Bridging the Gap
by Simon Rennie, the new CAS Chair.
This article was first published in the Herald on 30 September 2023.
This week I had the privilege of taking over as the chair of Citizens Advice Scotland, after having been a CAS trustee for the last three years. I come into the role with an understanding of what the CAB network can deliver and an appreciation of a critical gap I see here in Scotland. The gap I see is that between the plans and aspirations of the Scottish Government and the daily lived experience of too many of our fellow Scots.
The First Minister recently published his first Programme for Government. It sets out three ‘missions, the first of which is to tackle poverty and protect people from harm. Who would not want or support such an aim? As my predecessor noted last week in this column poverty is, and has been, ‘an endemic’ problem. Poverty is a persistent scourge on our society and should be a source of embarrassment in a wealthy country like Scotland. It’s not a new problem and generations of politicians have sought its eradication, and yet, and yet.
If we delve deeper into the Programme for Government we perhaps see one of the problems our fellow citizens experience. Governments over the years have sought to target benefits and interventions at specific targeted groups or issues. Such an ambition makes sense and this Programme takes a similar approach across many areas. But in doing that the complexity of the support available has grown exponentially. We live in a world where citizens find it difficult to navigate their way through the maze of properly available support. Add to that picture the fact that public services are under such pressure that they find it hard to provide face to face contact and advice, and it’s easy to see why so many fail to get the targeted support that is their right.
To bridge the gap then between Government ambition, expressed through policy and intervention, and the difficulties faced daily by too many Scots, we need bodies who can help citizens through the maze. One such body, driven by strong values and a shared ethos, exists in the form of the Citizens Advice network.
We share the ambition to eradicate poverty. When people come to us we understand where they are in their lives. We are not judgemental about how their problems have arisen. We can provide face-to-face people-centred support. We have a fantastic cohort of volunteer advisers who will take the time to sit down and help those most in need. Last year these incredible advisers unlocked £142 million for people across Scotland.
Why then, despite all the targeted interventions and the CAB network, are so many still living in poverty, unable to access what is rightfully theirs? The answer is a very simple one: capacity.
If Government programmes and interventions are to succeed, more support - and better support - needs to be made available to bodies that will enable the targeted resources to get to the intended recipients. Such support would empower communities and increase their resilience.
My predecessor wrote here last week about the need for a lifeboat to help people who are ‘drowning’. I would argue we already have such a vessel: the CAB network. What we need to do now is to increase the size of its crew.