Meeting date: Tuesday, October 1, 2019
Meeting of the Parliament 01 October 2019
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010 (Post-legislative Scrutiny), Committee Announcement, Decision Time, Citizens Advice Services in Scotland (80th Year)
- Time for Reflection
- Business Motion
- Topical Question Time
- Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010 (Post-legislative Scrutiny)
- Committee Announcement
- Decision Time
- Citizens Advice Services in Scotland (80th Year)
Citizens Advice Services in Scotland (80th Year)
The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-17933, in the name of Anas Sarwar, on the 80th year of Scotland’s citizens advice service. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament notes that 2019 marks the 80th year of Scotland’s Citizens Advice service; congratulates it for the high-quality advice and advocacy that it has provided over the years, which are the twin aims of the service; understands that, in 2018, it assisted nearly 262,000 clients with almost 766,000 issues and that, along with the advice that it provided, its bureaux also helped people complete over 44,100 official forms, with claims totalling nearly £138 million; acknowledges what it sees as the unique advocacy role that it plays, which aims to ensure that the voices of citizens coming into bureaux across communities are listened to, and acted on, by national policy-makers, and believes that the Citizens Advice service continues to play a valuable role to play in addressing the community and national needs of people in Glasgow and across Scotland.16:49
I am pleased to speak in support of my motion and of the 80th year of Scotland’s citizens advice service. The service is a well-known, well-respected and independent one, which, each year, is used by almost 300,000 clients—or, as I prefer to call them, citizens—who trust it to give them advice and champion their rights on issues that matter to them. It wins extra funds for those who have been hit hardest by welfare reform, campaigns for energy suppliers to cut their tariffs and improve their customer service, and holds dodgy payday loan companies to account.
Independent research shows that the work of the Scottish citizens advice service contributes more than £166 million to the common good in Scotland. It works in local communities across the country, helping people to know their rights and get their lives back on track. In these difficult times, crucially, the service is free, which is possible only because it is delivered by the nearly 2,500 volunteers who work in citizens advice bureaux all over Scotland. I am proud that my mum is a former citizens advice bureau volunteer, as is my sister, and I hope that, one day, my kids will also be volunteers for the service.
The average time that is given by each volunteer each week is six hours. If all the service’s volunteers were paid the average wage for those six hours, the additional wage bill to CABx across Scotland every year would be £10 million per annum. The fantastic contribution made by volunteers is the lifeblood of citizens advice work, and I pay tribute to every one of them for the time that they give up to help others who are in need of help, support and advice.
However, the service is seeing increased demand and is coming under increased pressure. That has been building because of a number of factors, such as the increase in demand for financial advice, changes in people’s benefits and the catastrophic impact of the introduction of universal credit. Such pressure has been made even worse by the level of sanctions that are being imposed and the introduction of the benefit cap, which has hit 13,000 households in Scotland. The service supports benefit applications at a time when applications for crisis grants from the Scottish welfare fund increased by 11 per cent in 2018-19, as more people in Scotland turned to it due to the cost of living crisis.
There have also been increases both in the number of people who are in in-work poverty and in the use of food banks, with the service reporting that one in four workers is struggling financially. It also provides support to European Union nationals who have applied to the EU settlement scheme. There are increased levels of fuel poverty, and the service is also dealing with the consequences of an increase in the number of scams, with almost half of all Scots reporting that they have been targeted. Further, only last week, the service provided advice to consumers who had been hit by the collapse of Thomas Cook.
Therefore, across a range of areas, Citizens Advice Scotland is dealing with an increase in the number of people who seek support. However, along with other services, it is having to provide advice at a time when finding financial support is difficult. In my area of Glasgow, it is reported that the council is currently considering reducing funding for advice agencies by up to 40 per cent. That would have a devastating impact on advice services and, more importantly, on the people who rely on them. We are seeing that pattern being repeated right across Scotland, as local authorities face significant budget pressures.
I know that members’ business debates are supposed to be collegiate—which this one is—but I say to the Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills and the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work that we must look at the decisions that are made in our two Parliaments. That is regardless of whether those decisions are on welfare reform, on which changes are made at Westminster, or on the funding model for our local authorities, which is decided in this chamber. They all have implications in council chambers across the country and for vital services for the most vulnerable people in our communities, who rely on them.
According to the Scottish Parliament information centre, councils spend more than two thirds of their budgets on services that support and target our poorest and most vulnerable people. Having such focused expenditure means that, when dealing with budget reductions, councils have little option but to make most of their savings on services that are used more by people from lower-income groups.
If councils spend a greater proportion of their money on services that people from more vulnerable backgrounds rely on and they are forced to cut their budgets, they will make cuts in communities where people rely on those services to survive. I urge the minister to reflect on the implications of decisions that the Scottish Government makes and on how they will impact on the citizens advice service now and in the future.
If the citizens advice service did not exist, there would be a huge gap in support services and a desperate need for help and advice that public agencies would not be able to meet. There is nothing else like it at a national level. Citizens Advice Scotland and its volunteers deserve our thanks for the work that they have done in the past 80 years, but they deserve more than just our thanks. They need the support of Government and politicians across all levels and all political parties so that they can continue to provide their support and advice for another 80 years.
