Borderers’ debts spiral as council begins probe into advice services

Scottish Borders Council has launched a review of the welfare benefits advice it provides and commissions.

The news comes as the the four Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABs) in the region released shock statistics, painting a depressing picture of more and more Borderers struggling with debt.

The investigation will include the services delivered by the Borders CAB, which currently receives core funding from the council to the tune of £225,000 a year, as well as SBC’s own in-house welfare benefits section, based at Earlston.

It is thus not surprising that copies of the CAB report for 2010/11, which “demonstrate the problems for Borders people in harsh financial times”, have been sent to all councillors who will ultimately decide how to weigh their own budget pressures with the needs of their cash-strapped constituents.

An SBC spokesperson told us yesterday: “We are indeed reviewing welfare advice and its services in the broadest sense.

“This review is aiming to ensure best value for money, greater access for those who need the services most and to maximise positive outcomes for residents of the Borders.

“As the review is currently under way it would be premature to provide any further detail, but we will be able to do so in the very near future.”

The quantity and diversity of “problems” outlined in the CAB report are evidence of a massive demand and workload for the organisation.

In the year ended March 31, the four bureaux – Peebles, Central Borders (based in Galashiels), Roxburgh (Hawick and Kelso) and Berwickshire (Duns and Eyemouth) – were asked for help with 11,767 debt problems, 6,821 benefit and tax credit problems, 3,124 employment problems, 1,913 housing and homeless problems and 1,055 relationship problems.

The CABs’ 75 trained volunteer advisers who worked 488 hours a week in their local communities, carried out a total of 13,213 interviews by personal visit, telephone, letter or email, helping people with more than 32,000 problems.

“A total of 369 households came to the CABs for help with 1,961 debts totalling nearly £7.5million,” states the report.

“In benefits and tax credits, we gained £1.6million for local people, while Roxburgh CAB won payment for 74 people from employment tribunals.

“The CABs have also advised people about 328 one-off debts, including fuel, child support arrears and bank charges, totalling more than £1million.”

Praise for the volunteers came from Borders CAB chairman Ian Purvis.

“I never fail to be inspired by the way in which our unpaid, but trained, advisers rise to the challenge presented by the increasing demands made upon our advice service in the current economic climate.

“Their willingness to volunteer in this way to help our clients deserves the thanks of our whole Borders community.”

The network has recently been modernised, with the near completion of an electronic case recording system to quickly find the right answers to questions from the public.

The Peebles CAB, currently based in Old Town, is in the process of moving to new offices at the Chambers Institution.

Heather Smith, manager of the Central Borders CAB, highlighted the number of people who had become clinically depressed as a result of their debt problems.

“This makes it very difficult for them to make informed decisions and they can feel swamped, resulting in more work for our advisers.

“There is also an increasing trend of sole-traders, who have put their lives into their struggling businesses, finally having to admit defeat with traumatic effects.”

Ms Smith believed the case was greater than ever for the retention of both the CAB network and the council’s in-house welfare benefit service which, unlike her organisation, was able to deal with benefit appeals.

“Already we are helping people whose benefits have been suspended because, through illness, they have failed to fill in forms,” she revealed. “This has particularly concerned the changeover from Incapacity Benefit to the new Employment and Support Allowance.”