that had been going on at home,” the mother says.
The teachers and CAB staff worked in tandem to provide help with food and bedding, legal advice, counselling and even took her to Gamblers Anonymous meetings.
“It was an easier connection for me, knowing some of the teachers and some of the staff from the school. To have them to help me was great,” she says.
“My life has completely changed around – now my daughter’s doing really well at school, I’ve just got us a new house, I start a new job next week, so I’m going back into full-time employment, which is what I was originally doing.”
“They saved me basically – that’s the truth.”