There have been unprecedented changes on a nationwide scale in recent years. Both the implementation of legal aid cuts and welfare reform (including Universal Credit) have created the ‘perfect storm’ for some of the most vulnerable of people in the UK today. As a result of these changes, Advice North Somerset conducted an Advice Needs Analysis (follow these links to the Executive Summary and Full Report ) to see whether the estimate of Social Welfare Law (SWL) advice need was being met by the current provision. The main findings concluded that there was a shortfall of over £300,000 per annum between SWL advice need and current SWL advice provision.
With these changes in mind, it is essential that the appropriate level of SWL advice is provided to those who need it and at the right time; it gives vulnerable people access to their rights and allows them to be treated fairly. Not only is it a social responsibility that people who need it should have access to appropriate SWL advice, it also makes economic sense. A study carried out by the University of Bath (in collaboration with Citizens Advice Bureau, Bath & North East Somerset) demonstrated that the social and economic return of investment in SWL advice services has been conservatively estimated as £33 for every £1 over a 5-year period.
Conversely, without the timely intervention of appropriate SWL advice, issues can snowball out of hand and have a much bigger impact to the individual and those around them. For example, an unresolved debt can quickly escalate into much more serious issues such as county court judgements, bailiffs at the door and even imprisonment. What should also not be forgotten is that these issues affect the whole household, including spouses, partners and the children. Looking on an even wider scale, the community is affected not only from a societal perspective, but also from an economic one as the costs of dealing with issues that are not resolved at an earlier stage are ultimately more costly to the public purse.
Issues relating to lack of SWL advice can also have wider implications that go beyond these direct costs. From a health perspective, there are many issues that can be attributed to increased stress as a result of not receiving appropriate SWL advice. These issues can range from lack of sleep to more serious issues such as anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. All these negative effects on well-being have an impact on the individual, on their families and to the wider community. Moreover, there are bigger costs to the public purse, such as sick days and NHS treatments that could have otherwise been avoided.
Whilst it is important to raise the awareness of these findings, it is equally as important to try and bridge the gap where possible. There are a number of ways this can be achieved. The first is to help fortify the knowledge of support organisations and their workers, who already do a great job with building relationships with the service users. Advice North Somerset is offering free training until the end of the funding for the project (September 2015) on a range of different topics for these types of organisations. This empowers and enables both the support workers to know where they can go for accurate information as well as where advice is available from local and national resources. It also provides an opportunity to empower service users to use self-help tools to resolve manageable issues.
With the movement towards the digitisation of services, IT provision is extremely important, especially for those members of the public without access to IT. With this in mind, Advice North Somerset recently launched the Go4IT scheme, designed to provide IT equipment for organisations who can help their service users claim benefits online. The deadline for the first round of applications has passed, but a second round will be open in the near future.
The shortfall recognised by this analysis is a real problem for North Somerset, so it is important for the key decision makers and policy makers in the authority to recognise this. However, it is also important that solutions are recognised (such as those explored here) to try and bridge the gap and provide the best advice possible for those most in need.