Thousands of vulnerable people struggling with personal debts could lose access to free specialist face-to face help as a result of a government shake-up that seeks to move more services online, advisers speaking to the Guardian have said.
It's feared that some areas could have more than half of their debt adviser workforce made redundant, with local debt advice charities forced to abandon in-person services or even risk closure as a result of the plans to put debt advice services out to tender.
Funding for debt advice has increased from £51m pre-pandemic to £77m this April. The lion-share of the money will go to three national call centres, and funding for local services will be halved.
Advisers say the shift away from in-person appointments will especially hit vulnerable clients. This all comes at a time when inflation means rising energy and food bills and the end of furlough and debt payment holidays which are all leading to personal debt for millions of individuals.
Nearly 4 million low-income households in the UK are behind on rent, bills or debt payments, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Research from Citizens Advice shows that half a million renters went into arrears during the coronavirus crisis.
Clients with complex problems – including debt, housing issues and mental illness – who struggle to access or navigate online services will be particularly at risk. One local adviser said complex cases had soared in the pandemic and now made up roughly two-thirds of their casework.
If you or someone you know needs advice about debt or any other issue, Citizens Advice Bristol is accessible via the telephone (0808 278 7957) every weekday from 9:30 - 4pm.