Webchat debt advice: An insider’s view

Thanks to this debt adviser for explaining how advice by webchat works, and the shortcomings of this channel. We agree that it is a useful resource for some clients, but it cannot replace face-to-face advice, and as this adviser makes clear, webchat cannot deal with complex cases. We’re also grateful for this very frank explanation of how the scandalous pressure placed on MaPS-funded debt advisers has affected mental health in the sector.

I have over ten years’ worth of experience of working in the debt advice sector. I had previously worked on the face-to-face project. Initially, I worked under the Money Advice Service project. I always managed to maintain my targets and scored 2’s and 3’s in their peer assessment. I always received positive feedback from colleagues and clients. However, when the Money and Pension Service took over, the introduction of the DAPA peer assessment and unrealistic targets led to me having a full-on mental breakdown.  

I was spending hours writing lengthy letters to client to “tick the boxes” taking on average 5-6 hours, only to be marked down for stupid things such as forgetting to tell a client to check their tax code.

I was spending hours writing lengthy letters to client to “tick the boxes” taking on average 5-6 hours, only to be marked down for stupid things such as forgetting to tell a client to check their tax code. My cases soon got out of control and I was pressured to hit targets but threatened with disciplinary measures when I could not meet the unreasonable “funder requirements”. I kept taking time off sick as I could not sleep at night. My colleagues were suffering from panic attacks and even admitted staying up until 1am most nights to “keep on top” of their confirmation of advice letters. I was riddled with guilt as my sickness put pressure on colleagues and let down the clients that I desperately wanted to help.  

I got further and further behind as nothing was done on my cases when I was ill. I came back to hundreds of letters, emails and messages and a string of demands from my manager. I could not take it anymore. I was so ill mentally, that I did not want to be here anymore.  

Thankfully, due to amazing support from family and my GP, I got a referral to mental health services. I was prescribed sleeping tablets and anti-depressants. I was also placed on tablets to lower my blood pressure and I was advised by my GP that I was at risk of having a heart attack or stroke due to the stress I was under. He told me I was not to go back to work for a long time. This unfortunately is the reality for most people who have worked under the MaPS contracts.  

Despite my illness, I was determined not to be beaten. I know I am good at my job and that I had made a massive difference to so many people’s lives. I wanted to continue to do this. I managed to get a job with another organisation. The role is that of a webchat adviser. It is a job that I like as I no longer have multiple open cases. I am however subject to DAPA and unreasonable targets.  

I am required to have two chats going at the same time in order to meet the targets.

I am required to have two chats going at the same time in order to meet the targets. I am also subject to the hideous DAPA assessment. It is even harder to get a score over 70% on the Webchat DAPA. This is because there are less things to be marked on than casework files, meaning a “not met” brings my percentage down more. I have refused to do two Webchats. It is not good for my mental health and it is not good for the clients as it is too easy to miss something important.  

The Webchat is very limited in terms of what we can do to help clients. There is no option for the clients to upload images of letters. We cannot complete budgets for the clients and we are unable to complete breathing space applications for those who desperately need them, as this would be regarded as casework.  

It’s also increasingly frustrating that more often than not, I have to refer clients to other agencies for assistance. There are multiple reasons for doing this. Mostly, the clients are vulnerable and need someone to sit down with them, go through paperwork, draw up a budget and help them get the debt solution they need.  

At least 50% of my Webchat clients require intervention or assistance from a caseworker. Around 30 to 40% of the chats disconnect before the chat reaches a natural conclusion and 10-20% of people are able to deal with the presenting situation themselves.  

Over 80% of the Webchats have priority debts, or some form of enforcement action.  The most common issues that I advise on are rent arrears, council tax and energy arrears. Quite often these debts have already gone to enforcement stages such as court hearings for evictions, bailiffs or High Court enforcement action. I am also seeing a huge increase in requests for Debt Relief Order applications. This is not something which I can do on Webchat and have to refer them on. This means that the client ends up having received the same advice on Webchat and from the channel they are referred to; not really an effective use of resources.  

Helping clients with council tax debts requires a good relationship with the local authorities. When dealing with priorities and enforcement action, it more often than not needs the client to be present with a skilled adviser who can pick up the phone and negotiate on the client’s behalf.

My ability to help the clients on Webchat is enhanced by the connections I have within local advice services. Dealing with rent arrears requires good relationship with local housing providers. Helping clients with council tax debts requires a good relationship with the local authorities. When dealing with priorities and enforcement action, it more often than not needs the client to be present with a skilled adviser who can pick up the phone and negotiate on the client’s behalf. Without these services, there is no doubt in my mind that more people will become homeless, more pressure will be placed on local authorities and social services will struggle to get the professional help they need to assist their vulnerable service users.  

I do pride myself on doing the best I possibly can to help the clients. However, with the best debt advice in the world, most clients struggle to fill in an N244 form to suspend a warrant of eviction. They are petrified of negotiating with enforcement agents who place unreasonable demands on them, when threatening them with power that they do not have.  

Clients in distress sometimes can’t see the wood for the trees. Often, they try to resolve the issues themselves without success, or most often ignore the situation hoping it will go away. We all know that it doesn’t go away and clients tend to seek advice when their debts have escalated to crisis point.  

It is impossible for me to draw up a budget and complete an N244 form with the clients on Webchat. I am restricted to even complete a breathing space application for them as I cannot do ongoing casework due to high target demands. I am now struggling to find local agencies to help the clients as most are winding down due to uncertainty over the MaPS recommissioning process or due to debt advisers jumping ship like drowning rats.  

