CAB chief calls for backing of Berwick service

Residents in need of advice and support are being reminded that help is available in Berwick.

Friday, 27th April 2018, 12:05 pm
The Tweed Street premises of Berwick Voluntary Centre and the CAB.

Abigail Conway, chief executive of Citizens Advice Northumberland, has made a plea for more people to take advantage of its services.

She admitted there had been a marked reduction in people accessing the Berwick centre since it was restructured last year with the loss of several staff.

At a Berwick Town Council meeting, she said: “The changes we made last year as part of our county-wide restructure impacted Berwick more severely than elsewhere, mainly due to staff leaving us because they were unwilling or unable to work elsewhere to carry out their duties.

“While we have maintained and increased face-to-face drop-ins, fewer people have come to see us. Drop-off from the first two quarters of last year to the next two is 20 per cent but we are still seeing over 1,000 people in Berwick this financial year and have managed to achieve over £250,000 of income gained for Berwick clients and actually had £27,000 of debt written off in that period, which obviously has a net benefit for the town

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“We know there is a need in Berwick and we can service it.”

The Berwick service had been maintained in recent months through the support of volunteers from Alnwick and Amble.

However, there has been an upturn in volunteering interest from Berwick and a recruitment campaign is planned this summer.

“We’ve had 10 expressions of interest so far this year compared to only three last year so I think we’ve turned the tide with regard to people wanting to come back and support Citizens Advice,” she said.

Berwick has an advice service manager, an advice line service, employment, training and education support, benefit support and specialist money and debt advice workers.

Benefits and tax credits are the most common issues.

That is expected to increase as universal credit is rolled out. Debt, unemployment and housing issues are also commonplace.

Citizens Advice Northumberland trustee John Woodman told councillors that the restructure was necessary after it lost one-third of its funding, resulting in the number of permanent employees being cut from 52 to 44.

“That is a matter os great regret but is something we had to do,” he said.

He added: “We’ve created a central office for telephone, digital and support work and are renegotiating our space in various towns across Northumberland to reduce costs.

“We’ve had good conversations in Berwick and have released some of the rooms we had in Berwick Voluntary Forum to reduce our costs so we now hope we can stay there in the longer term but on a part time basis.

“We said we would continue with a staff presence in Berwick offering a face to face and drop in service and we’ve done this on Wednesdays and Fridays.”

He admitted the restructure had been a painful process but it has given the organisation some financial stability and a greater flexibility of service.

Ms Conway revealed that the group had previously receiving about 1,000 calls a month into its telephone service but was only able to answer about 30 per cent of them.

Since restructuring, over last six months, there had been 8,500 calls and 60-65 per cent of them had been answered. That percentage was increasing as more volunteers were recruited.

“I think that’s important because part of the restructure was about enabling people to access Citizens Advice services through whatever means they choose,” she said. “Some people will always want to meet face to face and we want to maintain that ability to have those sessions. Increasingly people want to call or access us through digital channels so we need to provide a unique, holistic service that we’re able to deliver a service where and when people need it.”