We have a raft of new volunteer opportunities – make your New Year’s resolution early!

As many households face a difficult winter, Citizens Advice is seeing a higher demand for advice and charitable support, and urgently need more volunteers. The charity is urging people to plan their New Year’s resolution early!

Citizens Advice across Oxfordshire supports over 27,000 people every year with free, independent and confidential advice from trained advisors.

The number of people seeking debt advice in September 2021 increased by 11% on the month before and is now 20% higher than this time last year.  Low income households face significant extra budgetary pressure in Spring 2022 as the energy price cap is predicted to increase by a further £383. Added to this, 5 million households had the £20 Universal Credit uplift removed last month.

Volunteers are asked to contribute a minimum of 7-8 hours per week, which could be in the local office, working with a community partner or working from home.

Our charity is looking for:

  • volunteers to help with advice as part of the Benefits in Place service. Volunteers can work from home whilst providing people with initial support. This makes a huge difference as the volunteers help to move people quickly from their initial enquiry, to advice, and onto wider holistic support as appropriate. They could also work in community settings, assisting people to access online advice and helping them make appointments with Apply here.
  • volunteers to help with administration, provide people with generalist advice, client support and volunteer recruitment.  Apply here

Apply for the Benefits in Place volunteer roles here or for more volunteer roles, visit Citizens Advice volunteer vacancies.

No advice experience necessary as full training will be provided. Training begins in January 2022.

Volunteers are often looking for new ways to gain valuable experience and enhance their skills, or to enjoy the opportunity to work with and meet different people. They find it rewarding to support local people and make a difference to their lives. 

Andreea Let, Operations Assistant at Citizens Advice North Oxfordshire said: “Benefits in Place volunteers find it’s a great first role as the volunteers deal with the clients quickly. The role offers the flexibility of volunteering as much as they like, and manage their own hours via a shared calendar. When volunteers are ready, they can join the next level training programme. Benefits in Place aims to support people to reduce health inequalities, reduce foot traffic to GP surgeries and ensure the service is more targeted to people in need.” 

Pat Coomber-Wood, Chief Officer at Citizens Advice North Oxfordshire said: “The whole nation has seen the incredible work done by volunteers during the pandemic. Many people come forward in droves to help deliver food and medicine, assist at vaccination clinics and a host of other activities. It is wonderful that the value of volunteering has been highlighted because since the start of the Second World War, Citizens Advice volunteers have been helping people in crisis every day. We rely on a wonderful team of people willing to give their time and skills to deliver advice to people experiencing a wide range of social problems such as money worries and debt, or family problems. We could not accomplish all that we do each year to improve the lives of the people in our local communities without our wonderful volunteers. They are indeed unsung heroes!”

Apply for the Benefits in Place volunteer roles here or for more volunteer roles, visit Citizens Advice volunteer vacancies.

Food, energy and water bill support available for vulnerable households this winter

In West Oxfordshire, a new Household Support Fund is available for people struggling to afford their food, energy and water bills this winter. Citizens Advice West Oxfordshire is proud to partner with West Oxfordshire District Council (WODC) and Oxfordshire County Council to help those most in need in our community.

To qualify for the individual support

To qualify for the individual support of emergency vouchers and financial help towards food, fuel and other essential household costs, people need to:

  • live in West Oxfordshire,
  • be struggling to afford food and other essential household costs,
  • be over 18.

Teresa Archer, Chief Officer, Citizens Advice West Oxfordshire said:

“We are very pleased to be working with West Oxfordshire District Council to distribute the Household Support Fund.  This support will be vital to people over the winter months, particularly those who are struggling but don’t qualify for other statutory support. We will be providing benefit checks and offering wider advice to those that apply to ensure that they are getting all the support that they are eligible for. 

Where to apply for the individual support fund

Contact Citizens Advice West Oxfordshire who will run the appropriate checks to prioritise individual support. They can also help with debt and advice expertise too. 

Residents can apply by calling 01993 892063 or emailing info@citizensadvicewestoxon.org.uk

Referral partners can refer on behalf of a resident – just request a referral form by emailing info@citizensadvicewestoxon.org.uk

The future of Advice for Oxfordshire – post pandemic 

Written by Citizens Advice West Oxfordshire Chief Officer, Teresa Archer

In August 2020, 6 million people across the UK had fallen behind on household bills as a result of the pandemic. One year later and inflation has reached 3% – a nine year high – pushing up the cost of essentials and putting further pressure on already stretched budgets.

Last month, the rise in the energy price cap pushed bills higher just as 5 million households lost £20 a week through the cut to Universal Credit.

Key covid protections will provide vital support for some families in crisis this winter, but these protections are limited in reach and will end just as energy prices are set to increase even more sharply.

