'Don't suffer in silence' - Debt expert fears post-Covid crisis

Dr Melanie Jones, chief executive for Citizens Advice Diss, Thetford and District. Photo: CAB

Dr Melanie Jones, chief executive for Citizens Advice Diss, Thetford and District. Photo: CAB - Credit: CAB

Debt advisers in Norfolk say they expect to see a massive increase in demand for help as the pandemic ends and support schemes cease.

Citizen's Advice representatives nationally and locally say there is yet to be a massive rise in people coming to them for help during lockdown, with those asking for help decreasing nationally since the start of the last shutdown.

But experts are expecting debt issues to get much worse as the pandemic ends and the country returns to normality.

Norwich Citizens Advice Bureau, St Crispins House. Photo: Steve Adams

Norwich Citizens Advice Bureau, St Crispins House. Photo: Steve Adams - Credit: Steve Adams

Mel Jones, chief officer at Diss, Thetford and District Citizen's advice, said there had been a small rise in enquiries locally during lockdown, but added most people will begin to face problems as pandemic-related support such as mortgage holidays and allowances end.

She said: "We'll work with the local authorities and try to get people the help they need to try and extend any help they're getting.

"We're expecting it to hit much worse. For the people who have been on benefits long term, a lot of them have had the extra £20 per week of universal credit and they've not been having to go for assessments if they're medically unable to go and they're not being chased to job seek.

"So all the sanctions have stopped and that will start again very soon, furlough will end, and that's when I think people are really going to be struggling."

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Debt advisors expect to see a large volume of calls as lockdown ends. Pic: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire - Credit: PA

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As many as 1,657 enquiries about debt were received by Norfolk Citizen's Advice over the last financial year, with fuel debt, such as utility bills, the most common issue faced.

The second most common issue was credit card debt as Ms Jones said people reach for their card in order to try and manage other debts.

Council tax arrears was the third most common issue and the one which concerns advisors the most, with Ms Jones saying she expects this to "mushroom" as the pandemic ends, with many not aware failing to pay could result in a prison sentence.

She said another concerning issue was elderly people dipping into their pensions to pay off debt accrued during the pandemic.

Ms Jones added: "People in their late 50s and early 60s can't claim benefits because they have a personal pension, and we're worried what's going to happen to those people in 20 years time, because they're not going to have a pension to live on, they will have spent the lot.

"The main affect of this pandemic debt is going to really be felt in 20 years time, the poor will pay for the pandemic, but actually a lot of the older people will pay for it out of their pensions."

Norfolk County Council's Norfolk Money Support Service has seen 1,837 enquiries from April 1 2020 to March 31, 2021.

Debt advisors are expecting to be busy as normality returns.

Debt advisors are expecting to be busy as normality returns. Photo: Nick Ansell/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Council officials say they have seen a significant increase in enquiries during the pandemic, with numbers up by 624 on the same period between 2019 and 2020.

A spokesperson for Norfolk County Council said: “Since Boxing Day our Money Support Service has offered advice and support to over 1,600 Norfolk residents.

"Advice is available on a wide variety of issues including general budgeting and savings advice.

"Those requiring more complex and specialist support, such as debt advice, are referred to FDA regulated organisations.”

Mrs Jones said anyone who is experiencing problems with debt should not feel worried about asking for help, urging them to contact Citizen's Advice, the council or one of many other charities offering free advice.

She said: "People find it very difficult to face up to debt, my advice for people would be, don't bury your head in the sand, seek help if you need it, there is no need to suffer in silence and there are answers to debt problems.

"The key message to get across would be, you don't have to pay for debt advice, as we start to see things opening up we will start to see a lot of debt sharks emerging, so we're really going to be watching out for scams."

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