Opinion: Citizens’ advice can save lives during this crisis

The past few weeks have seen the worst cost-of-living crisis in living memory deepen, as energy bills soar and prices in stores continue to outpace wages and benefits.

People are rightly worried, even scared in some cases, about how they will cope in the coming months – this perfect storm follows a pandemic that has weakened our financial resilience.

More than 1.8 million people have seen their finances deteriorate during the pandemic. Even before the April 1 spike, a third of us found our energy bills unaffordable and nearly 500,000 people had cut back on food purchases to meet those bills.

It is outrageous that in 2022 people are faced with the impossible choice of a warm home or food on the table.

We need to see much bolder and more radical actions from policy makers to avert this crisis. The decision to cut Universal Credit by £20 a week last autumn was always the wrong one and now looks incredibly myopic.

Across the country, CABs are helping people through this cost of living crisis every day. Regular readers of this column will know that the Citizens Advice network is over 80 years old. We’ve helped people through generational crises like World War II to the Covid-19 pandemic, and we’re here now.

The problem with this crisis is that it affects everyone in various ways. While energy costs are the main cause, costs are seemingly rising everywhere and revenues are simply not keeping pace.

This is why the CAB Network is such an essential community service. Our approach is person centered, we don’t just solve a problem, we try to help the person through everything.

Life is not black or white and problems do not arise in isolation. CABs understand this – in fact, 4 out of 10 cases they handle are complex and deal with multiple types of advice. Looking at the CAB’s energy cases, for example, we find that nearly half of those needing help also needed advice in 2 or more areas such as housing, universal credit or debt.

What CAB counselors do sometimes can simply be life changing. Help people recognize their rights but also unlock money for people. One in five customers see a financial gain from the CAB network, and on average that gain is worth around £4,400. Imagine the difference that sum of money could make for people faced with this heartbreaking choice between heating or eating.

All of this comes with the empathy and understanding that comes from local people helping their local communities. There is no judgement, just help with free, impartial and confidential advice.

Times change, the Citizens Advice network evolves with it. Not just in terms of the type of advice we provide, but how we provide it. Each month, approximately 200,000 people consult our advice online and 20,000 receive advice from us in person or by telephone. For vulnerable people with complex needs, there is no substitute for face-to-face counselling.

As restrictions ease, Scotland faces a new crisis. The CAB network is there, offering people support in a way that few, if any, other services can truly offer.

Derek Mitchell is CEO of Citizens Advice Scotland