Section 3 — Money advice

Debt Arrangement and Attachment (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3 – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:15 pm on 13th November 2002.

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Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I mentioned that I have a history as a former chair of Rutherglen and Cambuslang citizens advice bureau. As might become evident, I bear the scars of a series of difficult negotiations with various sorts of council from the years in which I held that position. To some extent, that history forms the background of what I am saying today. The serious point that I am making is that, as it is the local authority's responsibility to provide local services, each local authority should be placed under a duty to ensure that independent money advice is available within their area to anyone who might require it under section 3.

I say that against the background of the decisions that were made on the disposal of the £3 million that the Executive provided for the support of money advisers across Scotland as part and parcel of the arrangements for the bill. CAB sources have provided me with a note that shows how that money was used. Despite a new partnership agreement to develop CAB services, East Renfrewshire Council is to keep all the funds for in-house services. North Ayrshire Council, without consulting the CABx, decided to retain all funds for in-house services. Renfrewshire Council decided to spend all its £105,000 on employing three more officers within its advice works department after only a token consultation with the CABx. In my home area of South Lanarkshire, the council allocated £30,000 of the total £177,000 to only two of the four CABx.

The money was similarly divided in the cities, although in slightly more sophisticated ways. Despite a 40 per cent cut in CAB core funding over the period, the City of Edinburgh Council is looking to employ all its money advice staff in-house—although secondment to the CABx may be possible. For Glasgow City Council, £101,000 of the £636,000 that it received will go into four of the eight Glasgow CABx. I think that members in the chamber can get the broad picture that comes out of those figures.

As I said, the precise provision that exists in each area is rightly an issue for local authorities. Obviously, I hope that, in the exercise of their responsibilities, local authorities will pay attention to the importance of independent money advice. However, it is fairly evident that a good degree of council empire building is taking place with the money that the Scottish Executive made available. To be frank, that is not the intention of ministers, the committee or the general public.

Let me touch briefly on the reasons why independent money advice is important. Local councils are often a principal creditor in many debt situations, because they are owed council tax or rent payments. Protocols exist within money advice work about the extent to which one prioritises certain degrees of on-going payment. I have no difficulty in accepting those protocols, which apply whether the money advice is provided in-house or through independent agencies across the board.

The debtor must have a choice. Rightly or wrongly—often wrongly, no doubt—many people will not see council in-house advice as being independent. The advice must not only be independent; it must be seen to be independent. The issue is whether Chinese walls and that sort of thing can be erected.

Amendment 34 would not insist that all advice has to come from the voluntary and independent sectors, but it would insist that there must be a choice. When the minister spoke about the issue at stage 2, he made what I suggest were not compelling points about the wording of the amendment, as he queried what was meant by "independent" and "accessible". There may be issues about that—although I am bound to say that the average member of the public knows what "independent" and "accessible" mean—but the Executive could have made a commitment to the idea and then amended the phraseology to achieve the objective.

Amendment 34 deals with an important issue of principle. It links in with on-going problems that the Social Justice Committee has harped on about time after time, such as the adequacy of core support for the CAB movement. I believe that amendment 34 would improve the workings of the debt arrangements by making them more accessible and more available. More important, it would make the arrangements more likely to be taken up by the debtors for whose benefit they will be put in place.

I move amendment 34.

Photo of John McAllion John McAllion Labour

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. When we debate amendments, is it possible that, subsequent to hearing the mover of the lead amendment, members could hear the ministerial response before they speak to the amendments rather than having to speak to them before hearing what the minister has to say?

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

We usually have the minister respond to the entire debate. It is possible for the minister to come in immediately and then speak again at the end of the debate, but on this occasion the minister has not indicated that he wants to come in early. I have the power to call the minister if he wishes to speak.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

The issue that amendment 34 touches on was raised in the committee and was one of the few issues on which there was real disagreement among committee members.

The Parliament must always be aware of issues of subsidiarity and the responsibility that lies with local authorities to make decisions. We would not want to draw up powers from local authorities on such matters. Amendment 34 implies that local authority workers who are charged with the responsibility of giving money advice cannot be independent. I am sure that many local authority workers doing that job would not be happy with that implication. I am certainly not happy with it.

