Lincolnshire County councillors have recommended reducing funding for the county’s citizens advice service by more than half.
At a meeting of the council’s public protection and communities scrutiny committee, councillors voted to support a recommendation to reduce Citizens Advice Lincolnshire’s funding from £616,135 in 2017-18 to £278,000 for 2018-19.
The service will also receive an additional £53,000 to provide support in areas specifically around welfare reform and universal credit.
The recommendation will now be passed to Coun Sue Woolley, who has responsibility for NHS Liaison and Community Engagement, who will make the final decision with it coming into effect by April 1.
Citizens Advice is an independent charity which offers free, impartial and confidential advice to people on their rights and responsibilities.
There are branches in most major towns in the county.
The charity provides a core service in areas including housing and employment, debt, discrimination, relationships and family, law and rights and tax and education.
There is also what is termed an ‘Income Maximisation Service’ which helps people claim all of the benefits they are entitled to.
Coun Woolley said that the county council supports the Citizens Advice Bureau.
She said: “The county council believes that Citizens Advice is an important organisation and wishes to continue to support it.
“It’s not so much that funding is coming down, it is what we are able to provide and as with everywhere else budgets have been squeezed very hard.
“But we recognise that without losing funding altogether or not being able to give funding, we wanted Citizens Advice to continue.”
Coun Woolley added that funding for everything in the council has to be looked at and that hard decisions have to be made.
Coun Rob Parker, Labour, told the committee that the new funding arrangement would have an impact on vulnerable people looking for expert advice.
Stuart Hellon, CEO of Citizens Advice Mid Lincolnshire, which covers the Sleaford and Boston areas, was pessimistic about any change of heart by the council and feared that the greatest impact would hit their most elderly and vulnerable clients who struggle with such situations.
He said: “There are other income maximisation services for distinct customer groups, but they may not go into the depth and specialism we are able to offer.”
As a result, four paid employees that deliver the service locally were affected, but luckily other funding streams to deliver other services mean they may be able to be reallocated to other roles.
For the last nine years the service has delivered in depth support and representation to clients appealing against loss of benefits and allowances for disability, low income and pensioners’ allowances, even more crucial under the welfare reforms.
Mr Hellon said: “Appeals can last up to 34 weeks as a process and our success rate is around 95 per cent. We will not have the money to be able to deliver that service in the same depth and volume and act on their behalf.”
To their credit, Mr Hellon said the first thought of the employees affected was to their clients and how they would cope.
He said that all the Citizens Advice charities around the county were equally stretched for cash and also understood the need of council to square their budgets with reduced resources from Government.
Alternative sources of income from funding agencies were also stretched further as austerity cuts reduced traditional funding streams for services.
“It is a difficult time, but if we get the money from somewhere we will reintroduce that service as quickly as possible,” Mr Hellon said.