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A Day in the Life

Emily Balsdon, NCAN Director

My role

The purpose of my role is to build partnerships between NCAN’s advice organisations and other professionals who support clients, such as workers in the NHS or in local authorities. Mine is quite an outward facing role because it’s about making as many links as possible with other organisations. But it’s also about strengthening the alliance between all advice charities across Norfolk so we have even stronger relationships and work effectively together. My role involves a lot of sharing information and delivering training, plus supporting advice organisations with other projects such as joint funding bids, measuring impact or outcomes with their clients. I’m completely office-based right now because all my meetings and training are happening online, but before coronavirus Iockdown I was out and about a lot at meetings or delivering training in different places around the county. In one way currently being office-based is quite good because it saves me a lot of time not travelling around. But I do prefer the improved communication I get when I am face to face with people and it is a lot easier to have casual conversations with people before or after a meeting when you are together in the same place. It’s those informal chats that can build better relationships. When I deliver training face to face I pick up helpful signals too, such as seeing from their full body language when someone is fully engaged or when they perhaps don’t understand something. I do miss all that.

A typical day

On a typical day I could be attending some meetings, delivering some training and catching up with NCAN volunteers. Then I’m busy getting on with projects of my own, such as the e-learning training that I’m writing about our NCAN Referral System, which is used by lots of professionals to connect their service users or clients with the right advice. Often the professionals making referrals are statutory or public sector workers across the county, such as healthcare or hospital staff, social care workers or housing officers. NCAN offers those people training so they can feel confident that their referrals will be of good quality. It covers topics such as what is social welfare advice and how professionals can identify what is a debt issue or when a person needs employment advice. It also covers what each advice agency in NCAN does, and what information our advisors will need them to gather from their clients and service users. For example, to receive debt advice it helps us to know what kind of debts their client had mentioned (Council Tax, rent arrears, credit cards etc) but also anything that will help them to access our support easily (such as needing a translator or, if they have anxiety, letting us know the best way to contact them to make it as stress-free as possible for the person to get the right help).

The issues affecting my work at the moment

The tension around technology, and how it helps or limits the quality of advice, is on my mind. I believe this is going to become more of an issue because lots of the advice giving organisations have realised they can deliver some of their services digitally and have found some real benefits of that (in terms of it being time efficient and clients not having to travel to appointments). The “tension” part is that in the future I fear funders may be more amenable towards services that are completely digital, simply because they may be cheaper. We in the advice sector all know about limitations with telephone-only or online-only advice. There is a risk that vital information or contextual references may get missed or overlooked. To give you an example, quite recently one of our member advice agencies tentatively restarted some carefully socially distanced face to face advice for their clients. A young mum sought their help and after the main advice was given, the advisor was able to chat casually, asking how the client was and how they’d had managed at home with their child through lockdown. It was only then that the client revealed childcare issues and wellbeing concerns. Those kind of support needs probably would not have been covered in most brief telephone advice sessions. Lots of vulnerable people are not able to access digital advice or just don’t have the technology at home, and my concern is that they may miss out on getting what they need at the right time. Colleagues are already hearing some older people say they will wait until face to face is possible again before taking up an offer of help, yet we know that every delay is a risk for the client in terms of affecting their stress levels, and for us in terms of being able to give advice early enough to help them get the best outcomes.

The moment I’ll always remember

I recall being very moved and surprised early on in this role, when a very skilled and senior professional told me about their own experience of being a domestic abuse survivor, telling me about the lengths they had gone to protect themselves until they escaped. Until that point, I realised I must have had naively stereotypical ideas in my head about who experiences domestic abuse and who could be a perpetrator. It was a major learning point for me. I also hadn’t realised the solutions in law that could help to protect people (e.g. Non-molestation Orders). I knew about refuges but didn’t know about the legal routes to move on with your life in safety.

What I love about what I do

I’m doing something really useful and that’s what I like, raising awareness of advice and being able to refer professionals so their service users or clients can get the right answers. That feels good. For example, today I’m doing some training for the 101 (non-emergency police) telephone call handlers. Being able to advocate for the advice sector and sharing with other professionals how NCAN helps them can be very rewarding. It’s quite a unique role and I feel very grateful to have that opportunity to make a difference.

One thing I wish I’d known when I started out

I didn’t realise until I did this role just how busy all advisors are all the time and how much effort and energy they put into their work. Now I am very aware and mindful of that.

If there was an extra hour in the day...

So many things! I would love to have more time to read research papers and report findings, because it would help me with anticipating the emerging trends in society. If I had one more hour I’d read the latest policy papers and evaluation reports on the NHS reorganisation and how it’s changing. I need to know how those changes will have an impact on who will need what advice in the future.

You can follow NCAN on Twitter @norfolk_advice

Andy Cobb, NCLS Manager Debt Adviser

My role

I’ve been at NCLS for 11 years but I’d already had about six other careers before I got into Advice work! My degree was in Microbiology and I’ve also done residential social work and been a restorer of classic cars. Before NCLS I was with Citizens Advice as a Debt Advisor where I was also in charge of a team that did debt advice volunteering across the county by telephone. Before that I did telephone debt advice with a different organisation, so I’ve got over 20 years of experience.
I got into debt advice because I got in debt and I got help from Citizens Advice in Great Yarmouth. I was so impressed, not just with what they did, but how it transformed my life. I was also shocked by how shabbily the credit industry treated the people with a bad credit record. It made a strong impression that people in debt are getting a pretty rough deal. That’s what keeps me motivated, because debt is still a relatively taboo subject. It has all kinds of implications for all kinds of people. It’s a popular misconception, for example, that people in debt are feckless with money, but the top reasons have been the same for years. It’s either that someone’s circumstances have changed and worsened (such as through the loss of employment or a divorce) and what was previously a manageable debt has now got on top of them.