As many households face a difficult winter, there are concerning early warning signs in our data. We are seeing higher demand for debt advice and charitable support, and a growing proportion of people we help with debt can’t cover their essential costs each month. Signs that rising pressures on household budgets are making it harder for people to make ends meet and afford the essentials.

Citizens Advice recently published an article Rising pressure on household budgets which sounds an early warning about rising household costs, and the impact of the withdrawal of temporary support measures next year.

Across Oxfordshire we have seen significant take-up of supermarket vouchers, help with fuel costs, increased use of foodbanks and the rapid increase in the number of larder services.  Some of this support is short term, and whilst the foodbanks and larders will continue to help vulnerable individuals and families get through what will be a tough winter, should we expect people to continue to rely on this support long term?  What happens to those who have received financial support through grants when the temporary funds run out? We will see debt rise again, evictions increase and greater numbers of people becoming homeless.

Charitable support and food support categories will include various grants provided by LA’s and access to food banks and Larder, as well as individual grants secured from trusts and charities for individual needs not covered by other schemes.. 

Over the pandemic we have seen a significant drop in the number of people seeking debt advice. We believe this was directly related to the moratorium on debt collection and the restrictions on eviction proceedings, as well as the increased support available to those most in need through the Winter Support Grant, Household Support fund and other funds or services delivered through our local authorities and voluntary sector.  However, we are now starting to see the numbers rise. We expect the number of citizens needing debt advice to increase to higher than pre-pandemic levels across all districts, and we are concerned that debt advice funding is not currently sufficient to support that. Whilst this year we are predicting a slow increase, in 2022-23 we expect this to rise steeply in 2022-23 as the support funds are closed.  We are predicting that need will exceed 2019-20 numbers. There has been generous support available to many vulnerable families throughout the pandemic, and that has helped them to keep on top of their bills.  For many, once that support is removed, they will not be able to sustain that in the longer term, and we will see more people coming to us for debt advice and related housing and benefits issues.  

Citizens Advice urges people to talk about money during Talk Money Week

Citizens Advice across Oxfordshire is taking part in Talk Money Week, an annual awareness campaign coordinated by the Money and Pensions Service to encourage everyone to think about their money and pensions.

Held from 8 to 12 November, Talk Money Week aims to encourage conversations among families, friends, neighbours, customers, colleagues and communities. Talking openly about money can have a huge impact on tackling money worries, and is important for our overall health and relationships. The impact of Covid-19 has made it more important than ever to look after our financial wellbeing.

Talk Money Week is also an opportunity to celebrate the work organisations like Citizens Advice are doing to support the long-term UK Strategy for Financial Wellbeing. This was launched by the Money and Pensions Service (MaPS) in 2020 with wide support across the UK. It has an ambitious ten-year goal to help everyone make the most of their money and pensions.

Throughout the week there will be activity across the UK to get more people talking about personal finance issues, and engaging with topics such as saving regularly, planning for retirement, dealing with debt, and teaching children and young people about managing money.

Teresa Archer, Chief Office of Citizens Advice West Oxfordshire commented: “We are deeply concerned about people’s spiralling debt and encourage people to start the conversation this week or as soon as possible. We have employed more debt advisers across the county to support people. The first conversation is the hardest but once people take that step, it gets easier. No one needs to deal with debts on their own.”

Caroline Siarkiewicz, Chief Executive at the Money and Pensions Service says: “As we continue to respond to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, financial wellbeing remains key to the UK’s recovery: a financially healthy nation is good for individuals, communities, business, and the economy. Talk Money Week provides a key opportunity for the nation to break the taboo of discussing money and finances. We are pleased to see so many organisations encouraging conversations about money – from pocket money to pensions – to help people across the country make better informed and more positive decisions about their finances.”

If you’re having issues with money or debt, you can: talk to us online about a debt problem using chat – we can usually help between 8am and 7pm, Monday to Friday

call our debt helpline – it’s available 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Debt helpline: 0800 240 4420

Relay UK – if you can’t hear or speak on the phone, you can type what you want to say: 18001 then 0800 240 4420. You can use Relay UK with an app or a textphone. There’s no extra charge to use it. Find out how to use Relay UK on the Relay UK website.

The debt helpline is available 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. It’s not available on public holidays. Calls are free from mobiles and landlines. For more information on Talk Money Week visit www.maps.org.uk/talk-money-week/

Citizens Advice West Oxfordshire 2021 AGM

Citizens Advice West Oxfordshire AGM in Burwell Hall

We were delighted to welcome so many familiar faces to our AGM. Thank you to our supporters, funders, volunteers and staff for joining the evening event. If you missed the event, you can see all the 2021 AGM presentation here.

