'Do I heat or do I eat?': Energy bills, funding cuts and poverty at Citizens Advice Ipswich

Citizens Advice Ipswich

Citizens Advice Ipswich are a local charity aiming to listen to people in their local community and try to move them forward. - Credit: Dolly Carter

Charlie is facing homelessness. He’s lost his employment, split from his wife and is now doing odd jobs here and there for food.
 
At 53 years old, he’s been forced to sofa-surf with friends, finding his disability is ruining his chances of re-entering the world of work.
 
Charlie is just one of the vast number of people who will turn to Citizens Advice Ipswich today. He’s desperate, he hates being on benefits, he needs their help.
 
Entering its Tower Street office, it’s immediately apparent that Citizens Advice operates a disciplined operation with an open-door policy.

Citizens Advice Ipswich

The office building used by Citizens Advice Ipswich is based on Tower Street. - Credit: Dolly Carter


Filling in at the reception desk is Dan Barnett, one of the advice session supervisors, who fields a plethora of enquiries, the seemingly constant ringing phone and even the work experience student asking for the post box keys.
 
Amongst the steady stream of people breezing in and out of the building, he deftly handles and directs enquiries to a multitude of connecting teams.
 
But what do these Citizens Advice teams actually do? Chief executive Nicky Willshere offered an official answer: “To promote any charitable purpose for the public benefit by the advancement of education, the protection and preservation of health and the relief of poverty, sickness and distress.”

Nicky Willshere

Nicky Willshere is the chief executive of Citizens Advice Ipswich. - Credit: Dolly Carter


 
She admitted that this gives the organisation a broad brush and said: “More simply – justice for all."
 
From speaking with a variety of staff members, the understanding is that Citizens Advice is there to listen to people and try to move them forward - it will help you or the staff will know somebody who can.
 
According to her staff, chief executive Nicky Willshere is the type of person who will pick up the phone if no-one is around to answer it, who will do a milk run if needed and who works for Citizens Advice because she truly cares about the clients.
 
She shared some startling statistics to illustrate the increase in demand for their support over the past year.
 
In May 2021, Citizens Advice Ipswich received 54 requests for charitable support, which includes but is not limited to both food bank referrals and local welfare assistance.
 
In the same month this year, they had 346 requests – a 640% increase.
 
Excluding June, since Christmas they’ve received 1,461 requests from Ipswich residents alone - this figure extends to 5,512 when considering Suffolk as a whole.

Citizens Advice leaflet stand

Citizens Advice Ipswich has seen a 640% increase in requests for charitable support from May 2021 to May 2022. - Credit: Dolly Carter


 
Yet despite this alarming rise in demand, the bottom line for Citizens Advice is that its core funding has been reduced year on year.
 
Its funding from Suffolk County Council has reduced and, while the funding from Ipswich Borough Council has remained static, it must consider its position as an employer among increases in national living wage and workplace pensions.
 
Nicky added: “Demands on our services have gone up and I don’t think this has been recognised.
 
“We’re not being funded to pick up the slack of other people not having face-to-face services.”
 
Nicky detailed how she struggles when trying to assess performance with her statutory colleagues, preferring to take a more holistic approach to how Citizens Advice operates.
 
“Some record success by telling me they can answer 100 calls a day,” she said.
 
She picked up the phone – “Hello?” then slammed it back down again, repeating this action a few times: “Great, so can I. But does the client get what they want out of it? A phone call can take two minutes or two hours.”
 
While her statutory colleagues have moved away from face-to-face appointments, Nicky said Citizens Advice has not done this to remain firmly “customer-led”, meaning other services are directing people to them instead.
 
She added: “They’re just too far removed - come and spend the day with us and you’ll see how immediate the need is.
 
“This is the reality and looking at a spreadsheet doesn’t tell you that.” 
 
One of Nicky’s primary tasks this week has been buying oil, finding the cheapest to be £600 for 500 litres. Just seven months ago in November, the price was £350 for the same volume.
 
For the first time, this year Citizens Advice Ipswich is extending its Surviving Winter grant so it is active all year round. Started in 2016 to help clients affected by fuel poverty, it is usually only active between October and March.
 
From November 2021 to the second week of June 2022, staff have processed 1,333 applications issuing a total of £167,489 to clients.
 
Usually, in the peak of the Surviving Winter programme staff process up to eight applications a week. Currently, despite the recent period of hotter weather, they are processing between 10 and 30.
 
