Before the UK entered lockdown, we issued a notice to our stakeholders to share how we were continuing to deliver services for our customers, collaborate with partners and prioritise the wellbeing of MaPS employees.
Six weeks on, MaPS CEO Caroline Siarkiewicz updates on our response to Covid-19.
The current pandemic is not just hitting people’s physical health but also their financial wellbeing. The Money and Pensions Service (MaPS) will be part of the long-term recovery, working with our many partners to deliver frontline support to the millions affected right now and helping shape the policies and approaches which are going to be needed in the months and years ahead. The crisis is affecting all aspects of people’s finances, across savings, debt, credit and pensions, reinforcing the importance of our over-arching UK Strategy on Financial Wellbeing.
Covid-19 delivered massive income shocks to people overnight, and they’ve been coming to us for support. Our money guidance contact centre was at almost double its forecasted volumes in March as people tried to get reassurance and clarity on the impact of the outbreak on their personal finances. Queries about benefits accounted for more than 50% of all the covid related calls we had that month, and we’ve also been helping to explain the government’s support schemes to people with more complicated circumstances.
We’ve handled the increased volumes by bringing in a specific coronavirus option on our main helpline to help direct queries, and some of the overspill has been picked up by pensions guidance colleagues who volunteered to help and were given additional training, all in an effort to keep wait times down.
At the same time as our phone lines have seen increased demand, there has also been a massive peak of additional activity on our digital channels, where hundreds of people choose to use our WhatsApp and web chat services to ask questions. At one point, over one million people a week were using our web pages and a Facebook group, established as a closed community so people can share their worries privately, has more than 9,500 active members. We are using guidance specialists to moderate this group.
The focus for our pensions services is trying to protect people from making irreversible decisions at a time of stress and worry, without full consideration of the options. There is also significant concern about the potential for scammers to take advantage of the situation, while people may be particularly vulnerable to promises of cash lump sums. We are working with governments across the UK, with regulators and with other bodies to help ensure consistent messaging about the importance of people taking their time and using our guidance services.
It is critical people have access to debt advice at this time of need. As this crisis moves into the next phase we expect the demand for debt advice services to climb, and keep on climbing. We’ve established a coronavirus task force to prepare for this, with representatives from Citizens Advice, StepChange, the Money Advice Trust, UK Finance and the Financial Conduct Authority all involved. As well as taking practical steps to maintain the delivery of debt advice right now, we are collaborating to anticipate future demand and work out how best to meet it.
The overall demand for debt advice already outstrips what is available and projects initiated by MaPS are continuing their work to increase capacity, including the use of technology to help gather information and refer people to the support most easily available. Separately, the budget for debt advice in England held by MaPS is being increased by almost 16% for this new financial year, from £55.8million to £64.6million, with comparable increases also being made available to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is a decision which was made in advance of coronavirus but the expert support it funds will be even more valuable in the wake of the outbreak.
UK Strategy for Financial Wellbeing
MaPS recently laid out a UK Strategy for Financial Wellbeing – a ten-year plan for how to transform the country’s relationships with money. Published in January, it provides a way for all sectors to collaborate towards a common vision, which is needed now more than ever. The long-term goals in that strategy remain the right ones, but first there is a need to pause and address the damage coronavirus has done.
As part of our approach we had already brought together dozens of leaders and experts from a wide range of fields and sectors, and I’m glad to say they have also committed to contributing to our work on what steps should be considered to repair financial wellbeing in the next few months. We will be extending the timescale on our initial challenge stage while they help us look at the many impacts happening now and due to hit people’s finances in the aftermath of the outbreak. Across debt, credit and pensions, considering different impacts on different genders and age groups, and mitigating the toll on people’s mental health, there is going to be a great deal to do.