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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 24 February 2021

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Prisoner Voting, Urgent Question, Local Government Funding, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Citizens Advice Scotland


Contents


Citizens Advice Scotland

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Lewis Macdonald)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-23628, in the name of Christine Grahame, which is entitled “Citizens Advice Scotland helps more people”.

The debate will be concluded without any questions being put. I ask those members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises the vital work that Citizens Advice Scotland does for those in Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale and across Scotland; notes the publication of new statistics that show that, in 2019-20, the Citizens Advice Service network helped over 188,000 clients resident in Scotland, dealt with almost 675,000 advice issues, including assisting clients to complete over 53,000 benefit forms, and recording over 4,700 tribunal and court outcomes, with 90% of the cases won or upheld; understands that during this period it helped clients gain over £170 million, representing £16 in client gains for every £1 funded to cover the core advice service, and thanks all volunteers and staff at Citizens Advice Scotland for their ongoing hard work to support people on a range of issues, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

17:30  

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

I thank everyone who signed my motion to allow this important and timeous debate to take place.

The work of citizens advice bureaux is close to my heart. My first encounter with them was many moons ago, as a solicitor, when I volunteered for evening surgeries at my local CAB. I soon found out that the wealth of expertise there sometimes put the lawyer in me to shame. I also found out that folk usually turned up at the last minute, when court orders had been served or debt collectors were at the door. There will not be an MSP who does not value the work of the bureaux.

The text of the motion indicates the vast impact of many CABs throughout Scotland. I will tease out some figures: in 2019-20, they dealt with 188,000 clients and secured £170 million overall, which represents a £16 client gain for every £1 of cost to fund the service. The service has arguably been even more vital in the Covid pandemic, with its impact on every aspect of our lives, and CABs are committed to delivering their services despite all the restrictions.

The motion describes the Scotland-wide picture, but let me focus on three CABs in Midlothian, South Tweeddale and Lauderdale—my constituency—to emphasise their impact on my constituents. I will start with Penicuik CAB and then turn to Central Borders CAB, in Galashiels, and finally to Peebles CAB. There are others, but those are the three that I will highlight.

In Penicuik, as elsewhere, advisers have been equipped for home working with secure access to their advice and case-recording systems, allowing them to provide the same high-quality confidential and impartial advice as normal during these challenging times. Penicuik CAB was established more than 80 years ago, during a period of crisis, and, during the Covid crisis, it has dealt with 5,500 clients, helped with 9,000 questions and secured almost £2 million for clients. It dealt with 960 forms, 89 benefit appeals, 4,000 benefit issues and 250 housing problems, and that is only a glimpse of what it does.

In Central Borders CAB, in Galashiels, there is a similar tally: it helped 1,830 clients and dealt with nearly 7,000 issues. The top five inquiry categories were social security—a category of complexity because of the labyrinth of the benefits system—with nearly 3,000 issues; debt, with 1,004 issues; employment, with 395 issues; and housing, with 322 issues. There were also 239 referrals to a food bank. In total, clients received a reported financial gain of £1.5 million as a result of advice that was given by the bureau, 75 per cent of which was connected to social security entitlements that were due to those clients but that they could not work out how to access. The bureau also gives specialist advice and information on Pension Wise, the patient advice and support service, kinship care, the Citizens Advice consumer service, which is for postal and utility issues, the Armed Services Advice Project, the European Union settlement scheme, help to claim universal credit, and the money talk team. It adapted quickly to working during lockdown.

The story of health continues with Peebles CAB. From 1 April 2019 to 31 March 2020, it saw 888 clients, had 2,144 client contacts and saw more than £350,000 in client gains. The pattern has been repeated in the following financial year. Those stats are important, but every statistic is a real person in need.

To bring that home and put a face to the facts, I will give an example. A client was referred when she was pregnant with her fifth child, while her partner was in prison. She had £4,000 in rent arrears and owed £3,000 for utilities. Her problems were caused when she was transferred to universal credit, as she did not know that she should pay the rent directly. She was also subject to the benefit cap. To add more pain, she had thyroid problems and suffered from anxiety and depression—it is little wonder. She was, understandably, completely overwhelmed. Who would not be in those circumstances?