I have 11 members wishing to speak, so I will be ruthless and keep members to four-minute speeches. You have been warned.16:56
I am pleased to have been called to speak in this members’ business debate to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Scotland’s citizens advice service. I congratulate Anas Sarwar on securing the debate.
Since the first citizens advice bureau was established in Glasgow in 1939, we have seen a significant development of the service, and we currently have an extensive network throughout Scotland, with 59 bureaux that serve individuals the length and breadth of our country. The excellent service that is provided includes high-quality advice that is free, impartial and confidential. For some years now, the biggest part of the case load has concerned benefits and debt issues, but advice is also provided on employment rights, housing and fuel poverty, to name but a few subjects. The citizens advice service has a unique advocacy role and it helps many individuals with their appeals to social security and other tribunals.
It is also worth noting that Citizens Advice Scotland campaigns for social change on the issues that are brought through its doors. In recent years, excellent campaigns have been mounted on funeral poverty and fuel poverty, for example.
One of the most extensive reports in recent times has focused on the introduction of the new universal credit benefit by the Department for Work and Pensions. Indeed, the problems and hardship that individual claimants have experienced have been so severe that Citizens Advice Scotland called for a halt to the roll-out of the benefit so that the serious policy issues could be addressed. It has also called for a reduction in the time that people have to wait for their first payment. That is an example of the vital work that the citizens advice service does.
We need to keep up the pressure on the United Kingdom Government to make changes to universal credit, which is causing such hardship for our citizens. I understand that, in my Cowdenbeath constituency, 583 of the 1,936 contacts over the past year involved problems with universal credit. What a lot that says about the state of Westminster’s social security system. The question that must be asked is, “Whither the safety net now?”
In addition to the activities that I have outlined, Citizens Advice Scotland undertakes specialist projects, for example for members of the armed forces in partnership with Poppyscotland and others, and for kinship carers.
A timely specialist project is the EU citizens support scheme that is delivered by Citizens Advice Scotland. It is intended to ensure that EU citizens in Scotland can access any help that they need to apply online to continue to live in the United Kingdom post 30 June 2021. Significant Scottish Government funding has been made available to allow the citizens advice service to operate a national helpline, which is free and impartial, and there is also a solicitor-led helpline for complex cases.
In the Cowdenbeath bureau, an EU settlement support service worker has been in place since April and has dealt with 60-plus cases. I welcome that much-needed service, which underlines in these alarming times the very important message of the Scottish National Party Scottish Government to EU citizens who live in our country that this is their home, they are welcome here and we want them to stay.
I add my congratulations to Citizens Advice Scotland on its 80th anniversary. I thank it for all that it does for individuals across Scotland who need a bit of help, and I commend in particular the 2,370 volunteers across the Citizens Advice Scotland network, who in the past year alone have contributed over 760,000 hours of their time.
Thank you, Ms Ewing. You have set a wonderful example.17:00
I thank Anas Sarwar for securing the debate. I add my congratulations to CAS on its birthday celebrations and thank it for all the work that it has done.
Like the previous two speakers, I put on record my particular thanks to the more than 2,000 volunteers who give up their time to provide such an excellent service. Without those volunteers, CABx would not exist to provide the service that we across the chamber have all come to respect.
One of CAS’s great strengths is that it is independent of local government and national Government. As social security is rolled out further in Scotland, CABx will have a really important role to play in the new social security system. I hope that their role will be recognised by both national Government and local government, because we heard about funding in Glasgow being cut, and I expect it is a similar story across the whole of Scotland. CABx can exist and provide that role only if they have the appropriate funding from national and local government. The duty is on all of us, whichever political party we represent, to make sure that that happens.
If the new social security system is to work well in Scotland, there will need to be independent advice for people who are making applications, both at the start of the process and all the way through it. That is why the funding is so important.
We have seen CAS develop lots of new services, which previous speakers have mentioned. The help-to-claim service with regard to universal credit has been a real success. If we look at the number of people who are accessing the service and, most important, the quick response and the independent advice that they get, we can see that it is very encouraging. The service has certainly been very helpful.
The other area that I will highlight is the work that CAB volunteers do at tribunals. Tribunals can often be frightening places and, often, claimants have never been there before. They are unsure about what they are meant to say and how they are meant to act. I know from personal experience, having worked as a member of tribunals, that volunteers often come along with people to support them legally and, as important, emotionally, through the process. CAS is there to represent those people and its dual role of emotional and legal support is almost unique among the organisations in Scotland that I know of.
I hope that the motion will be well debated, and I hope that all parties will support—not only in words, but with actions—CAS’s requirement for funding. I wish my best to CAS for its next 80 years.17:03
I, too, thank Anas Sarwar for securing today’s debate, which marks the 80th anniversary of Scotland’s citizens advice service.
In 1938, with a world war looming, the National Council of Social Service, which was the forerunner of today’s National Council of Voluntary Organisations, established a group to investigate how the needs of the civilian population in wartime could be met. The group concluded that
“Citizens Advice Bureaux should be established throughout the country”.
