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Inflation and welfare cuts cause concern for Citizens Advice Bureau staff in the run up to Christmas

Abigail Taylor

For several weeks news bulletins have been dominated with stories about the rising cost of living and cuts to household income, with causes ranging from the end of the furlough scheme, rising energy bills, soaring fuel prices and a cut of £20 per week to Universal Credit.

Western Isles Citizens Advice Bureau operations manager Lynda MacLean and advisors Susan Jones and Isobel Morrison discussed the impact of rising inflation on the local community with Am Pàipear.

“It is having a major effect on people, especially clients who are already struggling to make ends meet. We have seen a dramatic increase in food bank referrals over the last couple of months. While the food bank is there for people who are in need, it should not be something that the community has to rely on,” said Lynda.

1st October 2021 saw the introduction of an increase on the energy price cap for the 15 million customers across the UK. Individuals on default tariffs paying through direct debit will see an increase of £139 from £1138 to £1277. Prepayment customers will see an increase of £153 from £1156 to £1309.

“We have the highest energy costs here and if you are receiving around £70 per week from Universal Credit and your electric bill is reaching £40, it does not leave much to feed yourself and a family so this is why people are becoming reliant on food banks. If you require an advance as well on your payments, it is taken off the next pay, so regardless you will still be stuck,” explained Susan.

“Some tenants are not able to choose their source of energy or which type of meter they can make use of in their rented homes. Energy prices have shot up dramatically and people here cannot access smart metres. We often find that companies advertising great deals are only marketed for those who can get a smart meter and therefore this community is missing out,” added Isobel.

Fuel prices have also been increasing, adding more pressure to those struggling, with petrol, at the time of writing, at around £1.50 a litre and diesel £1.60.

“It can be a real challenge to live here while surviving on benefits. You have all these factors and now fuel prices are skyrocketing and people here need cars in order to get to work. If the price of fuel continues to rise it is another blow to those struggling,” said Lynda.

“We are lucky as our company gives an island allowance to meet the needs of living here but not every place of work is able to do the same. We believe that the benefits system should have some sort of uplift or island allowance to meet the higher cost of living as it is not being taken into account currently.”
Personal Independence Payment, a disability payment for working age individuals, has also been affected because of COVID-19.

“Some clients were not getting reviews of their benefits because of the pandemic but they are being sent out now. PIP does not have the manpower to be able to get through all of the reviews quickly enough, so there is a much longer wait time now and people are even having their payments cut because forms were not returned back in time. In fact they had been sent back but had not been processed in the correct timeframe. Medical assessments are also being done over the phone. We do not feel that this is an adequate way to assess someone’s medical needs,” explained Susan.

Wait times have gone from a few weeks to more than eight months, resulting in some payments being made in lump sums, which for a lot of clients is not helpful as they are already struggling with money management.

“I think there has also been an explosion of debt problems following the pandemic. People have been putting off their money problems to see if it will sort itself out but actually now realising that they are in real trouble,” added Susan.

Looking ahead, as the winter months come in, there is a much concern within CAB.

“We have not felt the full effects of the energy price rise and the Universal Credit uplift being taken away. It usually takes a few weeks for the effects to be felt and that is going to come at the worst time for people at Christmas. Some people could have to choose whether to eat or heat and that choice is heartbreaking to make especially if you have children. It all has a knock on effect on your physical and mental health and then onto other issues like debt and money management,” said Lynda.

“We are seeing a mental health crisis on these islands and the rise in the cost of living and cuts are only making it worse for those who are already the most vulnerable in society. People will often come to us with a particular issue but after having a chat with an advisor it soon becomes obvious that there is something else leading onto this particular problem that can also be fixed. We try to do as much as possible with clients while they are here either on the phone or in person by appointments,” added Susan.

“People are very proud here and we have a tough job trying to remove the stigma of asking for help. Help is available but unfortunately a lot of people do not know what the help is or how to access. So it is getting people to realise that they are entitled to first ask for help and second to take it,” said Isobel.

“People working for CAB have negotiating powers, so we can speak to energy companies on your behalf to try and get better deals, assist with getting holds on debt repayments and we can even speak to the council in regards to council tax. We want to make sure you are making every possible bit of help available. Every person in front of an advisor is different and we will assess them fully to decide what the best advice is for them,” continued Lynda.

