FEATURE: Bureau helps those in need in austere times

Jane Ballard, district manager of Suffolk West Citizens Advice Bureau, for Bigger Read feature.
Jane Ballard, district manager of Suffolk West Citizens Advice Bureau, for Bigger Read feature.
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As the cold scythe of austerity silently slices through budgets and benefits, Jane Ballard witnesses the pain.

The 58-year-old is district manager of Suffolk West Citizens Advice Bureau - a guiding light for many in bleak times.

Through a skilled arsenal of mainly volunteers the charity helps fight benefit cuts and relieve debt while acting as a hive of guidance on money, legal and consumer issues.

Citizens Advice has served the Bury St Edmunds community for nearly 50 years and to dust off a weathered cliche it is needed now more than ever.

From the Bureau’s Bury office, in Risbygate Street, Mrs Ballard says: “The pressure on people’s household budgets is as bad or restrictive as it has ever been and what will happen in the future I don’t know.

“The difficulty is trying not to absolutely panic people but clearly the Government has a continuing welfare reform agenda and we’re reacting to the impact of each change as it happens.”

Giving an eye watering taste of the squeeze on the public purse, benefits account for the highest number of their enquiries.

Falling in line with the Government’s trajectory, Jobcentre Plus is implementing sanctions and benefit suspensions ‘to a greater extent than they’ve done before’.

“We’re getting people coming in who literally have no money. We can look at why they were sanctioned, help them to appeal and help them with food parcels,” Mrs Ballard explains.

“Unfortunately the Government’s crisis loans and community care grants went at the end of April so there’s a very basic level of help available now.”

The Suffolk West Bureau, which covers Bury, Haverhill, Brandon and Mildenhall, has ‘a very good success rate’ at appeals with £969,934 confirmed ongoing benefits received in 2011/12 including £302,077 in Bury.

Meanwhile, the total debts written off that financial year stood at £2,034,511 with £133,128 in Bury.

The figures could be seen to challenge the comfy as a pair of slippers Middle England veneer of Bury.

“People view Bury as a prosperous town but we’re dealing with millions of pounds of new debt every year, there are housing problems, homelessness and a lot of people on welfare benefits. It’s a misconception that these sort of social problems don’t exist on our doorstep.

“The difficulty we find is that in getting funding, it is often targeted towards areas which can produce very clear deprivation statistics. In that situation Bury doesn’t fair as well. We’re still having pockets of real deprivation and there are issues other than financial deprivation.”

Housing is problem - expensive to buy and rent while the ‘bedroom tax’ is pushing residents in larger social housing properties into smaller ones which ‘just aren’t there for them to access’.

The Bureau runs a lodgers’ scheme and is always looking for new landlords to add to their list.

“There are people who could be earning extra money from lodgers which would really help to relieve the pressure on the housing situation for single people,” Mrs Ballard explains.

Meanwhile, in the rural areas fuel is more expensive, public transport difficult to access and internet speeds can be glacial.

One of the Bureau’s key areas of work targets the root of surviving austerity - money management.

“It’s helping people to look at how they spend their money as it is more limited and for them to see what their priorities are to ensure they keep a roof over their head.”

Citizens Advice keeps this vital work going thanks to a patchwork of funding from St Edmundsbury Borough, Forest Heath District, Mid Suffolk District and South Cambridgeshire Councils as well as donations from a variety of other organisations.

It also down to the dedication of volunteers, who make up 80 per cent of the workforce, and come from a wide variety of backgrounds. They have to go through a comprehensive training programme and work with session supervisors.

Case workers also take on benefit claims, child support and consumer issues.

Mrs Ballard, who is one of only two full time members of paid staff, says: “The demand is constant so the amount of work that we’ve been doing with clients has been increasing.

“There was a peak when the recession started and since then the work has become more complex which has meant we haven’t in each of the sites seen more clients but we have been doing more work on behalf of clients.”

Their next step is developing the Bureau’s telephone advice.

“We’re getting a new telephone system which will be a great help but obviously we had to get the funding - each step we take we need funding.”

It was changes in funding which led to the merger of the Bury, Haverhill, Brandon and Mildenhall Bureaux in 2011.

Despite the pressures, the work remains rewarding for Mrs Ballard, who has been involved with Citizens Advice for 20 years starting as a voluntary adviser after working as a producer for a small film production company in London.

She says: “It’s always interesting and you can see that what you’re doing is making a difference.”

For those who are struggling, she warns them to come forward before their fortunes plummet.

“All I’m trying to suggest is people come and talk to us when they feel they might be getting into difficulties rather than waiting until the problems have happened.

“That’s the key to it - if people have debts we can start taking action to relieve that pressure but once people are in the position where they face losing their home it takes a lot more work and there’s no guarantee we can save it for them the later they come in.”