By Alan McIntosh

LAST week’s threatened closure of five Citizens Advice Bureaux by Glasgow City Council brought frontline advisers and their supporters on to the streets in protest. The response was entirely foreseeable, as was the subsequent political u-turn. Glasgow City Council’s proposed cut of up to 60 per cent for frontline advice services, in the middle of a pandemic, was never going to fly.

Even Nicola Sturgeon’s statement in the Scottish Parliament that she wanted advice services to go from strength to strength, was a clear attempt to distance herself from the cuts. However, as is often the case, the Scottish Government’s actions fail to live up to its words.

No frontline advice services in Scotland are going from strength to strength.

As early as June, in response to this crisis, the UK’s Money and Pension Service (MAPS) announced that an extra £38 million was being invested in debt advice services across England to help employ another 1,000 money advisers; and Stepchange, the national debt charity, received more than 400 laptops from MAPS to support their staff in working from home.

In Scotland, until last week, no additional funding has been made available by the Scottish Government for frontline advice services. However, it has now belatedly been announced that we have received £2.4 million from MAPS. It has also been announced that Advice UK, an English-based organisation, is to receive funding from this to distribute to its Scottish members, but no mention of how much the sums involved are. There was also nothing about which other organisations will receive funding, or how agencies,which are not members of Advice UK, but are members of Citizen Advice Scotland or Money Advice Scotland (Scottish organisations), will access funds.

It has also been indicated that the emphasis will be on using this money to help people access online and telephone advice services, despite the fact there has never been any lack of capacity in this area.

Instead, it appears there will be little additional funding for frontline, face-to-face services, like those provided by the Citizen Advice Bureaux in Glasgow, or elsewhere for that matter. This is despite the fact these services are the ones that lack the capacity to deal with the rising demand they are seeing from the most vulnerable groups.

And this is simply not an issue about service users lacking the skills or technology to access online services, but the fact the most vulnerable groups often suffer from complex issues, involving debt, benefits and housing, whilst also coping with both physical and mental health problems. Advice by algorithm does not work for them, nor does advice by text or webchat.

Unless we want a K-shaped recovery, where the winners are those who can engage with services using multiple channels of delivery, then we must fund and resource frontline advice services for those who cannot access other services.

The coronavirus cannot become a convenient excuse for more cost-cutting and the continued underfunding of face-to-face advice services. Instead we need to invest in ensuring these services are able to continue safely and their availability extended to cope with what will be the inevitable surge in demand.

The new normal may be social distancing and mask wearing; it cannot be reduced services for those who need them most.

Alan McIntosh is a money adviser. The opinions expressed are his own.