Debt and food bank queries on rise before pandemic hit

Queries over debt problems, food banks and problems with the Universal Credit benefit were increasing even before the coronavirus pandemic took effect, an annual analysis of data from Citizens Advice Scotland has revealed.

Debt problems were common in Citizens Advice Bureaux.
Debt problems were common in Citizens Advice Bureaux.

The organisation said it received almost 95,000 queries relating to debt in the 12 months to the end of March this year, suggesting that Scots were struggling to make ends meet even before the full impact of the coronavirus pandemic kicked in.

In total, Citizens Advice bureaux across Scotland provided over 188,000 clients – one in 24 people living in Scotland – with advice on almost 660,000 topics during 2019-20. Along with the advice provided, bureaux also supported clients in completing over 68,000 official forms leading to over £170 million in financial gain for clients.

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Warning over post-pandemic Scottish debt tidal wave
Citizens Advice Scotland of Chief Executive Derek Mitchell

Over three-quarters of these forms were related to benefits claims, while the next most common at six per cent were in relation to finance and charitable support.

Bureaux clients received advice and support to deal with over £78 million of debt during 2019-20, helping them decide on a debt management strategy best suited to their situation.

Issues relating to benefits and debt were the top advice areas at a national level. In total advice was provided on benefits issues to almost 320,000 people during 2019-20.

The report said the biggest change in proportion of related to immigration advice, which rose to ninth most common in the period from fourteenth the previous year. Citizens Advice Scotland said this is likely to reflect the changes taking place due to the United Kingdom leaving the EU.

Advice in relation to debt, with almost 95,000 queries, has seen Council Tax remain as the top category for 2019-20, followed by credit, store and charge card debts. Meanwhile, advice in relation to employment, with a little over 30,000 queries recorded, was the fourth most common advice area during the period.

Publishing the report, CAS chief executive Derek Mitchell said: “The data in this report is an important reminder that many people in Scotland were struggling with debt and financial problems even before the pandemic hit. Covid has certainly made those problems worse and introduced other challenges too, but the underlying trends that CABs were seeing were already worrying enough, and these haven't gone away. The picture captured in this report is the default position of Scotland's society even without the additional problems brought by covid, and indeed Brexit.

“That's a stark reality that both governments and policymakers need to understand. Their challenge now is not just to mitigate the problems of the pandemic, but those that already existed. To us this shows that there has never been a greater need for sustained investment in frontline advice services. But there is also a need for far-reaching policy changes to solve these underlying problems, such as for example an end to the five week wait for Universal Credit and action to cut fuel bills.”

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