The Citizen Advice Bureau (CAB) is struggling. Government cuts mean that this essential facility is being closed in more and more areas, resulting in surviving CAB offices becoming overwhelmed by new clients and the phone in service being wildly oversubscribed. At a time when the benefits system is changing so drastically; when people need advice more than ever on how to get by; when there are denials, appeals and many other legal and complicated processes to go through, this seems almost cruel.
Just today, I was hearing about Derwentside CAB, which served Conset and Stanley in county Durham and was closed suddenly two weeks ago. This is an area of great deprivation where the office was given high scores for its quality and advice to clients. This score was awarded by CAB itself, and yet the National CAB organisation still stated that there were ‘governance irregularities’.
It seems it does not really matter how much an area needs a CAB office or how good at meeting the needs of the clients that office is, it is likely to suffer closure at some point due to cuts.
I do not write this to have a go at the government, I write it because I want to know how the church can respond. We, as church, have resources. Many churches work out of schools and rented buildings, however, in almost every community there is bound to be one building owned and run by a church.
We also have people. In a community with three churches, one may have a building and very few people (let’s be honest, it does happen), and the other two may have an abundance of people. Between those three churches, do you think it would be possible to create a resource that the community could use in place of its now extinct CAB office?
If churches in one community came together and offered, between them;
- a building
- computer literate/friendly people
- a few computers
- some research/training in the welfare system and how the CAB website works
they could create a space that is a resource to the community, where those who needed it could come for advice.
This may sound like an amateur adventure in light of how complicated the benefits system and civil law areas of life are. It would not be an easy task, but it could be accomplished. Churches have set up and run debt advice centres, often manned by volunteers. This demonstrates the capabilities we have when we put our minds to it.
This is not about helping people ‘sponge/skive/shirk’ it is about helping our neighbour and being active in our communities in the way that is required. Not every community would need this kind of support, but those that do really do. In the above example, the nearest CAB office to those in Conset and Stanley is now a 12 mile bus ride away. This might not sound far to many, however on a very irregular bus service, which costs more than you can afford to spend, it is a long way to go for advice.
Rob Bell has said ‘Do you want the church to be relevant? Go park yourself in the midst of people’s suffering’. Whatever our view of the governments cuts, those living on benefits, the fairness of the up rating and the bedroom tax, we are still called to love our neighbours. To love our neighbour we need to both KNOW them and RESPOND to what we know.
We know that many people are seriously struggling. Whilst the church cannot give the government all the money it needs to reverse the effect of the cuts, we can help make life a bit easier for those hit the hardest. Without CAB many more will slip through the cracks and into a life of poverty. If we can prevent this we should. We can take some of the burden.