On 1 January 2019, with the support of Scotland's free debt advice sector, the Scottish Government took responsibility for overseeing levy funding to support free debt advice in Scotland. This represents only a small portion of the total money spent on free debt advice each year – likely around £4 million annually, under the current settlement – and it does not represent new money for advice provision. However, it means that for the first time, the Scottish Government will be able to shape how the money is spent.
I want to make sure what we do with that money makes a real difference. Problem debt can increase stress, put strain on families and friendships, exacerbate poverty, and, in the most serious cases, result in people being evicted from their homes. And often, it affects those who are already struggling – such as people with mental health issues or low incomes.
Intervention at an early stage can help mitigate many of these outcomes, and yet evidence consistently shows that people delay getting help, out of either fear or uncertainty over where to turn. Even so, advice providers struggle to meet demand for debt advice, or to ensure that those who seek it always get the help they need when they need it.
The levy funding devolved in January cannot alone resolve these issues. However, the Scottish Government has listened to the feedback of those who best understand the challenges of providing free debt advice, and we will work with the advice sector to ensure that the levy complements and builds on what already works, and targets areas where we have been told change is needed.
In doing so, we also recognise that problem debt often occurs alongside other issues, such as housing, low incomes and family breakdown. Although this routemap is focused on debt advice, we will not consider the issue in isolation, and will work to design integrated solutions and to use learning from the levy funding projects to influence Scottish Government policy across wider advice services.
Our first step was to form the Tackling Problem Debt Group (TPDG), to ensure our interventions are informed by real-world expertise. Their recommendations underpin this routemap. I am grateful to all who gave their time, and to those stakeholders from the sector who have attended events or spoken with us privately. The passion and dedication of those who work to provide free debt advice is our greatest asset.
This routemap sets out our ambition, and a commitment to undertake the hard work needed to deliver it in genuine partnership with those who work on the frontlines. I also acknowledge that this is only the beginning of our work – much of what is set out here recognises that there are significant challenges to overcome and does not propose specific solutions. Instead, we highlight where further work must be done, or greater involvement from advisers and funders is needed. This represents a greater chance to bring lasting change.
Jamie Hepburn MSP
Minister for Business Fair Work and Skills