Take a look below for the key highlights

Worried about higher energy costs and suppliers going bust?

The cost of wholesale gas, which we use to heat most of our homes and to generate much of our electricity, has increased by 250% in the past year, and 70% since August. Citizens Advice is asking the Government to provide emergency grant support, to provide extra to help people particularly affected by the rising cost of living.

How you can reduce your energy bills

There are ways to reduce how much electricity and gas you use. For example, you can:

  • draught-proof your windows and doors
  • use your tumble dryer less, if you have one – try to dry your clothes outside or by an open window instead
  • run your washing machine at 30 degrees and make sure you wash a full load when you can
  • use LED or other energy-efficient light bulbs
  • turn off plug sockets at the wall if you’re not using them
  • close your curtains in the evening to keep in heat when it’s cold
  • make sure your fridge is set between 3 and 5 degrees and defrost your freezer regularly
  • replace a showerhead to use less water and reducing time spent in the shower
  • boil only the amount of water you need in your kettle.

If your energy supplier has gone bust

You’ll still have gas and electricity if your energy supplier goes out of business. The gas and electricity regulator, Ofgem, will move you to a new supplier. This should happen within a few weeks. Wait for your new supplier to contact you. They’ll explain what will happen with your account. Contact your new supplier if you don’t hear from them within two weeks.

Citizens Advice West Oxfordshire is here to help

We can help you understand your energy bills, support you if you want to switch and calculate the savings you might make. If you’ve fallen behind on bill payments, the charity can advise on ways to reduce your debt by budgeting or trying a new payment scheme.

Teresa Archer, Chief Officer at Citizen Advice West Oxfordshire said:

“We know this is an extremely worrying time for many.  With the loss of the £20 per week Universal Credit uplift and energy companies predicting significant increases, we encourage those people who are in debt or are struggling to budget to get in touch so we can help them through these challenging times.”

Citizens Advice can also check your benefit entitlements and help you to claim them if you’re eligible. There are several helpful schemes like the Priority Services Register and the Warm Home Discount which saves £140 if you are eligible.

Consumer Service if you are having problems

The Citizens Advice consumer service, a free advice helpline for people having consumer problems is a vital part of the charity’s work as the consumer advocate for energy. If you’re in need of specialist support, you’ll be referred to the Extra Help Unit.

Contact Citizen Advice West Oxfordshire for advice on on 0808 278 7908 or email info@citizensadvicewestoxon.org.uk

If you’re worried about getting less Universal Credit

From 6 October 2021, the amount of Universal Credit you’ll get will go down by £86.67 a month. This affects everyone claiming Universal Credit – there aren’t any exceptions.

If you’re struggling with living costs

If you don’t have enough to live on, you might be able to get help with paying for daily essentials. Our local council might give you vouchers to help pay for daily essentials like:

  • a hot meal
  • second-hand furniture
  • household appliances – for example, a cooker

This is known as ‘welfare assistance’ and councils run their own scheme. You can check what help you can get from local charities on the Turn2us website –  you’ll need to know your postcode.

If you can’t pay for food

Food banks are community organisations that can help if you can’t afford the food you need. You can find out how to get help from a food bank.

Check if you can get free school meals

If you have children, you might be able to get free school meals for your children.

Get help with housing costs

If you’re paying rent, you could make a claim for a discretionary housing payment (DHP). A DHP is extra money from your local council to help pay your rent. Contact our local council and ask how to apply for a DHP. They might want you to apply by phone or online.

When you apply, be as clear as you can when you’re explaining why you need a DHP. If you apply on a paper form, it’s a good idea to keep a copy of the form for your records. You should explain:

  • why you can’t afford to pay the rent
  • why you can’t move somewhere cheaper
  • if it’s causing problems for someone you look after – like a child or elderly relative
  • any evidence you have – like a letter from your doctor or details of debts you’re paying off

If you have a mortgage

You might be able to get a government loan to help to pay the mortgage interest. The government loan is called ‘support for mortgage interest’ (SMI). The DWP will charge interest on the SMI loan – this means you’ll pay back more than you borrowed. Even though you’ll pay interest, it could be cheaper than other ways of borrowing money. You can check if you can get SMI.

Check if you can pay less council tax

You might qualify for a council tax reduction if your income has dropped or if you started claiming benefits recently. You can check if you can pay less council tax.

If you’re worried about money you owe 

There are steps you can take to help you reduce your debt. You can find out how to get help with your debts. You can also talk about your debt with a trained adviser online.

