Citizens Advice North Hertfordshire Annual Report 2019/20

Introduction from the Chair & CEO

This annual report is primarily to celebrate our achievements in 2019/20. We are proud to look back on what Citizens Advice North Hertfordshire accomplished for our local residents last year:

  • We helped more clients than ever before: 30% more than the previous year
  • We improved access to our advice with 20% more clients able to reach us via our Adviceline than the year before
  • We improved support for survivors of Gender Violence and Abuse (GVA) by training all our Advice Workers in the ASK Routine Enquiry Programme which helps clients disclose GVA
  • We implemented the new Help to Claim service which provides advice and practical support for people making their initial claim for Universal Credit
  • We grew our team by recruiting and training 14 new volunteers
  • We improved how we work by engaging in leadership coaching and networking, streamlining many of our processes, developing and implementing new fundraising and community engagement strategies, and developing and embedding new organisational values
  • We underwent a full audit by National Citizens Advice, achieving an overall rating of excellent in all nine areas. Our Performance Assessor was impressed with our evident commitment to maintaining and improving standards, and the level of work that we do throughout the organisation.

As an organisation we continued to embrace our culture of continuous improvement and worked hard to further improve access to our advice, our client experience, and our offer to staff and volunteers.

But 19/20 now feels like a distant memory. Just as we were ending our successful year, Covid-19 appeared and the world became a very different place. It feels strange to be writing a report in September 2020 and not talk about our Coronavirus response, so the second part of our report steps out of 2019/20 and takes a look at the past six months.

One change brought about by Covid-19 is that this report is appearing just in a digital format. It’s a little shorter than usual but please visit our website for up to date information on our services: northhertscab.org.uk

As usual, we would like to say thank you to our funders and partners in North Herts and South Cambs who have been so supportive and enabled us to reach as many people as possible in our communities. We would also like to thank all our staff and volunteers, not only for their work in 2019/20, but also and especially for their dedication, good humour, hard work and flexibility over the past 6 months. You are a very special team.

Mel Chammings, Chair and Rosie Waters, CEO

Our Value to Society 2019/20

We help people to solve their problems, and in doing so, we save national and local government and society money by stopping problems that are, or will be, costly to fix. It is impossible to put a financial value on all our work but where we can put a conservative financial estimate on our value, it exceeds our funding considerably.

Treasurer's Report

In the year 2019-20 Citizens Advice North Hertfordshire (CANH) received grants and other income totalling £490,690 and had outgoings totalling £449,900. The income and outgoings include all those relating to the running of the general advice service and those relating to specific projects. This resulted in a surplus for the year of £40,790.

The funds of £261,456 are unrestricted and include £88,476 invested in fixed assets and £120,798 of designated funds. It is CANH’s policy where possible to maintain unrestricted reserves of at least 3 months’ general running costs. The designated reserves also include amounts to meet other expected expenditure and to provide resources to mitigate certain risks to which CANH is exposed: at 31 March 2020, a new reserve of £6,000 was established to cover costs associated with the Covid-19 crisis.

The increased level of surplus in 2019-20 arose principally from successful grant and project applications, including the funding of CANH’s server upgrade, together with careful cost control.

This information is a brief summary of the full Trustees’ Report and Accounts for the year ended 31st March 2020, which can be obtained from CANH.

Jeremy Bishop, Treasurer

Meet two of our new trustees!

Research & Campaigns 2019/2020

Research and campaigns activities continue to be a vital part of our work. We have a huge amount of information about the problems our clients and the wider community face. We use this evidence to justify calls for improvements to the processes that affect not only our clients but also those who may never contact Citizens Advice. Research & Campaigns activity we have been involved in during 2019/20 includes:

Universal Credit - CANH has been examining the extent to which clients need support from other agencies in order to make and manage claims. A selection of clients who were helped make UC claims were contacted and the results added to data collected by other LCA across the county.

Benefits - Citizens Advice ran a project looking at the experiences of those applying for Universal Credit (UC), Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payments (PIP) with particular reference to work capability assessments. Our research identified a number of key concerns. The report recommended improvements which would lead to a better experience for clients and addressed issues such as awareness of mental health issues and improved training for DWP assessors. The report was circulated locally for comments and then shared with other Local Citizens Advice (LCA) and Citizens Advice head office. The clients we spoke to were grateful for being able to turn to Citizens Advice as they felt unsure they would have had a fair hearing otherwise.

Big Energy Saving Week took place in January. We contacted local councillors and MPs, as well as schools and children’s centres with information about the events that were being planned. We also promoted the services we offer through posters and flyers distributed around our area. We visited various local groups and charities such as the Best Before Café, the Hitchin Food Rescue Hub and local foodbanks to promote our energy clinics. During the week of the campaign we attended several events including the Winter Warmers event in conjunction with First Garden Cities Homes and Weston Village Hall offering advice and supporting those who wished to use the online comparison sites to check and switch their energy deals. We also spent a morning at Letchworth Job Centre to promote checking and switching. One of our aims was to try and reach those with limited or no access to the internet.

As a local Citizens Advice, Scams Awareness is one of our R&C priorities and we continue to promote awareness via social media, our summer outreach events and in workshops to local groups. In July, we attended an event at Letchworth Library alongside Trading Standards. We have had a particular focus on promoting the Scams Action Service through social media and in our communications with local Councillors and groups within the community.

