Taira Kayani, CEO of Better Leeds Communities

Better Leeds Communities is among independent debt counseling services that are expected to lose out on proposed changes to the way the government money and pensions department contracts for services from April.

Concerns about changes in the funding model – which will involve cuts in face-to-face debt counseling services, greater reliance on call centers and internet support, and greater reliance on call centers and internet support. reduction in the number of global contracts – were raised by Yorkshire MPs in Parliament this week. .

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Leeds Central MP Hilary Benn told a debate in Westminster Hall that a “dramatic reduction in face-to-face counseling” was feared by four debt agencies in her constituency, including Better Leeds Communities.

Taira Kayani, CEO of the charity established in 1983 to help families and reduce poverty in Leeds, said the organization had already been told it would not be eligible for MaPS funding from next year. which is normally subcontracted to them through Citizens. Advice. She said this was because Citizens Advice decided that the planned contract changes mean it can only work with its own offices rather than with independent charities.

She said MaPS ‘previous funding amounted to over £ 100,000 for the organization and paid the equivalent of two full-time debt counselors, along with administration and management fees.

“This means that around 660 people will not receive debt advice from us next year,” she said.

“We are officially on a rollback path and we can no longer take debt relief orders. We’ll be looking at case referrals in January and keep in mind that we don’t want to take over work that will still be open by early March. “

She said that while the charity offers other debt counseling services, they cater to specific groups of people and are therefore more limited in their audiences.

She said face-to-face debt counseling meetings are far preferable to phone and internet service for a wide range of reasons – including the technological, language and literacy challenges some people face. support that are more manageable. in person. Face-to-face meetings also help people assess the bills they are facing and understand the action they need to take.

“A counselor is able to do a much better assessment when a human is sitting in front of him,” she said.

“A lot of people will have buried their heads in the sand for months and months before asking for help. If they’re coming in for a meeting, you can go through the paperwork with them and get the momentum to support that client. If it’s more of a phone call saying we’ll send you forms and send them back, it can turn into another unopened letter and the momentum and motivation is gone.

She said the idea that people with limited digital access or, in some cases, unable to speak English or even read at a basic level, could access more effective support through the internet or through a counseling center. calls is unrealistic.

“It sounds like a bunch of middle class people who think everything works the same way in their world and frankly it doesn’t. There appears to be a complete inability to understand or empathize with people in crisis over debt. But with changes in family circumstances or a few missed paychecks, it could happen to any of us. “

She added that she was particularly concerned that the reforms would force service providers to fund translation services themselves, putting additional pressure on budgets.

During the Westminster Hall debate, MPs highlighted the life-saving nature of debt counseling charities, citing the 100,000 or so suicide attempts seen each year due to debt problems.

Ms Kayani said: “I had a lady who had been helped by one of our debt counselors call me and she told me that the way she was supported had actually saved her life. She had been suicidal because of the debt.

“She said she kept losing momentum, but the counselor just helped kick him and she turned the tables.

“If it was a call center and you were working on targets, what are the chances that they could keep going back and giving that kind of attention to the lady we helped?”

“Unfortunately, we have seen clients commit suicide because of their debts. It’s not a ‘it could happen’, people do. “

“The changes will help more people get help”

The Money and Pensions Service said the planned changes will allow more people to access debt counseling.

A spokesperson said: “Even before the financial impact of the pandemic, we knew that the demand for debt counseling and the need for us to increase the number of clients assisted would increase dramatically beyond counseling sessions. on the debt assumed by MaPS in 2019/20.

“This demand will remain high in the years to come, which is why we must seize this opportunity throughout the commissioning process to allow more people to access free expert debt advice each year.” .

“We have increased the overall funding available to provide debt advice in the years to come and instead of dictating the channel through which that advice should be delivered, we have asked providers to develop services that best meet the needs of the client. customer needs.

“Our evidence (including feedback from debt counselors and debt counseling providers) tells us that there will be a number of people who will require face-to-face support to meet their needs. , and so we have taken steps to secure in-person debt counseling. remains an important part of our funded services.

“Our research (including recently with the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute) found that many people, including some of the most vulnerable in our society, actively prefer digital or phone channels because of their greater anonymity and of the flexibility they offer. Being able to access advice from home can also be beneficial for people who would have difficulty showing up for an appointment (or series of appointments) in person. Results for individuals are comparable across face-to-face and remote debt counseling channels.

“We asked the bidders to come up with a service offering based on their own knowledge and experience in relation to our requirements. Therefore, until successful offers are confirmed, we will not experience any change in the proportion or total volumes of debt advice provided through individual channels. We cannot comment further as we are in the midst of an on-line procurement exercise which is commercially sensitive.

“MaPS did not order any advice based specifically on the channel. We have asked the bidders to propose a service offer based on their own knowledge and experience in relation to our requirements. Therefore, until successful offers are confirmed, we will not experience any change in the proportion or total volumes of debt advice provided through individual channels.

“MaPS requires suppliers to ensure that customers who access the service with additional language needs, visual or hearing impairments have access to translation services. This must be quantified in the financing offers of the suppliers.

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