(Courtesy of Bognor Regis Post - 26 January 2018)
ADVISORS at help-points in Bognor Regis and Chichester are braced for more than a thousand new clients a year seeking help about welfare benefits.
The volunteers and employees at the Citizen’s Advice centres expect the numbers who want support to soar from this summer.
They have just six months to prepare for the full impact of universal credit to be felt by the recipients of the six benefits it replaces.
The effect of the government-imposed switch saw 300 extra clients turn to the centres, and their sister site in Littlehampton, in the last three months of last year.
Luca Badioli, their new chief executive, said: “That was a big increase, which we foresaw due to the start of the roll-out of universal credit.
“We are planning for a further increase when it takes full effect.
“We have looked at the data from other Citizen’s Advice where there is the full service universal credit and we predict we will have an extra 86 clients a month because of it.”
This was based on the experience of centres elsewhere with a 30-40 per cent increase in clients seeking help about benefits.
The government is making the radical change to simplify the benefits system and enabling payments to be quickly altered to reflect the changed circumstances of the recipients.
But the move has been strongly criticised nationally. This has led the government to make changes from next month. One of them has seen the transfer of families in this area on to universal credit put back from April to July.
Mr Badioli said Arun and Chichester Citizen’s Advice was talking to its two district councils and the Department for Work and Pensions to get support for coping with the additional work.
“We are hopeful,” he said. “We are discussing with the DWP to get some training to ensure applications are made as efficiently as possible and avoid any delays.
“There is also funding from the DWP, which the councils can apply for and sub-contract us to deliver the service. Both councils have been very supportive and we hope that will happen.”
The total increase in clients from last October to December came to 500. Debt, housing and family concerns also increased.
Mr Badioli is well aware of the challenges faced by those who work and volunteer for Citizen’s Advice.
He joined the charity on October 6, 2003, as a volunteer. He had moved to the Arun area from London, where he worked as a restaurant manager, to help his partner’s brother deal with the benefits system. He enjoyed the experience and his mother-in-law, a former manager of Chichester Citizen’s Advice, encouraged him to volunteer in the Littlehampton centre.
He was still working as a supervisor of the cleaning, catering and security company at The Body Shop.
But he quickly realised he wanted to quit that role and work for Citizen’s Advice. He became a debt advisor in 2005. A series of promotions ended in his appointment as the chief executive of the three centres this month.
“It’s exciting but nervous at the same time,” said Mr Badioli, 47, of North Bersted. “Although I have been involved for some time, now I have all the responsibility to provide the services we want and to ensure the service goes in a good direction.”
He paid tribute to the 21 full and part-time staff and 130 volunteers for their indispensable efforts.
As well as universal credit, Mr Badioli is looking to expand the centres’ services by increasing its fuel poverty work in a county-wide project with councils and fellow Citizen’s Advice centres.
His goal is for Citizen’s Advice advisors to ensure those struggling to pay their fuel bills get as much income as possible. The councils’ fuel poverty advisors would concentrate on achieving the best fuel deal.
“The talks are going well and I am hopeful this work will start by the end of the year,” he said.
The Bognor Regis centre in the town hall also faces an uncertain future. Its premises are likely to be affected by the changes Arun District Council wants to make as part of its regeneration of the Regis Centre site.
“We have raised the issue with the council and made sure, that when they are drawing up their plans, we are taken into consideration,” he added. “It’s not going to happen straight away but we have to make sure we are included.”