Advice on benefits, managing debt and money issues is available to all South Gloucestershire residents, through a variety of organisations and agencies commissioned by the Council. An increasing number of individuals and families are coming under financial stress as the longer-term impact is being felt of, for example, receiving a reduced income through being furloughed or having lost work because of COVID-19.
A range of support options through the benefits system may be available for those who find themselves struggling, and for those who may be experiencing such concerns for the first time, accessing the benefits system can be daunting. Fortunately, there is help available. While face-to-face sessions are not currently possible due to social distancing safety restrictions, to protect residents and staff, more and more help is now being provided over the phone and online.
South Gloucestershire Council works together with a number of advice agencies as part of South Gloucestershire Advice Services to provide free, confidential and independent advice. The advice service includes Citizens Advice South Glos, Talking Money, North Bristol Advice Centre, Age UK South Glos and the Bristol Law Centre.
Anyone can ask for help and residents can contact individual partners directly, for advice and guidance about their concerns. Contact details are available on our website at: https://www.southglos.gov.uk/advice-and-benefits/welfare-rights-and-financial-advice/advice-agencies-and-welfare-advice-partnership or by contacting Citizens Advice South Glos via their website: https://www.southgloscab.org.uk or by calling 03444 111 444. They will then be able to provide help or refer people to the right service to receive the help they need.
In June, the Council allocated £134,270 to extend the existing contract, to ensure continuity during the pandemic. Discussions with the partners about re-modelling the services in light of the impact of COVID-19 and digital developments are on-going to secure longer-term arrangements for the advice service for South Gloucestershire residents.
Our partners have already reported an increase in the number of people approaching them for help during the lockdown period, with a further significant increase in the weeks since restrictions began being lifted. Citizens Advice has reported a that nationally, over the last three months that their advisers have helped over 380,000 people by telephone, email and web chat. Benefits and employment issues were the main reasons for people seeking advice and over the past month there has been a 40 per cent increase in people seeking advice on housing issues.
These numbers have been reflected locally, with Citizens Advice South Glos, Talking Money and the North Bristol Advice Centre all experiencing significantly larger numbers of people getting in touch asking for help. Large numbers of these people have been accessing this sort of service for the first time and are sometimes unfamiliar with their rights and how to access support. At the same time, people who were already under financial stress have seen that increasing with uncertainty around employment and the knock-on effects of that being key concerns.
While the number of people asking for advice is already growing, we anticipate the demand for help will continue to grow as increasing numbers of people find themselves financially affected or anxious about the long-term impacts of the changes caused by COVID-19 over the coming months.
Welfare and debt advisors from our Partnership agencies have reported recurring questions being asked by callers, including:
• I was paying off my debts, but I can’t afford to right now, what can I do?
• I am claiming Tax Credits, but would I be better off claiming Universal Credit?
• I am a pensioner struggling to make ends meet, can I get pension credit?
• I’ve lost my job and can’t pay my rent. Can my landlord evict me?
The Partnership agencies agree that the benefits system will not always be able to provide the solution to someone’s issues by itself, but the key thing for those experiencing financial stress is to find out what support you may be eligible for. The free and expert advice available through the Partnership can help you understand and navigate through the system. Chantal Watts, CEO from Citizen’s Advice South Gloucestershire, said: “Coronavirus has caused and deepened problems for a lot of residents in our community. For those already struggling it may have made a situation worse and for many who might never have considered themselves at financial risk, this will be an unpleasant shock. The key thing is that you don’t need to go through this on your own.
“The expert advice provided by Citizens Advice and the other members of the Partnership with South Gloucestershire Council is free. I would encourage people with concerns to look at our information online and get in touch for help today.”
South Gloucestershire Council Cabinet Member for Communities, Councillor Rachael Hunt, said: “The impact of COVID-19 is continuing to cause money worries for significant numbers of people and our partners have seen increasing number of people approach them for help to access and navigate the welfare system.
“Our Welfare Advice Partnership, which we’ve recently extended to help meet this growing need, is a really good way to access the expert help available, for free, to help get through a tough period for many.
“Many of the people getting in touch already, have never really needed to access the benefits system before. Advisors can offer simple guidance around the help people may be eligible for and how to apply.
“We know that these are still difficult times for many and the impact will continue to be felt for a long time to come, but as we have already shown during the lockdown, by working in partnership we can get the help required to those in need.”