It is perfectly possible for advice that is provided by a local authority to be just as independent as advice that is provided by the voluntary sector and—most important—for it to meet just as fully the needs of the person who is seeking that advice. That is not to say that there is not an important role for the voluntary sector to play—clearly, that sector does play a role, as we recognise. However, we must oppose amendment 34 on the ground that it implies that somebody who is given the advice role by a local authority cannot carry out their duty in a responsible way.

We may wish to consider how that work is regulated and monitored and what the local authority's role is in that work, but my experience is that local authorities are not uncomfortable with working in partnership with the voluntary sector. Amendment 34 might create an unnecessary division and an unhelpful implication in relation to the important job of money advisers, wherever they are carrying out the responsible and important role that the bill gives them. I oppose amendment 34.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat

I will speak in favour of amendment 34. Robert Brown is offering choice, not compulsion of any sort. The amendment would give the debtor the choice of going either to an in-house council debt advisory place or to an independent place such as a citizens advice bureau. Choice is a good thing.

The issue is not about in-house council money advisers not being independent; it is about the fact that they might not be seen as independent. The public have a great suspicion of public bodies and their employees. A lot of people who are in debt think that they will not get neutral advice from council advisers, who—it is thought—will naturally put debts to the council, which almost always figure among the debts, at the top of the queue for repayment. The issue is public perception.

Having been in councils for 26 years, I strongly support councils being given as much scope as possible. However, if ministers and the Parliament want independent debt advice to be given, councils should supply money to independent advisers though grants, as well as supplying in-house advice.

I have put questions to ministers on the issue of independence and their answers on the subject have, as usual, been rather unsatisfactory. I also had a short exchange of views with the Minister for Social Justice, Margaret Curran, on how much of the local government money that is given by the Executive went to debt services. She has kindly written to me to point out that half of the new jobs created are in local authorities—half is a reasonable figure—but that three quarters of the money went to local councils, which gave away only a quarter of the money to CABx and other advice providers. Three quarters of the money produced only half the jobs—we should think about that.

For a whole lot of reasons, members should support amendment 34. It is not anti-local government, but pro-choice. It would give local voluntary organisations, as well as the councils, a fair do and it would help the debtor, which is what I thought the bill was all about.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

Like my colleague Johann Lamont, I call on members not to support amendment 34. It is, quite frankly, patronising to suggest that local authority employees who offer debt advice do not work in the best interests of their clients. That is most certainly not my experience in North Lanarkshire Council and I do not think that it is the experience of the many people across Scotland who have accessed services over the years—those people will have been given the best-quality advice available and will have been supported throughout the experience.

Although I agree that CABx play a valuable role in providing debt advice and information services, they are not the only organisations, either in the voluntary sector or in local authority settings, that can do that. The Scottish Executive has spent £3 million to provide free independent advice services across Scotland and in so doing—

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

Let me finish this point.

In so doing, more than half the money adviser positions that have been created have been created within the voluntary sector. That is an important point. It ensures that there is a range of opportunities for people to access free independent advice, whether they want to access it from a local authority or from the independent and voluntary sectors.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

Robert Brown and I submitted amendments similar to amendment 34 at stage 2. I am happy to support Robert Brown and I agree with what he and Donald Gorrie said. I do not agree with Karen Whitefield that amendment 34 is patronising. We all accept that local government employees provide independent advice. However, the person who is seeking advice might not see things that way, given that local authorities are often creditors. As Donald Gorrie said, all that we are trying to do is to provide people with a choice. What is most important is that an individual in debt gets advice. Anything that encourages them to come forward and take that advice is to be commended, so the SNP will be happy to support Robert Brown's amendment 34.

Photo of John McAllion John McAllion Labour

I have not made up my mind yet on amendment 34, but I do not believe that anybody should have a virtual monopoly on providing independent advice. In any community, a spectrum of advice should be available, so that people have a choice about whom to go to to seek that advice. Moreover, I do not think that we should get into the business of setting up council employees against employees in the voluntary sector. They are all working in the same area and they are all providing the same kind of service. My experience of welfare rights officers is that they are among the best people to provide advice that one could ever come across in any local community.

I am also wary about saying, "In my experience, North Lanarkshire Council is like this," or, "In my experience, Dundee City Council is like that," because I know about Dundee City Council but I do not know about all the other councils in Scotland. I remind Labour members who speak in that vein that not all councils are Labour councils. Some councils might have policies that prioritise the recovery of debts that are owed to them because of rents, council tax or outstanding poll tax, which is still owed in many areas of Scotland.

