A year on from the first lockdown
How Citizens Advice SORT Group has supported thousands of clients across Stockport, Oldham, Rochdale and Trafford.
Covid19 has impacted us all in numerous ways, causing huge upheaval and change in our daily lives. People have been affected differently, but if you’re young, a person of colour, in a precarious job or private rented housing, you are far more likely to have suffered financially due to the crisis.
The Citizens Advice services across England and Wales have been profoundly affected too, and our service across Stockport, Oldham, Rochdale and Trafford is no different.
On 23rd March, the country went into what people thought would be a short lockdown, and our 80 staff and 77 volunteers started working from their living rooms, dining tables and kitchens to make sure people could still access much-needed help.
How Citizens Advice SORT Group adapted
Citizens Advice was founded the day after World War II broke out to help people with problems ranging from evacuation to rations. As a service and as an organisation, we’ve come a long way in our 81-year history.
Like many other organisations, we saw a considerable increase in demand when the pandemic hit despite our services moving to remote delivery.
Face-to-face advice remains a core part of our service, and we fully expect to deliver services out in our communities when it is safe to do so. In 2020, the national Citizens Advice website had nearly 590,000 visits from residents across Stockport, Oldham, Rochdale and Trafford. We have supported a record number of clients over the phone, some 45,000 — that’s a 41% increase on the previous year, and we have seen a 64% increase in the number of people supported over webchat.
Our team of staff and volunteer colleagues went over and above to make sure people got the advice they needed, despite them all adapting to working in their bedrooms, kitchens and dining rooms.
We took the opportunity to invest in our local online profile. We published regular advice videos on popular topics and shared relevant advice in local groups on Facebook, making it easier for people to access advice in their home. Nearly 120,000 people saw our social media content.
Citizens Advice is one of the most recognisable organisations in the country and is often the place people turn to when they need support. We worked with our partners to ensure communities had access to the help they needed. In Trafford, we partnered with Trafford Council to provide a “one front door” service for residents to access advice, care and support — whatever their issue. In Stockport, the council added our AdviceLine number to their main Covid19 emergency line.
Things have changed
For many years, our most significant enquiry area has been Benefit & Tax Credits, consistently accounting for a large proportion of enquiries across all our channels.
Over the pandemic, and with the phone being the primary way for people to get advice, we saw a substantial increase in the number of enquiries relating to employment. Queries relating to furlough and job security dominated our phone service following the first national lockdown.
I was shielding and unable to work due to my health condition. My employer had put me on sick pay, and I could not manage financially on £95.85 per week.
I received a leaflet through my door with the number for Citizens Advice in Trafford, so I called to see if there was anything I could do. They told me that I was eligible for furlough could increase my weekly income by around £150.
When I spoke to my employer, they didn’t just agree to furlough me but also topped up my pay by 20%, meaning I wasn’t losing out on any money.
Joanne, a Trafford resident
A new area of enquiry over the pandemic was people seeking support on how to access medication and food parcels following the first lockdown — we categorise this as health and community care. In Trafford, we were the local authority’s front door for these types of enquiries putting our service at the heart of the community response, often referring people to vital Covid19 response teams in the community who would support those shielding and unable to leave home for essentials like food and medicine.
My son first contacted my local Citizens Advice because I was shielding. He is a nurse in the NHS, busy working 16-hour shifts. I was struggling to get food, as most of my friends were also shielding.
The local Citizens Advice service phoned me after my son contacted them to let me know that my local supermarket was doing home deliveries for those who were shielding and vulnerable. They provided me with the phone number to call, allowing me to arrange a weekly shopping delivery. They also arrange for an emergency food parcel to be delivered, and it was delivered the same day.
Doris, a resident in Oldham
Our clients have changed — people who have never had to seek advice from Citizens Advice have found themselves needing help finding a way forward.
“We’ve spoken to residents who’ve never used Citizens Advice before, never claimed benefits before, and have had a steady income for years, if not decades. Suddenly, people feel as if the rug’s been pulled from under them and don’t know what to do.”
“We’re here to listen, support and then help them find a way forward, and it’s always rewarding when you hear the relief in someone’s voice at the end of a call.”
Chris, an adviser at Citizens Advice SORT Group
Changing the way we support our colleagues
As an organisation, we employ 80 staff and have 77 volunteers in our service. Despite all the personal and professional challenges Covid19 has presented, they have all worked tirelessly to ensure our services are accessible and that we are there for those who need us.
We are committed to improving our colleague benefits package, supporting both staff and volunteer colleagues to look after their wellbeing, both at home and work.
You can find more information on the latest improvements to our wellbeing package and broader colleague benefit packages here.
We are working with our colleagues and partners to embed the lessons from our new ways of working and make sure we continue to meet the changing needs of our communities.
This means continuing to focus on delivering a multi-channel service that is accessible for all and not losing sight of the progress we have made in developing our phone, webchat and social media platforms and developing new ones.
I was self-employed and unable to work due to coronavirus. When I made a claim for Universal Credit, the DWP told me that because I was a Turkish national and had no recourse to public funds, I wasn’t able to receive any support.
Citizens Advice in Stockport identified that through the Ankara Agreement, I did have a right to public funds. With Citizens Advice’s support, I was able to apply for Universal Credit, receive an advanced payment and was finally able to replace my son’s outgrown clothes.
Ömer, a Stockport resident
Face-to-face advice will remain an essential part of our service in Stockport, Oldham, Rochdale and Trafford, especially for those who are digitally excluded, unable to use the phone due to a condition, disability or impairment or for people with limited English, for example. As restrictions are lifted, we will start to reintroduce face-to-face services for those who need it most.
What comes next?
As the country continues to move forward in a “new normal” environment, for tens of thousands of people, their problems might be only just beginning as they struggle with the knock-on effects of the pandemic — especially as the support measures put in place by the government start to be withdrawn.
Four advice areas we are expecting to see clients need more support are:
- Personal debt — as the full effects of personal finances becomes clearer. Those who have fallen behind on their payments start receiving demand letters. We expect the trend for debt advice to continue to rise.
- Housing and homelessness — Research from Citizens Advice shows that over half a million people in private rented housing were behind on their rent in January. Many will be forced to leave their homes when the current protections for tenants come to an end.
- Employment — as restrictions ease and businesses reopen, the full extent of their financial situation will be realised, and redundancies might be needed to ensure businesses are viable into the future. Residents will need support to navigate the confusing processes around redundancy, ensuring any processes are fair.
- Benefits and Universal Credit — the prospect of rising unemployment in particular sectors like travel and tourism means that more people will need to apply for benefits like Universal Credit or New Style Job Seekers Allowance.
In these, still, uncertain times, one thing is clear; our communities and residents will continue to need advice and support to overcome their problems, and their local Citizens Advice service will remain accessible to provide independent and trusted advice to help them find a way forward.
Citizens Advice Rochdale helped me when I was about to be made homeless. I was out of work due to the pandemic and found myself in a desperate situation with no money to support my children.
As an EU National with pre-settled status, I was refused Universal Credit.
Citizens Advice helped me to complete a mandatory reconsideration and appeal. They also put me in contact with social services and my local authority for support. Both appeals failed, but Citizens Advice continued to support me, encouraging me to seek new employment to access benefits.
In time, I was able to secure a new job. The team helped me to apply for Universal Credit again and to access Local Authority housing. I was awarded Universal Credit and remain in employment today. We now have our own home. I’m so thankful for everything Citizens Advice has done for us.
Lena — a Rochdale resident