The 'Big Society' crisis on Cameron's doorstep

Special report: Across Britain, record numbers of vulnerable people are turning to Citizens Advice – just as the organisation faces cuts. Sean O'Grady finds the Prime Minister's constituency among the hardest hit

Britain's Citizens Advice Bureaux face a funding crisis just as they are being hit with an unprecedented increase in demands on their resources, especially by people finding themselves in debt.

Some are seeing their local authority funding cut by two-thirds at a time when the number of clients seeking help with debts, benefits and homelessness has as much as doubled. The West Oxfordshire bureau, in David Cameron's constituency of Witney, is one of those badly affected.

Speaking to The Independent, Gillian Guy, the chief executive of Citizens Advice, warned that there was definitely a risk to the most vulnerable from benefit changes that were being introduced too quickly, with "unintended consequences". She also said cuts to legal aid would affect the bureaux.

She urged ministers to "pause for breath" and delay implementing some of the most controversial reforms, especially to housing benefit. Consumers also face the biggest setback to their cause in decades, she warned, as Citizens Advice was under no obligation to take on the work of Consumer Focus, the soon-to-be abolished quango, as ministers had planned.

Ms Guy's social concerns centred on the "cumulative effect" of changes to housing and council tax benefit, which will prompt many people between the ages of 25 and 35 to share homes. She urged ministers to "please be cautious and delay or phase changes, to housing benefit in particular". She said: "There isn't sufficient evidence that all the cumulative impact of the different measures have really been looked at."

Public-spending cuts could mean a family loses its main breadwinner and becomes reliant on someone working part time. That will affect the kind of benefits they would get, especially with the cap on housing benefit, Ms Guy said. "If someone finds themselves without a job because they are incapable of working due to health reasons, they'll find that after 12 months their benefits will be reduced, even though they are on jobseeker's allowance," she said. "It is those different impacts coming together that need to be analysed so there are no unintended consequences."

In the Prime Minister's West Oxfordshire constituency of Witney, Citizens Advice said that in the past year it had been made aware of an increase of almost 50 per cent in debt problems. As a volunteer-based, independent charity – albeit partly reliant on public money – Citizens Advice is just the type of Big Society institution the Prime Minister says he wants to build up.

But for consumers seeking redress against scammers, fraudsters, arrogant utilities or a confusing and bureaucratic benefits system, help may soon be harder to obtain.

In the review of quangos, ministers said they intended to abolish Consumer Focus and that its functions would be taken over by the Citizens Advice Bureau. While in favour of the move, and confident that her organisation could offer better value for money, Ms Guy was clear that there was no guarantee the organisation will take on the watchdog's work.

"We can't make offers to consumers on what we can do for them and then fail on the offer," she said. "That is worse than not doing it in the first place. There are limits." Funding was the crux. Ms Guy said some local authorities were maintaining or reducing their funding only slightly, whereas others believed it was easier to cut grants to bodies such as Citizens Advice, rather than make their own staff redundant.

Without advice on hand, small debt issues spiralled into bigger problems such as poor health and homelessness – which meant bigger bills for the state. The number of people aged 25 and under seeking debt help from the Citizen's Advice Bureau has increased by 21 per cent in the last 12 months.

Ms Guy's message to the Department of Work and Pensions, the Treasury and No 10 was clear: "We would say hold the press and think about analysing information and be clear about the consequences.

"We have also talked about the possibility of delaying some of the implementation so that we can just phase the impact a bit, so families have time to move, for example, if they can't afford the accommodation they are in. That makes the impact easier to bear. If it is sudden, then it is very difficult.

"And, of course, we ask to keep pushing resources into advice services such as CAB, because they will pick up the consequences of the measures."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'