Saturday, 12 February 2011

What is a U-turn?

The Treasury is adamant that it has not executed a U-turn in deciding to extend support for 500 specialist debt advisers.

This comes after the decision to axe the Financial Inclusion Fund which paid for the advisers across England and Wales, followed by an announcement this morning that £27m had, after all, been found to keep the service going for another year.

The Treasury told me last night: "The reason we haven't made an announcement until now about the funding we were always going to provide is because it was important to get it right". (See my report.)

What happened was that the Financial Secretary, Mark Hoban, said on 19th January this year in a written answer in parliament:

"The Financial Inclusion Fund will close at the end of March this year. The Government will work closely with industry and other stakeholders to ensure that tackling financial inclusion remains a high priority".

Ministers allowed a situation to arise in which the debt advisers were sent their redundancy letters, then stopped taking on new cases, as I reported at the beginning of this month.

There was a spate of campaigning by charities and MPs, pointing out that cutting debt advice when debt problems were expected to increase was a questionable policy. And there was a Westminster Hall debate.

So the advisers were preparing for life on the dole, the service was disrupted and winding down, and frantic lobbying was taking place.

During these weeks there were plenty of opportunities for ministers to give the reassurance that they were "always going to provide" the funding. But it wasn't given privately, as far as I know, and certainly not publicly.

In fact, the people managing the advice service were on a roller coaster ride, thinking first that there would be zero support, then perhaps 50%, before they got wind of today's announcement.

Of course, the Financial Inclusion Fund is still being closed. The £27m has been found from a contingency fund and an underspend (whatever that means amidst the current cuts) at the Department for Business and is for one year only. So it is true to say that the original funding has not been renewed.

But some will take the view that this reprieve for debt advisers comes after ministers listened to the warnings they were being given and changed their minds.

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