ADVICE NI is the independent  advice network in Northern Ireland, providing advice on social security, money and debt, employment rights and many other issues.

Bob Stronge, Chief Executive of Advice NI has delivered a sombre assessment of the pressures facing advisers, and clients who are “fearful and distressed”by welfare reform, the pandemic, and the cost of living crisis.

In a statement released on 26 October, Stronge said:

As the new Prime Minister talks about a “profound economic crisis’” facing the country it is worth remembering that independent advice services have been to the fore, working flat out, often in crisis mode, for the last decade and more, supporting people in need, often in crisis situations. This comes at a cost and is taking its toll on the well-being of advisers.

Ongoing welfare reform and changes to the social security system have impacted the finances of the poorest and most vulnerable in our community, and there is no end in sight as many thousands of people (with over 250,000 separate benefit awards) are set to be affected by the compulsory ‘Move to Universal Credit’ process over the next two years.

Advisers stepped up during the pandemic by continuing to deliver vital advice services albeit via digital and telephony channels. In addition, the advice network delivered the Covid-19 Community Helpline which was a key support channel for those seeking emergency food at the beginning of the pandemic, those seeking emergency fuel support, and those seeking clarification on public health messages. The situation is much worse now as many of the Covid support and assistance schemes have come to an end.

Now, yet again, the advice sector is playing a key role in helping people through the current cost of living crisis. People on the lowest incomes, both in and out of work, find themselves disproportionately affected by rising inflation; crushing energy bills, and faced with the stark choice of going cold or hungry to make ends meet.

On a daily basis advisers are helping people in crisis: trying to maximise their income; checking social security entitlement; reviewing expenditures; renegotiating repayments; accessing local crisis support for food or other essential items from local community organisations or from energy company emergency funds. But this is not enough and the sector needs more support to meet the many challenges that people are facing.

In just the last four weeks we have seen greater demands placed on our services and we expect this to grow substantially through the coming months.

Surviving this crisis should now be the focus and to that end, there are a number of things that need to happen:

  • Restoration of the NI Executive to agree a budget and bring forward support measures to deliver for the people who are in crisis right now. Wider political and ideological issues can and should be dealt with in tandem with the restoration of a functioning Executive;
  • The UK Government need to commit to social security benefit uprating in line with inflation for those out of work and in low paid work;
  • Proper, sustained support for the independent advice network is required to enable us to do what we do best and that is to continue to support the people that need it most.

* Contact Advice NI’s helpline on 0800 915 4604

* Source: Advice NI