I am currently witnessing an epic battle between man and nature. Specifically, it's between my partner, Andy, and the mole that is building a five-bedroom detached, with summerhouse and granny flat, in our back garden. Andy is particularly galled because our garden backs on to farmland and there is a massive, lush pasture over the fence where, as he puts it, "that bloody mole could build a sodding mansion!" My beloved has been espied grimly heading into the garden brandishing that most deadly of weapons, a hose. But the mole has taken up residence on our lawn and that, apparently, is where he intends to stay.
Monty, as I call him, reminds me of Citizens Advice and the wider advice sector. I was recently privileged to chair a conference on austerity, advice and poverty, hosted by Hull and East Riding CAB on behalf of the Advice Forward Partnership. I was shocked by the scale of the problem – official government figures show the number of people living in absolute poverty in the UK has risen to 10.6 million – but I was also moved and inspired by the commitment of people working to help those affected.
Evidence shows that many citizens experience at least a year below the poverty line during their lifetimes. Most of us are only three pay cheques away from homelessness. The Low Commission reports, Tackling the Advice Deficit and Getting It Right in Social Welfare Law, show that levels of affluence, education or employment are no determinants of who experiences social welfare law problems. Drivers for advice are usually common life events – loss of employment, separation, divorce, death, birth of a child, health problems or disability. But it is the vulnerable and deprived who are most likely to be affected and who find it harder to pull themselves out of difficulty without advice and support.
Some move into relative poverty in the short term; others experience it as a long-term, persistent problem. Poverty and social welfare issues are routinely associated with poor health, especially mental health, but also with the quality of diet, the ability to feed children or heat homes and so on.
Yet, according to the Low Commission, £130m has been cut from advice funding in England and Wales, despite overwhelming evidence that advice alleviates the impact of poverty by improving families' financial circumstances, helping with employment retention, retaining family homes and supporting improved physical and mental health. All of which is achieved primarily through the work of thousands of volunteers and, by the way, saves huge sums of money for the state.
So the vulnerability of its funding is truly worrying. Contracts can be taken away and awarded to the private sector for no good reason or, worse, simply cut with no equivalent replacement. Once lost, experienced, qualified, community-based volunteers and staff are hard to replace. Advice organisations are under severe threat of extermination - much like Monty. We in the wider sector must be more vocal in supporting them and their funding needs. They serve our beneficiaries too. We cannot just sit back and hope they keep displaying the same tenacity as "that bloody mole".