Under the current work from home advice, clients are encouraged to make telephone appointments. However, if a face-to-face meeting is required tit can be arranged and CAB also has access to the ‘Near Me’ software for secure video conferencing, which is also used by the NHS.

“We would never turn anyone away, even if we have to refer to another agency, we are open for business and encourage anyone to call,” added Isobel.

So far this financial year, the total client financial gain CAB has recorded for the Western Isles is £501,862.43, while the top three categories of enquiry at the Benbecula office are benefits (32.84 percent, 22.76 percent of which is related to Universal Credit), debt (22.76 percent) and utilities and communications (14.89 percent).

Readers can contact the Western Isles Citizens Advice Bureau office in Balivanich at bureau@uistcab.casonline.org.uk or call 01870602421.

Western Isles Citizens Advice Bureau is today warning that a ‘perfect storm’ of financial changes are set to leave thousands of people worse off.

Abigail Taylor

Autumn sees the end of the furlough scheme, rising energy bills and a cut of £20 per week to Universal Credit.

An increase on the energy price cap was introduced on 1st October 2021 for the 15 million customers across the UK. Those on default tariffs paying by direct debit will see an increase of £139 from £1,138 to £1277. Prepayment customers will see an increase of £153 from £1,156 to £1309.

Against this background, Western Isles Citizens Advice Bureau is launching a campaign reminding people in the Western Isles that free, confidential and impartial advice is available for anyone who needs it.

Operations Manager, Lynda MacLean said: “The end of furlough, an increase in energy bills and the £20 cut to Universal Credit are all about to happen over the next few weeks. Any one of these would be a challenge to low-income families, but all of them happening together is going to be a perfect storm that will hit really hard. We also face a particular challenge in the islands due to the additional cost of heating homes and the high level of fuel poverty in our area.”

“Another issue that will disproportionately affect the Islands more than urban areas, is the Scottish Government’s decision to remove oil boilers from the Warmer Scotland Scheme nationally. This was done with no consultation or engagement with stakeholders and as a consequence of the partnership arrangement between the SNP government and the Greens.”

“In the past couple of weeks, management and staff at Western Isles Citizens Advice Bureau have met with both our MP & MSP, who have assured us that they will make representations on behalf of our clients to both parliaments, and we are grateful to them for taking the time to do so.”

“People facing tough financial choices in the coming weeks should know that our advice adds up. Our team of advisers are here to help anyone who is in financial difficulty. Remember our advice is always free, confidential and impartial.”

“We can help you with any financial problem, there may be grants or benefits you are entitled to but not aware off, including the Warm Home Discount Scheme. We also offer help and advice in relation to debt. Last year we unlocked a total of £846,140.73 in financial gain for people who came to see us.”

To get advice please contact your local Bureau –
Uist
Tel: 01870 602421
Email: bureau@uistcab.casonline.org.uk

Lewis
Tel: 01851 705727
Email: bureau@lewiscab.casonline.org.uk

Harris
Tel: 01859 502431
Email: bureau@harriscab.casonline.org.uk

Barra
Tel: 01871 810608
Email: bureau@barracab.casonline.org.uk
or get our advice online at www.cas.org.uk/our-advice-adds-up

Western Isles average house price up more than 50% since 2016.

Iain Stephen Morrison

Office for National Statistics figures reveal that the Western Isles recorded the biggest increase in average house price over the last five years across the whole UK.

Statistics published in the UK House Price Index (February 2021) reveal that the average price of a house in the Outer Hebrides in February 2016 was £87,494 and that figure had risen to £132,397 in February 2021, representing an increase of 51.32%.

However, despite the significant increase, the average house price in the Western Isles is still among the 30 lowest price areas in the UK, and more than £100,000 lower than the average house cost in the UK.

Confirmation of the substantial increase in house prices comes as young people are campaigning over being ‘priced out of the market’ for housing in the Highlands and Islands.

Last autumn a collective of young people from the islands published an open letter calling for action to improve access to housing in economically fragile areas like the Outer Hebrides.