What did the citizens advice bureau do? It did a benefit check and organised discretionary housing payment to top up her rent, and it arranged for the rent to be paid directly to the landlord. It helped her to apply for disability living allowance for her disabled child and other benefits for her children. A money adviser negotiated the manageable repayment of her rent arrears and utility debts, and the citizens advice bureau organised small grants to help her to buy phone top-ups that allowed her to access her universal credit account and keep in touch. Finally, it made food bank referrals and obtained a small grant for food, following a financial crisis.

However, it did more than that. Once everything was stabilised, the client felt able to look for work. The CAB did calculations using the better-off calculator, and it went through her financial options. The client was thrilled when she was able to obtain work. The CAB accessed grant money to help her to purchase shoes, a uniform and a bus pass for her new job. That is one woman and five children—and a better and stable future for them all.

Those stories are replicated throughout the citizens advice bureaux. We, as a society, and perhaps even more so as politicians, on behalf of our constituents, owe a huge debt of gratitude to our citizens advice bureaux, those who are employed there and the many dedicated volunteers who do so much for so many folk who are on the edge and are, to be quite frank, desperate.

17:37  

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

I thank Christine Grahame for bringing the debate to the chamber. I cannot speak highly enough of the citizens advice bureaux, and I welcome every opportunity to speak about the great work that they do.

The experience that we have all had in the past year, with this unprecedented pandemic, brings into sharp focus the crucial service that Citizens Advice Scotland provides. The statistics in Christine Grahame’s motion are phenomenal and really say it all about the bureaux and their service throughout Scotland.

Before being elected, I was on the board of East Dunbartonshire Citizens Advice Bureau, and I saw how its amazing army of volunteers worked hand in hand with staff. They were often juggling tight budgets, and they all had one aim: to help people. The citizens advice network in Scotland is the largest independent advice service in the country. It is made up of 59 individual citizens advice bureaux, each of which is an independent charity in its own right. The bureaux offer free, independent, impartial and confidential advice to clients on matters ranging from debts and benefits to employment rights and fuel poverty.

Scotland’s first citizens advice bureau opened in Glasgow in 1939, during the second world war. At that time, inquiries related to wartime issues such as tracing relatives whose homes had been bombed and lost ration books. The bureaux are now dealing with inquiries relating to another global crisis: Covid-19. They have adapted quickly, and they remain able to be contacted for advice by phone and email. The bureaux have also provided face-to-face advice for vulnerable clients when essential.

Between April and November last year, the bureaux issued more than 643,000 pieces of advice on the virus. They also published regular data reports, tracking changes on the type of advice that people have been seeking during the pandemic. That information helps them to provide the best service for clients, and it also allows them to act as an early warning system for Government with regard to the policies that we make and their impact on the ground.

The CAB in my constituency of Strathkelvin and Bearsden is based in Kirkintilloch. It is very close to my office, for which it has been a valuable source of help and advice over the years. It has been exceptionally busy. In 2019-20, it dealt with 8,832 benefits claims, 886 housing inquiries and many other issues. In fact, it handled 17,393 cases that year.

My office regularly holds joint surgeries with CABs. Last year, they helped EU citizens to apply for settled status at special surgeries that we held for that. Indeed, Citizens Advice Scotland’s specialist service is the EU citizens support service, which is funded by the Scottish Government and the Home Office. Free and impartial, it is designed to help EU citizens and their families as they apply to continue living in the UK after 30 June this year. The service has helped more than 11,000 people since it was launched.

As the motion says, investment in the citizens advice network is an investment in our communities. Every pound of funding that is invested in core advice unlocks £16 for citizens. That money can be life changing for individuals. The citizens advice network has a footprint in every community across Scotland, driven by the more than 2,300 volunteers who contributed almost 750,000 hours of their time in 2019-20. That is quite awesome.

In November, Citizens Advice Scotland launched the money map tool, which brings together all the options for how people can improve their incomes and cut their living costs. It covers housing, benefits and energy bills, and it directs people to websites where they can access the various options. It also launched the big energy saving month campaign, giving people the power to save time, money and energy through everyday actions. The campaign offered a free and independent energy price comparison tool, as well as highlighting the many ways to improve energy efficiency, access lower tariffs and so on.

Citizens Advice Scotland is, indeed, our national treasure, and I thank it and the hundreds of volunteers for everything that they do to offer help and reassurance to so many people.

