Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Want to see a brighter future for local government? Call a CAB – Derek Mitchell

It is very welcome to see Reform Scotland undertaking the Devolving Scotland project. Our local authorities are crucial in the delivery of public services and shaping the lives of our citizens. However, too often the question of where power is held in Scottish public life does not start with them.

I should declare an interest as the Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) and a former officer at COSLA. I want to see local government empowered, but I honestly believe it is in the interest of every community in the country to see that as well.

Too often, our policy debate is confined to the chambers of Westminster and Holyrood. But laws and policies passed in parliaments are only as good as a citizen’s ability to exercise those rights. That is where the delivery aspect of policy is crucial, often local, and too often underfunded.

Perhaps the CAB network provides some ideas and lessons on what that empowerment could, and should, look like.

Many of you reading this will broadly recognise what a Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) is. CABs offer free, impartial, and confidential advice in communities throughout the country on various issues, ranging from housing to benefits, energy to debt, legal issues to immigration.

There are 59 CABs across Scotland, each organised to best suit the needs of their local community.

Each CAB operates as an independent charity with its own trustees and funding arrangements. In Glasgow, there are eight individual CABs, while in Fife, there is one charity with multiple offices.

As the national membership organisation, it is not CAS’ job to dictate the geographical organisation of these service providers; our role is to support them with infrastructure and additional funding where possible.

The reality is the demographics and populations of Scotland means there will always be an  asymmetry of delivery in local communities, but there should be a focus on achieving a symmetry of outcomes.

While the CAB network receives national funding to deliver services, the core funding that keeps most of their staff employed and their offices running comes from their local authority.

Every CAB manager in Scotland is familiar with the ‘potholes before poverty’ dilemma. Statutory obligations, such as fixing potholes, often take higher priority in council budgets than a holistic, general advice service that helps citizens understand and enact their rights.

No one is suggesting that potholes shouldn’t be fixed or that statutory obligations aren’t important. However, budgets have shrunk while central government obligations on councils have grown, placing significant pressure on CAB funding. This pressure has been intolerable for most of the last decade, even before the impact of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis.

There is an opportunity cost here. The impact that CABs have on communities is astonishing if you are not familiar with their work. Last year, the network assisted over 174,500 people, unlocking £132 million in the process through things like employment entitlements, social security payments, and debt reductions.

Let me put that into perspective. Roughly one in six people who seek help from a CAB see some sort of financial gain, with an average value of over £4,200.

Consider the harsh winter we have just experienced and the unacceptable levels of poverty in our society. Consider all the changes we may like to see in public policy to alleviate that poverty. Now consider that, within the confines of the existing system, CABs are improving the financial situation of every sixth person they assist by over £4,000. That’s not only changing lives, it’s saving lives.

So, what does all of this have to do with local government reform in Scotland? Firstly, that money is more likely to be spent locally. Holyrood will in this parliament pass Community Wealth Building legislation which we hope will be world leading, a starting place for that would be to recognise the role organisations like CABs play in unlocking community wealth in the first place.

Each CAB is unlocking significant amounts of money for local citizens every year, that cash isn’t being squirreled away in a Cayman Islands bank account, it is being spent locally, going back into the local economy.

Secondly, the outcomes of good advice save our public services millions of pounds every year. Independent research suggests that the CAB network in Scotland saves the health service around £20 million per year and generates net gains worth up to £245 million for Scottish society. Just imagine how much more impressive these figures could be with better, more secure funding that could increase the capacity of our CABs to deliver more services to many more people.

We would take steps towards the vision outlined by Campbell Christie, spending money to prevent problems before they happen. This leads to healthier citizens with the security and opportunity to live their lives, while also saving money for the public purse in the long run.

Likewise the CABs, each tailored to meet the needs of their local communities, attract volunteers. Approximately 35% of these volunteers go on to further education or employment. This figure is likely an underestimate, considering that many of our volunteers are retired individuals looking to give something back. Regardless, volunteering opens up opportunities for people.

Volunteers are just one example of how we are utilising technology to combine the national and the local. Two CABs use video technology to remotely train volunteers from across the network all across Scotland. We have also experimented with AI to develop a system where people can call a single number, regardless of their location, and be connected to their local CAB.

The local element is vital here. The advice people receive from a local CAB, provided by individuals who live and work in that community, possesses knowledge and understanding that could never be replicated by a remote call centre.

Polling from YouGov found that almost nine in ten (88%) of adults believed it was important the person they were getting advice from had local knowledge and understanding. Meanwhile 84% believed it was important that advice is provided face to face in local communities.

So, what lessons can we learn from Citizens Advice for the future of local government in Scotland? I would suggest the following principles:

  • One size does not fit all. We should seek symmetry of outcomes, not delivery.
  • People prefer and trust local services.
  • A national body should guide, empower and support, and then often simply get out of the way
  • To that end, it should be easier for councils to invest in preventative measures.
  • Empowering communities doesn’t just mean services and support but opportunities too.

If these principles lead to a better-funded and more secure CAB network, that can work in partnership with strengthened and empowered local government, we will all reap the benefits.

Derek Mitchell is Chief Executive Officer of Citizens Advice Scotland

If you would like to contribute to Reform Scotland’s Devolving Scotland forum, please email [email protected]