Our Money advice team may be small, but we thrive on a challenge. We quickly adapted to making sure our advisers and administrators had the ability to work from home as per government guidelines, and that effective means in which to provide digital advice to people often was available immediately or within one working day of their initial contact. 

In the past year we have seen a wealth of government initiatives introduced to help people financially through these difficult times. Such initiatives were the furlough scheme, SEISS grants, Payment deferrals of rent, mortgages, council tax and credit operated accounts. We also saw automatic application of overdraft facilities, uplifts in benefit awards and additional financial reductions for council tax for those on applicable benefits. 

This reaction was welcomed by many but we experienced a reduction in clients accessing debt advice as they took steps to request payment holidays. The impact of these actions will not be fully known for some months but repercussions of these options will be felt for several years to come. 

The idea to defer payments was appealing and often the only realistic way of managing funds due to reduced incomes and lack of free funds to cover basic needs.  However, increased pressure to work and home school children also caused a spike in other areas, such as increase in electricity, gas and water usage.  Home telephone packages became a priority essential for many households as internet was required to work from home and attend virtual school classes.   

The consequences of payment deferrals mean ongoing contractual repayments will now be higher for missed instalments whilst many people are still suffering from reduced incomes or loss of employment/business. 2021 will also see the reinstatement of repossession and eviction action for renters and mortgagees and the removal of the benefit uplift that has only been given a temporary 6-month hold. The combination of these events will cause many to struggle with prioritising the priority payments within their budget and cause more to sink deeper into debt.  However, our team remains ready to assist all with advice on viable solutions and helping clients to guide the options to a conclusion to improve their overall financial health. 

The level of confirmed debt we dealt with for just over 420 clients totalled more than £1,171,673, with over £333,477.06 written off under a mixture of charitable and energy trust fund grants and insolvency applications. During this time, we worked closely with in house projects and outside local funders to help families in fuel poverty so that they were not having to make the decision to “keep the light on” over putting food on the table. The bringing together of organisations, charities and specialist advisers forged a great way to work together to achieve the best possible outcome for some particularly vulnerable people. 

In addition to this, a good thing to come from government intervention in requesting that creditors treat their customers fairly and sympathetically during COVID means that new legislation has been brought in to tone down threatening demands for payments, look more encouragingly at suggesting ways in which customers can seek advice, and to help alleviate that fear factor of contacting people you owe money to. This new legislation is not a simple payment deferral, it ensures client and adviser engagement whilst entering a formal breathing space and to stop recovery action, allowing clients that much needed time in which they can seek free independent money advice and find a long-term debt solution. 

 

Our team now covers a mixture of working from home and our main offices but face to face appointments with clients could not be conducted due to lack of available venues for social distanced restrictions. We have worked hard to adapt our service to be digitally based, so that clients feel confident in using the service this way and we have received positive feedback and support from our clients who mainly have thanked us for just being at the end of the phone and still able to provide advice in this particular enquiry area. 

We anticipate the year ahead to be a time of complex debt advice needs and hope to continue working closely together to ensure that the best possible interest and outcomes for our clients is always first and foremost. 

Couple of debt advice case studies:- 

Case study 1: 

An older client was referred to us for advice in relation to rent arrears – after the death of their partner they were thrown into taking on the household finances.  This was a daunting task and due to closures of drop in advice venues the client didn’t know where to turn and their local housing association suggested contacting us.  The client had no internet access, was unaware of benefits and eligibility and how to go about making an application and worried about action that would be taken to evict them from their property. 

We helped by explaining the eviction action process in which put their mind at ease that they were nowhere near this stage of recovery, we carried out a benefit check identifying that the client would be eligible for housing benefit and local council tax support and carried out a telephone appointment to complete an online application upon the client's behalf due to their lack if internet service and support from family/friends. We added to the application a request for backdating the application to be considered due to their genuine gap in knowledge of the financial help available to them. 

The resulting outcome was that the local authority made an award, based on our assessment and agreed to backdate the application, the client received a lump sum payment that was enough to clear the arrears and bring their rental account back up to date and an ongoing award of £45 per week towards her rent was also granted and significant reduction in council tax payments due to the granting of discounts applicable to our client's circumstances. The client is now able to manage her affairs, is financial more secure and better off with benefits in place and more importantly knows where and how to access advice services should she need them in the future. 

 

Case study 2: 

A fund administered by DWP and the local authority Children’s services dept named Connect 4 communities started during the end of last year, it was recognised that a considerable number of households were struggling to deal with increasingly rising costs of household fuel from enforced measures to stay at home.  The fund was set to offer small grants to households with children to alleviate fuel poverty.  Often, we have cases that do not fit requirements for funding and avenues of support.  One family with members living with significant disabilities approached us for help with a high level of electricity and gas arrears, the family had painstakingly looked at ways to deal with the debt, paying more than they could afford to bring down the arrears all whist the ongoing consumption costs were increasing alarmingly from multiple lockdowns and care needs.  We were able to work with the family, identify their need and evidence it all but our efforts to reduce or clear the debt met without success due to strict criteria that these clients just failed to meet.  We petitioned the Connect 4 Communities fund, supplying evidence and documenting the families need and made a case specific to their individual household which resulted in a grant being award in the region of £2700 to clear all fuel arrears upon their account.  This was hugely significant in improving the household's health and financial wellbeing and allowed them to focus on the care needs required and able to budget for ongoing costs without the threat of disconnection of services or installation of meters that would have been extremely difficult for the household to maintain. Without having to pay the arrears the family's budget for basic essential needs and food was no longer under constant strain.  Several people were involved in the decision of this application and again shows that great collaboration between all parties can really make a difference. 

 

Some other debt information: 

 

Average household income 2020/2021 - £1078 

Average household expenses 2020/2021 - £1061 

Average debt per client 2020/2021 - £6590.50 

Some of the top debt categories over this year included:- 

Council tax arrears 

Water Rates arrears 

Credit card 

Unsecured loans 

Mortgages 

Rent 

Catalogues 

Overdrafts 

Electricity  

In 2021/2022 we anticipate seeing a rise in more priority debt arears and will continue to campaign for more help for people in debt crisis as a direct result of COVID. 

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How to get Advice 

Adviceline : 0800 144 8848 
 
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