Taking advice to people hit hardest by welfare reforms

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Sweeping changes to the benefits system have hit many people hard – but perhaps none more so than people with mental health problems.

That’s according to the Bo’ness and Grangemouth Citizen’s Advice Bureau.

So concerned at soaring levels of stress, CAB decided to take advice and information straight to those who needed it most.

Since the welfare reforms were introduced, the CAB workload has increased to nearly 50 per cent being about benefit issues – that’s compared to 30 per cent three years ago.

It’s also worth noting, said CAB mangager Bill Palumbo, that three years ago, it referred two people to food banks; last year it was 138.

“It’s doubled in the past year alone,” he said. “That isn’t just to do with the changes though – it’s the administration of benefits and cutbacks in DWP staff. It holds everything up.”

In order to help, CAB applied for – and received – a grant from the Scottish Government’s People and Communities fund.

That allowed it to set up a partnership with two local charities; FDAMH and the Caledonia Day Service, formerly known as the Caledonia Clubhouse .

The CAB has set up weekly surgeries on its respective premises, which means the bureau is taking its specialist knowledge of the welfare system directly to people with mental health issues.

“It’s a very good project,” said Bill. “It’s letting us help vulnerable people we would otherwise struggle to provide a service to.

“People with mental health issues can be a difficult group to reach.

“The Calendonia Clubhouse and FDAMH are specialists in their field.

“They already have a membership that feel comfortable there and, by working with them, we can address the issues we know about and they can deal with other issues.

“One of the problems is that people with mental health issues find it difficult to see an issue through – when they get a knockback, they give up. Or sometimes the forms just seem too daunting so we can help them to persevere.”

The welfare reforms have been criticised not only for cutting the money that people receive but also for being complicated and difficult to understand.

People who were receiving Disability Living Allowance must now apply for a new benefit, known as the Personal Independence Payment (PIP).

Said Bill: “The problem is that the system is so difficult – it isn’t set up well to deal with people who have mental health problems, who are in a fragile state anyway.

“The project aims to provide help at as early a stage as possible and give the appropriate level of help.

“This reduces the stress for the client and helps them see it through – often to a successful conclusion.”

The partnership began last year and it recently received a grant to continue.

Bill is in no doubt that it is working – the CAB intervention helped 336 clients last year.

Between them they received an incredible £254,000, thanks to the advice of CAB – not a bad return for last year’s £50,000 grant, said Bill, and he’s hoping for similar results from £38,000 this year.

Support includes benefit checks, form filling, one-to-one case work and representation at appeal.

They also provide a full CAB service and deal with other enquiries, including referrals e.g. CAB legal clinic, debt adviser etc.

Margaret Thom, acting manager of the Caledonia Day Service, said the CAB visits were invaluable. She said: “A lot of our guys just panic when they see a letter or a lot of paperwork.

“Katie from CAB comes every week. It makes such a difference that they know Katie and are comfortable talking to her here.

“All they have to do is make an appointment and bring all their paperwork.

“The levels of anxiety are very high and it’s making people unwell.

“Often rather than address issues, they panic and ignore them but knowing there is someone here who can help them fill out a form accurately is an amazing help to them. It’s made a big difference.”

The Grangemouth and Bo’ness CAB has also contributed to the national organisation, Citizens Advice Scotland, as it tries to build a picture of the imact welfare reform has had.

“We have been able to provide significant examples of the impact it has had, and continues to have, on those suffering from mental health issues,” added Bill.