7: Power and Legality in Benefits Advice

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Since the 1990s, many Citizens Advice Bureaux have run advice sessions based in GP surgeries, in recognition of the links between poverty, poor health and the need for advice. Research has shown that such services are effective in improving benefits uptake and may also contribute to psychological health. In this chapter I broaden this focus by exploring how advice impacts on issues of powerlessness which have been shown to be central to the experience of poverty and social exclusion. I draw upon qualitative interviews which were carried out with 12 Citizens Advice clients who attended a GP-based advice service in 2012; clients were drawn from two bureaux, one based in a rural area in Wales and one in an urban area in the South West. I argue that the ‘powerlessness’ observed among clients as they sought to negotiate the benefits system does not imply that they are passive victims in this process, but rather individuals whose ability to take action is constrained by a lack of resources and power. I further explore the key role played by the Citizens Advice service in addressing these critical imbalances.

Eleven of the clients who were interviewed had long-term health problems and one was a full-time carer for his wife. All had sought advice about welfare benefits, with the majority seeking advice about disability and/or sickness benefit claims. At the time of the research, an increasing number of Citizens Advice clients were seeking advice about Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which had replaced Incapacity Benefit and Income Support for people unable to work because of long-term health problems or disability.

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Advising in Austerity
Reflections on challenging times for advice agencies
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