A project set up by Citizens Advice to help Erewash and Amber Valley residents struggling with the introduction of Universal Credit has just won a national award.
Financial Futures, which has been supporting people to gain the digital skills necessary to access the new benefits system since April, won financial project of the year at the charity’s national conference on October 11.
Volunteering and training manager Lesley Singleton, 57, said: “To get this kind of recognition is really great. I’m pleased and proud for the whole of Citizens Advice Derbyshire Districts, not just the Financial Futures team. Everyone had something to contribute to its success.
“The people who take part in our sessions were thrilled to hear that the programme had won too, because they helped to shape it. It’s great to see people so excited and proud of something they are involved in.
“They have grown it into something they and the community need. Without them, it wouldn’t be doing what it is now.”
Citizens Advice has previously called on the Government to halt the roll-out of the new benefit system, but this month work and pensions secretary Esther McVey pledged to give the charity £39million for new advisers ahead of the next phase of its introduction in 2019.
Financial Futures is just one way staff and volunteers have been working to help those already struggling to adjust, and it is a model which may now be adopted elsewhere.
Lesley said: “When Universal Credit was first introduced into Erewash we found more and more people had difficulty applying for it, or keeping up with what was expected of them once approved.
“Everything with Universal Credit has to be done online, and there are a lot of people who don’t have internet access, or maybe don’t have the skills and confidence they need to navigate the system.
“It left people very frustrated. Something they thought had been simple was made difficult, and they couldn’t do what was being asked of them. The lack of confidence to work online has affected a lot of people.”
As the project has progressed, it has evolved to fill skills gaps wherever they appeared and Lesley, who spent her career in schools before joining Citizens Advice as a volunteer five years ago, has been quick to respond to new educational opportunities.
Lesley said: “It started out focused on Universal Credit, but we also now cover CVs, household budgeting, energy and phone tariff switching.
“I some sessions we will even go right back to basics if that’s what people ask for: how to set up an email address and navigate websites.”
The free sessions typically last 90 minutes in small groups of around six people who will often be referred to the project by community partners such as GPs and voluntary organisations, plus a member of staff and a volunteer helper, and are held at Citizens Advice offices and community venues throughout the week.
Lesley said: “What we’ve found is that once people have a little support, they realise they are not the only ones. That makes them grow in confidence. It’s often just about making that first step.
“We’ve made sure the project is flexible enough to develop in a way for the people it serves, rather than having our own rigid idea of what it is supposed to be.”
The project has so far assisted 340 people in Erewash and around 250 in Amber Valley, and may well be rolled out to other Derbyshire districts as Universal Credit moves on.
Lesley said: “We hope it will grow and grow, and will be something that Citizens Advice centres around the country will look at.”
To enquire about booking a session, call Lesley on 0115 9512968, or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.