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Citizens Advice Newcastle has been running a service with advisers working from home. As a service, we are still providing the full range of advice to residents i.e. benefits, debt, energy, housing, employment, amongst many others. The advice is provided to residents by telephone, email and web chat. We have, and will continue to campaign for policy change throughout this epidemic and beyond by collecting evidence, working with national CA, other local CA offices and our stakeholders.

Citizens Advice Newcastle is unique, in that we can provide a real-time insight into the issues people are facing as the epidemic and the policies stances taken as a response to the crisis continue to evolve. Below, we highlight the changing nature of the issues people were seeking advice from us about between the 1st March 2020 to the 16th April 2020 (using fortnightly snapshots), the types of issues we are seeing and areas that require further clarifications to provide security for residents.

Fortnightly comparison of changing advice needs (1st March to 16th April)

Until the middle of March, the volumes and types of cases and advice that people sought from us matched normal expectations. However, in the second two weeks of March (16th to 31st March) we had seen significant shifts in the issues that people had been seeking advice on, as the chart below shows. In the first two weeks of April (1st April to 16th April), we have seen this trend intensify, with an even higher percentage of people contacting us requiring benefit or employment advice whilst queries to our other areas of advice continue to fall.

We expect that residents are still experiencing issues with other areas of advice (debt, energy, housing, consumer, family matters etc), but are either putting these issues to one side for the time being or still trying to sort out there immediate financial security (through employment or benefit claim) before addressing secondary issues.

Graph

Analysis

Whilst we have seen a significant decrease in people seeking advice about most areas of advice (debt, energy, housing, consumer or family matters etc), we are continuing to see an increase in two areas, benefits and employment.

  • Clients seeking advice regarding Legacy Benefits and Universal Credit have increased by 42% since the first 2-weeks in March.
  • Clients seeking advice regarding Employment had increased 10-fold between the first two weeks in March and the second two weeks in March. In the first two weeks in April, residents seeking advice on employment has continued to increase as a percentage of our overall queries.
  • In the first two weeks of April (1st to 16th), Legacy Benefit, Universal Credit and Employment issues have represented 77% of our queries, compared to 45% in the first two weeks of March and 70% in the second two weeks in March.
  • Residents still seem to be focusing on securing their income, ensuring they are working in a safe environment and if their wages can be secured through government schemes.
  • Since the 1st March, we have provided advice, support and information to hundreds of people requiring help in claiming Universal Credit in the city, through our Help to Claim service.

As a service, we are concerned that there are still many employed people falling through the gaps in provision announced by the government. This graphic shows those who are still at risk. 

Gaps

Based on our findings, Citizens Advice Newcastle recommends that the following changes still need to be made…

Further changes to the Job Retention Scheme’s guidance & rules for people in the shielded group or who need to stay at home with someone in the shielded group. This should:

  • Make clear (as for parents and carers) that the employer does not need to otherwise be making that person redundant in order to furlough them.
  • Give people in these groups, in effect, the right to be furloughed, if their work would otherwise require them to breach public health advice. This could be included as a change to the scheme’s guidance.
  • The government should clarify the scheme guidance to give employers the option of furloughing workers in the ‘increased risk’ group.
  • The Self-Employed Income Support Scheme should be extended to people who have been self-employed for less than a year. The government should also confirm it does not intend to add support from the scheme to the list of public funds, so that people without recourse to public funds are not excluded.

Beyond gaps in the existing system, one potential challenge on the horizon is employers making workers redundant and choosing not to put them on the scheme. The government may want to evaluate further contingencies, should the number of workers in this group be significant. We have identified two main contingency routes:

  • Consider giving employers more incentives or obligations to use the scheme. This could include putting more pressure on firms to act, giving workers in certain situations the right to be furloughed or issuing guidance that makes it clear that if an employee is unreasonably refused access to the scheme the dismissal would be unfair.
  • Consider temporarily enhancing our safety net further, both by widening eligibility to the benefits system and ensuring people have enough to make ends meet during this period. This could include relaxing the capital limit rules for claiming Universal Credit, turning advance payments into grants and reviewing the value of key components within Universal Credit like the Standard Allowance and the Local Housing Allowance. 

For further information, please contact - Neil Duffy, Research and Campaigns Officer, Citizens Advice Newcastle on neild@newcastlecab.org.uk or 07741659766


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