The latest figures show that 14.2 percent of people in Scotland are in what is known as problem debt or over-indebtedness, which is defined as people who say they find keeping up with their bills and credit commitments a 'heavy burden', or that they have missed payments for bills and/or credit commitments in three or more of the last six months. Of these, it is estimated that around 20.5 percent will seek advice from a free debt advice provider. In Scotland, there are a range of options for receiving this help – from national helplines to local face-to-face providers, for example in local authorities or Citizens Advice Bureaux.
Although it is difficult to be certain, there is little evidence to suggest the number of people experiencing problem debt will decline in the near future, and many of those who provide frontline advice report that numbers are increasing and will continue to do so. Even at current rates, there is clear concern from advice providers that demand for debt advice far outstrips capacity to provide it, and that this problem is exacerbated by and a cause of low staff morale and high turnover.
Technology offers some promise of alleviating this – automating parts of the advice journey, enabling those who can to help themselves, and freeing up advisers to focus on those who need the most support. However, many of these technological advances are nascent, and financial investment and careful deployment is necessary to ensure they reach their full potential whilst keeping users at the centre of the advice journey.
It is in this context that the debt advice levy was devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and the sector have urged the Scottish Government to look afresh at how the funding is distributed.
Since 2012, the levy has been used to support UK-wide helplines, and to fund a variety of face-to-face projects. These projects were in the main part of a programme designed and administered by the Money Advice Service (since merged into the Money and Pensions Service) and the Scottish Legal Aid Board. The programme trialled innovative approaches to offering debt advice or sought to reach under-served or harder to reach populations, such as those experiencing domestic abuse.
Most of the projects were established as pilots, although the majority were renewed on an annual basis. They ensured support was available to some of Scotland's most vulnerable citizens, and we must now understand how the levy funding can be used to expand this support across Scotland, while responding to new financial and technological challenges.
The TPDG was established for this purpose, and brought together expertise from across the free debt advice sector, including Money Advice Scotland, Citizens Advice Scotland, COSLA, StepChange, and the Scottish Legal Aid Board. Their remit was to consider how Scotland could develop a user-centred, sustainable and collaborative free debt advice system. They sought to identify practical steps to achieve that, and acknowledged throughout that the Scottish Government is a small part of a much wider advice system. Their recommendations are predicated on this basis, and so is the Scottish Government's response.
As such, this routemap will succeed only with the support of local authorities, advice providers and funders, and we must be open to learning from their experiences and successes. As a beginning, we will hold a series of forums to test and improve the practical detail of our ideas, and we will continue this in the longer term so that collaboration is meaningful. Our plans for 2020-21 are included in the "next steps" sections below and include support for debtlines, a new programme of projects overseen by SLAB, user testing and development of a model for allocating funding in future.
Work so far
- In April 2018, the TPDG was established. It met five times between then and January 2019 and published its recommendations in June 2019.
- In November 2018, the Scottish Government held a summit with over 70 representatives of the free debt advice sector.
- In January 2019, devolution of levy funding occurred with no disruption to service users and a clear commitment from the Scottish Government to continue to work in partnership with the new Money and Pensions Service, as well as the other devolved nations.
- In January 2019, the Scottish Government funded StepChange to pilot a project to increase debt advice provision, with a focus on vulnerable clients. The project was extended in April 2019. 1,201 vulnerable clients were helped over the first half of 2019.
- The Scottish Government has funded two technology pilots: a cloud-based platform enabling better integrated client journeys, and a project to increase the proportion of people in Scotland entering the advice process through digital channels. The Scottish Government has now also taken over funding a local authority-based project to pilot the provision of digital advice and develop a digital advice strategy.
- In April 2019, the Scottish Government and Scottish Legal Aid Board continued to fund and oversee 13 projects offering face-to-face and telephone debt advice, ensuring continuity of service while longer term arrangements are developed.
- The Scottish Government funded a project to increase debt advice capacity in local citizens bureaux in the period after Christmas when demand is highest.