17:41  

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

I, too, thank Christine Grahame for bringing the debate to the Scottish Parliament, with the opportunity that it brings us to acknowledge the important work of the 59 citizens advice bureaux that are located across Scotland, which are independent and impartial, and offer confidential advice to clients.

In 2019-20, citizens advice bureaux in Lothian supported more than 21,000 clients, helping them to gain £14 million and providing advice to some of the most deprived people in our communities on issues including benefits, debt, immigration, employment and housing. The motion rightly thanks staff and volunteers for their on-going work to support clients.

Prior to the pandemic, I met Karen Nailen, manager of the Livingston CAB, who had contacted me regarding Scottish Legal Aid Board grant funding. I was very impressed with Karen’s and her team’s depth of knowledge and their passion to achieve the best possible outcome for their clients. Trained volunteers are at the heart of CABx, and they are invaluable in delivering the service and helping people to find a way forward with the problems that they face.

When I was a member of tribunals that heard appeals on DLA and personal independence payments, CABx often represented clients. They did so professionally, and they ensured that the client felt safe and secure and gave the best evidence possible.

During this crisis I have been reminded how essential the voluntary sector and volunteers are to our society. It has been an astonishing effort. I commend CABx across Scotland for the speed at which they adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns, ensuring that they remained contactable for advice by phone and email and providing face-to-face advice for vulnerable clients in essential circumstances.

The universal credit system has had to cope with a huge uplift in applications since the start of the crisis, with an increase from an average of 20,000 claims per month in 2019 to more than 110,000 between 1 March and 7 April 2020, which highlights the impact that the pandemic is having on people’s finances. The citizens advice service has been pivotal in raising awareness, via Scotland’s citizens advice helpline, of the financial support that is available to people. That support will continue to be important once the lockdown ends, when a number of people will not be returning to the jobs that they held at the beginning of the crisis.

Citizens Advice Scotland rightly points out that, through the services that it offers and the people whom it reaches, it can see changes in circumstances and how they will affect policies, and it has the ability to provide an early warning system to Government. That is hugely important and, as we begin to assess the long-term effect of the pandemic, it is vital that Governments and politicians understand the contribution that Citizens Advice Scotland can make, both now and in the future.

It is important to make sure that there is adequate funding of citizens advice bureaux to ensure their long-term sustainability. Many CABx provide a range of services on behalf of local authorities. However, the sad reality is that the Scottish National Party Government does not give councils the fair funding deals that they deserve. Since 2013-14, the amount of money that the SNP Government gives to local authorities has fallen by £276 million in real terms, yet, in the same period, the SNP Government’s budget from the United Kingdom Government has increased by more than £1 billion, or 3.1 per cent in real terms. If councils do not have the resources available to fund the important services that many CABx deliver on their behalf, there is a danger that the bureaux will have to close down or reduce in number.

I will conclude by thanking Citizens Advice Scotland and the citizens advice bureaux for the advice and support that they have provided to consumers during the pandemic, for the free access to quality information and advice that they have offered since 1939 and for adapting and broadening their services and advice to reflect the changing nature of issues that affect consumers. Long may that continue, and I thank them for all their hard work.

17:46  

James Kelly (Glasgow) (Lab)

I thank Christine Grahame for bringing this important debate to Parliament. As members’ contributions have shown, the debate has allowed members to pay tribute to their local citizens advice bureaux and volunteers and to highlight the tremendous work that is done across the 59 offices throughout Scotland. The Citizens Advice Scotland briefing that has been provided highlights that the organisation has helped people to the tune of £170 million, which shows the remarkable job that is being carried out in all those locations.

The pandemic that we are currently dealing with has been challenging for individuals and communities. Far too often, people have found themselves in vulnerable and difficult positions, and, as a result, we have needed a robust and supportive citizens advice network as never before.

I pay tribute to the work of one of the local offices in the Glasgow region that I represent—Rutherglen and Cambuslang citizens advice bureau, which is under the effective stewardship of the manager, Sharon Hampson. From 1 April last year to 20 February this year, it has dealt with an astonishing 2,912 individuals, which amounts to 9,296 cases. Incredibly, the office was able to help people to the tune of £1.163 million, which is fantastic across such a small area.

Unsurprisingly, over the past year, the main issues that the Rutherglen and Cambuslang office dealt with were benefits, employment and debt. As other members have highlighted, during Covid there have been benefit challenges as people’s circumstances have changed. When that happens, individuals worry about how they will deal with matters, and they need somebody to turn to. The local citizens advice offices are excellent at providing practical support to people who are dealing with difficult circumstances.

