OPINION: HOT ISSUE - Should charities charge for the advice they give people?

Last week, Help the Aged revealed that it was considering charging 9p a minute for its currently free telephone advice line. We asked other professionals whether charities should use their advisory services to help see them through financial difficulties ,or if free advice to beneficiaries ought to be sacrosanct.

GARETH KINGSTON, head of membership services, Advice UK


There is a place for fee-charging advice services, but that place is not the voluntary sector.

Charities will obviously see the attraction of charging a small fee for their services, because funding is being squeezed or cut from all sides.

This is happening despite the fact that advice services are being drawn more and more into delivering the Government's social exclusion agenda.

However, to go down the route of charging for advice is to erect a barrier between those who need advice and those who provide it.

Advice UK believes that people's rights have no meaning if they do not have the means to enforce them. Community advice centres providing free advice help the most deprived and the most socially excluded in our society to uphold their rights. Charging for advice services will simply reinforce social exclusion for some on the fringes of society.

JON BARRICK, director, RNIB community services

YES ...

... in some circumstances it is appropriate to charge. Our RNIB helpline offers free advice to nearly 50,000 callers a year, and we expect to continue providing this service free of charge.

Year by year, the numbers grow, but the charge is borne directly by RNIB and, at some point, the resources going into and out of this service will have to be capped, or some mechanism implemented to enable continued growth by raising extra finance.

We also provide other advice services such as legal support and, as clients sometimes win large sums in settlement, it is appropriate to consider a charge for advice and services such as these on occasion.

Our environment consultancy service provides advice to builders, planners, architects and developers with regard to access regulations and design, and this service is sustained on the basis that it raises hundreds of thousands every year by charging for the advice that we give.

Every advice service will incur costs and where those are charged to the end user, they must relate to the agency's strategic and financial considerations at that point in time.

JOE BRIDA, Helpline and Information Service Manager, Mencap


Mencap runs The Learning Disability Helpline. In principle, charities should not charge for their helpline services, and to charge people with learning disabilities and their families, who are among society's most financially disadvantaged, would be doubly wrong.

'Per minute charges' would discriminate against the very callers who need impartial advice the most and, inevitably, demand would drop.

Even those people who still phoned in, despite the expense, would have one eye on the clock. Yet, as our helpline advisors know from experience, it takes time to deal with a complex enquiry, benefits problems or a caller in distress - and so it should.

Also, call charge costs listed on itemised phone bills might deter helpline enquirers who particularly need the confidentiality of undetected calls to seek advice. So no, by charging for calls, you cannot provide a truly caring, compassionate and confidential helpline service for all those who need it.

PHILIP KIRBY, chief executive, Meningitis Trust


The Meningitis Trust 24-hour helpline uses a low-cost 0845 number. Callers pay no more than the cost of a local call, just under 5p per minute, whenever and wherever they call from within the UK, and the average length of a call is just four minutes.

Our helpline is the gateway to the Meningitis Trust. It offers callers 24-hour support and information about the condition, and provides a lifeline to more than 40,000 people every year.

The helpline operates differently from many others as it is not run by volunteers or supporters. Instead, it is staffed by nurses who are experienced in providing emotional support and who are specially trained in the complexities of this frightening and dangerous disease.

In total, the service costs around £250,000 a year to run. We believe that charging people at affordable rates does not result in any loss of calls to the helpline and, importantly, it allows the trust to provide a high quality service that thousands rely on.

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