In the Budget, the Chancellor announced that the Money Advice Service, which was set up a few years ago, partly in response to cuts in legal aid, is to close. The service, which its website says provides “free and impartial money advice, set up by government” offers:
- Advice and guides to help improve your finances
- Tools and calculators to help you keep track and plan ahead
- Support in person, over the phone and online
The service has been criticised in two official reports. One study commissioned by the Treasury found that few members of the public had even heard of it. The National Audit Office found that it did not always deliver value for money.
(The Money Advice Service should not be confused with the Money Advice & Community Support Service based in Brighton which continues to provide fantastic services locally).
I think one lesson to be learned from the sorry saga of cutting independent advice services across the country and replacing them with something like the Money Advice Service, is that of credibility. I am not sure whether people who are experiencing financial difficulties would necessarily look to a government-created agency for free and impartial advice!
Many people do not trust government and many do not trust or are reluctant to share too much information either online or to a complete stranger over the phone. Online and telephone has its place (we provide some at BHT) but it is not an absolute substitute for face to face advice. Face-to-face advice allows rapport to be built up between the person seeking assistance and the advisor.
Sadly, the damage has been done. It is not just this government, nor the Coalition, but successive governments have systematically under invested in advice services and eroded the value of the financial support it gives.
It will take some time to rebuild capacity, even if funding was to be made available, which I doubt it will be.
The government has said it will replace the Money Advice Service with a smaller service. It would be better advised to properly fund truly independent advice agencies.
One wonders whether governments of all colours actually want independent advice. After all, advice services shine a light on those areas where governments prefer to keep in the dark and they are the ones most likely to bring challenges against government on behalf of the weak, the poor and the sick.
A confident government should welcome advice as it is a true audit of its policies and are there to help those least able to represent themselves against decisions of giants like the Department for Work and the Pensions.
In the long run, good advice means a good social policy and the prevention of poverty and homelessness. In the long run, independent advice provides excellent value for money.
Who would you turn to if you were facing a crisis?