Citizens Advice provides free impartial and independent advice to assist people with money, legal, housing and other issues.
In recent years, advisers in South Tyneside have seen a shift from enquiries about personal loans and consumer credit to ‘priority debts’ such as council tax, rent arrears and fuel debt.
According to figures presented to borough councillors this week, Citizens Advice South Tyneside supported nearly 8,500 clients with 34,985 issues in 2020/21.
Welfare benefits, universal credit and debt combined made up nearly 60% of all enquiries over the period.
Ian Thompson, chief executive of the South Tyneside Citizens Advice Bureau, revealed the figures at the council’s People Select Committee on Tuesday, October 12.
He said the service had helped clients reach positive outcomes on debt and welfare benefit issues, with 67% of clients reporting improved financial stability and/or improved mental health.
With the end of the furlough scheme and suspension on debt enforcement, alongside rising energy, food and petrol costs, councillors heard that the advice agency is bracing itself for huge demand this winter.
Councillor Ann Best said Citizens Advice staff were often left dealing with a “complex cocktail of issues” and that it was important to make referrals to support as early as possible.
“My key thing is the early intervention and if we can get people to you as soon as we spot they’re in trouble – a lot of people are very good at hiding those complex issues that have been building up,” she said.
“I think one of the scariest things is what has been mentioned about the saturation point, where at the moment people have no wiggle room any more about what they prioritise in terms of debt payments.”
Councillor David Francis also raised concerns about the “ticking time bomb” of wider issues – including rising fuel costs and government decisions to end furlough and scrap the universal credit uplift.
He added he was keen for the People Select Committee to explore the subject of universal basic income at a future meeting.
Cllr Francis went on to say: “I was really taken when (Mr Thompson) talked about what the top ten debt issues are and most debts are being identified there as priority debts, rather than consumer debts.
“To me it brings into very sharp focus that these issues are not about individual choices that people make, it’s about a systemic failure of the way our society is currently operating.
“So putting the blame on individuals is definitely pointing the finger in the wrong direction.”
Several councillors raised concerns about added pressures on South Tyneside residents against a backdrop of deprivation, food bank usage and health inequalities.
Councillor Ruth Berkley added there was a “huge mountain to climb” and that it was important to listen to the experiences of individual people to help develop solutions.
During the meeting, Citizens Advice South Tyneside bosses made suggestions of how they could support vulnerable people going forward.
This ranged from work to minimise bailiff action and promote ‘water support’ to private tenants, to paying discretionary housing payments direct to landlords.
In addition, people can also be referred to the Citizens Advice Energy Charity scheme for help with their energy bills.
The presentation was part of the People Select Committee’s Poverty Commission, which has been shining the spotlight on local issues and making recommendations to the council’s cabinet.
Councillor John McCabe, who chairs the scrutiny committee, said Citizens Advice South Tyneside staff should be commended for their work supporting communities.
“The work you’re doing is invaluable,” he said.
“We wish that the workload wasn’t as heavy but unfortunately as you have identified the circumstances especially have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“There is a mountain to climb out there but we can climb it and we will tackle it, we have got to think positive, there is a better way.”