Borders Citizen Advice network needs volunteers like you

Calum Kerr, chairman of the Borders Citizens Advice consortium and Kathryn Peden, manager of the Galashiels Citizens Advice Bureau.
Calum Kerr, chairman of the Borders Citizens Advice consortium and Kathryn Peden, manager of the Galashiels Citizens Advice Bureau.

Citizens Advice Scotland is entering its 80th year of helping anyone with just about anything.

The three independent offices throughout the Borders, in Galashiels, Peebles and Hawick, have a proud record of being able to help its customers by giving sound advice on benefits, housing and personal finance in an ever-changing world.

However, it’s not as if they are able to rest on their laurels, as there is an ongoing battle to keep up with increased demand on their services, as well as to fund what they do.

Former Borders MP Calum Kerr, the chairman of the Borders Citizens Advice Consortium, explained: “We are not an organisation that can be said to be “aye been”, because so much of what we deal with is changing, and you only need to look at massive changes such as Universal Credit, and more recently, some of the stuff we are dealing with in terms of EU residents.

“It is continually changing and evolving, and we are a group that relies on volunteers. That offers terrific value for money, but we do have to make ends meet.

“Especially as the case workbecome more complex, we need to constantly train our staff in order that they are properly skilled and the advice they give is up-to-date.”

The service is provided mostly by volunteers, and there is a need for more of these locally, in order to meet the needs of the public in these ever-changing times.

Calum said: “If you have thought about getting involved as a volunteer, we would love to hear from you.

“It is phenomenally rewarding.”

Kathryn Pedie, now the manager of the Galashiels facility, began her CAB life as a volunteer.

She said: “People have come here to volunteer before moving onto other employment.

“It’s not just clients who get a lot out of it, it’s the volunteers as well, as there is a fantastic training programme.

“Whether you are a stay-at-home mum looking to get back into the working environment, or a retiree, you can come in and learn some new skills.

“You might find a particular area where you would think it’s what you would like to do.

“Most people know what it is we do, and many have used our services, but not many know that we are a charity, run by volunteers.

“We do not have a lot of funding, or resources, and it is becoming more and more difficult to attract volunteers and sustain them, because it’s quite complex and very demanding.

“People are not retiring as early as they used to, and that’s where a lot of our volunteers have come from in the past. It used to be quite common for people in their early 50s to retire, but they were not quite ready to just do nothing, so that’s where most of our volunteers came from.

“Now, people retire in their mid-60s, and they probably won’t be so quick to volunteer ... perhaps they don’t feel they have the capacity to learn all the skills you’ll need to.”

Training is fairly intense, but ultimately rewarding, says Kathryn.

She said: “The advisor training programme can take six months to a year to work through it.

“You learn all about basic skills such as interviewing, and the aims and principles of the service.

“There are also basic modules on all the key areas we advise on, but because things change so much, there is also an information system that everyone has to refer to, rather than give advice off the top of their head.

“More and more so, with the benefit system we have today, it’s an absolute minefield at the moment.

“You’re working around three benefit systems – Legacy, Universal Credit and the Scottish Government – and there are so many options for people, depending on their circumstances.

“Advising people on benefits is our biggest area at the moment.

“The other big area, in which we are commissioned by the council to advise on, is debt. That, too, in the past three or four years has changed too, as it is now all regulated.

“The main thing for customers coming through these doors, is that they will be listened to.

“They may have been passed from pillar to post by different organisations, and could be desperate to get something sorted.

“Whether we are able to advise them or not, at least they will feel they have been listened to – something they may not have had elsewhere.”

The service is also on the hunt for people to serve on the board.

Calum said: “Board members are key as well ... it’s another area where we have struggled in retention.

“I guess if you are volunteering, you are on the front line and you are quite invested in what you are doing, whereas if you are on the board, you can be a little bit removed from that.

“However, some people might not want to get involved in the front line, but feel they have the skills applicable from their professional life to be able to get involved in the governance side of things.

“It’s important we have a board with as broad a cross-section of skills that are as representative as possible.

“People with financial management, HR or IT skills are invaluable.

“There’s also a place for people who want to learn about the various areas ... and that’s all free. There are lots of opportunities.”

Calum said the consortium has a good working relationship with Scottish Borders Council – with which it is under contract to deliver advice services until March 2020.

But with the council having to make cuts in its services to make ends meet, there are worries about the future.

Calum added: “The Borders has to date done well when it comes to engaging volunteers and best practice – we have done some really good things in the region.

“However, it doesn’t really escape the core funding challenges.

“As things get squeezed, the danger is that things that you take for granted can get missed.

“Unless we value and appreciate what we have in our bureaux here in the Borders, there’s a danger that they will go.”