Outreach - We continue to extend our links with other local groups and, last year, visited some of the newly established community cafes, offering leaflets, signposting and also talking to people about issues such as scams and energy switching. We also supported the outreach events run by the Family Support Workers from the Letchworth Partnership of Schools during August 2019, as well as maintaining our involvement with Help to Claim and our community outreach at Westmill Community Centre.

Influencing - We wrote to congratulate our re-elected local MPs after the election in December 2019. In January 2020, Sir Oliver Heald accepted an invitation to visit our Letchworth office. We discussed a number of issues with him including Universal Credit, disability benefits, gambling, debt, our local Housing Associations, and family issues.

Social Media - please keep up to date with our community engagement & research and campaigns work by following our social media accounts and help us to spread the word.

Catherine Bennett, Research & Campaigns Co-ordinator

CANH and Covid-19

For a service that traditionally supports around 40% of its clients with a face to face service, closing our offices on 16th March 2020 was a worrying thing to have to do. As incomes dropped and isolation increased as a result of the pandemic we knew that many local residents would be more in need of our help than ever before, so keeping our services up and running was of paramount importance. Giving advice from home was not something we had ever tried before and, like many voluntary organisations, our IT equipment stocks were limited.

But within a day or two we were up and running. Our workforce of around 70 people all started working remotely from home and we immediately started providing all our information, signposting, advice and casework by phone and email. Over the past 6 months:

  • We all learned new IT skills, using WhatsApp and video conferencing for team meetings and to provide remote supervision for our Advisers who were used to working in teams with people available to consult with on the spot
  • We added in webchat, a new service for us, to ensure we had as many channels as possible open for local residents
  • We learned how to recruit new people remotely and carry out training sessions online so we could continue to develop and grow our team
  • We strengthened our partnerships as local organisations pulled together to provide emergency help for vulnerable residents
  • We were successful in applying for new funding so we could better equip our staff and volunteers to work from home
  • We were worried that more vulnerable clients wouldn’t be able to contact us by phone or email so we contacted them proactively to check they were OK
  • We learned how to deal with issues such as benefits applications and debt advice, which are easier to do face to face, over the phone
Homeworking during 2020

This just wouldn’t have been possible without the dedication of our team, who have all been willing to try new ways of working and have pulled together brilliantly. We opened up our Letchworth office in August so we can provide a vital face to face service for those clients who need it, but we now know that we can continue to support our local community whatever is thrown at us.

Our Letchworth COVID-secure office which reopened in August 2020

Lockdown Data:

Between 16th March 2020 and 25th September 2020 we helped 2,758 clients with 5,421 issues.We gained financial outcomes for our clients of £780,657. Our top 5 enquiry areas were:

  • Benefits (1,700 issues)
  • Employment (757 issues)
  • Debt (712 issues)
  • Housing (626 issues)
  • Relationships (390 issues)

This is what our clients had to say about us...

After speaking to Citizens Advice, I had the confidence to confront my problem, knowing that someone is behind me .
I can’t thank the people who have helped me at Citizens Advice enough. I couldn’t see a way forward and my mental health was in a very bad way and I couldn’t see a way out. I desperately needed help in so many areas of my life, which I got by dealing with all the issues one step at a time with support
They told us things that we couldn’t have possibly found out ourselves. It was good to have someone to help us fill forms in, it took a weight off our shoulders. Our problems are not sorted yet but knowing there is someone at hand to help you and fight your corner is a God-send.
The advisors are extremely friendly and understanding. You don’t feel like they’re judging you. We were made to feel at ease and have got an advisor who has really helped us out.
The receptionist was so considerate and a star. I thought the service of staff was professional and superb.
The help that I received made things (completing a form, dealing with DWP) so much easier. The knowledge, experience and expertise that was available made things less stressful. Thank you.
I was seeking some reassurance regarding an issue and Citizens Advice gave me clarification. It was good to know that I was taking the correct path.
Sometimes I feel my voice is not heard or listened to. Citizens Advice is the only place I can go to for help as a last resort.
Wonderful service and friendly professional people giving freely of their time. I cannot praise them highly enough.
I found the approach to me as a person very dignified. And the way my issue was addressed, was with such professionalism, and excellent knowledge base… I felt so reassured and hopeful at the end of my appointment.
I think when you are on benefits and don't have much money and don't know which way to turn it's so nice to know that someone can help you and you don't have to worry about a massive bill at the end. It also helps your mental state to know that someone is helping you and you are not on your own.
My contact was only on the telephone but the lady I spoke to completely put me at ease and preserved my dignity during a difficult situation.

CANH client quotes come from the 19/20 client satisfaction survey administered by national CA.

We couldn’t do it without you. Thank you.

To our volunteers who work so hard to deliver advice, support, and positive change for our clients. Our tireless team includes administrators, advice workers, campaigners, receptionists, researchers, advice team leaders and trustees. They are all an inspiration to work alongside.

See our website northhertscab.org.uk/volunteer for information on our range of volunteer roles and how to apply.

To our partners who enable us to reach as many people as possible. Thank you

To our funders. As an independent local charity we could not deliver our services without you. Huge thanks to North Hertfordshire District Council and all our other funders and supporters, including those individuals who have raised money for our charity this year.

Created By
Catherine Bennett