The consequences of not taking action in relation to debt advice are so much more severe than in any other advice area. Homelessness, loss of essential goods and services, imprisonment and suicide are always effects of a failure to act.  

I am aware that the Money and Pension Service has been told to invest in more in digital advice service, and that they have received a significant amount of extra funds from the government to do so. However, the government did not tell MaPS to deplete the face-to-face funding to the point that there is little or no provision within local communities.  

The recommissioning process which is being undertaken by MaPS could not have been done more poorly

The recommissioning process which is being undertaken by MaPS could not have been done more poorly. They have a history of making decisions which have serious implications on adviser wellbeing and the services that clients depend on. They make decisions without proper consultation with industry and often end up backtracking or spending millions of pounds to fix problems which would not exist had they consulted with debt advisers in the first place. They seem obsessed with clients in “numbers” without actually evaluating the outcomes which are achieved for them.   

A common sense approach to any recommissioning bid, would be to ensure that agencies have at least 6 months’ notice of changes to funding for them to adapt. Furthermore, the obsession that contracts that are for digital and face-to-face make no sense at all. Surely, if there are times when perhaps face-to-face demand may drop, then advisers could easily switch to help out on other channels and vice versa.  

In my opinion, the Money and Pensions Service is influenced by creditors and steering groups who do not offer face-to-face services, or have any clue about the difficulty advisers face on the ground. Time after time, the Money and Pension Service has been criticised for being out of touch with reality to the extent that people have said they are not fit for purpose. I have to echo those sentiments.  

There is not one single debt adviser on their board of directors. However, it is very predictable where the new funding allocations are going: Stepchange & Citizens Advice. How do I know this? Because the CEO’s of both have recently been added to the board at MaPS.  

If this recommissioning process is not paused, then MaPS will be committing professional suicide. Not only are they throwing debt advisers “off a bridge”, they are doing the same with our vulnerable clients.  

MaPS should be focusing on building bridges. Listening to debt advisers and clients and not just asking the people that they know will give the answers that they want to hear.

MaPS should be focusing on building bridges. Listening to debt advisers and clients and not just asking the people that they know will give the answers that they want to hear. Building services that increases funding for face-to-face advice, with additional support for digital services. Creating links between advisers, organisations and creditors are surely the best ways to help achieve the client outcomes that they need.  

I have no doubt whatsoever that if the proposals in the current recommissioning bids are not stopped now, there will be no delivery of debt advice services. Most advisers are now moving to other jobs as they know that MaPS have gone too far this time. Most won’t even know if they have a job come April, let alone know what hideous regime of targets and peer assessment that they will be subject to.  

I would ask anyone with any sort of influence to force MaPS to stop this recommissioning bid and launch an enquiry into their effectiveness and suitability to provide debt advice services in the future.

In my opinion they are not fit for purpose.   

MPs debate cuts to debt advice

As we mentioned last week, Emma Hardy MP has arranged a Westminster Hall debate for tomorrow morning (1st December, 9.30am).

You can watch the debate live here, or catch up later if you miss it.

We hope this will be a chance to properly examine the way this recommissioning process has been run, and the dreadful impact it will have on debt advisers and debt advice clients.

MaPS responds to the Treasury Committee

A couple of week ago, the Treasury Committee wrote to the chief executive of the Money & Pensions Service (MaPS) with some pointed questions about the recommissioning process (letter here).

Yesterday, MaPS responded with a 7-page letter that failed to give any convincing answers. Emma Hardy MP has tweeted a copy of the MaPS letter here, and you can read a point-by-point response from We Are Debt Advisers here.

MPs to debate cuts to face-to-face debt advice

Emma Hardy, MP for Hull West and Hessle, has announced today that she has secured a Westminster Hall debate on ‘Reductions in community debt advice services’.

This is a fantastic opportunity to publicise the cuts to face-to-face advice services, and we’re hoping to see a good turnout from the many MPs who have supported our campaign.

Westminster Hall debates are a way for MPs to discuss important current issues, but they do not have any authority to make rules or laws.

The debate is on Wednesday 1st December 9.30 to 11.00 and will be available to watch live on the Parliament TV website. We’ll send out a link to watch it nearer the time, and a transcript will be available afterwards.

Special thanks to Emma Hardy MP who has supported our campaign to #SaveDebtAdvice from the start.

Debt advisers speaking to MaPS

On 17th November, Unite Debt Advice Network members joined an online debate between frontline debt advisers and senior figures at the Money & Pensions Service, organised by our friends at We Are Debt Advisers (WADA).

Edited highlights of the session (cutting out those advisers who did not want their contributions made public) are available online. It makes very interesting viewing!

WADA has also produced an up-to-date briefing document for MPs. This has been sent to all MPs.

Debt advisers are stronger when we stand together

Unite Debt Advice Network (UDAN) formed in September 2021 to bring together workers in the debt advice sector from across the UK to improve jobs, pay and conditions.

We have members working in Citizens Advice, local authorities, housing associations, independent advice agencies, law centres and national advice providers.

Recent years have seen worsening conditions for debt advisers at a time when our work is needed more than ever before.

Unpaid overtime, excessive bureaucracy, unmeetable targets and low pay are driving experienced debt advisers out of our sector. Now the Money & Pensions Service – the largest funder in the sector – plans to cut face-to-face debt advice funding by more than 50%, leading to redundancies and a far worse service for our clients.

We’re fed up watching the damage being done to our profession and our colleagues.