Citizens Advice strongly supports the Government's aim to 'see confident, empowered consumers able to choose the best deals, demand better products or servics and resolve problems when things go wrong'. We also welcome the Government's recognition that not all consumers are confident consumers. Better Choices: Better Deals, the Goverment's April 2011 consumer empowerment strategy, also outlines the case to help to empower vulnerable people as consumers, starting with theneed to understand the problems that different groups of vulnerable and disadvantaged people may face in different markets.
The CAB service regularly sees groups of people who have little or no power in their relationships with business or other key service providers. We see consumers who do not always get a good deal, cannot easily sort things out for themselves and are not able to influence the policies and practices of others.
This report is about a group of consumers who may be more likely to lack power as consumers - disabled people who are in debt. Around one in five of the people seeking advice about debt problems from Citizens Advice Bureaux in England and Wales are disabled or have a long-term health problem. In 2010/2011 bureaux gave advice or casework support about problem debt to 72,000 disabled people.
The report has a particular focus on three groups of CAB clients supported by the Financial Inclusion Fund (FIF) disability project: people with a physical disability including sensory disabilities; people with learning difficulties; and parents of disabled children. We have drawn on the experience of some of these people to build our understanding of the problems they face, both as people with debt problems and as disabled consumers.
We have found a group of people who were often dealing with a double disadvantage that caused or substantially contributed to the financial difficulties they experienced:
- Participation restrictions to work, low incomes, financial exclusion and extra costs related to illness, and disability were all cited as common causes of debt problems.
- CAB evidence highlights how disabled people in financial difficulties face additional problems when service providers (both public and private) fail to recognise their needs or make reasonable adjustments in a consistent way, despite the requirement under Section 20 of the Equality Act 2010 to do so.
Our evidence shows how creditors are not always following the often extensive rules and guidance on appropriate standards of business conduct for their sector. This includes evidence of non-compliance with standards specifically designed to protect the interests of disabled people. The problems associated with financial difficulties can be significantly exacerbated as a result and so disabled people can be left with little consumer power.
This report advocates changes to regulation and self-regulation, in business practice and to future commissioning of advice to ensure that disabled people in debt are empowered to engage with creditors and deal with their debt problems.