‘Sun forces charity to ditch rip-off helplines’‘(headline on the Sun newspaper website 07 April 2014). Do they mean Citizens Advice?. Well, yes it seems they do.
Imagine a 63 year old man – let’s call him Jim (an entirely fictitious character, so any resemblance to anyone alive or dead is coincidental) – calling a bureau clearly upset because he had been told by his employer that he was not entitled to Statutory Sick Pay even though he had worked in the same job for many years and had been given a medical certificate by his GP. The CAB adviser answering the phone will ask Jim a series of questions about himself and his circumstances which Jim might feel are not relevant. However, the adviser needs a complete picture of Jim’s situation in order to give him the best advice. This is called a Gateway assessment
CAB advisers are volunteers who give up their time freely to help people. Advisers will also have spent time undergoing training so that they can give clients up to date and accurate advice. Most come into a bureau one day a week so that the next time Jim calls, he is likely to be dealing with a different adviser. However, because each adviser keeps careful records of what happens in each case Jim will find that whoever he deals with will quickly be able to call up his computer case record.
So, back to Jim who is still on the phone. He might feel concerned that although the advice he receives is free as well as being confidential, independent and impartial, this phone call is costing him just under 5p per minute from a landline – it could be a lot more from a mobile. This is something Citizens Advice has been aware of for a while and is carrying out a programme nationwide to improve the phone service and make it cheaper at the point of delivery. However, Citizens Advice is a charity and it takes time and money to introduce changes which affect more than three hundred bureaux across the country. The recent announcement that cheaper 03 numbers will replace 0844 numbers is part of this process.
Jim is still talking to the Gateway assessor who is trained to quickly assess his situation. It seems Jim has received a letter from the local council (his landlord because he lives in a council house) telling him that he has rent arrears of more than three hundred pounds. He also has unopened letters from his gas and electricity suppliers which he knows will probably about the money he owes them. He admits that he has no money to buy food.
Jim’s difficulties started when his wife died suddenly three years ago. He still feels upset by her death and after being persuaded by a neighbour agreed to go to the doctor and was signed off as suffering from anxiety and depression. His wife had been employed in a shop and as well as losing her income at the time of her death he had accepted an offer of part time work from his employer which further reduced his income made it impossible to make ends meet.
Jim called the bureau with a query about his sick pay entitlement. The bureau has discovered that his situation is much more serious and that he will need a lot of help
The Gateway assessor decides that this case requires urgent attention and is able to make a full advice appointment for Jim to visit the bureau that afternoon. This is not always possible and if a face to face appointment had not been available an adviser would have called Jim on the phone to discuss his options.
The adviser he meets
- calls the Local Assistance Scheme (which is administered by the local County Council) to secure a payment of twenty five pounds to meet his immediate requirements
- gives him a voucher for a food parcel
- confirms he is not entitled to Statutory Sick Pay because his earnings for the most recent two months are less than the National Insurance Lower Limit
- advises him to claim Income Based Employment and Support Allowance (another appointment is made to help him to complete the application from and make sure he has the necessary evidence)
- calls the housing options team at the council to explain that Jim will be applying for Housing Benefit backdated for six months
- advises Jim to apply for a one bedroomed council house because he currently lives alone in a three bedroomed house and would be subject to a reduction in Housing Benefit (the Bedroom Tax). If there are no one bedroomed properties available, Jim may qualify for a Discretionary Hosuing Payment
- calls the gas and electricity suppliers to explain that Jim is dealing with his situation
- gives Jim a debt pack so he can begin to assess his income and expenditure and (with help from an adviser) agree a schedule to repay his priority debts.
All in a day’s work – Jims’s case is typical. Providing advice to help people overcome complex difficulties is what t0 Citizens Advice does. How many people like Jim has the Sun helped today?