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Citizens Advice Bureau
Citizens Advice Bureau
Back Lane, Rochford, SS4 1AY

Tel. 0844 477 0808
Talking to Sue Murray, District Manager of Rochford & Rayleigh  Citizens Advice Bureau
(13th July 2012)

Rochford Life:  Sue, how would you summarise the work of CAB?
Sue: We provide advice and information for people on the issues that they are facing day to day, and we also campaign for change; we campaign for policy procedures to be changed that adversely affect people, learning from what our clients bring in, that we recognise are problems that could affect other people as well.  We provide a free service with no charge for anyone, that is completely confidential, independent and impartial. We are non-judgmental, we don’t judge people but just deal with the issues that they’ve got at the time.

Part 1: Providing Information & Advice

RL: Let’s take the information side first. You provide information, help through advice for people. What sort of things?
Sue:  The biggest number of issues that people bring in to us are to do with benefits. Benefits cover a lot of areas, so for instance if someone has lost a job, there could be a benefit entitlement there. If they become ill we could look at benefits there. Really it’s any time there is a change in their situation – loss of job, getting married, having children, for example. Another large area that comes up is debt, and recently we’ve seen an increase in problems that people have with priority debts, and that could be paying mortgage, rent or council tax, that sort of thing. A lot of people come in with those sorts of things and we’d much prefer they come before there is a problem if possible; it’s easier to deal with them then.  
RL:  You used the word ‘advice’ just now, but do you actually provide counselling for debt, how do I get out of this debt and so on?
Sue:  Yes, we do. We provide advice on how to deal with issues in their situation, so we’ll give them options of things that they can do. It’s up to them to decide what they do; we don’t tell them what to do, but it’s often more than just information. For some people information is sufficient for them but for others it could be a complex situation, or it could be that they are not capable of dealing with it because of what life is throwing at them at the present; we all go through times when we need that bit more help.  So we can provide specialist advice for people with certain issues. Where we can, if the situation isn’t complex, we just provide people with the information to deal with it themselves, if they are able to.   

RL: I presume they must come back more than once or twice to see you sometimes?
Sue:  Some people do, yes. If it’s specialist case work, yes they would, but how people approach the Bureau now is through the initial assessment. Everybody, either coming to the Bureau or telephoning us, will have an initial assessment. What we used to find was that we just couldn’t deal with everybody, and so people were waiting hours.  Some people don’t need a full-blown advice interview, they need just that little bit of information and prompting in the right direction, or they might need to go somewhere else instead of us, so we have that short assessment to determine their need, and the wait generally isn’t too long for that, and they’ll be seen that day. Sometimes it will be by telephone, and then we can either book them an appointment for a later date, say for an hour when they will see a trained advisor, or a trainee advisor under supervision, and can be given the advice they need, how it affects them, what in their situation they could do, what their options are, and what the implications of those options are as well.   
RL: So that is debt or money issues. What about the law?
Sue:  Legal issues? We’re not legally trained but we are backed up by Citizens Advice who provide us with quality assured information and we are trained to actually use that information and give advice to individual enquiries that are made of us. We can refer to solicitors if that is needed, but if that is so then we prepare them. We talk about costs, about Legal Aid, the circumstances of the case and so on, to enable them to get the best out of a solicitor’s appointment so they are not wasting money there. There are some things that people don’t need to go to a solicitor for, and we deal with housing issues and employment issues; tax we can refer on but we can give some advice on tax issues. We also have access to Legal Aid in certain areas through Citizens Advice. We develop specialisms in the Bureau, or in another Bureau that we work closely with, and Citizens Advice itself supplies us with specialists’ support so we are backed up by a lot of information and help     

RL: Do people moving into the District approach you with requests for where they will find the local doctor, say?
Sue:  We get that sometimes but there is a lot of information on the Rochford District Council web-site about that if you are moving into the area. We do get some people who come back time and time again about different issues, which is fine;  we’re here for anyone and everyone, and some people come to us just for a one-off, and then they’re fine.

RL: How many of you are there providing this service?
Sue:  We have seven paid staff, myself managing the organisation, and a money advice specialist and her assistant  (and we’ve just had funding for that but it’s only for a year) and we have paid supervisors. We always have a supervisor on who actually supervises the volunteers because we have to be very careful about the advice that is given out, making sure that it is correct, and also to maintain quality, because every three years we have an audit and we’ve just been assessed as giving very good advice, so we want to maintain that.

RL: You must do some fairly serious training for all this?
Sue:  Yes, we have a Training and Development Manager who is paid, and we have about seventy volunteers in total that cover the Rochford District  as a whole, with two offices, one in Rochford and one in Rayleigh, but we are one organisation, one charity, and we are responsible for our own fund-raising which is a massive challenge. When the volunteers come to us we have an interview process and we need to make sure that the volunteers are going to be able to cope and have the aptitude to take on the training, because it is a big commitment they are giving. To become an advisor it can mean training for a year; we ask for two days a week now. Then there are the people who do the initial assessments, and that is much quicker but thorough training,  then there are receptionists and admin workers, and we have trustees, so there are a lot of people involved.    

RL: Are you up to date with volunteers or are you always looking for volunteers?
Sue:  At the moment it is not too bad. There are one or two areas of work where we have difficulties in actually recruiting volunteers and that tends to be our Financial Capability work, which is preventative work. This is helping people to apply budgeting skills and that sort of thing, so helping prevent problems occurring, preventing people getting into debt, giving them skills to manage their money. In addition we provide a service, it’s quite a limited service that we can provide, where we go round to people’s homes and complete complex benefit forms with them; they’re mainly disability benefits and attendance allowance, and a form can take two hours to complete. Many people are put off by this massive booklet and so don’t claim what they could be entitled to, and so we’ve got that service, but we always have problems recruiting for that role and for the Financial Capability roles.

Part 2: Campaigning Work

RL: Right, can we go on to the second side of your work, to the campaigning work?
Sue:  This is about policy issues and where there could have been policies that have been adopted by an organisation, say the Department of Work and Pensions, and it’s about how do those policies affect people on a day to day basis, what about the procedures that have been put into place, and are people able to access the services easily, are they being stopped from claiming benefits  that they could be entitled to because of a procedure that the, say for instance, Department of Work and Pensions have put in place?  It could be the local authority; we have a close working relationship with them, so we’ll talk with them. It can start from Headquarters or it can start from the Bureau itself. With the Bureau we have what we call evidence forms...  

RL: Could you just clarify ‘Bureau, please?
Sue:  Citizens Advice is an umbrella organisation and all Citizens Advice Bureau in the community belong to that organisation and they are required to have an audit. Each Bureau is an independent organisation, a separate charity, so we can decide how we will run but Citizens Advice have set down a number of criteria to which we have to conform. With the ‘campaigning for change’, Citizens Advice themselves might initiate it so, for instance, the Employment and Support allowance has been introduced recently, replacing incapacity benefit , so they would be looking closely at how that is working out day to day. What happens is the Bureau would feed into national Citizens Advice, the umbrella organisation,  cases that we have that we think are not fair, and where we think these people aren’t getting what they should be getting, or say the medical criteria that they need to go through suggest that they are not being treated fairly. That sort of thing we feed back and they would campaign on a national level there.    

Continue to PART 2 of this article

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