The queue started forming at 9am yesterday, an hour before Blackpool’s Citizen’s Advice Bureau was due to open.
Thirteen enter the office on Whitegate Drive to discuss problems, get appointments with specialist advisers, or help on the spot. “This is a quiet day,” one of the volunteers says as they file into reception.
The CAB is the catch-all charity, the one-stop advice shop, covering anything and everything, from general advice to specialist debt counselling, a caseload which has spiralled and, given what’s happening now, can only soar.
The jobs of three debt advice workers were on the line until the Government this month extended the Financial Inclusion Fund Face to Face Debt Advice Service by 12 months. It’s a reprieve, but means the team must jump through hoops anew next year. Blackpool North and Cleveleys MP Paul Maynard has agreed to meet service leaders with regard to the coming year.
The outlook for the general advice service, with a projected funding cut of a third after next Wednesday’s council scrutiny meeting, is horribly uncertain. Face-to-face contact could be cut, staff hours of work (and salaries where paid), along with specialist services. It would also affect allied funding.
Not to mention those queues outside CAB each morning. Some days the queue is 20-30 deep. Manager Maria Blackshaw, whose hours and salary are on the line, too, says some turn up with chairs to sit on while waiting for the bureau to open.
This is the CAB, so the emphasis is on confidentiality, no names, no pack drill, no pictures, and all that. Those standing in line aren’t keen on making eye contact, let alone conversation with each other. Blame British reserve, the queue culture, preoccupation with own problems, or fear of adding to their own emotional overload.
For all, young and old, able-bodied and disabled, have a lot on their mind. One woman’s eyes fill with tears as she tries to tell me what has brought her here. Although part of a queue, she has a sense of isolation and sadness which is palpable.
I’ve asked others to tell me what category their inquiry falls under – legal, financial, emotional, physical, and the like.
This lady, almost last in line, middle aged, well turned out, nicely spoken, can barely bring herself to reply: “It’s... everything,” she finally says. “All that and more.”
Tearfully, she find words to thank the CAB: “They’re a lifeline. What would we do without the CAB? It’s disgusting they’re at risk. Higher-paid heads should roll first at the council, not here.”
That’s the consensus in this queue – there’s anger on the part of those who know what the CAB, and other endangered agencies such as Streetlife (for the homeless) and Sure Start (for family support), mean.
One student has been marched here by a friend to query a £3,000 loan for a course. “I’m wondering whether it’s all legit. I can’t afford a solicitor.”
“Who can?” thunders a chap facing a £1,400 bill from the Inland Revenue, one of millions caught up in a tax code blunder. “It’s £200 an hour for solicitors for this sort of thing once the free consultation ends. By my reckoning, the taxman owes me £370.”
“They want £4,000 off me,” says a neighbouring woman. They have stood alongside for 30 minutes and barely exchanged a word until now. She’s in her contract cleaner’s uniform, having got permission from bosses to come here.
“The world’s gone mad,” she says, “jobs going, people are worried sick, how can they hit the very agencies who pick up the pieces?”
Step within, and staff and volunteers, are worrying too. They know what’s at stake if the council agrees a funding cut on Wednesday. Longer waits, longer queues, too.
Charities nervous of speaking out still hope their presence at the meeting, if permitted, will speak volumes. At the recent budget setting meeting, charities were out in force, family support groups, homelessness organisations, CAB, alongside council workers facing redundancy, and kids wanting to speak up for their local library.
It’s too late to save some. Wyre’s CAB, at Cleveleys, closed when Wyre Council withdrew funding. Clients trek to Blackpool to join that queue. If funding pressures force Blackpool to introduce a postcode lottery, clients who don’t pay council tax to Blackpool, or live within its borders, may be turned away. That would have affected at least one person in the queue yesterday – and end the “open door” policy.