Working through the pandemic: Citizens Advice Diss, Thetford and District

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In 1938 the prospect of an imminent war saw the National Council of Social Services (the forerunner of today’s National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) consider how best to meet the needs of the civilian population in wartime. 

“Citizens Advice Bureaux should be established throughout the country, particularly in the large cities and industrial areas where social disorganisation may be acute.” 

Jump to 2003. The Office for Public Management concluded that “the Citizens Advice service provides excellent value… It makes a significant contribution to individuals and communities, as well as to the process of policy-making and service delivery. Its holistic approach, national coverage and independence are to be cherished.” 

Today the network provides advice in 2,500 locations across England and Wales, with over 21,500 volunteers working alongside 7,000 paid staff. Citizens Advice (the ‘Bureaux’ bit has been dropped) is a national institution that is hugely important at local level. People come to Citizens Advice with all sorts of issues. It may be about money, benefit, housing or employment problems. They may be facing a crisis, or just considering their options. 

Caroline Mackinson, Project Coordinator at Citizens Advice Diss, Thetford and District, explains how they have adapted their work during the pandemic. 

“Under normal circumstances, 80 per-cent of the clients we help visit our offices and outreach locations for face-to-face advice.  From 23 March 2020, 100 per-cent of our advice was delivered remotely via phone, email and web chat. This included our specialist welfare benefit advice to cancer patients, and Pension Wise appointments. 

During the first four weeks of lockdown 524 people received advice remotely, with individuals helped to secure financial outcomes totalling more than £72,000. On average, clients were helped with at least two different issues.”  

“Since lockdown, we’ve seen a noticeable rise in complex employment related queries and an increase in younger, employed people seeking support, including peaks in new claims for universal credit. By the end of May, we’d helped a further 616 clients with 1,181 issues and achieved over £110k in financial outcomes for them. 

Throughout lockdown we’ve worked closely with our Norfolk Community Advice Network partners and advice agencies in Suffolk. We continue to provide regular updates to the public via community radio and work closely with local food banks, including distributing energy advice via food parcels. We’ve also secured emergency grant funding to help households experiencing fuel poverty who are at risk of disconnecting from their energy supply.   

We’ve expanded our social media to meet an increased demand for up-to-date reliable information and quality advice in a digital format, and raised awareness of emerging issues including new Covid19-related scams. 

In response to the need to offer support the more marginalised groups, particularly those without internet access or who struggle to use the phone, we’ve conducted thorough risk assessments of premises, staff and volunteers and reopened our Diss office. We are offering face-to-face advice by appointment only. We will open our Thetford office one day per week from 15th July.” 

Citizens Advice Diss, Thetford and District continues to offer telephone and email support and can be contacted on 03444 111 444 Monday-Friday, 9-5..  A reduced face-to-face service is offered at their Diss and Thetford offices, by appointment only.  

Their message is “We are still here to help.”   Their volunteers come from all sorts of backgrounds -  maybe you could join them? Visit the website at www.cadat.org.uk 

This is part of a series of examples of the huge contribution made by local VCSE organisations in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. To understand more about the pivotal role played by Voluntary Community and Social Enterprise organisations in Norfolk’s Covid-19 response effort please read our Norfolk VCSE Covid-19 Story page.