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Citizens Advice Stevenage Debt Project
The last day of January will be the busiest day of the year for people seeking help with their debts, predicts Citizens Advice Stevenage.

Analysis of data from the past twelve months shows that on 31st January 2017, Citizens Advice helped 2,800 people across the UK - 30% above the daily average. This means that one person sought help from Citizens Advice every ten seconds!

Locally, Citizens Advice Stevenage, an independent charity based in the town centre, has seen an increase during the month of January, but demand for money advice is always high throughout the year.

Citizens Advice is a highly respected charity offering advice on a wide range of issues, such as consumer problems, housing, employment, relationship, welfare benefits and of course debt. Those with money problems are referred to the ‘Get out of debt, stay out of debt’ project which is run by two specialist debt advisers, Mascha Collier and Clare Wilson, and 5 debt volunteer advisers.

“The project is very successful”, says Andy Rice, recently appointed CEO. “In the first 18 months of the project we helped 405 clients. We increased their income by nearly £100,000 and helped write off debts of more than £325,000. ” Debts can be tackled in a variety of ways: through bankruptcies or Debt Relief Orders (a lighter form of bankruptcy for those on low income with debts of less than £20,000) for clients with no spare income; or via debt management plans or Individual Voluntary Arrangements for those who do have some money spare.

“The post Christmas spending hangover is of course a factor this time of year”, Mascha says. “Families spent too much over the festive season and now the credit card statements are hitting the doormat.”

However, for many households the financial problems run much deeper. Usually there is a crisis that causes a family to fall behind on payments. Common triggers are the loss of a job,  illness or a relationship breakdown. Domestic abuse is also a frequent factor.

“Being in debt can be embarrassing and very stressful”, says Clare. “Clients often struggle on for five or more years sinking further into debt before finally seeking help. The final straw is often when the landlord threatens with eviction or the bailiffs are sent round to collect council tax. Not everybody realises that enforcement agents are allowed to add charges to a bill, which can add hundreds of pounds to a debt”.

The link between long-term debt and mental health is well documented. At Citizens Advice, the project is confronted daily with the impact of problem debt. “Clients are weighed down by the burden of debt for years. Often they can’t see a way out and are totally overwhelmed. The most common reaction is to bury heads in the sand and hope the debt will go away”. This of course rarely happens. Instead, those in debt are subjected to constant demands for money, via daily phone calls, text messages and many letters, adding to the stress of being in debt- 4 in 5 clients say that our advice “improved my life”; 70% said they felt “less stressed”.

One in four of Citizens Advice Stevenage’s clients is in full-time employment, but 47% have an income of less than £600.  And 39% report a disability or long-term health problem. 77% of clients say that they could not have solved their problem without our help.

Any debt can be problem, even if the amount is relatively low”, explains Mascha. “Most clients have debts of at least £2,500, but more commonly between £5,000 and £20,000. The highest amount we have dealt with to date was £115,000 of debt, run up by a client with a young family who for years tried to keep his unsuccessful business afloat by borrowing on credit cards. We helped him apply for bankruptcy.”

Clare adds: “A few years ago it was all credit card and payday loan debts. Now we see clients who are in low-paid employment and who are struggling to pay essential bills, such as rent, council tax, food, gas and electricity. We regularly send clients to the foodbank to help them survive.”

Take Helen* for example. An abusive partner forced her to take out multiple credit cards and used them to spend in her name. By the time the relationship ended, she had debts of more than £40,000. For nearly 15 years she tried to pay back this huge debt out of her modest wages. When she left work and could no longer afford the repayments, creditors responded with an onslaught of phone calls and letters demanding payment. The pressure led her to become clinically depressed and reclusive. She barely left the house and avoided speaking to people. Eventually she sought our help. It took many hours of work but Citizens Advice persuaded a number of creditors to write off the debts. Once the total debt dropped below £20,000, we were able to apply for a Debt Relief Order.  Although Helen is still battling mental health issues, resolving her debt problems has made a big difference: “I have some hope for the future again thanks to the help that Citizens Advice gave me. They’ve been absolutely brilliant.”  

Citizens Advice Stevenage drop-in service runs Mon, Tue, Thu, Fri 10am till 3:30pm.

To offer the breadth and depth of advice that they do, Citizens Advice relies on an group of dedicated and passionate volunteers. As austerity bites ever harder, demand on their services is increasing. They are therefore looking for more volunteers to come forwards to be trained as advisors, to help on reception, or simply to fundraise.

If you’re interested, please visit www.stevenagecab.org.uk

Or call 01438 722126

*Name changed for purposes of confidentiality

Article Credit: Mascha Collier
National impact from our campaign and research work
A review of January 2018:

It's been a busy start to the year for our national research and campaigns work.
The Prime Minister's reshuffle saw several Ministers on the move. Esther McVey was appointed Work and Pensions Secretary and CA had a positive first meeting on Universal Credit last week. Our focus now is to establish relationships with many of the new Ministers including those who lead on disability, money advice and energy prices. We're a significant step closer to strengthening tenants' rights after the government backed a Bill to protect renters living in unsafe homes - something we’ve long been calling for. Every local Citizens Advice helped make the case for the Bill by writing to over 90 MPs asking them to support it. The Bill passed its biggest hurdle - the second reading - and the debate in Parliament included several mentions of Citizens Advice including praise from the Bill's sponsor Karen Buck MP. Last but by no means least, Big Energy Saving Week kicked off this week. Nationally we arranged a seriously impressive 432 events, and it's been great to see the stories on Twitter of people across the country saving hundreds of pounds on their energy bills.
We've launched our new Business Strategy

Our New Business Strategy

We are delighted to have launched our new Business Strategy for 2017 to 2022. This five year plan was developed by our staff, volunteers, Board, and through consultation and information received from external stakeholders and clients.

It's an ambitious plan, which has four key objectives:

1. Advice - We want to continue to help more people in a more effective way

2. Voice - We want to become a stronger voice for our clients

3. Sustainable - We want to ensure that the organisation becomes more sustainable, in these tough economic times

4. Partnership - We want to ensure that we keep working closer with our partners to tackle the issues our clients are facing, and create new partnerships which will help our clients further

Our clients have told us that we have a strong, well-trusted brand, and we are proud to be a part of the Citizens Advice network. We have a strong history of delivering life changing advice to residents of Stevenage, and year on year we have worked tirelessly to improve the lives of people in the town. We know that we could not do this alone - we have fantastic support from Stevenage Borough Council, and a variety of other funders, without who we couldn't operate. We also have a superb team of staff and volunteers, currently 25 staff members and around 70 volunteers. Again, without these, we simply would not be here.

We believe though, that our advice has never been more important. We are in the midst of a programme of welfare reform which is radically changing the way in which the benefits system interacts with people, as well as what they are entitled to. Without us, many people would have nowhere to turn. We are also seeing an increasingly tough funding environment, one in which grant funding is becoming much more difficult to come by. The challenge for us is very clear - how can we continue helping more people in a more effective way, in such a tricky funding environment? Our strategy sets out how we are going to go about this over the next five years. Better use of technology, better partnership working, and empowering our clients to take action on the issues they face. Currently, we know we solve 2 in every 3 problems our clients bring to us - we're confident we can increase this even further. It may be tough times for charities, but we think they can be exciting ones too.

Thanks for reading, and remember you can read the full strategy document here