There have been a lot of employment issues, which we MSPs also deal with. The citizens advice bureaux have been very good not only at providing advice but at pointing people in the correct direction to get support if their employment circumstances have changed or if their employers are not operating appropriately under the Covid guidelines.

All those citizens advice bureaux—including Rutherglen and Cambuslang citizens advice bureau—could not operate without the volunteer network. It has been very difficult for them over the past year, but they have continued to make themselves available, either over the phone or online, when the offices have not been able to open. The numbers that they have been able to service, as I have quoted, show what a fantastic job they have done.

The debate is highlighting that a lot of people are struggling with serious issues in Scotland—for example, employment, debt and benefit issues—and the role that Citizens Advice Scotland has played in stepping in to support and help individuals has been very welcome. It is excellent that we have had the debate, in order to pay tribute to that work and to highlight the fact that, I am sure, it will continue very robustly in the future.

17:50  

Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

I join other members in thanking Christine Grahame for bringing us a most important debate. The work of Citizens Advice Scotland to provide free, independent and confidential advice is certainly worthy of our utmost appreciation. I strongly support the citizens advice bureaux. I know that they do a lot of work for our veterans in Scotland—I have seen that work in the Armed Services Advice Project and other programmes.

As a councillor, I saw the need for councils to robustly fund citizens advice bureaux—we should remember that it is for elected members of councils to decide a budget line for that work every year. If they do not get the money right, citizens advice bureaux will not stay open.

For example, Argyll and Bute Council, where I was a councillor until 2016, had the choice of opening a CAB in Helensburgh, Oban or Campbeltown. I could only get enough money to fund one in Helensburgh, where there was the base as well as other obvious issues; it is also close to Dumbarton. It was scandalous that we could not open bureaux in areas of need and deprivation such as Campbeltown and Oban.

My worry is about the underpinning of citizens advice bureaux. That needs to be fundamentally reviewed, because the funding cannot be left to the whim of a council vote. I am all for their being funded by councils, but a more robust system is needed. I have given the example of two areas that are crying out for that help.

During 2019-20 alone, the citizens advice network assisted one in every 24 adults in Scotland. That points to the network’s incredible reach in helping our communities. It relies on its volunteers; each is open minded, happy to listen and able to offer impartial advice without pre-conceived ideas or judgment. That approachability is key to how it operates. I join my colleagues in commending the volunteers’ continued vital contribution.

Through that provision of support and the listening ear of its staff, Citizens Advice Scotland is well placed to influence improvement in policies. It gathers together troubling experiences or complaints, which gradually inform its recommendations for wider policy changes on citizens’ behalf.

Citizens Advice Scotland is sorely needed. Its support, which is rooted in expert knowledge and experience, has positively impacted the lives of those whom it helps, in many cases helping to ward off unemployment, homelessness or bankruptcy, for example.

Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every corner of our lives, and, for many people in Scotland, it has created even more problems. Citizens advice bureaux have responded amazingly, given the challenges that they face. They have sought to stay just as connected to and available for those who are in need of advice and support, whether through their websites or over the phone. For those who are more vulnerable and in need of essential assistance, CABx have often chosen to maintain face-to-face advice. Since April 2020, the service has helped more than 22,000 people through Scotland’s citizens advice helpline alone. The helpline was launched in response to a rising number of concerns about, in particular, benefits, debt, housing and employment.

My own region of West Scotland is fortunate to have a number of citizens advice bureaux. I know that the staff and volunteers at the West Dunbartonshire and Helensburgh bureaux have continued to make themselves available to local residents throughout the pandemic and at all hours, working to ensure that clients understand their options and helping to minimise and mitigate the issues that they face. Those teams—like those across the network—have collated specific advice relating to the wide-ranging impact of Covid-19 that covers employment rights and benefit entitlements as well as crisis guidance and support.

The place that Citizens Advice Scotland occupies in our communities is wholly needed and the service is very welcome. It is a lifeline for many people who are living through difficult and challenging times. The service is built on the commitment of its staff and volunteers, and it deserves ample credit for its advice, in-depth support and representation.

I suggest to members that we need to look at the funding of the organisation and its operation, because we must bolster the service in local council areas. I would be enormously grateful for anything that the cabinet secretary could do in that regard.