Accordingly, on 4 September, the day after Great Britain and France declared war on Germany, more than 200 citizens advice bureaux were established across the UK. Scotland’s first bureau opened in Glasgow, to be followed by others throughout Scotland.
During the second world war, more than 60 bureaux, staffed by volunteers, handled enquiries relating to wartime issues including tracing relatives whose homes had been bombed, locating prisoners of war and lost ration books.
Post-war, despite funding being cut by the Ministry of Health, citizens advice bureaux continued with support from charities including the Nuffield Foundation, the Carnegie Trust and The Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
In the 1980s, the Scottish Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux became independent from the UK-wide Citizens Advice Bureau. The Scottish citizens advice network now comprises 59 bureaux and, with the extra help unit in Glasgow, provides free, independent, confidential, impartial and high-quality advice to clients.
Citizens Advice Scotland serves a dual purpose: it provides free access to quality information and advice for consumers. In 2018 alone, Citizens Advice Scotland dealt with 245,000 clients, helped to complete almost 50,000 benefits and other forms, and concluded 4,700 tribunals and court appeals. Also in 2018, Citizens Advice Scotland helped clients to access £130.7 million of benefits and returns on overpaid bills.
The main areas of assistance that were offered in 2018 related to benefits, debt, employment, housing and legal proceedings. Most people who use such services are from less-prosperous communities.
Alongside providing high quality advice, Citizens Advice Scotland advocates and campaigns to achieve positive social change across Scotland, and actively engages with decision makers in Government, companies and regulators to achieve change that will benefit consumers. For example, since 2015, Citizens Advice Scotland has campaigned on tackling fuel poverty.
The Scottish Government commissioned Citizens Advice Scotland to produce a report that informed and directly shaped the Scottish Government’s “Funeral Costs Plan”, which is another tangible example of Citizens Advice Scotland’s vital advocacy work.
Its 2019-20 advocacy plan, “Delivering positive change”, includes the “For your benefit” campaign, which is designed to empower people to solve their problems. It will raise awareness of the eligibility criteria for social security entitlements, tackle scammers and destigmatise problem debt. Such work ensures that the voices of clients are heard and acted on by local and national policy makers.
In 2018, Scotland’s citizens advice bureaux were staffed by more than 3,340 workers, including 2,370 volunteers, who contributed more than 760,000 hours of their time. That voluntary work was valued at almost £11 million. I volunteered in 1986 and 1987. The experience that I gained in dealing with the public proved to be invaluable when I was elected to the City of Glasgow District Council in 1992.
In 2018, Citizens Advice Scotland received annual funding that totalled almost £6.5 million from the Scottish Government and the UK Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Across Scotland, local authorities also support bureaux. Unfortunately, despite the vital work that colleagues have outlined in the debate, my constituents lost the services of North Ayrshire Citizens Advice Service when Labour-run North Ayrshire Council withdrew its core funding, and the last bureau closed in March last year. Given that, in 2018, for every £1 of core advice funding that Citizens Advice Scotland offered, £10 was returned to the community in client gains, that decision was penny wise and pound foolish.
To quote Lord Beveridge from 1948,
“Citizens Advice Bureaux make the world appear to many citizens in distress to contain some element of reason and friendship. The adviser at a citizens advice bureau is only a fellow citizen with time and knowledge and, if he is worthy of his position, with infinite patience.”
Today, that remains true.17:07
I congratulate Anas Sarwar on securing debating time and for giving me the opportunity to praise the fantastic work that citizens advice bureaux have done for the past 80 years in my constituency and across Scotland. Having been, in the late 1990s, the local authority officer who introduced the first citizens advice bureau in East Dunbartonshire, I have a soft spot for citizens advice bureaux.
Citizens advice bureaux are fantastic institutions that have helped hundreds of thousands of Scots over the years. Their dedicated staff and more than 2,000 Scottish volunteers offer free impartial advice to members of the public who are in uncertain financial situations. Perhaps they need advice on how best to raise a family on a low income, or what to do when they are affected by scams.
However, their work goes wider than advice on social security. If people need consumer advice or advocacy on anything from water to energy, they can go to the citizens advice bureau. No problem is too small or complicated for bureaux to handle, and they always try their best to help clients.
Over the years, Citizens Advice Scotland and its local bureaux have run campaigns that have raised awareness among members of the public on important issues that directly affect them. For example, Citizens Advice Scotland recently launched a campaign on scam awareness, which helped to equip people with the skills that they need to spot scams, to tackle the stigma that surrounds scams and to promote the importance of reporting when people suspect that they are being scammed. With almost 40 per cent of over-65s being victims of over-the-phone scams, that campaign made hundreds of constituents in my area, many of whom are elderly, feel safer and more prepared.