Some welfare rights officers may not be allowed to offer advice that runs counter to the policies of the council that employs them. I do not know whether that is the case, but I would like to know whether the minister has done any work on that issue. I would be reluctant for us to get into a position where the only kind of advice that is available locally is advice that says that debts that an individual owes to the council take priority over debts that he or she owes to other agencies, because it might not be in the individual's interest to prioritise debts in that way. I would be grateful if the minister responded to that point when he winds up.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

The measures proposed in amendment 34 were debated at stage 2, so I do not propose to go over all the ground again. However, it is worth reiterating that we want ready availability of well-informed, well-trained and well-supported money advisers. We have, as members have indicated, funded advice services to the tune of £3 million per annum. Tommy Sheridan asked earlier whether the money advice will be free. The money advice will be free; it will not be charged for.

The terms of amendment 34 are unclear. There is no definition of what is meant by "independent". I know that Robert Brown says that that is self-evident, but his speech did not provide clarification; indeed, it obfuscated the issue. He implies with his amendment that a local authority adviser cannot be independent. His definition of "independent" is clearly at variance with what he understands the public's perception to be of what is meant by "independent". Amendment 34 does not define the phrase "readily accessible", either, although that might be thought to be understandable. We hope that advisers will be readily accessible. Moreover, the amendment does not indicate the extent of the duty that it imposes.

The amendment is unnecessary, because we require local authorities to ensure choice—that deals with Donald Gorrie's comments. That choice is reflected by the division of almost 50:50 in the appointed money advisers. When somebody goes for money advice, they do not say, "Are you three quarters funded because you are from the local authority or one quarter funded because you are from the voluntary sector?" They say, "Do I have a choice of money adviser?" The answer is yes. The money has been allocated to make that division. The spectrum to which John McAllion rightly referred exists. If it did not exist, we would want to examine that. We believe that it exists and that choice is available.

As we said at stage 2, the key issue is not so much choice of money advisers as whether the advice that is given is good quality. The standard that will be attained is of primary importance—Karen Whitefield referred to that. If standards are consistent, independence—whatever that means—in the sense of who provides the service is irrelevant. Quality standards and quality assurance also relate to independence in the sense of the adviser acting in the best interests of the person who consulted them—the debtor—and not in the interests of the local authority or the creditor.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

I listened carefully to what the minister said about the independence of money advice officers who work for local authorities. Will he guarantee to local authority money advice workers that their line managers will not put pressure on them to prioritise council tax arrears?

That will allow those workers to give truly independent advice.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

As I tried to say, an adviser acts not on behalf of their employer, but on behalf of a debtor. The debtor's interests alone must have primacy. That is not the undertaking that Tricia Marwick wanted, but I understand that that will be interpreted to mean that any attempt by an employer to suggest that an adviser should not follow best practice will be looked on severely.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

No. I covered the point.

Further development and strengthening of standards and quality assurance will be dealt with by the Executive's proposals for enhanced central support for money advice. We have agreed to provide £500,000 of central support for the delivery of money advice training. That shows the Executive's commitment and determination that an adviser must act in the debtor's interests, no matter where that adviser is employed—I repeat that for the last time.

We ask for amendment 34 to be withdrawn; failing that, it should be rejected.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I listened carefully to the debate, in which many interesting points were made. I accept the minister's assertion of the Executive's good will and the primary objective of making good-quality money advice available to debtors. I do not argue about that.

I suggest to the minister that behind the amendment lie genuine issues about the availability of independent advice. I touched on that situation in one or two earlier examples. If the relevant part of the Executive's £3 million is all allocated to council in-house services, that does not suggest that people in a local authority area will have the choice of which the minister makes much.

Photo of Cathie Craigie Cathie Craigie Labour

I am listening carefully to Robert Brown. Will he give an example of a constituent who could not obtain independent advice from a local authority?

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I am not aware of the details of debtors who have gone for advice. I will quote again the example from North Ayrshire, but I can give other examples. According to my information, North Ayrshire Council decided to retain £95,000—all the funds that the Executive allocated—for in-house services, without consulting CABx.

John McAllion said that we are not talking about Labour councils only. Indeed, we are not. Angus Council, for example, allocated the CABx £10,000 out of its £50,000. There are examples in councils in which the Liberal Democrats have influence, too. The issue is not about party; it is about the balance between the council, which is responsible for the provision and strategic decisions made at the local level, and the independent sector.

