Agenda item

Presentation by the Citizen's Advice Bureau (CAB) (Agenda Item 6)

Mandy Lewis, Bureau Manager Mid Norfolk and David Potten, Acting Chief Executive, Norfolk Citizens Advice have been invited to inform Members how the grant money provided by Breckland Council has been spent.



Mel Jones, Bureau Manager, Citizens Advice Diss, Thetford & District gave a short presentation.  David Potten, acting Chief Executive and Mandy Lewis, Bureau Manager Mid Norfolk were in attendance to answer questions.


There were three bureaux in Norfolk and in Breckland there were offices in Thetford, Dereham, Watton, Swaffham and Attleborough.  The bureau offered independent, unbiased advice and dealt with a range of problems including debt, housing, benefits and employment issues and also offered advice on relationship and legal issues.  Their main sources of funding were Norfolk County Council (NCC) and District Councils.


Details were given about the number of clients helped in the District and the number of issues addressed.  Issues were often inter-related such as the breakdown of relationships leading to homelessness, job loss, etc.  The reduction in the number of other charities offering help and also in the availability of legal aid had led to increased demand on the CAB.  They dealt with an increasing number of disabled clients. 


The introduction of Universal Credit in March 2018 in the District would bring more problems, and the CAB were preparing and training for that. 


Q: What problems was Universal Credit (UC) expected to bring?

A: The biggest issue was the six-week waiting time from first application until payment.  Private landlords could not wait that long for rent and evicted people.    People needed to be made aware that they could get advanced payments on their benefits (to be paid back over a six month period). 


Q: How were elderly people, who could not travel or use the internet, to engage with UC? 

A:  The effects of UC should be minimal on that age group.


Q: Where in the District was the grant money provided by the Council being spent and what was it being spent on?

A: Information could be provided to Ward level.


Q: How often were the bureaux open?

A:        Thetford 3 days a week but looking at a fourth day

            Dereham 3 days a week

            Watton one morning a week,

            Swaffham one day a week,

            Attleborough two days a week.


It was noted that client numbers referred to new visits not repeat visitors.


Q: The towns were working towards being dementia friendly.  Were bureau staff dementia trained?

A: Staff were trained in mental health but not specifically about dementia.  They would welcome dementia training if it was available. 


Q: There was often a mental health element to issues and the District was very poorly served by mental health teams.  How did the CAB overcome that?

A: The bureaux were seeing increasing numbers with mental health issues.  Many clients were geographically isolated with no access to the internet.  Transport was also a problem.  Sometimes mental health issues could be alleviated by good advice.


Q:  Did the ARP help the CAB?

A: It was very helpful to work in partnership with the ARP. 


Q: Does the CAB have access to the Council’s policies re Housing etc.

A:  Yes.


Q: The Dashboard information provided on the Agenda showed a large amount of contacts by letter/mail, but not e-mail.  Was that correct?

A: The figures included letters written by the bureaux on behalf of clients.


Q: The number of clients in Dereham was as high as in Thetford which was the District’s area of most serious deprivation.  What was causing the increase in Dereham numbers?

A: The numbers had been on a par for some time, but Dereham was getting busier.  The increase might be linked to the migrant community spreading out.  In Thetford it was a struggle to get volunteers.  Dereham was able to deal with 10 times the number of calls partly because it had more volunteers.


Q: Do clients get referred to the CAB by other third party agencies?

A: Yes, people were often signposted to the CAB when their cases were complex or the third party agency and the client were not in agreement.


Q: Were interpreters available at the bureaux to help with the migrant population?

A: There were no bilingual volunteers in Thetford but staff had access to Language Line for interpreters.


Q: What does each client cost the service?  That information would be useful to the Council when setting its budget.

A: Research done in 2012 showed the average cost per client was about £15.  That had increased significantly due to the complexity of issues now.  A lot of volunteers were trained and then lost because the training made them employable and they moved on to engage in employed work.


Q: The lack of language speakers in Thetford was disappointing; there should be some dual language people available.

A: All advisors were volunteers and it was hard to get them in Thetford.  The CAB would welcome people with language skills.  They were working in partnership with Keystone and hoped to upskill some of their advisors. 


Q:  How much pressure would it put the CAB under if your funding was cut?

A: We have moved premises to ensure we are as cheap as possible and we are working in partnership with Keystone.  If our funding was cut we would have to see less people.  We have made bids for other funding.  We are also dependent on donations and no amount is too small.  In Dereham there are only two paid staff in the bureau.  If funding was cut, paid staff would go and there would be no bureau. 


The Chairman explained that the Council was not looking to cut funding but it wanted to know how the money was used and whether there were other ways it could help.


It was noted that the migrant community in Thetford was more settled and helped themselves and helped each other to fill forms out, etc.  Self-help was welcomed, but there was concern that the support was not regulated and not independent and some people were being charged large amounts to fill in even basic forms. 


The CAB had worked with Keystone on the issue of advice sharks – people from the European communities operating in the cafes in the community and giving advice for money.  In some cases it had caused real issues. 


The CAB had previously had an agreement to provide general reception cover at Breckland House in Thetford in exchange for space in the building.  That agreement had expired and was one of the reasons that the CAB had moved premises.


It was noted that Breckland House was run as a commercial tenanted building.


Q: Was the funding provided by the Council used for core funding or for projects?

A: The funding was needed for core costs.  Volunteers could not be employed without premises, telephony, etc.  The funding was also needed to pay the salaries of paid staff to supervise and ensure the safety of volunteers. 


Councillor Cowen explained that the Council was about to embark on budget setting and was looking internally and externally for savings.  The problem with funding the CAB was that it did not work solely within the Council’s boundaries.  If the Council gave money it wanted to be sure that it would be spent on Breckland residents.  Having a clear understanding of the costs of the offices in Breckland would help in making decisions. 


The Chairman asked Rob Walker to arrange a get-together meeting of CAB and Council officers to discuss funding and other ways that the Council could provide help.  She thanked the CAB representatives for their presentation.


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