There are more than 70 hard-working CAB volunteers in my constituency who help residents in West Dunbartonshire and in Argyll and Bute. Anyone who knows my constituency knows that that is a huge geographical area to cover. There are offices dotted all over the constituency to make it as convenient as possible for local residents to seek out advice when they need it. The lengths that the hundreds of CAB volunteers and 33 staff in West Dunbartonshire and Argyll and Bute go to to ensure that my constituents have easily accessible advice is highly commendable, so I take this opportunity to thank them publicly for the fantastic work that they do, day in and day out. The selfless support that the volunteers provide in my area adds up to more than 20,000 hours being donated annually to offer advice to local residents. The monetary value of their donated time is more than £350,000 a year. It is important that that is recognised by funders, so I entirely associate myself with the remarks that were made by Anas Sarwar.
Between January and June 2019 alone, West Dunbartonshire Citizens Advice Bureau helped with more than 6,000 inquiries covering a range of issues including debt advice, taxation queries and issues arising from the roll-out of universal credit. That is a huge number of inquiries to deal with. The fact that so many people feel comfortable going to CABx for advice and support is testament to the trusted service that they provide.
CABx do not just offer advice: they get life-changing results for their clients. In 2018-19, the West Dunbartonshire bureau helped more than 4,800 clients to gain £2.8 million and the Argyll and Bute Citizens Advice Bureau helped 1,100 clients to gain more than £700,000 in money owed. That is a huge amount of money that will greatly improve the lives of thousands of my constituents.
CABx help people on low incomes, but it is important to recognise that they also help people from every social class. Everybody uses CABx as trusted sources of advice and information.
And there you must conclude.
It is truly—
No. I am sorry. You must conclude there.
It is truly an all-citizens service.
You are an old hand. You should know better.
I am experienced, not old, Presiding Officer.17:12
I am very glad to be able to wish Scotland’s citizens advice service a very happy 80th birthday. I thank Anas Sarwar for providing Parliament with an opportunity to do that, and to highlight the incredible work that is done by citizens advice bureaux and their volunteers across Scotland.
As we have heard, citizens advice bureaux assist people in a host of issues, but a major part of their work focuses on social security, on which I would like to focus mainly this evening. Across Scotland, there is more than £1 billion-worth of unclaimed social security payments. On this, the international day of older persons, it is important to note that, according to information from the Scottish Parliament information centre, £190 million of pension credit goes unclaimed every year, as does £200 million of child tax credit, £224 million of working tax credit and £260 million of housing benefit. That is not even the whole picture. It is a huge task to get all the money where it needs to go and where it is desperately needed. The citizens advice service plays an important role in that.
The money talk team is a Scottish Government-funded project that delivers money advice, so that people do not pay more for essential goods and services than they need to, and so that they get all their social security entitlements. The most recent data shows that the money talk team has helped a total of 3,198 people to become better off by more than £6 million in total—an average household benefit of £1,850. That was done in just nine months and shows that comprehensive welfare rights advice makes a real difference to people.
I also commend the citizens advice service on its new “Check my council tax” tool, which allows people to find out whether they are eligible for a reduction or an exemption. That is really important, because Scottish Government figures show that 80,000 fewer households are receiving council tax reductions than received council tax benefits under the previous scheme.
When people apply for support, it is not always straightforward. In my experience of helping constituents, citizens advice bureaux are always there to offer expert advice and support. I do not think that there is a member in the chamber who would claim that the social security system is as easy as it should be to navigate. Last year, CAS assisted people to complete 40,000 social security forms and in 4,700 tribunals, with 88 per cent of cases being won or upheld. It is doing really important work, so we must ensure that we fund it properly.
As well as helping people when they need it most, CAS also plays a hugely important role in improving policy. Assisting so many people with social security means that CAS has a great deal of insight into how the devolved social security system can improve on what we have inherited from the UK Government.
For example, the citizens alert system, which allows bureaux to submit to CAS case notes demonstrating the impact of policies and services that they feel are failing to meet client needs, provides clear evidence to policy makers about where things are going wrong, which means that we do not have to keep repeating the same mistakes.
The Scottish Green Party’s successful push to ban unnecessary disability benefits amendments was based in part on a survey of CAS clients and advisers, the results of which showed that the highest priority for the Scottish social security system should be to reduce unnecessary assessments by making the best use of existing evidence. That is in just one area of CAS’s work.
On transport, too, CAS has been highlighting how much more we need to do to ensure that everyone in Scotland has access to good-quality bus services.
Parliament owes a huge debt of gratitude to citizens advice services across the country. On behalf of the Scottish Greens, I thank CAS for all that it does for us.17:16
I am delighted to take part in the debate, and I thank Anas Sarwar for securing it. Although I will focus on the work of the Shetland Islands Citizens Advice Bureau, I want to begin by saying that, in general terms, I am speaking on behalf of all my Liberal Democrat colleagues, who have asked me to say that they are all great supporters of the bureaux in their areas.
Others have spoken about the great work that is done by the Scottish CAB network. It is a service that we could not do without and, every day, it helps people avoid debt, poverty and homelessness.
I want to give members some idea of the work that is undertaken by the bureau in Shetland, which has been open since 1992. As well as providing a service in its main office in Lerwick, the bureau also offers regular outreach advice sessions in the north isles of Unst, Yell and Whalsay, as well as in Hillswick, Brae, Walls, Bixter, Scalloway and Levenwick.
