Debt advisers are at risk of burnout as an overwhelming number of people seek help to pay their rent and feed their families, MSPs have been told.
The Social Justice and Social Security Committee has heard calls from advisers across Scotland for more support to help clients struggling with cost of living issues.
The problem has worsened significantly over the past year, MSPs have learned, as families are no longer able to repay historic credit debts and instead fight to keep their homes.
Jim McPake, debt adviser at North Lanarkshire Council, told the committee that staff are “hanging on at their fingertips” as the service has seen a 42 per cent increase in referrals since the start of the year.
He said: “The types of cases we are seeing are alarming. Historically, we would have easily said that credit cards and perhaps online lending would have been a very demanding area.
“Our biggest demand now is for rent, council tax and fuel costs – the areas that individuals simply have to pay.”
With the cost of living crisis set to continue to hit low-income families hard in the year ahead, Mr McPake said he was “scared” for the future.
He added: “We can’t help people pay their traditional debts because we’re trying to advise people how to keep their house and how to put food in their mouths – it’s so alarming.”
Charlene Kane, regional support manager for the Armed Services Advice Project at Denny and Dunipace’s Citizens Advice Bureau, urged the Scottish Government to do more to help advisers juggle staffing issues and the debt crisis.
She said: “Trying to prioritize people and what their needs are is getting harder and harder for someone in the office.
“Our financial advisers are exhausted from dealing with creditors on a daily basis who don’t understand the impact on what we see here in black and white – 75% of our cases are all debt [related].”
MSPs heard that funding was needed to increase the staff of local authority debt management centres.
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The Scottish government must also do more to help people through the cost of living crisis, particularly as fuel costs rise, the committee said.
A Scottish spokesperson Government said he was “committed to supporting debt counseling services”.
“We will invest around £12m in 2022-23 in free income, wellbeing and debt advice, ensuring that those who need it most can access support. This investment includes a support for Money Advice Scotland to provide training and wellbeing support to advisers,” the spokesperson said.
“We continue to work with Debt Counseling Services to understand and respond to the continued impacts of the rising cost of living on counseling services. This will ensure that our funding continues to help counselors fulfill their important work and to reach the people who struggle the most.”