Karen Whitefield suggested that the issue had been dealt with in a patronising manner. I do not accept that. I was careful to say that I was making no challenge to the individual money advisers in councils. I was saying merely that some councils appeared to be empire building with the money, which is a different issue. The issue is the balance in the availability of advice of various sorts within local authority areas across the country. I hope that the information that I have put before the chamber demonstrates that a balance does not exist in several local authority areas.

Whatever the outcome of the vote, I hope that the minister will reflect on today's debate and, when it comes to regulations, examine whether the legislation can be strengthened, perhaps through output agreements, to ensure that the Executive's objectives are brought about.

My final point is important. It concerns the fact that, although three quarters of the money has gone to local authorities, councils are providing only half the jobs, as Donald Gorrie said. That suggests to me that there are issues about pay, about what is done with the money and perhaps even about value for money. Certainly, there is an issue that has not been addressed in the debate.

I believe that subsidiarity is the right way in which to deal with such matters, but that has to operate within a framework of national standards that sets out what we are trying to achieve. I therefore ask for the chamber's support for amendment 34.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

The question is, that amendment 34 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members:

No.

Division number 6

For: Adam, Brian, Brown, Robert, Campbell, Colin, Canavan, Dennis, Crawford, Bruce, Ewing, Dr Winnie, Ewing, Fergus, Ewing, Mrs Margaret, Gibson, Mr Kenneth, Gorrie, Donald, Grahame, Christine, Hamilton, Mr Duncan, Harper, Robin, Hyslop, Fiona, Jenkins, Ian, Lochhead, Richard, MacAskill, Mr Kenny, MacDonald, Ms Margo, Marwick, Tricia, McGugan, Irene, McLeod, Fiona, Morgan, Alasdair, Munro, John Farquhar, Neil, Alex, Paterson, Mr Gil, Quinan, Mr Lloyd, Radcliffe, Nora, Robison, Shona, Russell, Michael, Scott, Tavish, Sheridan, Tommy, Smith, Iain, Smith, Mrs Margaret, Stone, Mr Jamie, Sturgeon, Nicola, Swinney, Mr John, Ullrich, Kay, Welsh, Mr Andrew, White, Ms Sandra, Wilson, Andrew
Against: Aitken, Bill, Alexander, Ms Wendy, Baillie, Jackie, Barrie, Scott, Boyack, Sarah, Brankin, Rhona, Butler, Bill, Chisholm, Malcolm, Craigie, Cathie, Curran, Ms Margaret, Deacon, Susan, Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James, Eadie, Helen, Ferguson, Patricia, Fergusson, Alex, Fitzpatrick, Brian, Fraser, Murdo, Gallie, Phil, Gillon, Karen, Godman, Trish, Goldie, Miss Annabel, Grant, Rhoda, Gray, Iain, Harding, Mr Keith, Henry, Hugh, Home Robertson, Mr John, Hughes, Janis, Ingram, Mr Adam, Jackson, Dr Sylvia, Jackson, Gordon, Jamieson, Cathy, Jamieson, Margaret, Johnstone, Alex, Kerr, Mr Andy, Lamont, Johann, Livingstone, Marilyn, Lyon, George, Macdonald, Lewis, Macintosh, Mr Kenneth, MacKay, Angus, Maclean, Kate, Macmillan, Maureen, Martin, Paul, McAveety, Mr Frank, McCabe, Mr Tom, McIntosh, Mrs Lyndsay, McLeish, Henry, McLetchie, David, McMahon, Mr Michael, McNeil, Mr Duncan, McNeill, Pauline, McNulty, Des, Monteith, Mr Brian, Morrison, Mr Alasdair, Muldoon, Bristow, Mundell, David, Murray, Dr Elaine, Oldfather, Irene, Peacock, Peter, Peattie, Cathy, Raffan, Mr Keith, Robson, Euan, Rumbles, Mr Mike, Scanlon, Mary, Scott, John, Simpson, Dr Richard, Stephen, Nicol, Thomson, Elaine, Wallace, Ben, Wallace, Mr Jim, Watson, Mike, Whitefield, Karen, Wilson, Allan, Young, John
Abstentions: McAllion, Mr John

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

The result of the division is: For 40, Against 74, Abstentions 1.

Amendment 34 disagreed to.