Business support manager Lena Ludvikova said: “A lot of people who used to be able to hold their head just above the water are now feeling as if they’re sinking.
 
“People who used to be able to handle their financial situation are now turning to us for help.”
 
The Citizens Advice Ipswich staff aim to ease the strain of the "do I heat or do I eat?mindset through money maximisation techniques.

Anna Pipe

Energy advisor Anna Pipe works on money maximisation techniques with her clients. - Credit: Dolly Carter


 
One such staff member is energy advisor Anna Pipe who is observing a worrying pattern in which initial bills sent across by energy companies are being calculated incorrectly and those who cannot spare the money are paying them without question.
 
In one instance, an Ipswich resident’s direct debit had increased from £88 to £290. Anna recognised that this had been miscalculated and managed to reduce the final figure to £150.

Directly opposite Anna’s desk sits benefits coordinator Heather Carmichael.

Heather Carmichael

Benefits coordinator Heather Carmichael has noticed a rise in the number of PIP applications. - Credit: Dolly Carter


 
As people across the country have been feeling the bite of the cost of living crisis over the last couple of months, Heather has seen an increase in clients applying for Personal Independence Payments (PIP).
 
While she described Universal Credit as “a bread and butter benefit”, she said this basic income is simply not enough anymore, which drives people to apply for additional benefits such as a PIP.
 
However, severe delays in applications being approved, even in cases where people are seriously ill, mean they are being forced to rely on the help of charitable organisations.
 
For the Connect for Health and Welcome Home pathway team, work is carried out directly with GPs and hospitals to allay non-medical concerns and meet patients’ socio-economic needs.
 
Nationally, 19% of people present at GPs with a non-medical issue – at one point in Ipswich this was at a record 43%. 
 
Tracy Grant, Nathalie Moir and Charlotte Armstrong work directly with a primary demographic of referrals which include housing, poverty and attempted suicides.
 
Nathalie said: “Even people who are employed and never thought they would struggle are struggling.”
 
Charlotte and Tracy visit people in the wards of Ipswich Hospital and have noticed a sharp rise in the number of people attempting to take their lives over the last couple of months.
 
They relay one instance in which a client was placed into a house in multiple occupation with people much younger than him. As a result of being bullied within his home environment, this man tried to take his own life 11 times within the space of a year – “one example of many”, Charlotte commented.
 
She added: “Visiting them in hospital has really opened my eyes to the people who have fallen through the cracks because the system is so fractured.”
 
For this team, which is working so closely with vulnerable and often seriously physically and/or mentally unwell people, it is vitally important that “the seldom listened to voices actually get heard”.
 
Another area in which the cost-of-living crisis is causing particularly dangerous problems is in regard to personal finances.
 
Trainee money advisor Roger encouraged Ipswich residents to visit Citizens Advice for guidance on their money sooner rather than later: “Small things can escalate quickly, so come to see us as early as you can.”
 
Recently, the team he works with has been able to get a back payment of Universal Credit which resulted in thousands of pounds of debt erasure for one of its clients.
 
Roger noted that the biggest debt at the moment seems to be council tax, though rent arrears, mortgage arrears, credit card and utility bills are all looming threats.
 
Citizens Advice Ipswich also relies upon the help of a group of volunteers and chief executive Nicky Willshere is always keen to praise the current group of volunteers and encourage new recruits.
 
The professional services manager, Sally Harrison, has been with the organisation for 10 years and started off as a volunteer herself.

Sally Harrison

Professional services manager Sally Harrison started as a volunteer with Citizens Advice ten years ago. - Credit: Dolly Carter


 
She said they’re always looking for more volunteers to help which, according to volunteer generalist advisor Charles Currie, who can be found at the Tower Street office once a week, is “an incredibly rewarding experience”.

Charles Currie

Charles Currie volunteers with Citizens Advice Ipswich once a week. - Credit: Dolly Carter

Citizens Advice Ipswich is driven by the positive attitudes and determination of its staff and volunteers, helping the increasing number of Suffolk people who, despite their best efforts, are finding themselves struggling.
 
As conveyed by the multitude of thank you cards pinned up on one of the office walls, for many Ipswich residents Citizens Advice has enabled them to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

If you're struggling, you can speak to your local Citizens Advice centre on 0800 0683131.