Questions raised over council assessment of Citizens Advice cuts
PUBLISHED: 21:22 29 January 2019 | UPDATED: 09:17 30 January 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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”.
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.
“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.
“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”.