For Citizens Advice, the unfolding cost-of-living crisis is not just a concern on the horizon but “our current obsession”, the national charity’s chief executive, Dame Clare Moriarty, says.
For months now, the charity says it has been breaking “unwelcome records” in terms of the number of people seeking crisis support as well as referrals for food banks and charitable grants.
“We're currently running at a level of helping 800 people a day with referrals for food bank vouchers, which is the highest it's ever been and twice as high as it was a year ago,” Moriarty says.
As she points out, although the charity is not a poverty, debt advice or consumer charity, its work deals with all these areas, so it has a front-row seat to witness the growing impact of rising food prices and energy costs.
“So there’s the near-term question of both supporting our services to help people and trying to understand the pressures that they are under, but also, as the national organisation, we have to be thinking about that upstream piece and how we land the message with government that more support is needed for people on the lowest incomes,” Moriarty says.
The charity is well positioned to offer government an insight into the situation for ordinary people, she says, having invested strongly in good case management and data systems in recent years.
“That means that when we’re talking to government, we are talking with the weight of very strong data, which is telling us about what people are actually experiencing, but we can also bring that to life in terms of the individual experiences that people have.”
The conversations with government so far, Moriarty says, have been “regular”, “sometimes awkward” but largely “constructive”, with the combination of data and case studies proving powerful.
“There are some people who are now in a situation where they’ve done everything that they can, [but] the numbers don’t add up – nearly half of the clients who come to us with a debt problem simply cannot pay the basic bills,” Moriarty says.
“So we keep saying there needs to be a higher proportion of the support going in a very targeted way to those most in need.”
She is confident that this message is being heard – but the proof will be in whether the government continues to act on it.
As the crisis has grown, there has been a steady stream of politicians offering advice on thrift to those who are struggling, whether that’s MP Lee Anderson suggesting people needed to learn to cook and budget better, safeguarding minister Rachel Maclean advocating working more hours or getting a better job, or environment secretary George Eustice saying shoppers should simply swap branded products for supermarkets’ own-label versions.
“It’s certainly very, very difficult to hear when we know that the people who come to us are doing all the things that they can do already,” Moriarty says.
“We know that the choices people are making aren’t ‘Am I going to buy branded breakfast cereal or supermarket breakfast cereal?’ We are down to situations where parents are skipping meals because they can’t feed themselves and their children.
“That’s not an issue you solve by asking if they know how to cook or are they buying the right kinds of foods.”
From Civil Service to civil society
Moriarty is intimately familiar with the workings of government – although speaking to Whitehall from an external point of view is a novelty for her. Her career to date has involved 35 years in the Civil Service, with roles in the Department for Health and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. She has been a permanent secretary at the Department for Transport and the Department for Exiting the EU, and most recently chaired the Health Foundation’s Report on the impact of Covid-19 pandemic.
This experience, she says, has given her a belief that “there’s something really important about saying things in a way that can be heard”.
She says: “It’s quite tempting for any of us to say things that we want to hear ourselves saying – but sometimes that means that they come over in a way that sets off antibodies in the people you’re talking to, and so they’re not heard – and things that are not heard can’t be acted on.”
Despite this need for diplomacy, Moriarty is enjoying the opportunity her new role offers to “live my values”, something that was more restricted in previous jobs.
“I'm very values-driven, which you can be in the Civil Service, but you have to understand the context that you’re working in and acknowledge that part of that means holding Civil Service values and working alongside politicians who have, quite properly, different values,” she says.
“In my view, values conflict is a sign of people having values, it’s not necessarily a sign of there being a problem.”
After a year at Citizens Advice, Moriarty says she’s realised that heading the national charity requires “a very subtle form of leadership” – as she doesn’t technically have a formal leadership role in the local Citizens Advice organisations.
It’s important, she says, for her to recognise that local organisations are rooted in their communities, and have a depth of expertise and knowledge about the situation and needs in their own area, and to allow them to adapt the charity’s work to accommodate that.
