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Inconsistent treatment preventing disabled people address their debts says Citizens Advice

30 June 2011

People with disabilities face unnecessary extra difficulties when trying to sort out their debt problems as creditors fail to recognise specific needs or make reasonable adjustments in a consistent way said Citizens Advice today. The charity found many clients would not have engaged with their creditors without the help of specialised debt advice but warned that ongoing funding for this valued community based support is uncertain.

Around one in five people seeking advice about debt problems from CABs in England and Wales are disabled or have a long term health problem. Last year bureaux helped over 72,000 disabled people with debt problems.

Based on evidence from CABs across England and Wales, the report, Double disadvantage reveals the additional detriment disabled people often face on top of their debt problems, such as:

  • poor, untailored and inconsistent communications from creditors
  • aggressive and inappropriate selling practices
  • unfair practice relating to debt collection or enforcement

It is often these practices which cause, or substantially contribute to, their financial difficulties, says Citizens Advice.

The charity warns that compliance with the Equality Act and sector specific rules is far from embedded in the day-to-day business practices of all creditors and practices that fail to account for the needs of disabled people are not being challenged. Citizens Advice is urging firms to adopt an equality focus on dealing with people in financial difficulties, championed at the highest level.

Citizens Advice Chief Executive Gillian Guy said:

“Being in debt can be very disempowering for consumers but our research shows that disabled people in debt face a double disadvantage. They are disempowered by both their financial difficulties and the failure of creditors to take account of their needs through reasonable adjustments.

“We do see examples of good practice and a level of awareness from creditors, but a serious lack of consistency is letting down both the sector, and its customers. An equality approach needs to be put into practice throughout the business and to be championed by senior managers to ensure all consumers with a disability are treated fairly.

“Regulators also have a key role to play to support people and protect them from bad practice. They need to provide a clear steer on how to implement the rules governing consumer credit and retail banking to make sure disabled consumers’ needs are taken into account.”

Citizens Advice carried out part of the research with the Financial Inclusion Fund disability project which is a partnership between Citizens Advice, RNIB, Action on Hearing Loss, Contact a Family and Mencap to give free holistic debt advice to blind and visually impaired people, people who are deaf or hard of hearing, parents of disabled children and people with learning difficulties. However the charity warns that this project was under threat of closure earlier in the year as funding was due to come to an end. Funding has been temporarily extended for another year, but it remains unclear whether this much needed specialist support will be able to continue.

Gillian Guy added:

“Local community-based specialist advice services provide vital support for disabled people and their carers. Many of the clients we spoke to would not have engaged with their creditors without the help and support from specialist advisers who understood and met their needs. It is essential that all future plans to fund debt advice services are equality proofed. This means providing advice through a variety of channels, not just funding the cheapest option. One size does not fit all.”

Cases:

  • One man received standard communication such as statements in his preferred format of Braille, but other letters, such as those to inform them he had gone overdrawn, would be in a standard print format.
  • One man received statements from his mortgage lender in Braille, but they arrive three weeks later than the standard print statements.
  • One woman who was profoundly deaf and whose first language was BSL was offered large print or Braille alternatives.
  • One woman with fuel debts told a cold caller from an energy supplier that she was in the onset of dementia and not able to make decisions. Despite this, the energy supplier went ahead and switched her to them anyway. Her bill was being paid by direct debit but the new supplier did not set this up so she received a £600 bill.
  • A woman with mobility problems received the mobility component of disability living allowance to help her with her transport costs. One of her creditors continued to question the amount she was spending on transport costs despite having knowledge of her disability and explanations from the adviser. The creditor continued to phone the CAB about this to the extent that the adviser concluded that the creditor did not want to take the woman’s disability into consideration.
  • A woman who was blind and who also had extensive care and mobility needs was approached by a firm offering her a mobility scooter. She told the representative that she could not afford any finance but the firm arranged a home visit. When the sales rep came to her home, she said again that she could not afford any finance but felt pressurised and took out the credit agreement. A mobility scooter was delivered and within a short while began to malfunction, but the firm said they could not find any fault. It then broke down completely and the firm would not respond to further calls. She was left housebound and still paying for the finance that made it increasingly difficult for her to meet her other financial commitments.

Double disadvantage - the barriers and business practices making debt a problem for disabled people.

Notes to editors:

  1. The Citizens Advice service comprises a network of local bureaux, all of which are independent charities, the Citizens Advice consumer service and national charity Citizens Advice. Together we help people resolve their money, legal and other problems by providing information and advice and by influencing policymakers. For more see the Citizens Advice website.
  2. The advice provided by the Citizens Advice service is free, independent, confidential, and impartial, and available to everyone regardless of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion, age or nationality.
  3. To find your local bureau in England and Wales, visit citizensadvice.org.uk. You can also get advice online at adviceguide.org.uk
  4. You can get consumer advice from the Citizens Advice consumer service on 03454 04 05 06 or 03454 04 05 05 for Welsh language speakers
  5. Citizens Advice Bureaux in England and Wales advised 2.3 million clients on 5.4 million problems from October 2013 to September 2014. For full 2013/2014  service statistics see our quarterly publication Advice trends
  6. Citizens Advice service staff are supported by more than 21,000 trained volunteers, working at over 3,000 service outlets across England and Wales.