Everyone needs good advice, whoever you are.

Citizens Advice calls for regulators to take action as it reveals loyalty can cost customers

Customers who stay loyal to their essential service providers could be paying £987 more per year - equivalent to four months’ worth of food for the average household - new research from Citizens Advice reveals.

The report found that charging loyal customers more than new customers for the same service is a common practice across six key markets: energy, mobile, broadband, home insurance, fixed rate mortgages and savings accounts.

Yet a new survey shows more than 9 in 10 people said they think providers of essential services should charge loyal customers the same or less than new customers.

Citizens Advice is calling on regulators to set targets to reduce the number of people who pay the loyalty penalty, and investigate solutions for vulnerable customers.

It is also calling on the Competition and Markets Authority to investigate the cross-cutting impact of the loyalty penalty, with a focus on vulnerable consumers.  

Citizens Advice has found evidence across all six markets that providers use unfair tactics that take advantage of consumers’ behaviours and deter them from finding a better deal. This includes contracts with complex terms and conditions, lack of notice when a contract ends, and financial barriers to exit a contract.

The most susceptible group to pay a higher price for the same service because of their loyalty in all six markets analysed by Citizens Advice were people aged 65 and older. Other affected groups included those people on low incomes or without a university education.

Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

“It is unacceptable that consumers who stick with their existing provider of important services like energy and broadband are being penalised for their loyalty.Companies routinely use tactics that take advantage of human behaviour - and regulators are letting them get away with it.

“That’s why regulators need to take action by setting targets to reduce the number of loyal customers who pay over the odds, and investigating solutions for vulnerable customers.

“The upcoming Consumer Green Paper is an opportunity for government to show they are on the side of the consumer by protecting them from unfair practices that exploit their loyalty.”

Citizens Advice Stevenage Debt Project featured in Comet Article
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
New funding- better service

Citizens Advice Stevenage today announced a renewed call for volunteers following the injection of additional funding from the National Lottery. Citizens Advice Stevenage were awarded just under £10,000 to help improve the customer experience of their service to Stevenage clients.

“We receive exceptional support from the Borough Council” commented new CEO, Andy Rice, “but such is the demand for our services, we are always looking for new funding to improve our clients’ experience and to broaden the reach and depth of the advice we are able to give. Currently, alongside our core free, confidential, independent and impartial advice service, we offer specialist advice on debt, employment, energy, pensions, family, domestic abuse, and welfare benefits. We need new volunteers to help us serve the growing need in the town.”

Citizens Advice Stevenage is an independent charity supported by the local authority and community support contracts. It provides advice and education to solve individuals’ problems. It helps people find a way forward, and develops the skills to prevent a similar scenario arising again. It also champions research and campaigns using data to understand the impact of policy and regulation- then campaigns for policy change to solve collective problems. Their services are delivered through the 79 volunteers, and a small, dedicated paid staff. The last audit showed they helped one in every 8 Stevenage citizens.

To volunteer with them get in touch with Stacey the volunteer co-ordinator by email recruitment@castevenage.org.uk. Stacey will be happy to talk you through the vast array of volunteering opportunities available. 

To contact them for advice call on 03444 111 444, email or drop in, details of which can be found on the website www.stevenagecab.org.uk/
Citizens Advice Stevenage recruits new Chief Executive
Citizens Advice Stevenage today announced the appointment of Andy Rice to the position of Chief Executive Officer. Rice joins from Cambridge social enterprise Form the Future CIC, where he was Head of Business Development. Of the appointment, Chair of Trustee Board, David Chenery commented, “We are delighted to welcome Andy to Citizens Advice Stevenage, who brings with him a great amount of experience and a number of ideas on how we can continue moving the service forward. Andy has a strong track record and we look forward to working with him to execute our ambitious business strategy.”

Rice has punctuated a successful media career with Future Plc and the Press Association with spells at international charities supporting street children in Brazil; orphans in Guatemala and ‘left behind’ children in China. He brings with him significant Board level experience and a track record of diversifying revenue streams. “I am delighted to be able to pick up the gauntlet of growing our advice service to the Stevenage community despite facing a challenging funding environment” said Rice. “Daniel has laid some tremendous foundations for me, the staff and our brilliant team of volunteers to build on. Citizens Advice Stevenage has a clear vision of how it will continue to be a key, valued, core service to the community. It’s my job to make sure that the wider team (and we could always do with more volunteers) has the tools it needs to deliver on our impact measures, and to shout from the roof-tops about the very real difference we are making to social mobility here. When anyone in the Stevenage area stumbles, I want us to be there to help them get up.”

Citizens Advice Stevenage is an independent charity supported predominantly by Stevenage Borough Council and by securing community support contracts. It provides advice and education to solve individuals’ problems. It helps people find a way forward, and develops the skills to prevent a similar scenario arising again. It also champions research and campaigns using data to understand the impact of policy and regulation- then campaigns for policy change to solve collective problems. Their services are delivered through the 79 volunteers, and 23 paid staff. 

To contact them for advice, or to volunteer, get in touch on 03444 111444 or visit the website, www.stevenagecab.org.uk