Citizens Advice has been offering free, independent, and confidential advice on a range of issues covering welfare, consumer and debt problems for over seventy years.
Their service has never been in greater demand as the Coalition Government’s cuts begin to squeeze families across the North East.
Knowing your rights can help you navigate an increasingly complex benefit system following the Government’s unprecedented changes to welfare – cutting £18 billion from the benefit bill with a further £10 billion worth of cuts in the pipe line.
The North East continues to bear the brunt of the Coalition Government’s cuts with approximately 60,000 people being moved off incapacity benefit of which 35,000 are being forced out of the benefit system altogether, following tougher medical examinations conducted by the discredited ATOS Healthcare. This will take away £170 million out of the North East economy at a time of rising unemployment here in East Durham.
In recent weeks and months we have lost over a thousand jobs just within the Easington Constituency with factory closures at Cumbrian Seafoods, Seaham, JD Sports and Dewhirsts, Peterlee. The North East region is also suffering with the closure of Kerry Foods, Durham, and BAE’s announcement of 600 job losses affecting Washington, and Newcastle. These losses are in addition to the 32,668 public sector jobs forecast to be lost in the North East by 2017. Government austerity is taking the demand out of the economy which is hitting private and public sector jobs here in Easington.
Government austerity has undermined jobs and growth in our region, and there is disquiet over their welfare changes. Research by Citizens Advice has raised concerns about inaccurate medical assessments by ATOS that are creating huge difficulties and undermining the welfare system. They found that nearly 40 per cent of incapacity benefits appeals are overturned in favour of the claimant, of these 60 per cent were originally awarded no points following an ATOS medical assessment.
A Daily Mirror investigation has found that 32 people die each week after being found “fit to work” by an ATOS healthcare medical assessment. However, as the Government continues to force through unprecedented changes in welfare, there are no signs of improvement in the quality of medical assessments.
Katie Lane, head of Citizen Advice welfare policy said:
“We have always supported the idea that people who could work and want to work should be helped to do that. But we are seeing a lot of seriously ill and disabled people being found fit for work.
“We have serious concerns about whether the test used to decide if people are fit for work is the right test.”
Despite their failings ATOS Healthcare continue to enjoy bumper profits at taxpayer expense. Every inaccurate assessment leads to costly appeals and tribunals, as well as incalculable damage to the claimant. The Government have no mechanism to recoup this cost from ATOS’s £100 million a year public contract or any desire to do so as they continue to force people off welfare.
Citizens Advice has not been spared from Government axes. In the face of increasing demand Government funding has been cut by 23 per cent, to a total of just £137million across their 400 offices in England and Wales.
Cynics may suggest that the Government are cutting support to Citizens Advice so people cannot effectively challenge new processes and medical assessments. For the Government it is one way to reduce the benefit bill, as flawed decisions will go unchallenged, but will leave vulnerable people without the support they need.
While Citizens Advice offices are closing across the country, Seaham will be welcoming a new centre to be based on Shakespeare Street. The new office will be open three days a week offering free information and advice.
Even in these difficult times Citizens Advice continues to innovate and have recently launched a whole host of new and updated advice, information and helpful features for consumers on its website, www.adviceguide.org.uk, including top tips, interactive letters to help consumers to make a complaint and details of what to do next to solve your consumer problem.
The new online advice is part of Citizens Advice consumer service, launched on 2 April 2012, which also provides over the phone advice. Anyone looking for phone advice on a consumer issue can call 08454 04 05 06. The phone service is available from 9.00am to 5.00pm on weekdays.
You can find all of the new consumer content on Advice guide at http://www.adviceguide.org.uk/england/consumer_e.htm.