A typical day

My day begins with a mix of appointments with existing clients and seeing new clients, then the rest is writing up reports for funders and so on. The really important stuff to me is to deal directly with clients. Before lockdown most appointments were face to face (we like to be client-led, to try and get them to engage with us, whether that is by post, by email, whatever works for them). So what’s changed is that all appointments are now by phone or email, or a mix.
In a new client appointment the aim is to gather details of all the issues they are facing and assess if there are any emergencies (such as an imminent Court date, is a bailiff involved, is repossession underway and so on), but also to explain the process to the client. That’s important because it’s a big thing that takes a lot of courage from them, as they don’t know what kind of reaction they will get when they first ask for help. That first appointment is important to build up trust. Quite often they won’t disclose all their debts at the outset and it’s quite common that they might say first that they owe someone £10k and actually they owe £20k or more. Sometimes their finances are in chaos and they just don’t know what they owe and to whom.
The overall aim is to get the client to regain control of their situation and to then get a plan in place.
Most people aren’t aware that the commercial debt management companies charge fees. They take a percentage, so it’s always going to be about repayments that works for them, when there are actually probably about up to a dozen possible solutions for any client.
That’s how NCLS is different. We offer free help and we offer the client choices in the range of ways they can manage their debts.
Years ago a client might have had 2 or 3 main options (e.g. insolvency, or paying a fixed affordable sum every month). Some people cannot possibly contemplate paying off a debt forever, so insolvency might work for them. For others, going insolvent was considered the worst thing possible. There’s never one solution for all, we aim to give each client control over their situation so they can choose what’s best for them.
Quite often we see people who have tried elsewhere (including commercial debt management companies) or they’ve been grappling with a debt repayment for years, having got steadily worse into debt or with the original debt never having been properly dealt with. We also often see people quite “late in the day”, in terms of how far their debt has escalated, so there can be legal and financial emergencies to deal with.

The issues affecting my work at the moment

I’m thinking a lot about the impact of targets, linked to further funding for advice services like ours. Demand for our kind of debt advice services is predicted (by the Money Advice and Pensions Service) to go up by 60% in 2020. With Covid more money has been put, or promised, into funding debt advice services, but I worry that that always seems to come at a high price (such as higher targets which means greater workload). Targets that are linked to increased volume of calls or cases don’t motivate the majority of debt advisors!
The Financial Statement, with which you can negotiate with creditors and/or develop a plan with the client, is no longer “fit for purpose”. That’s a tool ideal for when the client is in a stable financial situation (i.e. they have a job, can determine their income etc). The bit that troubles debt advisors is what to put on that Financial Statement when a client has a Zero Hours Contract, or is facing redundancy or Covid business closures again. The debt advisors’ set of tools hasn’t moved on.
I think a lot about how we can help when someone’s level of benefit income just isn’t enough to pay all their bills after they’ve paid their debts. We have no ideal solution to it. More and more people have intractable problems like that, where there is a fundamental difficulty linked to insecure income.

The moment I’ll always remember

There are two moments that still stick with me. We always seek feedback from clients when their case has closed. Dealing with people, you’re always surprised in that sometimes you get lengthy and extensive feedback from people you have hardly met. One client said we had transformed her life and saved her marriage (I looked at the case notes and felt we’d hardly done anything to her!). All we really did was listened to the issue and offered basic advice. It made me think that there is so much stigma around debt, it’s a lonely business for many people (some don’t even tell their partner of the debt), and just being able to unload all that makes such a difference. Just being there helps, as there are so few places you can go to with debts.
Secondly, back in the late 80’s, when lenders were repossessing properties left right and centre and then reselling them, I remember one lender had done that and sold the person’s property, then said there was still a mortgage shortfall debt of £28k that the client had to repay. The client was preparing to go bankrupt as they had no money and no way or raising it. Just as a last ditched attempt, we offered the fee the client had set aside to pay for their own bankruptcy as a “Full and Final Settlement” to end the debt completely. To our surprise, the lender agreed! But then, that was the right thing for them to do because they would have got nothing had the client gone bankrupt.

What I love about what I do

It’s the feedback from clients that makes it all worthwhile. Sometimes that’s immediate in the sense that you see someone in an initial face to face interview and you can see they are nervous, anxious, distressed or worried. 90% of the time you see them leave that first meeting looking relieved. Quite often it transforms their outlook just having that initial knowledge. Hopefully, if you resolve the debt issue, sometimes they put the most touching comments on their feedback forms. It’s so gratifying and there aren’t many jobs where you can say that.

One thing I wish I’d known when I started out

There’s always a solution, often several options if you get advice as early as possible. Sometimes people come in when bailiffs’ letters are about to expire, for example, and that can limit someone’s options, but the main thing is, know that we can help you.

You can follow NCLS on Twitter @NCLawService

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