The Shetland bureau is run by Karen Eunson and her excellent team. Last year, they saw more than 1,700 clients and gave nearly 6,500 pieces of advice. In the course of that work, they helped those clients gain a total of £1.7 million in compensation, unclaimed benefits, withheld wages and so on. That is not only a terrific result for those families, many of whom will have been really struggling, it is also a significant boost to our local economy, as that money will remain in the local economy, where it will have been spent on essentials in local shops and businesses.
Like other bureaux across the country, the top item that the Shetland CAB deals with is social security. However, in our case, that is followed by utilities. Fuel poverty and fuel provision are particularly big issues for the communities in Shetland. We have a wet and windy climate, with wind chill being a major issue, and old housing stock that is not very energy efficient.
Like many bureaux, Shetland CAB has specialist energy advisers who help people who are worried about high energy costs. Those advisers can help people make sense of their energy bills, check whether they are on the correct tariff and support them to switch supplier to save money. If someone has a problem with their bills, the bureau can negotiate with the energy company and help to put a manageable payment plan in place. It can also advise whether someone is eligible for support to improve the energy efficiency of their home, and they can arrange home visits from a specialist adviser who can help people plan how to cut their carbon emissions, possibly by accessing the financial support that is available to help them switch to renewables. That specialist energy advice is, of course, just one of the services that Shetland’s CAB offers, and it is offered by other CABx across the country too.
For 14 years before I came to the Scottish Parliament, I was the caseworker for the member of Parliament for Orkney and Shetland, and I worked with staff and volunteers at the Shetland bureau over that time. We referred cases to each other, such as complex immigration cases in which the MP’s intervention would be of assistance or cases involving benefits appeals, which the bureau was best placed to assist with. When dealing with social security casework, I have often suggested to constituents that they should contact the Shetland bureau to ask for a welfare benefits check so that they can ensure that they are receiving all the benefits to which they are entitled.
I join members in wishing a happy birthday to the citizens advice network across Scotland and thanking all the staff and volunteers—especially in Shetland’s CAB—for the valuable and respected service that they provide. Like me, I am sure that the people of Shetland wish CAS many more years to come.17:19
I am pleased to take part in this important debate and I thank Anas Sarwar for bringing it to the Parliament.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the citizens advice network in Scotland, and I welcome the opportunity to praise the great work that is done by the 59 citizens advice bureaux that serve communities across Scotland. From its inception in Glasgow in 1939, during world war 2, to the present day, Citizens Advice Scotland has been a beacon of hope for the most vulnerable and marginalised people in our society. It has been a continuous and positive voice for social change, while offering free, confidential and impartial advice to anyone who needs it.
I cannot stress enough the importance of the service that CAS provides and the difference that it has made to so many lives. Everyone, regardless of their background or income, should have access to justice, and citizens advice bureaux provide an avenue of hope for many. The service’s impact over the decades cannot be overstated.
In 2018-19 alone, CABx advised more than 275,000 clients, issued more than 730,000 pieces of advice and put £131 million back into people’s pockets. They helped Scottish clients to complete almost 40,000 benefit forms and won or upheld 88 per cent of the 4,500 tribunal and court actions in which they were involved.
The figures reflect a fraction of the great work that CABx have done over the years, but they serve as evidence of the great work that the service does. Of course, none of that would be possible without the amazing staff and volunteers who ensure that bureaux up and down the country are open and ready to help anyone who comes through the door.
I take this opportunity to highlight the efforts of bureau staff and volunteers in my constituency, Strathkelvin and Bearsden. I am a former board member for East Dunbartonshire Citizens Advice Bureau, which is based just a few streets from my constituency office. The CAB does phenomenal work in the community. I have heard at first hand from constituents who sought advice from the CAB just how caring and dedicated the team is and how passionate it is about social welfare. I think that all members have had the same experience in their areas.
Anas Sarwar articulated the horrendous impact that benefit cuts and welfare changes are having, which shows why CABx are so vital. I agree with him that adequate funding for bureaux is essential and must be prioritised during budget decisions, to secure the service and its vital role in society.
I highlight what the Scottish Government has done to support the work of CABx in recent years. For example, the Scottish Government-funded money talk team project delivers money advice to low-income families and aims to ensure that such families receive all the benefits and grants to which they are entitled. In just nine months, the project has helped more than 3,100 people, bringing in an average household benefit of £1,850. That is money that the families would not otherwise have seen.
I draw attention to Citizens Advice Scotland’s EU citizens support scheme. Annabelle Ewing mentioned the scheme, which is a new specialist helpline service for EU citizens who are resident in Scotland. The aim of the scheme is to help citizens and families apply to continue living here. I held several EU surgeries in my constituency, along with the CAB, and I am indebted to the CAB for its help in assisting people to apply for settled status.
I reiterate that the work that CAS has done over 80 years is monumental. The service has changed lives. It is a damning indictment of the state of social welfare in this country that so many people rely on the service. Nevertheless, the service is essential and I thank everyone who is involved in helping people in need.
