By Lynn Malone
Scotland is at war – at war with poverty caused by welfare reform and the UK government's threats to impose further pain on those already suffering. George Osborne threatens further cuts, warning of another £25bn to be slashed after the next election and promises greater austerity from his government.
Newsnet Scotland has been given a unique insight into those who are most at risk, the vulnerable, the compulsory poor, and crucially, those who are fighting on their behalf.
In the coming weeks we will hear from those on the frontline, the people left to pick up the pieces, the workers at the Citizens Advice Bureau, (CAB). We will hear from one of the busiest in Glasgow, Greater Pollock.
The Money Charity, a body that produces monthly summaries of the financial situation facing Britons, has revealed the average household in the UK owes almost £55,000 (including mortgages) in debt. They say that £163 million was the daily amount of interest paid on personal debt in November, with the average household owing just over £6,000 (excluding mortgages). Every five minutes someone is declared insolvent or bankrupt.
The Money Advice Support Worker at Greater Pollok CAB deals with the downturn, the debts and the people who flock daily seeking help. People queue for many hours before the bureau opens, which is manned by paid staff and volunteers, to access the service which offers free confidential and impartial advice.
Gavin Dempster has an air of authority that comes only with experience. The 47-year-old has worked with CAB for 16 years and in Greater Pollok for seven.
People come to Mr Dempster because their income is so meagre they can't buy food or heat, some are facing illness and disability, are jobless and facing homelessness. Many are distraught at having racked up payday loans in order to survive. His caseload is heavy as are most in bureau. There are, simply, just too many people needing help.
He helps with financial issues such as checking people are receiving their full entitlement to tax credits and other benefits, a crucial part of his job in the current climate of cuts. There is no discrimination when it comes to debt; it's evident that many people are suffering: "We get young, old and single people; those who are bereaved or divorced– It's all across the board. Some come in to see us in a very bad state. Many are frightened, isolated and ashamed." he said.
There is the suggestion that some clients are on the brink. Many have hidden letters from their partners, family, and friends but critically, people are hiding debt from themselves. No surprise when we discover the reason that most people are in debt is simply to eat. They often have to make to the decision to heat or eat as a direct result of welfare reform.
Mr Dempster explains how issues like the Bedroom Tax have taken their toll.
He said: "Because of the Bedroom Tax there are more people with rent arrears – that's the knock on effect of welfare reform. It's causing people to go to payday lenders to cover their arrears and Bedroom Tax. The effect of these things is still filtering through as we speak. We have to look at the bigger picture. People have no choice but to borrow like this, the government; government agencies and current policy are forcing people into this."
People are increasingly finding themselves in debt because of sanctions, the government deterrent where benefit is withdrawn for reasons such as leaving a job or for to failing to attend an interview with a jobcentre advisor. Many have mortgage or social housing arrears, and consumer debt including payday loans; the list is endless.
The problem is so bad that Greater Pollock, who have outreach clinics and provide home visits to more vulnerable clients, are finding that other agencies are increasingly making client referrals.
There can be a six week wait but they will take emergencies depending on how bad the situation is. Like hospitals they employ a triage system. If a person is facing a crisis such as eviction or repossession then no matter how busy they are they will see them – no matter how long it takes.
Mr Dempster is aware of the psychological effects of this, saying: "They are just glad to unburden themselves - at last. So it's is very important to take the worry off their shoulders at this point and let them know they have came to a place where they can get help. It's important not to be seen as judging them.
"We may be able to put a stop on procedures until we can deal with the bigger problem and give much needed breathing space for clients." A hidden part of the service that is crucial.
Most people just want out, they are sometimes showing signs of depression and need a solution. CAB is able to check to see what the best option is for a client depending on their circumstances.
But Mr Dempster worries that some commercial companies may exploit the psychological effect debt engenders. Some people who have a level of debt they can't cope with experience shame and the knee jerk reaction is to contact anyone advertising to help.
An example is the Debt Arrangement Scheme (DAS). A statutory programme set up by the Scottish government to provide those in debt with a means of paying off what they owe over a longer period of time without resorting to declaring insolvency.
Mr Dempster explains: "We can give tailor made advice to people and the most important thing about that is that advice is free. Under the DAS Scotland the biggest part of that industry is that people charge a fee for attempting to do what we do for free. And we can do the follow up work and the additional work and the benefit checks. I think a lot of the fee chargers are warehousing it, so it's really dealing with the paperwork rather than the individual.
"If someone is put into a debt arrangement scheme/debt payment plan it makes money for the people who are acting as the payment distributors, as in the people who are getting the cash and the fee chargers.
"Whether it's the best debt strategy for them or not, in that if they think that maybe a sequestration might be the better option for a client they won't get any money for that. There's nothing to stop them charging £100 in addition to the monthly debt payment plan payment. So I would be concerned it was necessarily the best option for the client."
There is no argument that CAB offers a more holistic approach. Experience has proven that the preferable method of giving advice is a face to face interview. "The adviser is in situ to clearly examine any paperwork or legal documents to provide informed advice to overcome limitations that are placed on the advice by a telephone advice based provider."
He added: "It also allows the adviser to advocate with third parties by obtaining mandates of authority from the client that cannot be obtained by advisers via the telephone, and humanises the advice giving process, giving clients with disabilities and communication issues access to service that would not be afforded via the telephone.
"We work in partnership with the client to make sure they take everything in – empower them by telling what they have to do, giving them choices."
Often press and publicity campaigns through DAS Scotland advise that people speak to their local CAB but Mr Dempster adds: "The fact is we are only as good as the availability of the funding, to actually be able to get people in is dependent on it. We could do with two more money advisors because of the increasing problems of debt caused by the economic downturn and welfare reform."
It's all about the money.