Simon Read: We must make sure debtors claim their benefits

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The Independent Online

It's hard for people struggling to cope with debt. But a report this week from debt charity the Consumer Credit Counselling Service suggests that things are getting worse as many are losing out on two-thirds of the benefits to which they are entitled.

The charity's Centre for Welfare Benefits dealt with 15,000 struggling folk last year and found an average of £100 per week of unclaimed benefit. CCCS's extrapolated figures show an average family on benefits could have therefore increased its 2009 household income by £5,000. It's clear that that sort of cash could actually make a difference between surviving and sinking for many caught in a debt trap.

Nationally, that tots up to a shocking £16bn-worth of annualised unclaimed welfare benefits. But why do so many miss out on the Government cash available to them? CCCS chairman, Malcolm Hurlston, says: "This is the tip of the iceberg. There is billions of pounds worth of benefits waiting to be claimed and to be put to good use in reviving the economy. We must increase our efforts and encourage government to make sure benefits are properly advertised and explained."

The main problem is the wide number of welfare benefits – there are 20 major ones available. The range can make it terribly complicated for anyone trying to find out what they can claim for. Some benefits actually even work against each other so anyone claiming for one could discover that they have become ineligible for another, which seems a ridiculous state of affairs.

The situation is worsened because there's no one single official government office or body that anyone can go to for help and advice when it comes to benefits. Struggling debtors may have to deal with the Department for Work and Pensions for some benefits, HM Revenue & Customers for others, before turning to their local authority for other financial assistance and even their employers – if they have a job – for several allowances.

The complicated system and lack of central help can't continue, says Hurlston. "We need a co-ordinated benefits take-up campaign so that people end up with one point of reference," he says. Until the Government does step in, debtors can get advice at their local Citizens Advice Bureau or from the CCCS through its free-phone helpline, on 0800 138 1111.

I'm pleased to report that financial education is beginning to get through to youngsters. Students are the latest to be targeted by the National Skills Academy for Financial Services next week. Its Money Week will visit 75 further education colleges between 8 and 12 March with the aim of highlighting the importance of helping young people in becoming more money-minded.

"The ongoing challenges in our current economic climate serve as a poignant reminder that the financial decisions we make, personally and nationally, are of utmost importance," says Sylvia Perrins, chief executive officer of NSAFS. "Personal finance is a key skill which we believe should be taught from a young age. Money Week is a great opportunity to raise awareness of and help develop the financial capability of young people in the UK."

Events during the week include budget menu competitions and how to dress for less, as well as tips on how to make savings on transport, healthy eating and running a car. There are also tutorials focusing on understanding and resolving financial difficulties and sessions with local bank representatives. The education charity hopes to reach 30,000 students across the country.

Having spent several sessions talking to hundreds of sixth-formers at a local school in south-west London myself, I know how difficult it is to get a managing money message across. So I applaud any move to increase financial education and literacy among young people. Let's hope these students do take the message on board – and that they don't repeat the financial mistakes we've made!

Bordeaux Index – which promotes investment in fine wines – pumped out a slightly misleading figure this week. It pointed out that investors have seen a 337 per cent return on vintage wine bought in 2000, compared to a 15.8 per cent loss on the FTSE over the same period. "Invest in fine wines," is the message. But the real message is that past performance figures are meaningless. If you compare the performance of wine bought in 2003 to the FTSE, then the FTSE far-outperformed the wine, for instance. My advice? Keep to traditional investments and buy wine to drink and enjoy. Cheers!

Gas prices are moving downward

Some good news for struggling homeowners is the fact that energy companies are cutting prices. Scottish and Southern Energy this week said it will be cutting prices by 4 per cent or £30 for gas from 29 March. The reduction will see its average annual dual fuel bill drop from £1,192 to £1,162.

The move follows British Gas's reductions of 5.5 per cent announced a couple of weeks ago. Taking last year's cuts into account, Scottish and Southern Energy has now reduced prices by 8 per cent or £97 in total, while British Gas has cut 13 per cent or £170 in total off bills.

However, families are still facing far higher energy bills than two years ago. In 2008 Scottish and Southern Energy increased prices by 44 per cent. Even after this week's price cut, its average bill will still be 33 per cent higher than at the beginning of 2008.

"The cuts are good news for consumers but at the moment it's just a two horse race," says Ann Robinson of uSwitch.com. "But the fact that the country's two biggest suppliers have brought their prices down will put more pressure on the remaining four suppliers to do the same."

Gas bills are at a 10-year high, points out Scott Byrom of moneysupermarket.com. "I would advise bill payers not to hang about. You may not see the substantial price cuts you hope for soon so look for the best energy deal for your consumption and region."

s.read@independent.co.uk

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