I congratulate Citizens Advice Scotland on its 80th anniversary and I hope that the Scottish Government can continue to work in tandem with CAS for the next 80 years and beyond, to ensure equality and access to justice for all.
Due to the number of members who want to speak in the debate, I am minded to accept a motion without notice, under rule 8.14.3, to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes. I invite Anas Sarwar to move such a motion.
That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Anas Sarwar]
Motion agreed to.17:24
I thank Anas Sarwar for bringing the debate to the Parliament. It is a great opportunity to highlight the fantastic work of citizens advice bureaux in Scotland and to raise awareness of the high-quality services that CABx provide.
It goes without saying that citizens advice bureaux are an invaluable service to many. The first CAB opened in 1939 in Glasgow—it is now in its 80th year, which is impressive indeed for any organisation. Its ability to adapt with the times and evolve to fit peoples’ changing needs is reflected in the journey that it has been on since world war two. Whereas during the war, as we have heard, it dealt with inquiries that related to wartime issues, such as tracing relatives whose homes had been bombed and lost ration books, it now offers advice to clients on anything from debt to benefits, employment rights and fuel poverty.
Most important is that its advice is free, independent, impartial and confidential, and the organisation’s extensive network, with bureaux up and down the country, makes that advice accessible by anyone, which is a huge feat. To get a sense of how many people use the service, in 2018-19 the network advised more 270,000 clients and issued more than 730,000 pieces of advice. Its self-help website, advice for Scotland, received nearly 4 million page views in the same year.
Since I became an MSP, I have visited the citizens advice service in Maryhill to see first-hand the quality of the service that it provides. I was struck by the passion of the staff as well as their knowledge on such a wide range of topics. Many might not realise that volunteers still account for the majority of people who work in bureaux. In 2018-19, more than 2,300 volunteers contributed more than 760,000 hours of their time to supporting those in need. I put on record my personal thanks to all the volunteers as well as the staff who work hard to provide CAB services, which really do make a difference to the lives of the people who use them.
As well as the advice that it provides to individual clients, the citizens advice service has a number of national projects. The armed services advice project for example, provides information and support to current and former members of the armed forces community. The independent patient advice and support service provides free, confidential support to patients and their families in their dealings with the national health service, and pension wise is an impartial service that provides guidance on pension options and how each could affect tax and benefits. Those are incredibly specialist services that will no doubt be extremely helpful for the people whom they target. Citizens advice recognises that there are times in a person’s life when they may be more vulnerable and need tailored support.
Significantly, citizens advice also carries out its own research, policy work and campaigns on key issues. This summer, it launched its scams awareness programme to prevent consumers from the financial loss that causes distress and misery for so many. Over the next six months, it plans to run campaigns on employment rights, energy and personal debt.
I again thank Anas Sarwar for highlighting CAS’s excellent work. It is an organisation that so many know and appreciate and, for many, it is a first port of call when they are in need of vital support. As shown by the breadth of its work and its many great campaigns, the citizens advice service will no doubt be around for 80 years to come.17:25
I thank Anas Sarwar for securing the debate. Everybody has highlighted the importance of CAS to our constituents, day in and day out, in providing services and support that are not available elsewhere and which can have a huge impact on people’s lives. Whether the service prevents homelessness or provides support and advice on energy bills or access to debt advice, it can be absolutely critical to helping people overcome huge challenges in their lives.
We all live in an increasingly digital world, and we must acknowledge that, for far too many people, that is, in itself, a huge barrier to deal with. The forms can be complicated to fill in and can run to multiple pages. As many colleagues have said, in relation to social security or benefits, the advice from a local CAB can make the difference between a constituent getting support—support that they are entitled to—or being left in debt and destitution. The issue is not just the fact that the forms are digital; it is also their complexity and the failings of the universal credit system.
What is crucial is that CAB advice is freely available. I agree very strongly with Anas Sarwar’s point in his opening remarks about the importance of keeping it local.
CAB offices are open and available—people can sit down and talk through the issue that is challenging them, which could be something extremely stressful. It can often be a long time before somebody seeks advice, so that one-to-one support, and specialist, free knowledge, is crucial.
I join others in thanking the staff at local CAB offices, who deserve our thanks for ensuring continuity of service under the pressures that they face, and for their passion and commitment to the service. I also thank the volunteers, because, without their help, it simply would not be possible to provide that range of experience and expertise across the country. I know from talking to volunteers how rewarding they find the experience. It is challenging and it can be emotional, but it is rewarding and they are putting something back into society. For many of those volunteers, it can also be a stepping stone to entering paid employment or further education.
Tonight, we are debating a huge resource that is provided by people. It is a resource that we, as MSPs, directly benefit from. For one of the first cases that I dealt with when I came back as an MSP, I went to the local CAB office to seek support on welfare advice. This is all about giving people the right to access the knowledge and information that they need.
Every £1 of funding to cover core advice services generates £10 that is returned to the wider community, which is of financial benefit to our constituents. As colleagues have said, that work is invaluable and needs to be continued.
