OPINION
09/08/2019 11:50 BST

A Message To Boris Johnson: Lift The Gloom For People Struggling On Benefits

Johnson must pledge more money to people to help them get through tough times, writes the head of Citizen's Advice, Gillian Guy.

PA Wire/PA Images

The new prime minister’s tenure at Number 10 has started with bold intentions.  

Of course, he’s primarily concerned with Brexit. But the PM will need to turn his attention to helping fix the issues keeping awake the millions of people who come to us for advice.

He can lift the gloom on the people struggling to get by on benefits. Many don’t have enough money to live on, and wait far too long for what they do eventually receive. 

The government has made positive changes since we started to raise concerns about Universal Credit – the six-week wait has been reduced to five, and some money has been put back into the system. But far too many people still worry about how they’re going to get by. 

Johnson must pledge more money to people to help them get through tough times. He should commit to ending the benefit freeze, and ensure benefit payments reflect the cost of living. 

While this would be a good start, he should also cut the time people have to wait for their first full Universal Credit payment – a wait that can push people into problem debt, making their existing problems much, much worse. 

When people do find themselves buried under unmanageable debt, the new PM is well-placed to lend them a hand – because those debts are increasingly owed to the state

People in problem debt need time to regain control over their finances. The government has recognised this by introducing a new ‘breathing space’ scheme, which will protect people in problem debt from interest, fees, charges and enforcement for 60 days. 

But this principle isn’t being applied consistently in the public sector. Take council tax, which more and more people are struggling to pay. We’ve found unforgiving collection methods and outdated rules mean missing a single Council Tax payment of £167 can spiral into debt worth more than £2,000 in just nine weeks.  

It gets worse. When things reach crisis point and the bailiffs are called in, our research shows they flout the rules far too often – causing huge distress to people already facing the strain, many of whom are vulnerable. An independent regulator to bring rule-breaking bailiffs into line will reduce the misery they currently bring to people’s lives. 

One thing we know can make managing household budgets harder is all the different bills people must pay for crucial services, such as mobile phones and home insurance. 

We found customers are overpaying £4.1 billion every year for their essential services, just for staying loyal to their provider. That’s £11 million every day. 

This is a systematic scam – one that damages trust in big business and can inhibit competition. That’s why we raised a super-complaint in September to call on the Competition and Markets Authority to investigate.

While the regulators are taking some welcome action, the PM should show he’s on the side of consumers by making it clear he’s willing to legislate if they fail to properly crack down on companies that exploit loyal customers. 

Energy wasn’t included in the super-complaint, but customers need protection in this market, too. Johnson should take stronger action to safeguard consumers, whether they need it because their supplier collapses, or because they’re getting their energy through a heat network – an expanding yet unregulated system of energy supply. 

And it’s time customers had someone on their side for mobile and broadband services, which are essential in our daily lives but are dominated by the interests of big business. Hard-pressed consumers deserve a dedicated telecoms consumer advocate to speak up for them when things go wrong.

In our 80 years of existence we’ve seen how political changes can bring opportunity to tackle intractable problems in new ways. 

We’ve worked with the governments of 16 prime ministers to help solve these problems and achieve tangible change for people. 

We want to turn the attention of the 17th to matters beyond Brexit, to help millions of people across the country sleep better at night.

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