Ask any debt adviser and they can tell you a hundred stories that start with hardship and heartache and end with lives turned around.
Here’s what some Unite Debt Advice Network members had to say about the importance of face-to-face work for the clients they help, and why we must #SaveDebtAdvice from the destructive cuts proposed by the Money & Pensions Service.
What would Mark do without face-to-face advice?
I spoke initially to Mark over the phone. He’d been referred for debt advice by his social worker and I’d been advised that he had serious mental health issues.
He found it difficult to articulate what he needed help with; said he had unopened letters and feared the bailiff coming around but didn’t like talking on the phone. He said, when he puts the phone down, he’s alone with it again.
I arranged to meet Mark face-to-face. He didn’t turn up for his appointment and things were quiet for a couple of weeks. I could have closed the file but I didn’t.
Then Mark contacted me and apologised, asked if we could re-arrange the meeting.
A week later, we met, face-to-face. We went through his unopened post and I advised on a strategy for dealing with every bit of it. Trust fund application for the fuel arrears, an arrangement to pay the rent arrears, Council Tax bailiffs called off and the account returned to the Council for small deductions from benefits, letters to the non-priority creditors to explain the financial and mental health problems.
Mark was so relieved, he cried, and told me that being able to talk to me face-to-face had helped him to have confidence and trust in me.
A month later, Mark is in rehab, dealing with addiction issues while I work on the debts. He has the time and space to focus now on his health without the distraction and fear that was holding him back.
This is why debt advice is important, and why face-to-face debt advice must be maintained for the most vulnerable in our society.
Amy, Debt Adviser and Unite member, Stockport
What would Julie do without face-to-face advice?
Julie came to see me with her Mum. Julie was in her 20s but had long standing learning difficulties and had a mental age of 10. A gang of ‘friends’ had forced her to take out 5 mobile contracts in one day under threat of violence. They took the phones from her and sold them to buy drugs.
Julie would lapse into an uncommunicative state after only a few minutes, and would become very distressed. Because I was physically with her I could pick up on these changes of mood, and adapt accordingly to help her as best I could. Over the course of 3 or 4 interviews we had to tease out the story of what had happened. She could not speak on the phone, and could not read or write above basic level. With the help of her Mum we gathered multiple pieces of evidence about her learning disabilities, and what had happened. Over the course of the next 3 months we battled with the mobile phone companies – who eventually all agreed not to pursue Julie for the debts.
Without seeing this client face to face over the course of months, no progress could have been made. Without seeing and talking to her, we would never have got the full story. Without face to face advice she would be being pursued by debt collectors – with the understanding of a child.
Ian, Debt Adviser and Unite member, Hull
What would Mo and Fatma do without face-to-face advice?
Mo and Fatma came into our offices because someone at the council had finally suggested they did. Both of them had a folder full of letters. They were drowning in debt since Mo’s building work had dried up during the pandemic and they’d had a fourth child: council tax, water bills, overdraft, penalty charge notices… not to mention the IVA Fatma had started two years previously.
Add the fact that Universal Credit – which they’d never claimed before – didn’t pay all their rent, and a sanction for a ‘missed appointment’, and they were in a near-impossible situation. They were so scared of bailiffs visiting that they were making payments to their debts that they couldn’t afford, which left them with no food in the house and no money for the gas meter. Later Mo told me he’d been begging under a bridge to get some money to top up.
In the appointment I could see how much it meant to them to be able to sit and talk to someone. We issued them a foodbank voucher, entered Mo into Breathing Space, and managed to get a local organisation to award a small cash grant so they could heat their home and cook. It’ll take time to sort out the situation, but with our help and the help of other local services, they can start to see a future.
You can’t look someone in the eye over the phone. You can’t get them a tissue over webchat. And you certainly can’t go through two folders of documents on a video call. I genuinely don’t think Mo or Fatma would have come to our service if it wasn’t around the corner, and I know that we couldn’t have given them the same service through any other channel than face to face.
Jamie, Debt Adviser and Unite member, London
What would Simon do without face-to-face advice?
Simon was working full time and lived in a mortgaged house. In the past he had got into some mortgage arrears but they had been cleared many years before. He was coming to the end of his mortgage and was going to sell the house. The mortgage lender then advised him he owed a further £5,000 in ‘charges and fees’ from when he was in arrears. He thought this had all been dealt with and came to us for face to face advice. We first obtained a full history of his account from the mortgage company, then I met him again.
Because I could see him face to face I was able to go through all of this paperwork with him. It was a complex issue, with relevant sections of the FCA ‘Conduct of Business’ sourcebook to be explained to the client. By asking him questions alongside the pile of paperwork, we were able to identify that the mortgage lender had incorrectly charged him, and that they had compounded this by then breaching the various regulations imposed on them by the FCA, plus various decisions made by the Financial Ombudsman Service.
We were then able to complain to the mortgage lender. They agreed that he did not owe the £5,000 and in addition they cancelled a further £8,000 in interest and charges incorrectly applied, leaving him £13,000 better off.
Without face to face advice the complexities of this case meant Simon would not have been able to put together a complaint himself. He would have had to pay £13,000 because of his mortgage lender’s errors.
Ian, Debt Adviser and Unite member, Hull