"So many families were also struggling emotionally and psychologically with the loss of freedom and social support."
Citizens Advice Edinburgh (CAE) delivers free, confidential and impartial advice on areas including welfare benefits, debt and money advice, housing, and employment. Our services are holistic, locally delivered, and open to all. We aim to ensure that no individual experiences disadvantage through lack of knowledge of their rights and responsibilities. In 2019/20, we supported 13,174 unique clients and achieved 5.95 million pounds in client financial gain. Advice was delivered from 5 Bureaux, via our team of over 150 committed volunteers, and by staff employed at outreach locations such as Community Centres, GP Practices, and Job Centres.
In 2015 CAE began a partnership with NHS Lothian Health Promotion, to deliver advice to patients, carers and staff in the Western General Hospital and Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh – the Welfare Rights & Health Project. From the outset, huge demand for advice was apparent in this setting: the onset of illness or injury not only impacted people’s health; it affected their finances, housing situation, and ability to work. Providing advice immediately on site could prevent a deterioration of their circumstances, reducing strain on community services and improving patients’ health and wellbeing – even assisting their recovery. Between 2015 and 2019, the service saw 1136 clients and helped individuals to obtain over £1.4 million in welfare entitlement.
In 2020, the arrival of COVID-19 threatened CAE’s ability to operate, at a time when its services were more in demand than ever. We were forced to rapidly develop our IT infrastructure, training, and processes, to enable all our staff and volunteers to work remotely. We offered multi-channel advice via phone, email, and in person, when it was necessary and safe to do so.
In March, our staff had no option but to withdraw from the hospitals. The unprecedented health crisis had multiple effects: more people were becoming ill, increasing the number of potential service users; hospital staff were focused on providing urgent medical care, limiting their capacity to refer patients for advice; and our staff had no presence on site, reducing their visibility to colleagues.
We responded by equipping staff to work from home, and quickly ensuring that all project stakeholders knew that the service would continue and how they could now access it. Advice would be provided by phone and email, instead of in person. As COVID-19 began to affect an increasing number of people, demand for advice grew. Businesses were shuttered, employees forced into reduced hours or redundancy; people struggled to access the welfare system for the first time; many attempted to preserve their financial stability by renegotiating debt, or taking mortgage holidays, but did not know how to; others could not afford their rent and were unsure of their housing rights. As the Government stepped in to prevent job losses and evictions, our clients needed up to date information about the rapidly evolving mitigation schemes, such as furlough. This was particularly vital when so many families were also struggling emotionally and psychologically with the loss of freedom and social support inflicted by lockdown, and with an ever-present threat to their health.
CAE’s flexible response ensured that staff and clients got the support they needed. Since the crisis began, no client referred has been discharged into the community without receiving advice and assistance. In the most recent Quarter, 421 contacts were made with 119 new clients – the same number of individuals we supported in the Quarter preceding the pandemic. Vulnerable clients accessed £246,451 of vital financial support. Despite the logistical challenges faced: how to share information safely and securely when off site; the absence of face to face contact with colleagues or clients; and difficulties completing, sharing and signing documents; the advisers succeeded in completing tasks quickly and effectively. This was only possible because of the dedication, perseverance and creativity of our team. Above all, their motivation for working in the Third Sector is to make a positive difference to the lives of fellow citizens in a time of need. They have achieved this by genuinely listening to and understanding their clients, and by finding new, flexible ways to engage. This has set the service apart in its ability to support individuals when they need it most.
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Written by Mark Carter, Citizens Advice Edinburgh.