I hope that, in his closing speech, the minister will say how the Scottish Government intends to support CAS’s advocacy, support and advice work going forward. Given the huge financial pressures that have been highlighted, it is absolutely crucial that the citizens advice service in Scotland gets the support not just of MSPs, but of our Government.17:31
I thank Anas Sarwar. Today, we have the opportunity to recognise the important role of Citizens Advice Scotland, prompted by the fact that 2019 marks 80 years of the organisation’s outstanding work.
In the contributions of my fellow MSPs, we have heard how the citizens advice service has helped people across Scotland, and my constituency of Glasgow Anniesland is no exception. I have seen first hand the free advice and hands-on-help that are provided by the citizens advice service. Often, that assistance is provided to people who have otherwise limited support. The stability that is provided by the reliability of the citizens advice service acts as an anchor to people during difficult periods and times of uncertainty and financial pressure.
Drumchapel Citizens Advice Bureau, which is based in my constituency, provides invaluable assistance to many people. Earlier this summer, I worked with that citizens advice charity to help advertise its help-to-claim service throughout the constituency, and to raise awareness of the practical support that it provides to help people access universal credit. Through the service, citizens advice staff show people how to set up an email address, open a bank account and take other steps, overcoming what would otherwise be barriers to support.
The citizens advice service plays a role in bringing about moments of equity, by which I mean the creation of a level playing field, whereby those who are born into disadvantage are given more support than others. That goes some way towards reducing disadvantage and creating the space for equal opportunity.
An illustration that is easily found online shows the difference between equity and equality. The illustration shows three people who are watching a sport, but a fence is in the way, blocking the view. There is a tall man who can see over the fence, so he can watch the game; there is a man of medium height who, when standing on his tiptoes, can just about see over the fence; and there is a short man, who cannot see the game at all. An act of equality would give each of the three men a box of the same size to stand on. With the box, the tall man can still see over the fence and the man of medium height can see perfectly well, but the short man still cannot see the game at all. An act of equity, however, would not give a box to the tall man; instead, it would give the man of medium height one box and the short man two boxes. Both the man of medium height and the short man can now see the game just as well as the tall man. Equity gives the most support to the person with the most disadvantage. Offering support to those who are in poverty by giving them free financial advice is an act of equity. By providing assistance with things that are crucial to participating in society—such as setting up a bank account—Citizens Advice Scotland is enacting equity.
Over the past year, CAS has helped clients across Scotland to be £131 million better off. It has assisted with more than 4,700 tribunals and court cases, and more than 88 per cent of those cases have been upheld or won. Those examples evidence how the organisation promotes equity across Scotland. I thank CAS, its staff and all the volunteers for their dedicated work throughout Scotland.
I am sure that we all followed the boxes.17:35
I, too, thank Anas Sarwar for securing the debate, and I congratulate Citizens Advice Scotland on its 80 years of service.
In Fife, we have Citizens Advice and Rights Fife, which is, incidentally, marking its 22nd anniversary today. I congratulate it on that. In 2018-19, the Fife bureau dealt with more than 14,000 clients and gave advice more than 51,000 times. We can see how much those resources are used. More than £11.5 million in financial gain has been achieved for individuals who have sought information, advice and representation across Fife, and Fife volunteers gave 2,400 hours of their time. Some 1,300 multiple debt cases were handled in Fife, and 700 clients were assisted to appeal unfair benefit decisions. That is just a snapshot of the work that the Fife service does, which, in turn, is just a snapshot of what is done throughout the country.
Simply living their daily lives continues to be a challenge for people across the country. Many are faced with monetary woes, health issues, unemployment, low wages, housing difficulties, transport difficulties and relationship issues. The advice services that are provided in our country can help people with many of those issues. Social security, debt, employment and housing are the most common issues that have been raised in recent years.
Only last year, CAS published a report that showed that demand for advice on rent arrears had increased by more than 40 per cent in five years. We should not be surprised by that, given the level of poverty in Scotland, which is on the increase right across the country. I welcome the fact that politicians from all parties are here to say good things about CAS—and well they should, given that it is our politicians’ decisions that have driven more people into poverty and difficulties across Scotland. The failed austerity of the Tory party has created poverty on a scale that we have not seen before, and there are cuts to local government budgets. Kenny Gibson tried to single out North Ayrshire Council because it is Labour, but we should remember that every council across Scotland has been looking at its budget. I know that many councils have considered whether cuts can be made to citizens advice services, because they have to cut every part of their budget.
The warm words today are welcome, but we need more than warm words; we need resources and funding to go into citizens advice bureaux. We need to recognise the Scottish Government support, but we also need to recognise that its decisions to cut council budgets will have a detrimental impact on the very poorest in our society. We need to stop that, bring an end to failed Tory austerity and start to tackle poverty and inequality in Scotland.17:38
I wish you well, Presiding Officer, because I thought that you were remarkably brave in describing Jackie Baillie as “an old hand”.
I describe myself as an even older hand, if that gives comfort to Ms Baillie.
I will resist the temptation of linking that to Alison Johnstone’s mentioning that today is the international day of older persons, because I could run myself into some trouble.
