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  • Author or Editor: Alison Kite x
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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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Increasing numbers of people in the United Kingdom find themselves needing advice and support in dealing with a growing range of problems. Whether it is a dispute with one’s employer, a stop on one’s benefit payments, an impending eviction, or a default on a debt, the background to this book is the rising number of individuals with ‘civil law’ issues that can rapidly lead to situations of crisis. These growing problems have a troubled relationship to the current period of ‘austerity’. Presented alongside an increasingly familiar narrative of ‘tightening our belts’ and ‘living within our means’, a series of policies pursued by UK governments since 2010 have intensified such problems, while the reductions in public funding that they have mandated, most notably to the Civil Legal Aid budget, have reduced the range and scope of many public organisations to offer advice or support. At the same time, there has been an expectation that voluntary organisations would somehow ‘fill the gap’ left by the withdrawal of public services – an expectation exemplified in David Cameron’s image of the ‘Big Society’. As a consequence, voluntary organisations providing advice and support find themselves at a particularly acute junction of these social and economic pressures – while facing problems of their own, not least reductions in their funding as the ‘austerity’ cuts work their way through the funding system.

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