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Citizens Advice and Coronavirus: Helping people access the right financial support

March 24th 2020

As we continue our series of articles looking at the impact of Covid-19 on Wales, Rebecca Woolley, Director of Citizens Advice Cymru, sets out how the organisation is helping people to access the right financial support.

At Citizens Advice, responding to crisis situations is in our blood.  The organisation came into being during World War Two in order to help bombed out families.  Just last month our services in south Wales sprang into action to help those who had been forced out of their homes by flooding.  And now, as the Coronavirus pandemic affects families across Wales, our advisers are finding innovative ways to respond to those who need advice while respecting public health guidelines.

In the space of only a week, we have shifted all our service provision in Wales to remote delivery – via phone and video link – and we continue to support people with advice, including employment, housing, welfare benefits and debt.  Demand for our services is extremely high – 17th March was the busiest day of traffic ever on our website.  Views of our Coronavirus webpage have doubled every day in the past week, and we’ve seen visits to our pages on sick pay advice and redundancy spike at an unprecedented level as well.

As important as advice is at the moment, there’s only so far it can go to help solve the problems people are facing.

We know from our data that many families in Wales go into this crisis with very little financial resilience.  More than 400,000 people in Wales have no savings at all, and 1 in 8 adults (13%) polled reported that they would only be able to keep covering the cost of essentials for up to a week if their main source of household income was lost.  The sickness, self-isolation, and unemployment that Coronavirus will cause for many of these families will result in a temporary loss of income, leaving them – at least in the medium term and probably for far longer – unable to support themselves.

The UK Government’s unprecedented action to protect workers is extremely welcome and will help protect millions of low-income families who are worried about making ends meet during this crisis.  However, it’s vital that they continue to make sure everyone is able to access the income that they need – including self-employed people and those receiving benefits.

We’re also asking the Welsh Government to take steps to help those people who find themselves in financial difficulties.

One area where the Welsh Government could use their powers to support families is on council tax.  Council tax is not directly linked to someone’s ability to pay. Whilst people would usually be able to apply for the Council Tax Reduction Scheme, there’s a risk that local authorities will have much less capacity to process applications even as demand increases sharply. This means that many households could shortly receive a 2020/21 council tax bill that will be unaffordable for them.

We have already seen positive voluntary action from banks and energy suppliers, including the removal of penalty charges for missed payments and payment holidays for mortgages. The Welsh Government must support local authorities to do the same.  At a minimum, it must ask them to suspend temporarily all enforcement action for council tax arrears and be prepared to cover the losses that councils may face as a result.  A more proactive measure would be to offer a 3 month council tax holiday for those who cannot afford to make payments. This would immediately reduce the costs that families are facing and free up income for those who have lost their jobs or are unable to work. This should be fully funded by the Welsh Government.

It’s right that the initial focus on tackling the pandemic was on the public health response.  But ultimately, if people cannot afford to follow public health guidelines, and stay at home, they will be forced into an impossible choice.  We cannot ask people to choose between protecting their health and the health of others, or keeping a roof over their heads.  It’s in everyone’s interest that we make sure the right financial support is there for people through these difficult times.

Rebecca Woolley is Director of Citizens Advice Cymru

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