The cost-of-living crisis is hitting people hard this winter. We’ve spoken to Stevenage Citizens Advice to find out how they and their clients are coping with the situation. 

Citizens Advice is an independent charity helping people with “anything and everything”, from debt and housing to pensions and benefits. 

Their teams of volunteers and 29 paid staff can assist you in filling out government forms, liaising with your housing provider, or spotting scams. They take on cases and work with residents for as long as necessary – months, or even years. 

Charlotte Blizzard-Welch, the branch CEO, describes them as “translators”, turning "law and legislation” into “everyday life” for the roughly 70 people they deal with every day. 

Their staff and volunteers are fighting on the frontlines of the cost-of-living crisis, which Charlotte says is “nothing short of immense” - “the average person is coming to us now with five intertwining complex issues”. 

Citizens Advice’s workload is “typically seasonal”, with lulls during the summer holidays and before Christmas and peaks afterwards. 

But Charlotte says: “We haven’t seen that this year, in fact we’ve seen a very, very, very sharp incline which is concerning for us because we haven’t hit our peak yet … every avenue is seeing a steady incline which is only going to worsen over winter”.

The Comet: Charlotte Blizzard-Welch is Chief Executive Officer of Citizens Advice StevenageCharlotte Blizzard-Welch is Chief Executive Officer of Citizens Advice Stevenage (Image: Citizens Advice Stevenage)

The increases are concerning. Between October 2021 and October 2022 they saw a 306 per cent rise in enquiries about Universal Credit, a 63 per cent rise in enquiries about the Personal Independence Payment, and a 36 per cent increase in people coming to them for food help - a lot of those will be people who’d never used a food bank before. 

Melanie Bel Haj, funding and projects manager, says that whereas previously they could often help people cut costs, “what we’re finding [now] is that people haven’t got that room within their budgets”.


They’re seeing an increasing number of “just about managing” clients, who “don’t have much to fall back on” but are above the cusp for any supporting benefits.

Another issue is people seeing how far they can try and stretch their prescriptions, especially around mental health issues.

Melanie urges: “Get in touch early - if you’re even in a position where you think I’m not going to be able to pay my rent next month … get in touch, because there will be something that we can do to help."

Charlotte adds: “The sooner people get in touch, the more options we have in our toolkit."

While the bulk of their work is assisting individual clients, the branch and the wider Citizens Advice organisation also campaign on systemic issues where they’ve conducted “data-led research”. 

They “are heavily campaigning and lobbying government to put protections in place for people on pre-payment meters” for energy, for example. The rise of ‘buy now, pay later’ schemes is another significant issue. 

Charlotte says that one of their “biggest messages is around government’s need to increase benefits in line with inflation”, and warns of a “disastrous impact” if that does not happen - “it won’t just be people choosing between heating and eating, it’ll be both that are out of bounds”.

The Chancellor has since confirmed that disability and working age benefits will increase in line with inflation.

The Stevenage branch is in a “far more vulnerable” position than it was before the pandemic, and is using its reserves to put more resources on the frontline.

It has a "massive volunteer crisis", with 30 still among their ranks - five years ago, they had more than 80.

They’re always keen to recruit new volunteers to roles in advising, fundraising, research and campaigns, reception and social media, among others.

While Charlotte admits volunteering with them “sounds really scary”, they have “fantastic resources and fantastic training to enable you to have the confidence” to deal with enquiries, and aren't expected “to know everything”. 

The branch is especially interested in recruiting volunteers who are currently out of work - in the past few years, around 50 unemployed people who have begun volunteering with them have moved into paid work. 

Those who can’t find the time to volunteer but would like to support the branch’s work can help by spreading the word and donating money if they're in a position to do so.

The Comet: The new opening hours for Citizens Advice Stevenage's AdvicelineThe new opening hours for Citizens Advice Stevenage's Adviceline (Image: Citizens Advice Stevenage)

You can ring Citizens Advice for free on 0800 144 8848. They are extending their Adviceline opening hours from Monday, December 12 to 10am-9pm on Monday-Wednesday, 10am-8pm on Thursday-Friday, and 10am-4pm on Saturday.

More information about volunteering opportunities is available on their website.