17:55  

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

I am pleased to take part in the debate, and I thank Christine Grahame for securing it. The valuable work of Citizens Advice Scotland, not just in her area but across Scotland, is well covered in the motion. Helping to unlock more than £170 million for clients is a remarkable achievement.

Members have spoken about the great work of the Scottish citizens advice bureau network as a whole. It is a service that we cannot do without. I have said in the past that, if the CAB network did not exist, we would have to invent it. Every day, citizens advice bureaux help people to avoid debt, poverty and homelessness. They help clients to complete benefit forms and assist with tribunal and court hearings. They offer free, impartial, independent and confidential advice.

The work of CABx has continued during the pandemic, as bureaux could be contacted by phone and email. A staggering 643,000 pieces of advice were issued between April and November 2020.

I am sure that all members are proud to support the bureaux in their areas. I want to reflect on the work of the citizens advice bureau in Shetland, which is run by Karen Eunson and her team of paid staff and volunteers. During the past year, Shetland Islands CAB has delivered advice to nearly 1,400 individuals on more than 5,000 issues. Financial support has been the main focus, with 63 per cent of advice relating to benefits. Advisers have carried out 523 benefit checks to ensure that people maximise their incomes.

Karen Eunson notes that demand for advice on unemployment has grown and that requests for advice on how to tackle high energy costs represent about 8 per cent of inquiries. There has been noticeable growth in demand for advice on fuel debt, and in referrals for emergency fuel vouchers. That is in line with a trend that I have seen in my casework, in which I have encountered serious issues to do with poor customer service from energy suppliers, including misinformation about tariffs, switching and changing meters. All of that is linked to the appalling levels of fuel poverty in island areas, which are evidenced by the figures that the Scottish Government released yesterday.

Shetland’s bureau has helped clients to achieve financial gains of more than £1.25 million, which will have been a much-needed boost to household incomes during the pandemic. It is important to recognise the boost that that gives to local economies, too, because the money will be spent on essentials in local shops and businesses.

I am pleased to report that, despite the shift to remote delivery, clients of the Shetland bureau report high satisfaction rates, with 94 per cent of respondents happy with their access to advice.

Specialist energy advice is just one of the services that Shetland’s CAB offers. Innovative use has been made of new technology to deliver remote energy and money advice clinics. The bureau is part of a pilot project, led by the national health service, to use Near Me video-calling software to deliver advice. It is particularly concerned to reach isolated older people and those without digital access. It is working with partnership agencies and community groups to meet the needs of the most vulnerable people in the community.

It is important to recognise the citizens advice network’s vital immigration advice, especially through the free and impartial EU citizens support service, which offers help to EU citizens and their families as they apply to continue living in the UK after 30 June 2021. Since it was launched, the service, which is funded by the Scottish Government and the Home Office, has helped 11,000 people.

I concur with the sentiments that are expressed in the motion, and I thank all staff and volunteers across the network for everything that they do for our citizens.

17:59  

Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Like others, I congratulate Christine Grahame on securing the debate, and I join her in thanking all the CAB staff and volunteers, who are under enormous pressure during this on-going pandemic as the economic situation worsens.

During this difficult time, it is impressive that they have managed to launch the Scotland’s citizens advice helpline. In addition to the normal services that they provide, and along with the new money map tool to help households to budget more effectively, it is assisting thousands of people.

The independent nature of each citizens advice bureau and the fact that they are managed locally and help in each community mean that they can tailor their services to meet the needs of local people in a unique way. Providing support and advocacy in the community is a powerful instrument in fighting for social justice. I know well the excellent service that is offered in my local bureau in Coatbridge, which is run by Marian Tobin and her team. Like those in other bureaux across Scotland, they provide invaluable help to constituents. The chair of the Coatbridge bureau is my friend and former MP Sir Tom Clarke. I was pleased to see the bureau, along with the local community, recently celebrate Tom’s well-earned knighthood. During my 17 years as a constituency MSP, I worked very closely with the local CAS staff—who were in the same building as my office—and, in particular, with CAS’s housing specialist, Jim Melvin, who undoubtedly prevented many of my constituents from losing their homes.

