Unite Debt Advice Network (UDAN) welcomes the Money & Pensions Service (MaPS) announcement on 17 December that it is suspending the proposed Lot 2 regional contracts.
This follows a campaign by organised debt advice workers which has rapidly gained the support of MPs and debt advice bodies including Advice UK, Institute of Money Advisers and Money & Mental Health Policy Institute.
MaPS has stated that:
The three national contracts, the three DRO hubs and the business debt advice contracts start dates have moved from 1 April to 1 July 2022 “to ensure there is adequate time for mobilisation”
Organisations currently funded to provide face-to-face advice will be offered a three-month extension (i.e. to end of June 2022), with the “intention” to put in place grant funding “for a minimum” of 12 months (i.e. to end of June 2023 at least)
This leaves major questions over the funding of face-to-face services until June 2023. If the recommissioned contracts total £77m in value, and the other Lots proceed as planned, this would not leave enough funds to maintain community-based face-to-face services at their current level.
This means either a) new funding will need to be sourced to maintain regional services at their current level, or b) the extension for Lot 2 regional contracts will be funded at a lower level.
Furthermore, an offer to extend funding by only 15 months does not provide the certainty for organisations required to retain staff and plan services effectively.
It is vital that funding for community based, face-to-face debt advice continues for the next 15 months at its current level whilst appropriate consultations are undertaken to establish what is needed longer term. It is essential that MaPS spell out immediately what funding will be provided in the longer term.
The damage already done
The uncertainty created by the recommissioning process has already caused chaos in debt advice. Services have been ‘winding down’ in anticipation of funding stopping at the end of March, reducing access to services for vulnerable clients.
3 in 10 MaPS-funded debt advisers have now left or are in the process of leaving their roles due to the risk of redundancy and the intolerable conditions they have worked under in recent years (source, p.8).
More than 90% of debt advisers say their workload has resulted in stress and mental health problems, and MaPS-funded advisers report much greater problems with their workload (source, pp.15-16 & p.20).
For community-based services, it will take time and money to rebuild from the damage MaPS has already inflicted, and the experience of those who have left – some with more than 20 years in the field – is gone forever.
Listen to frontline expertise
As our campaign has grown, it has become clear that MaPS has not consulted key stakeholders, including local authorities, other voluntary sector services, non-MaPS funded debt advice providers, debt advice clients, and of course debt advisers. It is not sufficient to consult only with lead organisations; to get the full picture and provide a truly effective service, all stakeholders need to be given a seat at the consultation table.
It has also become clear that MaPS either did not conduct, or is unwilling to release, an Equalities Impact Assessment. Given the disproportionate impact of reduced face-to-face provision on low-income communities, vulnerable people and those with protected characteristics, this is a serious concern.
The MaPS statement says:
“Over the coming months, we intend to work closely with debt advice clients, advice organisations and other stakeholders to identify the best ways to deliver locally based services”
“The amended timeline will enable MaPS … to collaborate with the debt advice sector to inform and shape regionally based provision that delivers the best outcome for clients”
The most important stakeholders in shaping the future of debt advice are those who do the work. Frontline debt advisers, working at a community level with clients, know and understand how to provide effective debt advice, and must have a seat at the table in all future discussions. UDAN will facilitate this.
MaPS has announced a procurement process to replace the Debt Advice Peer Assessment (DAPA) scheme.
Our members are absolutely clear that DAPA has driven up workloads, crushed adviser morale, and overloaded and confused clients. Advisers spend more than 50% of their time writing case notes or letters (source, p.19), often over 50 pages long to meet the draconian demands set by DAPA. This is not for the benefit of clients who will not read these. It is for the sole purpose of passing DAPA. This is time that could be used supporting our clients.
DAPA must be scrapped with immediate effect. Agencies providing debt advice under MaPS funding already have robust quality assurance systems in place in the form of the AQS or equivalent schemes. When there is clearly not enough money in the pot to adequately fund community-based debt advice, it seems reckless to be paying so much money to a commercial company to review our cases, when it is apparent that their goal is not to improve debt advice but to continue to receive money from MaPS.
The ‘increasing capacity’ funding which employed 550 trainee debt advisers in late 2020 is to be extended to 30 June 2022 “with the potential for a limited extension beyond that”.
This gives no long-term certainty for these trainees, many of whom have been in debt advice for over a year and are effectively qualified advisers. MaPS need to build in proper career progression for this cohort, including an immediate salary increase which reflects the skill and expertise they have acquired. Failure to do so will result in these new advisers leaving the sector.
If funding for trainees ends as demand for advice is increasing, we lose the skills acquired and will struggle to meet the need for debt advice in the future.
The proposed division of England into three ‘mega-regions’ moves decision-making further away from the local services that understand their communities best. Local authorities are key stakeholders in debt advice commissioning and are often major funders, yet have not been consulted in the recommissioning.
Centralising debt advice will result in a top heavy, bureaucratic system and onerous reporting requirements. Vulnerable clients do not want to access debt advice via a call centre. The revised proposals must take the opposite approach and move decision-making closer to communities. Local organisations already have established and effective links with the communities they serve and are best placed to address their needs.
MaPS CEO Caroline Siarkiewicz has already confirmed to debt advisers that targets based on client numbers were to be scrapped in the recommissioned contracts (source from 1:30). This must now happen immediately in order to provide a service which is client-focused and genuinely allows advisers to address the presenting issue from start to finish. The focus from now on must be on outcomes, rather than volumes.
Following the abandonment of the disastrous Lot 2 regional contracts, UDAN members want to work with MaPS to safeguard jobs, pay and conditions in the debt advice sector, and ensure that high-quality community-based face-to-face debt advice is available for all who need it in future.
We call on MaPS to immediately do the following:
- Cancel the DAPA scheme
- End numeric targets for debt advisers
- Publish all Equalities Impact Assessments conducted as part of the recommissioning process
- Confirm funding will continue at the current level at a minimum for the 15 months from April 2022
- Launch a consultation with frontline debt advisers on what services are needed to replace the abandoned Lot 2 regional contracts, including acceptable pay, progression and conditions for workers