Face-to-face debt advice services in Northamptonshire could be 'completely lost' after proposed funding changes take effect

The Money and Pensions Service says it is prioritising accessibility across the board despite some protests

Friday, 26th November 2021, 8:40 am

In-person debt advise could be massively reduced in Northamptonshire, following a proposed decision by the Money and Pension Service (MaPS) to reallocate funds.

The alarm was raised in a briefing sent to councillors after MaPS announced a transition from in-person debt support to more accessible, if less personable means like phone lines and online.

While some in-person services remain, concerns have been raised that it is not enough.

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Left to right: Debt advice manager Paul Sheppard, Julie Silver and Andrew Lewer MP.

Julie Silver, chief executive of Community Law Service Northampton wrote the briefing on the Impact of MaPS' proposed changes to the funding of debt advice provision, which is planned from April 2022.

The Community Law Service is an independent specialist advice agency in Northamptonshire which provides countywide casework and representation in areas like debt, welfare, benefits, debt, housing and immigration. Their main focus is on disadvantaged households.

Mrs Silver says that MaPS funding currently covers 96 percent of the service's funding for debt support, with only four percent covered by grant money from local authorities.

This means the proposed changes could cripple the service in future, and cost twelve people, including eight debt advisors, their jobs.

Mrs Silver is especially concerned by the timing of the decision, which would see funding diverted at a time of rising prices on fuel and the recent reduction of Universal Credit by £20 per week.

The added financial strain is predicted to lead more people into debt and thus more debt support will also be needed.

She said: "MaPS need to reconsider their plans and fully assess their impact on the clients we support and on organisatons like ours on whom local people and agencies rely.

"Enough studies have been done to verify the link between ill health, particularly mental health, and debt.

"It is unfathomable that MaPS would make changes to debt advice funding, which would have such a disastrous effect on people’s health and well being and on the agencies who provide them with the support they need."

The chief executive has found support in high places, after appealing to long-term supporter Andrew Lewer, MP for Northampton South.

He said: “It means that some of my constituents in Northampton South could well lose out in their time of urgent financial crisis.

“I have a long and close relationship with Community Law Service and have seen first-hand, not only their professionalism and dedication, but also the vital safety net it provides around specialist debt advice.

"Although, not their intention, there is a real risk these new tendering and structural arrangements will unravel the face-to-face service.

"That is why I have written to the chief executive of the Money and Pensions Service Caroline Siarkiewicz, asking her to pause these changes and re look at them.”

The MaPS has, however, assured those concerned that quality will remain consistent across the service, despite the changes.

The service said it will be continuing provisions for in-person support for those who need it, with an emphasis on time spent with each client, as opposed to sheer numbers.

Craig Simmons, head of debt policy and strategy at the Money and Pensions Service, said: “Under the current legacy system of grants to regional and national providers, debt advice is delivered through a mix of face-to-face, phone and online services. Evidence shows client outcomes are comparable across all channels.

“Our research also tells us that many people, including some vulnerable groups, want and need debt advice via remote channels such as telephone or online, and we have also reflected this in our commissioning requirements.

“Once we have announced the outcome of the procurement exercise in the New Year we will be able to provide more information and clarity for debt advisers."