'Never seen anything like it': Unemployment problems snowball says Citizens Advice

Havering CAB

Citizens advice bureaus are located in four places in Havering. - Credit: Havering CAB

The pandemic has caused a variety of difficulties for residents - unemployment, furlough and huge uncertainty - and they have been turning to Citizens Advice Havering for help.

Citizen Advice has four branches in the borough - Romford, Harold Hill, Hornchurch and Rainham. It is an independent charity which advises on money, legal, and consumer problems.

Sally Maydell manages the four bureaus and says that although debt issues have eased, problems with unemployment and benefits have snowballed with each client seeking advice for a number of severe problems per call.

Sally said that the first issue it encountered, due to closing face to face advice, was a huge increase in demand for telephone advice, and also needing to get equipment out to advisers almost overnight.

"We adapted our service extremely quickly, at office one day and at home the next and we weren't seeing any drop-in calls."

She said the types of queries also changed.

"The calls we receive tend to always be about the big four: debt, employment, housing and benefit. They swap order of quantity of each calls depending on what's going on in the world.

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"We saw calls in benefit and employment queries rise with people concerned about benefit entitlement, how to claim, worries about the five week wait period, ID verification issues (again complicated by the pandemic), furlough, redundancy, sickness pay, employers going out of business, and their rights in relation to that.

"We were getting debt enquires, but fewer due to credits on hold and rent holidays, but we expect that as time goes on that will become more prevalent in the future.

"For us, it was really challenging because the guidelines were constantly changing. We were reacting to guidelines more regularly more than ever before - something true yesterday might not be today. And this did make the job harder. We can only give current advice at any one time."

The guidelines changes also meant that the bureaus were getting recurring calls as the laws changed. They also received a lot more first-time callers who had never, for example, had to apply for benefits before.

"We just didn't know what was around the corner. The impact of so many people claiming benefits meant everything slowed down.

"There were issues of backlog of claims with the Department of Work and Pensions anyway, coupled with an increase of claims. The whole thing became dramatically slow.

"I had people that had never claimed before and didn't know what they were entitled to or how it worked."

At this same time last year, the Havering Citizens Advice saw 2,331 clients face to face, compared to 1,945. Last year, 59 per cent were face to face, 20pc on the phone and the rest email. Now 44pc are email and 43pc by phone. 

Sally said: "If you look at the way people contact us, that has changed. Not everyone is confident on the phone or via email."

Another pandemic trend Sally remarked on was how clients calling had been a lot more likely to log about three different issues per phone call. 

In other words, individuals are dealing with a multitude of severe inter-linked issues, caused by the pandemic. 

"The issues are bigger, we've never seen anything like it and obviously employment issues are massive and complex."

For the year 2018/19,  the team had 2,522 new clients visit for the first time, dealing with a total of 9,196 issues. The top three issues Citizens Advice Havering helped clients with were welfare benefits and tax credits, debt and housing.

Sally said: "We work in partnership with organisations who specialise in advice issues such as homelessness advice, pension guidance for people over 50 and tax advice for people over 60."

Citizens Advice Havering’s telephone advice service, Adviceline, is free to call on 0300 3302179. Opening times for this service are: Monday, Wednesday, Friday 10am-12.30pm, Tuesday 10am-4pm, Thursday 1pm-3.30pm

Advice is also available by email via the website www.haveringcab.org.uk by completing the required subject area form. The main office is in Romford Library.

Havering CAB

The main office is in Romford Library. - Credit: Havering CAB