Bosses at Doncaster Citizens Advice Bureau see surge in the levels of debt across borough

Volunteer Charlotte Dobson remembers the the most moving day of her 12 years at Citizens Advice Doncaster.

Thursday, 27th June 2019, 4:15 pm
Updated Friday, 28th June 2019, 9:23 am

It was around five years ago, and Charlotte, a retired special diets cook at Doncaster Royal Infirmary, had just met a man aged in his 70s, who had just retired from his job as a lorry driver.

Charlotte said: “He rang up and he was worried. He didn’t know how he could pay his rent on his state pension.

“He made an appointment, and it turned out that he should also have been getting extra pension, housing benefit, and council tax benefit.

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Karen Bothamley, CEO pictured with Cameron Vernon, volunteer. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP-230-04-19-StainforthCAB-2

“He’d not been getting them for five years. The calculations for what he should be getting came through and he couldn’t believe his eyes.

“He said he thought there must be a mistake. He asked it the figures were for the month. We said ‘no, its for the week’. You could see a weight had been lifted off his shoulders, He also got the money backdated for three months. The worry just disappeared from his face.

"I had tears in my eyes.”

Charlotte has helped hundreds since she started as a volunteer with the organisation, based in Thorne, with branches in Doncaster town centre, Stainforth and Mexborough.

L-r Susan Hodges, Cameron Vernon, Charlotte Dobson, all volunteers, Karen Bothamley, CEO, Hilary White, volunteer and Gail Bull, welfare benefits advisor and session supervisor, pictured at Stainforth Citizens Advice Bureau. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP-230-04-19-StainforthCAB-1

She finds it immensely rewarding to be able to help people, and is one of around 50 who do voluntary work for the Citizens Advice in Doncaster.

The team is busy. Big issues at present involve Universal Credit and debt.

Karen Bothamley, chief executive at Citizens Advice Doncaster, said 41 per cent of the cases were around issues of debt. The second biggest is benefits, at 37 per cent.

She has noticed a rise in debt in the town over the last two years.

She said: “Last year we dealt with around £6.5 million pounds worth of debt in Doncaster – not just people on benefits, but across the board. The figures vary. But if you’re on minimum wage and you owe £400 it is a lot of money to pay back.

“The previous figures were around £5.5 million

“So they go to pay day lenders. But if you borrow £100 and don’t pay it back on the next pay day, its rolled over, and I think more people are now using pay day lenders.

“We see it when people are waiting for universal credit to come through. We have four and a half debt counsellors for Doncaster, and they are inundated. We’ve had to get funding for a debt receptionist and a debt webchat adviser.

“Some people may need help on what priority they should give to paying their debts.

“There may be record numbers of people in work, but some of them may be on three hours a week on a zero hours contract.

“Doncaster may have pockets of affluence, but I think there are people who are still really struggling to get by.

“If people are in debt, they should come and see us as soon as possible. We can help with budgeting and maximise income. We can attack the issue and stop it spiralling, but we can only be pro-active if they come to us.”

The CAB recently arranged a contract with the Government to help people with their applications for the new Universal Benefit.

From April, it has opened up its offices for would be applicants to meet with trained advisors to help them through the process.

They guide them through the application on a computer. But it is not just a case of physically putting in the information. They also guide them towards any other assistance that they may be eligible for while they are waiting for the money to come through.

The organisation is among the groups which issue vouchers for foodbanks. That may be the sort of assistance they are able to offer in some of those cases.

Cameron Vernon, aged 22, is at the frontline of helping with Universal Credit.

He joined the CAB as a volunteer last year after finishing university and returning to Doncaster. He now does several days paid work for the CAB as well.

He applied to be a volunteer so he could learn new skills and has trained as an advisor. He started as a help-to-claim Universal Credit advisor at the start of April.

He works at the Job Centre in Doncaster, as well as at the Stainforth and Thorne centres.

“I think I've always taken a lot of granted,” he said. “But this job is an eye opener, when people come in with no income and no money.

“We get people who have just been released from prison, with no money and no income. That is probably 50 or 60 per cent of those who we help in the town centre. Many of those we see don’t have family or friends who can help them. They may not be from Doncaster.

“We can advise them on where to go for accommodation, and issue them a foodbank voucher. It can take two weeks even to get a cash advance. We help as best we can.”

For many the first face they see at the offices is Susan Hodges. The 64-year-old, a retired administrator at the Doncaster Dome works as a volunteer receptionist. She decided to join as a volunteer while going through a difficult time in her life, which she prefers not to talk about.

“Quite often it’s take a lot for them to come and ask for help,” she said. “It is important to be non-judgemental whatever they have gone through. Helping them helps me as well.”