CONCERNS have been expressed by money advisers in England that face-to-face (F2F) free debt advice could reduce by up to 50% following new funding arrangements.

More services are to be offered over the phone or online which may mean fewer advisers in local communities.

While the Scottish Government believes people should be able to choose whether they access help through F2F, phone or online services, Glasgow City Council (GCC) will be undertaking a review of the funding it provides to the free advice sector.

Last year, GCC cut funding to Glasgow’s law centres, CABx and money advice agencies by one third – the original plan of axing 50% of grants was ditched after a last-minute U-turn. The provision of more remote advice is attractive because it’s cheaper than F2F, but is that a good reason to lose our capacity for F2F client appointments?

Even 20 months into the pandemic there’s still very little free F2F money, welfare or legal advice taking place across Scotland. My concern is we have no idea how many people have disengaged from support and advice services during the pandemic. As far as I’m aware, no-one is researching these areas of unmet need and the impact this is having on difficult to reach clients and those with complex needs. Why not?

What is abundantly clear is the loss of F2F advice will have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable members of our communities. Violence against women is on the rise and seeking help remotely at home can be impractical in a controlling and abusive relationship. The police recorded 62,907 incidents of domestic abuse in 2019/20 – an increase of 4% compared to the year before.

For Lorna Walker, legal partner at Govan Law Centre, it’s essential that we create safe spaces for women to obtain free and confidential advice and representation: “We recently launched our Women’s Rights Project for women facing homelessness and domestic abuse. We are based at the Access Hub, Simon Community in Argyle Street every Thursday, 2-4pm and since we have started this outreach, we have been able to help hard to reach women who would not normally approach a solicitor.

“Our services need to be flexible as we aim to empower and help as many women as possible to know their rights and improve their situation. Face-to-face contact allows us to build confidence and trust much quicker.”

Remote advice can be a major barrier for those with poor literacy or English language skills. Rachel Moon is the senior solicitor at Govanhill Law Centre and explained why some of her clients required F2F appointments: “Last week in Govanhill we had a Roma Romanian family come to the law centre as they had been told they’d been illegally renting their property – they didn’t speak English and they couldn’t read or write.

“For the very most vulnerable in our society – those with no literacy, no English, no family or monetary support, and a history of discrimination – they need a physical place to go, to see a real person to hand over their eviction documents. It may seem basic, but it is the very tenet of client case work and we must remember those people who cannot phone, zoom, or scan documents.”

Remote advice services can be inaccessible for those with a mental illness. I spoke with a local authority money adviser who’d helped a single parent with two young children who struggled to answer the phone because of her mental health problems.

The council adviser explained: “She was unable to operate her phone. She wasn’t able to access her Universal Credit journal to update it and often both she and her children spent evenings after school in a home without heating or light or food.

“Even though I made referrals to other heating specialists and benefit advisers, they all came back saying they couldn’t contact her. It was only through my persistence in calling her multiple times over months I was gradually able to provide her with some support. The truth is most other services just closed the referral as there was no engagement.

Alan McIntosh operates a FCA-approved service through Alan can’t foresee any time in the future that we’ll be able to do without F2F services for some people: “Even after the technological advances we’ve made through Covid there are still significant numbers of people we can’t help. This can be due to the complexity of their cases, their mental and physical health and the fact they struggle to meaningfully engage using technology.

“If it wasn’t for the face-to-face services provided by law centres, CABx and local authorities many people wouldn’t be able to access services.”

Without F2F support some people will never engage with remote services. They’ll remain an invisible, uncounted statistic. Their human misery won’t be virtual though.