Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The good work of the Citizens Advice Bureau in Penzance, my visit last week

I was very grateful to be invited to the Citizens Advice Bureau in Penzance and to learn more about their work last week. It was a great insight into the kind of problems people in the St Ives constituency, gratitude to Phil Jacobson the Social Policy Co-ordinator for showing me the statistics and answering my questions. Congratulations to the CAB for taking the lead and inviting candidates from all parties to come along and find out about the issues that face the CAB and the people they help, I certainly hope all of the other candidates take this opportunity.

It's been a long time since I have been into a CAB and had to ask them for help (thankfully), but I know they do good work and I know they offer great advice and point people in the right direction and help those most in need and often with nowhere else to turn, in this regard it seems little has changed. That's not to say that the issues people go to the CAB for help about remain static. The amount of benefit cases rises every year and goes to show the impact that Coalition 'reforms' have had on people's lives. Particularly the ATOs Work Capability regime, which is widely reported to be overly harsh and punitive.

The statistics reveal that debt is the most common issue and in the St Ives Constituency 3,489 problems were dealt with, followed by benefits 2,122 problems, employment 406 and housing 310. Obviously government policies (or lack thereof) vitally effect these issues and people's lives. Debt is very troubling not only does it represent 47% of cases locally but it also outstrips the Cornwall average of 42% of cases. We might draw the conclusion that being the lowest paid constituency in Cornwall accounts for our difference.

It was also interesting to learn of the challenges facing the CAB locally. As with all organisations budget cuts hit them to and funding from government (e.g. in 2013 for Legal Services Commission) is decreasing. Although the annual Performance and Impact Report for CAB Cornwall reveals a healthy financial situation for the charity. It is easy to imagine how cuts to funding and increased demand puts pressure on the CAB's work. Especially when Cornwall Council itself is cutting front line staff and rumours abound that here in Penzance the benefits advice desk at the Council's One Stop Shop will close. Where will this people turn?

I was also intrigued to learn more about the CAB's role in influencing policy and trying to make a difference. Certainly they are in a prime position to know what the pressing issues are and what needs to be done to deal with them. Across the UK the CAB tries to influence party policy and I certainly think their 'Citizens Manifesto' and their document 'Manifesto Sentences Citizen's Advice Would Like to See' are both very good documents and reveal some great policies. Some they'd like parties to be pledging in the short term such as "We will ask the Low Pay Commission to consider how the National Minimum Wage can increase back to the real-terms value it held prior to the financial crash." and some for the longer term: "We will ensure that no household on a low income should have to live in a cold home (measured below Energy Performance Certificate level C) by 2025." Both documents available here and a must read for politicians.

I'll finish with a quick request, the Citizen's Advice Bureau does great work, they are a charity and they rely on volunteers. If you can help them either with a donation or to volunteer, click this link to go to their website, thanks.

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