Information, advice and guidance on financial, legal and benefits issues will be available through more channels than before the pandemic, through a new contract to deliver support, which will be delivered jointly by the council and partner agencies through South Gloucestershire Advice Services.
Led by Citizens Advice South Gloucestershire, Age UK South Gloucestershire, Bristol Law Centre, North Bristol Advice Centre and Talking Money the partnership will be working alongside the council using new technology to complement existing systems, ensuring residents who need help and support can receive it.
During the pandemic, local advice services and council staff have provided vital assistance to thousands of residents who have been helped to understand changes to the benefits system and the roll-out of Universal Credit, for example, as well as advice for those at risk of homelessness or living in unsuitable housing. They have also helped them to claim Covid-related grants which were introduced to give support to those financially impacted over the past two years.
With many individuals and families now also facing increased energy costs, for example, the ability to access expert advice is crucial. The pandemic meant that many services delivered face-to-face needed to be provided online and by telephone.
The previous contract to provide advice and guidance was delivered by the partners, with support from council staff in our One Stop Shops. In 2019, due to the council’s financial position, the decision was taken to reduce the overall funding to the service by 35 per cent.
The previous contract was extended for a year, however, in order to allow the agencies and council to redesign a new service together, and then rolled over through the pandemic, with additional short-term funding provided, to allow support to be offered to families, including in new ways using digital technology, who faced challenges as a result of the impact of Covid-19.
The new contract, which will run for five years from April 1 2022, will see the council grant £193,540 each year to the Partnership agencies to deliver the service, alongside the council, who will carry out parts of this work using its own staff and resources and so provides better value for money. Additionally, the council is committed to working closely with partners to attract additional grant funding from other sources so that we can expand the service further where possible.
The service has been designed to be flexible and will be able to adapt in future to meet the needs of residents as those needs change. It includes:
• Some of the partner agencies will be able to work from One Stop shops, which means council and advice service staff being able to easily refer residents to the right help in the same place
• A five day a week telephone advice service to support remote access
• Home visits and face-to-face appointments available for those needing a more in person approach and those who may have mobility issues
• One off advice with a family lawyer on issues around divorce and separation
• Ongoing casework and representation to support people appealing benefit decisions such as Personal Independence Payments (PIP)Specialist advice to people representing themselves at an employment tribunal
• Digital access via webchat facilities and downloadable help guides.
In addition to help with immediate financial questions, regarding debt and benefits, tenancy issues and legal queries, the partners in the South Glos Welfare Advice Service are able to offer advice and guidance on how to avoid future issues, by being more energy efficient or by ensuring people receive all of the benefits they are entitled to.
For example, many people have and are continuing to struggle financially as a result of Covid-19. With the increase in energy prices and rising inflation, more households are under pressure, which can have knock-on impacts on paying rent, for example. While Covid restrictions have now been largely lifted there are several grant programmes currently open for those who need help. You can find out more and apply online at www.southglos.gov.uk/financialsupport, or speak to the council’s customer services, in confidence, on 01454 868009 or by visiting your nearest One Stop Shop. Staff will also be able to refer residents to specialist agencies in the Partnership who can provide further support.
South Gloucestershire Council Cabinet Member for Communities and Local Place, Cllr Rachael Hunt, said: “The work of South Gloucestershire Advice Service has been a vital lifeline for people before and throughout the pandemic and we recognise that many still face considerable challenges. The role of the Partnership, working alongside our specialist staff in our Contact Centre and our One Stop Shops, is to help people to get the help they need, when and how they need it.
“Sometimes, people can be anxious to ask for help, which it is why it is so important that we provide the range of ways into the system that people feel comfortable with. That is also why we have extended our Resilience Fund programme this year to provide help to people who may not have qualified for help under previous Government schemes.
“You don’t need to be receiving benefits or to qualify for benefits to access this service. The most important thing for people to hear is that if you or your family is struggling, that help is available, whether you need financial advice or support in managing some family legal matters.
“Free and confidential advice is available and with experienced staff from the council working alongside the teams from Citizens Advice, Bristol Law Centre, Age UK South Gloucestershire, North Bristol Advice Centre and Talking Money, there is no need to try and cope alone.”
Citizens Advice South Glos have confirmed that under the new contract they will no longer be providing face-to-face services through their office in Staple Hill or at Juice in Cadbury Heath. While we recognise that people needing help may come from anywhere in the district, the areas of highest demand are centralised around Patchway, Kingswood and Yate, which is why we are using our One Stop Shops as a primary in-person access point, in addition to the online and telephone support.
The new service is commissioned by the Council and will come into effect on 1 April 2022, running for five years.
For more information on the South Glos Welfare Advice Partnership, it’s members and direct contact details for residents, please visit our website: www.southglos.gov.uk/advice-and-benefits/welfare-rights-and-financial-advice/advice-agencies-and-welfare-advice-partnership
Details of current grants and financial support available is available on our website and updated regularly: https://beta.southglos.gov.uk/financial-support-for-residents