If you’re disabled or look after a disabled child

You might also be able to get other benefits as well as Universal Credit. If you’re disabled, you should check if you’re eligible for Personal Independence Payment (PIP). If you look after a disabled child, you should check if you can claim Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for your child. Getting PIP or DLA won’t reduce the amount of Universal Credit you get.

Join us for our Annual General Meeting

Citizens Advice West Oxfordshire is pleased to invite you to our Annual General Meeting on Wednesday, 20th October 2021 at 7pm in Burwell Hall, Witney.

Join us to hear how we supported our community through the pandemic and our plans going forward. Everyone is welcome. Please let us know if you can attend by emailing admin@citizensadvicewestoxon.org.uk

Citizens Advice West Oxfordshire ensures people living with multiple sclerosis receive the advice and support they need

Citizens Advice West Oxfordshire has provided advice to people living with multiple sclerosis (MS) and their carers in the West Oxfordshire area for many years. The charity’s free advice service supports people with a variety of issues such as benefits, consumer, employment, energy and supporting appeals.

The MS Society (West Oxfordshire) have worked in partnership with Citizens Advice West Oxfordshire to fund this essential service for people with MS.

As many people living with MS have mobility and memory issues, the charity provides home visits to ensure they are given the extra support they need. Issues tend to be complex so third party support is essential to help them navigate the range of benefits and forms to be completed. Typically issues are a combination of *Personal Independent Payment (PIP) claims and appeals, Universal Credit claims, energy advice and more.

The charity helped appeal a benefit decision that found her fit for work, creating an overpayment of Employment and Support Allowance. The client said: I wouldn’t have had a clue without your advice and would have just repaid the overpayment and carried on as I previously had done“. Citizens Advice successfully challenged the decision, removing the overpayment and ensuring that her income was maintained. 

Another client’s father following the outcome of a successful Personal Independence Payment appeal, said: As a family we cannot thank you enough for all you have done for us.” Our MS Caseworker has identified that Marie should be eligible for PIP, helped her to claim and when it was refused, help her to appeal the decision.  This made a significant difference to her income and increased her eligibility for other benefits.

Tracy Clark, Citizens Advice West Oxfordshire Supervisor said:

“The MS project is a really rewarding project to work on as the client group are facing many challenges with their health as well as the presenting issues. The clients tend to have a real perseverance to overcome the difficulties they are faced with and are often very humble individuals. It’s a pleasure to work on this project.”

The range of issues we can help with:

Citizens Advice West Oxfordshire dedicated MS adviser can give free, confidential, impartial and independent advice on a range of issues, including:  

  • Benefits – entitlement, claims and appeal
  • Housing
  • Debt and money
  • Work
  • Family
  • Discrimination
  • Health & social care
  • And many other issues

Get in touch

To find your local Oxfordshire Citizens Advice for advice, visit www.caox.org.uk  

Further support

*Many people with MS can claim Personal Independence Payment (PIP). It’s a benefit that can help cover the extra costs people may face if they need help doing everyday tasks or find it difficult to get around your home. Find out more about MS Society and how they can support people living with MS.

How to get help to reduce some school costs

I’m a single parent and lost my job during the pandemic. My local Citizens Advice helped me apply for Universal Credit which has been really helpful to cover some of the income I’ve lost. But I’m very worried about the upcoming £20-a-week cut to Universal Credit – I don’t know how I’ll be able to pay for the school uniforms and shoes, especially as they grow so fast! Is there any other support out there to help plug the gap?

If you’re on a low income or employed, you might be able to get help with some of the costs of sending your child to school, including school meals, transport and uniform. It’s always worth talking to your local education authority to see what support is available as some of their resources and offerings can differ. The following information is for England.

Free school meals

Children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 automatically get free school meals. If you have older children you can apply for free school meals if you get certain benefits. In your case as you’re on Universal Credit and you applied after 1 April 2018 you would be eligible if you earn less than £7,400 a year without benefits. You can see the full list of eligibility requirements on the Citizens Advice website.

To apply for free school meals you need to contact your local authority, you can check the details at Gov.uk by typing your postcode in.

Transport

If your children are aged between five to 16, your local education authority might offer free or lower cost transport if you don’t live near school or your child’s unable to walk there. You need to apply to your local education authority for help.

Uniforms and other costs

Your local education authority might also be able to help with some other costs, like uniforms, music lessons or trips and activities. There may also be local charitable schemes to help with these costs, it’s worth checking with the school to see if it knows of any. Schools can also sometimes also advise on finding secondhand uniforms.

What’s next

If your child is staying in education after year 11, you must tell HMRC’s Child Benefit Office if you want to continue receiving child benefit and any extra support for children within means-tested benefits. When your child turns 16, HMRC will send you a letter asking whether your child will stay in education or training. You must reply to this letter to keep getting Child Benefit.