by Rory Mair CBE, Chair of Citizens Advice Scotland.
This column was first published in the Herald on 30 June 2021.
This week marks ten years since the publication of the Christie Commission on 29 June 2011. Considered at the time a landmark report into the future of public service delivery in Scotland, the report focused on the value of preventative spend, highlighting that millions of pounds were spent in Scotland tackling issues and problems that could have been prevented in the first place.
The report was published while I was Chief Executive of COSLA, and I was hopeful it could see some change in public service delivery. Unfortunately, these best of intentions did not come to pass. While some progress has been made and we have seen some examples of preventative public policy, in many senses the aims and spirt of the Commission are not as ubiquitous as they should be in our policy making a decade later.
This missed opportunity came to mind this week as Citizens Advice Scotland published external research about the value of the advice delivered by the Citizens Advice network.
Regular readers of this column may be familiar with the concept of what our network calls client financial gain – the money unlocked by CABs for people through advice on things like social security payments, employment entitlements, debt reductions and lower utility bills.
That number last year was £170m, and in the decade following the 2008 financial crisis the network unlocked around £1.3 billion for people.
What the external research we published this week shows looks at the wider holistic impact of our advice.
The report reveals that the value of advice provided by the network in 2019/20 to Scottish society is a simply staggering £245million.
As part of that, and for the first time ever, we have been able to place a value on our online public advice site at £148million.
The holistic impact of the advice CABs give also saved our NHS money, with savings on mental health spending of over £15million and physical health savings of up to £7.3 million.
With the justice system increasingly stretched, our advice delivered savings on legal proceedings of over £11.5 million.
As Scotland looks towards COP26 in Glasgow this autumn, our advice produced emissions savings equivalent to over 2,000 homes
Meanwhile, client financial gain was estimated to support approximately 1,616 jobs and £51.14m in wages. The network itself supported over 1,400 jobs.
So the CAB network plays a not insignificant role in making Scotland a stronger, fairer and greener country for us all to live in, and is a clear example of how funding advice is a way of funding preventative spend.
Every CAB across the country will have thousands of examples like this – such as the tenant who received housing advice and avoided eviction and homelessness as a result, or the people who accessed additional social security advice who no longer had to choose between heating their home and feeding their children, and avoiding the resulting health problems as a consequence of that.
The year we’ve had saw the Citizens Advice network move to remote working, and did so with a pace and agility that was hugely impressive. We established new ways of working and now more than ever offer people multiple ways to get the advice they need, how they need it. The network became a temporary courier service, as hundreds of laptops were ferried across the country to enable home working. We established Scotland’s Citizens Advice Helpline as an emergency response to the increased demand for general advice during the pandemic, and our advice website saw soaring numbers, with over 2.5million unique visitors between March 2020 and March 2021.
But face-to-face advice remains essential. One of the legacies of the pandemic, as more people work from home, commuting becomes less frequent, and webchat, Teams and Zoom potentially transform how we work forever, cannot be to cut face-to-face, one-to-one advice. For some people, particularly vulnerable clients with complex cases, there is simply no substitute for it on a practical and substantive basis, but also on a human level. People appreciate the difference made by a reassuring face helping them in person.
Maintaining face-to-face advice as an essential service is also vital if Scotland is to move forward with an agenda around localism and community wealth building.
Every CAB is an independent charity, run to suit the needs of their local communities, by people in those communities. That money we unlocked, both directly and indirectly, flows into local towns and villages. The quality of advice from someone who knows the area and understands the local challenges, is also something that simply cannot be replicated in a centralised, remote call centre.
Investing in these essential services, rather than cutting them, is simply the right thing to do. The help we give people in avoiding short-term crisis is ultimately for the long-term good of the country.
There has been much written about how we build back better after the challenges of Covid, with the idea of a fair and inclusive recovery meaning we could move beyond a negative legacy of the pandemic but into new ways of work and service delivery
To my mind, the CAB network offers a blueprint for the way forward – ready to adapt technological change, but not at the expense of services that the vulnerable need. Giving people not just security by helping fix their problems but the opportunity to thrive.
Our advice reduces pressure on other parts of our public realm. Rather than people falling into greater harm, we prevent that deeper harm in the first place.
Ten years on from the Christie Commission, those ideals are more relevant than ever.