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Reflections on challenging times for advice agencies

Available Open Access under CC-BY-NC licence.

In a world dominated by austerity politics and policies, Advising in austerity provides a lively and thought-provoking account of the conditions, consequences and challenges of advice work in the UK, presenting a rare and rich view of the world of advice giving. Based on original research it examines how advisors negotiate the private troubles of those who come to Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB) and construct ways forward. Exploring how advisors are trained, the strong contributor team reflect on the challenges facing Citizens Advice Bureaux in the future, where austerity will ensure that the need for advice services increase, while funding for such services declines.

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Second unsupervised inteMy diary of participating in the Citizens Advice training programme is littered with these experiences. Notes on Debt Relief Order procedure are followed by my own worries about forgotten credit cards or the Council Tax Bill – debt in the abstract intertwining with debt as personal anxiety. We are used to thinking of debt as a question of morality (I am frequently reminded by friends that both Swedish and German hold the same word for ‘debt’ as for ‘guilt’), or of time: debt as the purchasing of today’s consumption with tomorrow’s labour. It is unusual to think of debt as a legal question. Yet it is through debt that many people will become enmeshed within the reaches of law, whether being forced to engage with the power of a contract or to question the nature of ownership. What defines different debts, as opposed to debt generally, are the legal framings that shape, among other things, how, when and by whom they can be enforced and collected.

I will explore here what debt advice tells us about how ‘law’ and ‘life’ are intertwined in the practice of advice. This intertwining, I argue, has important implications for the ongoing role of advice in the context of an assumption, presented in a Ministry of Justice paper that preceded the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), that volunteer advisers merely provide the public with ‘practical’ information (MoJ, 2010). I will focus on the question raised by this assumption: is there a difference between the advice they give and formal ‘legal advice’, and does this difference matter?

From our interviews and diaries of the Citizens Advice training programme, trainees noted that, compared to the perils of negotiating the labyrinthine intricacies of the UK benefits system, debt advice appears reasonably straightforward.

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This chapter presents an edited interview with Gail Bowen-Huggett, Advice Development Coordinator for ACFA: The Advice Network (formerly Advice Services for Avon). Gail had a background in the commercial sector before becoming in 2004 a manager at Bristol Debt Advice Centre (now Talking Money). Following this she became involved with ACFA, managing the network as it led a series of projects between 2013 and 2016 funded by the Advice Services Transition Fund (ASTF).

The interview provides an overview of a period in which the advice sector has been subject to significant changes and faced multiple challenges. Gail observes the effect of the loss of Legal Services Commission contracts and the role the ASTF played in mitigating this loss, questioning the capacity of the fund to create the changes it envisaged. From her experience of working with multiple agencies, she reflects upon the challenges faced by organisations with diverse funding arrangements, organisational structures and community needs. She argues in this respect for the importance of respecting the difference between paid staff and volunteers, thus highlighting a theme explored in John Clarke’s chapter (Ten), namely the unique nature of the reliance upon volunteer advisers within the Citizens Advice service. Despite these differences, Gail emphasises a theme discussed in Part Three of this book, namely the central importance of face-to-face advice, and the dangerous implications of an assumption that it can be abandoned.

SK: In the context of the cuts we have seen to the funding of advice agencies, I’ll start by asking what the key challenges are in managing funding contracts.

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Drawing on data from a research study of workers who sought justice following a dispute at work, this paper examines exclusion from systems of justice as a crucial element in understandings of poverty and social exclusion. We focus on the stories of those who attempt to use the employment tribunal system, which illustrate the multiple barriers to justice experienced by these workers. Arguing that the employment tribunal system provides a crucial forum independent from the workplace which can put a brake on prejudicial and arbitrary actions by employers, we conclude with suggestions for reform.

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Looming behind the formidable spectres haunting Europe is a rising tide of indebted households. This chapter focuses upon the United Kingdom, where a perfect storm of measures has caused a fundamental change in the very meaning of ‘household debt’. In this chapter we focus upon the temporal frameworks of debt, challenging the dominant understanding of debt as imposing a ‘disciplinary’ framework of time upon the subject. Across two bodies of fieldwork – with the advice sector and with debtors – we trace not only the imposition, management and varied narratives of ‘disciplinary’ structurings of time, but also the ‘moments’ in which they crack, fragment, or are suspended. We show how the ways in which debt is sold, managed and collected, as well as the practices through which debtors consider multiple futures in their negotiations of debt, weave other forms of time into the indebted everyday. We show also how the stagnation and irregularity of household budgets renders the disciplinary edifice of debt increasingly unstable. Following the work of Lisa Adkins, we bring these non-disciplinary ‘moments’ together under the remit of ‘speculative time’.

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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.

Open access