Knowing how vital those services are, like many, I was concerned by the news last year of proposals to cut funding to bureaux and other advice services, which would affect those who desperately need help. That is the last thing that anyone would expect during these difficult times. After all, as Christine Grahame said, every £1 of funding for core advice services secures £16 of gains for clients. I understand that that threat still hangs over those services, and it really must be lifted.

The reports and statistics that are provided by Citizens Advice Scotland are invaluable for policy makers. Its work during the pandemic has allowed us to map what is happening to the economy, as well as the growing concerns and worries of citizens. It is therefore imperative that the Scottish Government guarantees adequate funding for advice services.

As others have said, across central Scotland in 2019-20, benefits were the single biggest area in which advice was sought from bureaux. Research has shown that £460 million lies in unclaimed benefits in Scotland each year. It is a scandal that so much of the money that is supposed to lift our most vulnerable out of poverty sits unclaimed. Unlocking that money is one of the key benefits of the services that are provided by CABs. Entitledto estimates that, across the UK, more than £15 billion is unclaimed by low-income households. That figure is staggering and means that millions of the most vulnerable are not getting the help that they are entitled to.

Both the UK and Scottish Governments need to increase their efforts to make sure that everyone understands what their legitimate entitlements are and to make it easier for them to claim that amount. I hope that, as Social Security Scotland evolves, it will take some of that burden from the citizens advice network. It should create a more transparent and accessible system for claimants as well as fulfilling its aim of putting dignity, fairness and respect at the heart of everything that it does.

Citizens Advice Scotland warns us that levels of personal debt are soaring and becoming unmanageable for many, and we need to pay attention to that warning. If the £20 universal credit uplift ends, it will fall below its 2013 value in real terms. That is very worrying when around 480,000 people in Scotland are claiming universal credit, many of them with families. Given that UK Government statistics show that around 446 people were still making new claims for universal credit every hour in the first week of 2021, I fully support the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and its #keepthelifeline campaign, which calls for a commitment to keep that uplift for at least a year. If the UK Government fails to do that, I hope that the Scottish Government will be able to use its devolved powers to somehow make up the difference.

The pandemic has shown how financial security can quickly vanish, and many have had to claim benefits for the first time. Citizens advice bureaux have continued to be a lifeline for many who are navigating these difficult times. I whole-heartedly thank them for everything that they do and, once again, I thank Christine Grahame for securing the debate.

18:04  

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government (Aileen Campbell)

I thank Christine Grahame for giving us the opportunity to acknowledge and reflect on the work of the citizens advice bureaux service and Citizens Advice Scotland. We have heard members give well-deserved praise for their local bureaux, and I add my voice to that chorus of appreciation. The support that the bureaux service provides to our communities is enormous, as has been particularly evident during the coronavirus pandemic.

I pay tribute to my colleagues Rona Mackay and Christine Grahame, who, in their contributions, disclosed the fact that they have volunteered for or served on the board of Citizens Advice Scotland. I can therefore imagine just how pertinent and important the debate has been to both of those members personally. I thank all members who have taken part in the debate and who have described so vividly just how important the bureaux and Citizens Advice Scotland have been to them in their time as members of the Parliament.

In 2020, overall sponsorship of Citizens Advice Scotland and the bureaux service within the Scottish Government was transferred to my portfolio responsibility. My officials and I have worked hard to establish a strong relationship with the service, which is based on collaboration and a shared passion for the greater good of our communities and citizens. I welcomed the opportunity to meet Citizens Advice Scotland’s chief executive officer and the chair of its board in October 2020, when we set the foundations for that relationship. I know that whoever is in my role in the Government in the future will continue to build on that work.

As Rona Mackay mentioned, the citizens advice bureaux service was established at the outbreak of the second world war in 1939, so it has been part of our communities for as long as most of us can remember. Since the 1970s, the bureaux in Christine Grahame’s constituency have worked tirelessly to serve their local communities. In my constituency, Clydesdale citizens advice bureau is a comparative youngster, dating from 1990. However, it has provided the same advice and support and a listening ear for more than 30 years. All bureaux are supported at a national level by Citizens Advice Scotland.

As other members have rightly recognised, during the pandemic, the citizens advice service has worked even harder to help people. That has only been possible thanks to the remarkable commitment of the army of volunteers who have continued to give their time and energy to their local communities throughout this incredibly difficult and challenging time. It is that embodiment of selflessness, care and community spirit that represents all that is best about our communities across the country. I take this opportunity to give my heartfelt thanks to each and every one of them. The voluntary effort that is found across Scotland has been essential to the country’s response to Covid. Moving from the second world war to now, although times have changed and the challenges might differ, the care and compassion that have been so pivotal in the work of the citizens advice service have remained constant.

