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Questions raised over council assessment of Citizens Advice cuts

PUBLISHED: 21:22 29 January 2019 | UPDATED: 09:17 30 January 2019

Staff and volunteers from Suffolk branches of Citizens Advice outside Endeavour House, Ipswich, ahead of the  Suffolk County Council cabinet meeting discussing funding cuts. Picture: NELLEKE VAN HELFTEREN

Staff and volunteers from Suffolk branches of Citizens Advice outside Endeavour House, Ipswich, ahead of the Suffolk County Council cabinet meeting discussing funding cuts. Picture: NELLEKE VAN HELFTEREN

NELLEKE VAN HELFTEREN

Citizens Advice services in Suffolk have dismissed claims they can find funding elsewhere in light of county council grant cuts - while criticism emerged over the council's consultation.

Nicky Wiltshire from Citizens Advice. Picture: GREGG BROWNNicky Wiltshire from Citizens Advice. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Staff and volunteers from Citizens Advice teams across the county gathered outside Endeavour House in Ipswich ahead of yesterday’s cabinet meeting to raise concerns over planned cutbacks in the region of £368,000.

In November Suffolk County Council announced a planned axe to the grant it gives Citizens Advice services from April, which it amended to a phased withdrawal over two years following pressure.

An equality impact assessment was carried out encouraging the public to share their thoughts, but concerns have been raised that the results of that assessment – which only closed on January 23 – have not been taken into account.

Nicky Willshire, head of Ipswich Citizens Advice, said the council’s claim that the grant was 8.6% of its core funding was wide of the mark.

Citizens Advice is set to lose £368,000 in grabnt funding. Picture: CITIZENS ADVICECitizens Advice is set to lose £368,000 in grabnt funding. Picture: CITIZENS ADVICE

The council said it was helping Citizens Advice to find alternative funding streams, but the service said those alternative funding streams were only available for projects rather than core funding.

Ms Willshire added: “We all attended a workshop and they couldn’t tell us anything we are not all doing already. We are very experienced fundraisers.

“I am concerned about the equality impact assessment. It was hurriedly carried out over the Christmas period.

“There have been no focus groups, no service users involved.”

Richard Rout praised the work of Citizens Advice but said he was confident it could continue its high level iof service despite the cuts. Picture: CONTRIBUTEDRichard Rout praised the work of Citizens Advice but said he was confident it could continue its high level iof service despite the cuts. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

Ms Willshire said the service could not rule out having to cut some staff if changes were not made, and could have a serious impact on its ability to deliver services.

A petition against the cuts has already gathered more than 6,250 signatures.

Richard Rout, cabinet member for environment and public protection at Suffolk County Council, said: “Our discussions [with Citizens Advice staff] were wide ranging and touched on opportunities around premises, fundraising activities, level of support from town and parish councils and potential for organisational change and savings this could deliver.”

Mr Rout hailed the “great efforts” of the services in supporting residents but said there were ways it could “continue to provide a good level of service across Suffolk”.

Labour group leader Sarah Adams raised concerns with the Citizens Advice cuts. Picture: GREGG BROWNLabour group leader Sarah Adams raised concerns with the Citizens Advice cuts. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Labour reaction

Councillor Sarah Adams, Labour group leader, said: “It is clear that Suffolk County Council consultations are not worth the paper they are written on.

“On this occasion, they conducted a consultation but did not even bother to present it to the cabinet ahead of the meeting.

“The policy was decided before the consultation was even completed so residents will, understandably, be asking ‘what is the point?’ in engaging with the democratic process.

Penny Otton said universal credit was already impacting on Citizens Advice without the cuts to funding. Picture: GREGG BROWNPenny Otton said universal credit was already impacting on Citizens Advice without the cuts to funding. Picture: GREGG BROWN

“There were plenty of warm words and platitudes from Cllr Rout, but he did nothing to offer substantive explanations, despite having claimed to have read the impact assessment on the service.

“Whilst the cabinet struggled to find the answers to simple questions, their Tory colleagues on the backbenches, many of whom are also district councillors, failed to ask even one question on the subject.”

Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent reaction

Councillor Penny Otton, spokesman for education with the Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent group, said: “We do have some major concerns with the reduction to Citizens Advice.

Green councillor Andrew Stringer questioned the phased withdrawal of Citizens Advice funding. Picture: SCCGreen councillor Andrew Stringer questioned the phased withdrawal of Citizens Advice funding. Picture: SCC

“Councillor [Gordon] Jones [cabinet member for education] has already said there is an increase in children going into care, and as far as I can see the district and parishes will have to deal with the backlog of problems that could well result in problems from universal credit.

“We already know what a complete nightmare that has proved to be.”

Group leader Andrew Stringer said the Citizens Advice cuts were not a “phased withdrawal” as described in the cabinet papers but a 100% reduction.

He said it was “a shot across the bow and out the other side,” and added that district and parish councillors he had spoken to described it as “nasty and vindictive – it seems to be hitting those most in need”.

READ MORE: How much your council tax will rise by from April 2019

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