I thank Anas Sarwar for bringing forward the debate and all members who have contributed to it. It is important that we are given the occasion to recognise the 80th anniversary of the network of citizens advice bureaux in Scotland.
Members across the chamber have mentioned their individual bureaux. That gives me the opportunity to remark on Citizens Advice and Rights Fife’s 22nd anniversary, which Alex Rowley mentioned. I give it my sincere congratulations on reaching that anniversary.
On that note, is the minister aware that this week, Moray citizens advice bureau will celebrate its 40th anniversary? Will he pay tribute to all the volunteers and staff who have, over the past four decades, helped so many people, including 2,200 clients in the past year alone?
Lest I get a raft of people coming forward with anniversaries, let me say that I was not aware of that anniversary, but I am now, so I pass on my congratulations to the network in Moray.
I do not often get the opportunity to talk about my constituency in my ministerial role, so I also thank the Cumbernauld and Kilsyth Citizens Advice Bureau for the work that it does under the astute leadership of Stewart McMahon.
The origins of the network of citizens advice bureaux were laid out by a number of members. Kenny Gibson and Annie Wells talked about bureaux coming together through the experience of the second world war. Of course, through that prism, they very much focused on the wartime experience, but there are similarities with today. The majority of the bureaux that emerged over the course of the second world war—60 were established in Scotland, as we heard—were staffed by volunteers, which is also the case today. Therefore, I join Anas Sarwar, who was the first member to speak in the debate, in thanking each and every individual who gives their time to volunteering and supporting others through the bureaux. I have always been struck by the enthusiasm of the volunteer network when I have been able to engage with bureaux not just in my area, but across the country. I concur with Sarah Boyack that it is clear that volunteers draw a lot back for themselves through their volunteering. Their commitment is essential.
The service has been established for 80 years, but we know that life can still be tough for many individuals, particularly given the Brexit uncertainty for EU nationals and the continuing UK Government welfare reforms. Bill Kidd put it well when he described the citizens advice service as an anchor for people in difficult circumstances. The service has been that anchor for 80 years, and it continues to be so today.
The network is very important to the Government. We view the service very much as a partner, and that is demonstrated in a variety of ways. Through our work to establish a Scottish social security system, we have the opportunity to put dignity, fairness and respect back into social security. Rona Mackay, Anas Sarwar and Annabelle Ewing—with whom I served on the Welfare Reform Committee in the previous parliamentary session—all spoke, as others did, about the pernicious changes that are taking place through the UK Government’s welfare reform agenda. That is why we have invested £1.46 million for welfare reform mitigation into the CAB network, and it is why we have used Citizens Advice Scotland as an important partner in the development of our own service.
I assure Jeremy Balfour that CAS has been, and will continue to be, an important partner in the social security system that we set up through Social Security Scotland. CAS will continue to provide us with feedback from its practical experience in working with and supporting its client base—or citizens, as Anas Sarwar rightly described them. Alison Johnstone can be assured that, by continuing to provide feedback, CAS will continue to play a strong role in holding us to account for the service that we provide.
I, too, congratulate Scotland’s citizens advice service. I particularly thank the service for its fantastic support for our armed forces veterans throughout Scotland. Will the minister ensure that any new funding model that he comes up with takes into consideration the needs of Scotland’s armed forces veterans?
I am pleased to say to Maurice Corry that we always consider how better to support our veterans, and that will continue to be the case in relation to any advice services that we support, be that through Citizens Advice Scotland and its network, or, indeed, through any other mechanism.
I want to mention briefly the money talk team project, which Rona Mackay and Alison Johnstone spoke about. We are funding that to the tune of £3.3 million over two years. We have worked closely in partnership with Citizens Advice Scotland to create the service, which is making a tremendous difference. I will not rehearse all the figures again, because others, including Rona Mackay, have already set them out, but I highlight that on average, a person on benefits gets a return of £1,880 by engaging with that process. To use the term that Jackie Baillie rightly used, those are “life-changing results”.
Annabelle Ewing cited the Cowdenbeath CAB. I am pleased to hear about that very good local example of the work that we are doing to support EU nationals. Time does not allow me to say too much more about that.
I want to mention one final area of work—very briefly, Presiding Officer. I know that I am now up against it, time-wise, although I took a couple of interventions, which I hope will be borne in mind.
I had noted that. There is no need to remind me of my duties, minister.
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. I appreciate your support and assistance, as ever.
I will finish on the subject of consumer advocacy, an area in which Citizens Advice Scotland has played and continues to play a vital role. We provide significant resource for it to play that role—this year, we provided more than £1.4 million for it. We introduced the Consumer Scotland Bill in June. CAS, along with other bodies that interact with consumers, will continue to play that role and funnel the evidence and the information that it has to consumer Scotland, once it is established, so that it can get on with its important tasks.
I am very grateful to Anas Sarwar for having had the opportunity to debate the 80th anniversary of the CAB network across Scotland. The bureaux have done fantastic work for the past 80 years, and I know that they will continue to do that for another 80 years and more.Meeting closed at 17:46.