As a Government, we have supported those at the sharp end during the pandemic by quickly responding to the changing situation. For example, we made almost £800,000 available to the citizens advice service from the wellbeing and immediate priorities funds. That included support for the establishment of a national helpline in April 2020, connecting people with their local bureau when they sought help, and the purchase of protective equipment and adaptations to premises so that local bureau offices could operate safely. In August 2020, we also allocated an additional £600,000 from the debt advice levy to help bureaux to deal with the increased demand for debt advice across the country. Including grants agreed before the pandemic, our total investment in the citizens advice service network in 2020-21 is almost £8 million.

Crucially, as part of that, more than £1.4 million has been used to support people who are still struggling with the impact of welfare reforms. In a difficult year in which to do so, bureaux have built and maintained partnerships with more than 550 organisations across the public and voluntary sectors, to ensure that clients do not fall through the gaps. For example, the Penicuik bureau, which is in Christine Grahame’s constituency, works with local children and families teams to deliver income maximisation advice and support to social work clients with children who are on the at-risk register or under home supervision. Another example close to her constituency is the Roxburgh and Berwickshire bureau, which works with Berwickshire Housing Association to promote digital inclusion and provide digital buddies to local people who need a helping hand to access benefits online.

We have also continued to fund the citizens advice network’s money talk team service, which aims to ensure that people are receiving all the benefits to which they are entitled and are not paying more than they need to for basic goods and services. We have backed that service with £1.5 million this year. In the first two years of its delivery, up to October 2020, it has supported almost 27,000 clients across Scotland. Of those, more than 14,300 are better off by a total of almost £24 million.

My colleague Jamie Hepburn, the Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills, and his team have also benefited from the network’s willingness to collaborate. Throughout this financial year, and with a view to the establishment of the new consumer advocacy body, consumer Scotland, officials have worked with Citizens Advice Scotland to take forward a new programme of consumer advocacy.

That work has focused on championing the voice of bureau clients at both local and national levels.? It has gone hand in hand with new governance arrangements for Citizens Advice Scotland’s advocacy work, including a co-design approach to advocacy that harnesses the talents of both bureaux and Citizens Advice Scotland policy colleagues.? The bureaux network—and the work of Citizens Advice Scotland that supports it—will therefore continue to form an essential part of consumer advocacy in Scotland.

We have had a positive debate about CAS and have talked about numbers, statistics, facts and figures and levels of investment. Christine Grahame is right to tie that discussion to what she called the faces behind the facts. Ms Grahame shared the story a woman whose life had spiralled out of control, which had caused trauma, anxiety and strain for herself and her family. Her problems were patiently and purposefully sorted out. CAS held out a metaphorical hand and helped that woman to navigate a complex benefits system, and, through that patient support, to emerge with confidence to find a job and a brighter future. That lady’s talents, assets and abilities were recognised, and she was able to have autonomy and agency in her own life. That story epitomises the importance of the service that CAS provides; long may it continue.

That example reminds us that it is critical that we continue to fund and collaborate with the bureau service and Citizens Advice Scotland to meet our shared priorities of tackling poverty and improving wellbeing in our communities.

The pandemic also created, almost overnight, a digital and phone-based revolution in advice provision. That, in turn, has prompted a desire for change across the advice sector. I know that we can harness and use that in the future to create a modern, multi-channel advice service that is able to serve the needs of everyone in our communities.

That positive change in culture and practice, which was prompted by the harsh and brutal impact of Covid, was what prompted us to set up the social renewal advisory board to capture and harness some of that positive impact. We must ensure that we do not lose that but continue to see benefits. The board’s report included a number of calls for action, including that we should consider how we can continue providing support for those with financial problems or personal debt.

This has been an insightful debate. Members have spoken passionately about the help that CAS has provided for many years. The story that Christine Grahame shared brings us back to the purpose of CAS: to help people to realise their potential and to navigate difficult situations in life so that they can go on to a brighter future. Citizens Advice Scotland has done that since 1939. I wish it a bright future for many decades to come, enabling us to have the fairer Scotland that I know we all hope for.

Meeting closed at 18:13.