“But there’s a core set of ideals and principles, which hold true across the whole of the service, and I see quite a bit of my role is in helping to tease out what they are, and to help the service as a whole grapple with some of the big strategic questions that we face,” Moriarty says.
“Society is changing all the time. We’ve had some very big shocks to the system in terms of the pandemic, and now a huge cost-of-living crisis, which is generating great amounts of demand.”
As the charity recovers from the last big shock and gears up for the next, one of its focuses, she says, has been on ensuring that the service is accessible to everyone.
The pandemic forced the charity to increase its virtual offerings, which, in some ways, has hugely benefited its service users, who may previously have had to give up a morning to queue up for a chance to be seen by an advisor. But not everyone can access digital services, and for complex cases, it can be easier to meet someone face-to-face and help them sift through and make sense of various pieces of paperwork, Moriarty says.
And there is evidence to suggest that particular groups may find Citizens Advice services less easy to use than others – there was a drop-off in the number of people with disabilities using them during the pandemic, Moriarty says, and people of colour have rated the service as less easy to access than other groups.
“We’re gathering lots of data about people’s experience; whether they feel the advice they received helped to solve their problem, what impact it had on mental or physical health and does it feel inclusive,” she says.
“We know that people with protected characteristics are being disadvantaged in society in all sorts of different ways, so they will tend to be people who are more likely to need the help that we can provide.
“So we are actively focused on how we both make ourselves accessible, available, attractive, approachable for those different groups, and also trying to make sure that they have the best possible experience with us.”
A training overhaul
Supporting minoritised groups is an area where Citizens Advice has made mistakes in the past. In 2019, the charity was forced to apologise after internal materials for advisors at the charity came to light. The guidance, called Working with Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Communities, was described as “horribly racist” and included sweeping generalisations and stereotypes of people of colour.
The outrage led to the formation of the Charity So White campaign group, after charity workers took to Twitter to share their own experiences of racism in the sector in response.
Moriarty – who joined Citizens Advice in April 2021 – says there has been an overhaul of all training materials and that the incident “sparked a professionalisation of the focus on EDI” within the charity, which is still ongoing.
Ultimately, she says, this work has to be central to the charity’s culture, because it speaks directly to its work.
“It’s another version of what we do as a service – our service is about supporting people who are on the wrong side of imbalances of power,” she says.
She adds: “My experience is that you can’t credibly talk about EDI in the context of your outward-facing services unless you’re also focusing on it from the point of view of what it’s like inside the organisation.”
Moriarty also worked on EDI issues within the Civil Service – but she says there are differences in the way the issue is viewed in the two sectors.
“There was a real push and drive in the Civil Service and we knew we weren’t in a good place,” she says.
“But in the charity sector, this issue is very front-and-centre, and there are, rightly, very high expectations – but there is, I think, a general sense that there is some way to go in order for people to feel that those expectations are being met.”
The challenge for charities, she says, is to convert “that sense of needing to get it right” into more solid progress.
“From my own experiences at Citizens Advice, but also from reading about the charity sector more generally, we don’t have enough people of colour in senior positions, and we know that there are issues with social mobility,” she says.
“In all sorts of areas, we know that we’re not achieving what we need to achieve.”
Moriarty argues that the sector needs to build on established best practices around diverse recruitment, and deepen its understanding of the impact of unconscious bias.
“There is a tendency across all sectors to have a sort of established view about what good looks like, and quite often, certainly in the Civil Service, that’s rooted in a particular set of characteristics in educational background, gender, race – so there is a tendency for people to recruit in that image, even if they don’t think they're doing it,” she says.
“We have to be prepared to ask: ‘Is good actually what I think it is, or is that just a type of good that I associate with a particular pattern I’m very used to?’”
The ongoing process of change, within the sector and the charity, “will feel challenging” she says.
But, she adds: “I’m absolutely clear that we have to open ourselves up to things that feel a bit uncomfortable if we’re really going to make progress.”