Citizens Advice bureaux across Scotland have helped put more than £1 million back into clients’ pockets in the last four months.
And it’s all thanks to a new service, Financial Health Check, which launched in November with funding from the Scottish Government.
From November 2 to January 31, the service supported 1740 clients.
Some 432 clients called the free helpline and 1308 accessed face to face services in local bureaux.
In just four short months, more than £1 million has been claimed by 366 clients; each being better off, on average, by £2700.
But with around half a million Scots not claiming all they are entitled to, Citizens Advice and the Scottish Government are now keen for more people to take advantage of the Financial Health Check service.
Launched in a bid to tackle child poverty, the government is particularly keen for families to access it.
Aileen Campbell, cabinet secretary for communities and local government, said: “We launched our Every Child, Every Chance plan last year, outlining ways of tackling child poverty in the next five years.
“Poverty is fundamentally about a lack of income.
“And one of the best ways to tackle that is by trying to increase families’ household incomes.
“Working with Citizens Advice, we launched the Financial Health Check service in November in a bid to do just that.
“We know people are not claiming all that they are entitled to – be that benefits or grants such as Best Start.
“The impact of welfare reform has led to detrimental changes for many people and they often don’t know what is available to them.
“So this confidential and personal service takes a holistic look at the person’s finances – everything from energy usage to benefits.
“It is tailored to each individual’s needs, recommending a variety of ways they can increase their overall income.
“Not everyone is eligible for benefits and grants but the service can also work with people to reduce their outgoings by looking at the likes of energy providers, insurance policies and mobile phone providers.
“It’s amazing how much people can save, simply by tackling these areas.”
It certainly appears to be working and the minister is delighted with the results.
She added: “The fact that more than £1 million has been recovered for clients in just four months shows how important it is for people to have a financial health check.
“There’s a significant number of people out there who need help and support to ensure they are receiving all that they are entitled to.
“We want to make sure that everyone knows that this free service is available to them – anyone, wherever they are in Scotland, can access the service.”
There are three specialist centres in Scotland – in Inverness, Falkirk and Dumfries – with nine CAB advisers handling calls from all over the country.
Financial health checks can be done over the phone or people can arrange to pop into their local office.
Robert Cameron, the senior call handler in Falkirk, has little doubt that the service is making a huge difference to clients.
And he is hoping even more people will take advantage of it.
He said: “This is a free, confidential service and anyone can use it, no matter where they live in Scotland.
“When they call the free helpline, people will be directed to one of the nine specialists in Falkirk, Inverness and Dumfries.
“If they prefer, they can also arrange to visit their local bureau where an experienced adviser can talk them through their options.
“We want to hear from people who are not sure what they are entitled to.
“We have the same level of confidentiality that someone visiting their doctor has.
“We use the information provided to us to check whether that person is claiming all that they can.
“Very often, people forget to update changes in circumstance and are entitled to more money than they’ve been receiving.
“We had one elderly man who was living off his savings as he didn’t realise he was entitled to state pension.
“That was backdated, along with his pension credit so in the space of one morning that client received more than £10,000 he didn’t realise he was entitled to.
“We also had a mum who called us in tears, two weeks before Christmas, with just £20 left in her pocket and no way of buying presents for her children.
“The DWP had been taking payments off her benefits and we called them to challenge that.
“The following day, the DWP said it had made an error and that mum received just short of £7000 which was a brilliant Christmas present for her.”
Of course, not everyone is entitled to benefits but the Financial Health Check team works with all callers to increase their income.
Robert explained: “Fifty per cent of what we do is looking at what’s coming in.
“The other 50 per cent is looking at what’s going out.
“Our ethos is if we can’t help put extra money in a client’s pocket via benefits or grants, we’ll save them money by looking at their outgoings.
“Sometimes people earn too much to be able to claim benefits but they are by no means rich or well off.
“People are still surprised to find out that customer loyalty simply doesn’t pay.
“For example, we saved one man £20 a month simply by changing his breakdown cover. He was also paying over the odds for his boiler cover. In the space of 20 minutes, we’d saved him £30 a month.
“It might not sound a lot but it all adds up.”
While the advisers are on hand to help, it’s up to the clients to follow through.
Robert said: “We are here to help people who are struggling to get back on their feet again.
“In a typical month here in Falkirk alone, we help around 120 people.
“It’s up to each individual whether they take our advice or not but we’re happy to follow up with clients to find out how they get on and help them further, if needs be.
“A lot of the time, people don’t want to change their insurance or energy suppliers because they think it’s too much of a faff.
“But making the effort can save people hundreds of pounds every year. Surely that money is better in your pocket than theirs?”
On April 1, Citizens Advice is also launching a new service called Help to Claim, offering support and advice during the first five weeks of a benefits claim.
Robert added: “Universal Credit has had a lot of bad press but some people would be £150 better off on it.
“They won’t make the claim, though, because of the five week delay in receiving benefits. Help to Claim will help them through that.”
Working together to help low income households in Scotland
In Scotland, it is estimated there are around half a million cases of people not claiming all the support they are entitled to.
And that’s why the Scottish Government is urging low-income households to access Financial Health Check.
Offering free, impartial advice and support, it is a one-stop personalised service on money matters.
One call to the free helpline is all it takes for people to find out what they are entitled to.
Funded by the Scottish Government, the service is being delivered by the Citizens Advice Network in Scotland.
People can access it by calling the free helpline on 0800 085 7145 where they will be given advice on how best to access the financial support they need and are entitled to.
Hundreds have already been offered free financial advice since the service was launched last November.
Aileen Campbell, cabinet secretary for communities and local government, said: “The Financial Health Check is an invaluable source of support for people who are on a low income.
“Friendly, experienced advisers are on hand to talk them through all their options.
“Too many people are not accessing everything they could be and we want to ensure the right support is there to help people make the most of their financial situation.
“The service will cover issues such as access to free school meals, benefit uptake, council tax reduction and cheaper deals on energy and other utilities to reduce household costs.
“If you’re a parent struggling to make ends meet, you’re not alone. It doesn’t matter if you’re in work or out, one call to the free phoneline is all it takes get some advice that could make a real difference.
“We would urge people to pick up the phone for a free financial health check today.”
Derek Mitchell, CEO of Citizens Advice Scotland, said: “We know from research large numbers of families in Scotland are still not claiming support they are entitled to.
“We are pleased to have this opportunity to reach those who need support the most.
“Through this service, and all the core work of the Citizens Advice network in Scotland, CAB teams can help alleviate financial worries, so people can access their basic rights to food and a warm home.”
The Financial Health Check is free to all, offering impartial advice and support.
Advisers can let people know exactly what they are entitled to, as well as providing a personalised service to help them save money and get the best deals.