Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Features: Dealing with debt this Christmas

It’s easy at this time of year for people to get into debt, and the temptation to borrow money from payday lenders or doorstep loan sharks can lead to a quick descent into hardship.

Those struggling with debt are not alone, and there are a number of services across Calderdale that can provide advice and support when things can look their most hopeless.

Payday lenders and loan sharks charge high levels of interest that can quickly become unmanageable if payments are missed, with some lenders charging interest rates in excess of 4,000 per cent.

The council offers support for people in financial hardship by offering money to help with council tax and housing.
Kerry Maynard, revenues and benefits team manager at the council, said: “We’ve got a number of statutory schemes across the council to do with housing benefits and council tax reduction.

“Over and above that, we’ve introduced a lot of new initiatives to help people through change.

“So, on the council tax side, we’ve actually put aside a hardship fund for people who are really struggling to get their finances in order.”

Traditionally, the profile of people taking this sort of help was people who were out of work and claiming unemployment benefits, however, over the past few years the number of people who are in work seeking help has increased dramatically.

Kerry said: “We’ve noticed a change in people seeking support over the past 18 months - certainly from a housing benefit and council tax benefit perspective - we’ve got more people who are working and on low incomes than who are unemployed and claiming benefits.

“When we talk about helping people, there’s been a real shift - it’s not just people on unemployment benefits, it’s a much wider spectrum now.”

Frances Burns, director at Calderdale Credit Union, said employers who take advantage of their staff through irregular working patterns and low wages have a lot to answer for when it comes to people in work struggling to make ends meet and turning to payday lenders or loan sharks.

She said: “The real tragedy is that employers are getting away with not paying people a decent wage - and that’s the heart of it.

“Someone in work might think ‘I’ve got a salary coming in next month, so it’s okay to borrow two or three hundred pounds’ - you might as well jump into a bucket of tar.

“What we are shocked at is that it’s not people who don’t have bank accounts or are excluded from the financial system any more.”

Calderdale Credit Union is a not-for-profit financial institution that offers a selection of financial services including affordable loans, savings and debt advice.

Frances said: “The key thing for people to understand is how much money have you got coming in, and how much money have you got going out.

“No matter what your social level, unless you understand that you’re not to get anywhere.

“Sit down and write it out - you’d be shocked at how much you pay out day-to-day.

“Be honest, and work out what your priorities are.”

For building financial security the main piece of advice is to save money - even if is a pound a week.

Frances said: “I’ve seen it time and time again how much dignity there is in having your own money - even if it’s a small amount.

“When the savings are going up and the debt is going down, it’s easier to see light at the end of the tunnel - for me that’s why I do what I do, I want everyone to see that light at the end of the tunnel.”
Perhaps, most importantly, if you or someone you know is struggling with debt don’t be afraid to ask for advice or seek help.

Kerry said: “People are willing to come forward, but we are very aware that there are a number of hard-to-reach people in the borough who just aren’t engaging, and if they did we might be able to help them with a multitude of things.

“People are willing to come forward, but we are very aware that there are a number of hard-to-reach people in the borough who just aren’t engaging, and if they did we might be able to help them with a multitude of things.”

Schemes and strategies

A number of schemes and strategies to tackle debt have been launched across the borough by organisations including the Citizens Advice Bureau, Noah’s Ark, Calderdale Credit Union, Age UK, DART and Calderdale Council.

Stuart Muxlow, project manager at Calderdale Council, explained that there are a lot of small things the council has done to try and help people avoid taking out high-cost loans.

He said: “We know payday lending has been booming for a number of years now and the council welcomes all the recent national reforms to the market - it was a real growth industry that was going largely unchecked.

“We took a stance a while ago and blocked links to payday lenders from council computers including in libraries.”

The council has been working with Calderdale Credit Union to encourage 11-year-olds to start saving and change their attitudes to managing money.

Stuart said: “Today, most people’s first experience of money tends to be online, so people are growing up with this perception of an endless credit card attached to iTunes or eBay or wherever.

“It’s moving away from the idea of saving up money to buy something you want.”

The Junior Savers scheme encourages Year pupils to save regularly, with the council agreeing to give the pupils a £15 bonus if they are still saving at the end of Year 11.

Debt advice has also been made available across the borough with drop-in sessions being held at events like children’s playgroups to reach people within their communities.

Stuart said: “If you’re feeling pressure you might not necessarily want to pay your bus fare into town to see Citizens Advice and identify yourself as needing help.

“We thought that maybe if we put help in more community-based groups and advice can be given at that point, we thought that might be useful.

The council has put aside £99,000 to put into a consortium which includes the Citizens Advice Bureau, Age UK, DART, the Dean Clough Foundation and WomenCentre.

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