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Strengthening financial and digital inclusion.

Being unable to manage your home and money can have devastating results. Similarly, digital exclusion can cause social isolation and prevent people from accessing essential information and services. We are responding to these challenges by offering money advice, getting customers online, and signposting for debt advice.

During the pandemic it has been more important than ever to support our customers and community. We have donated over 400 devices to community partners customers and staff including 120 digital devices this year to support children who were learning from home or people of any age who needed a device to participate in further education. Our national digital inclusion training project We Are Digital ensured that those lacking in technical knowledge weren’t left behind. Customers were supported with free individual support delivered remotely by an experienced tutor, conducted safely by phone and video.


Our Money Advice Team work with customers to help them manage their finances and increase their income. We have provided financial inclusion support to 2,607 customers, which has generated over £2 million of additional income for our customers. This has been achieved through welfare benefits, backdated payments and grant and charitable payments. Through our grant schemes we support various projects that offer financial help to customers. Through the Community Investment Fund, the Money Advice team are able to offer small grants to customers experiencing financial hardship.

 

Support for home-schooling colleagues and customers

The Group is supporting various projects providing equipment and training to ensure customers and colleagues remain digitally included. We have teamed up with IT to repurpose iPads, providing over 120 digital devices to customers and colleagues to help with home-schooling. Supported by the Community Investment Fund, the devices were well-received by colleagues and customers.   One colleague said: “Just to let you know that the device is perfect, and it arrived on Saturday. Thank you so much from both myself and my delighted son!”  

Digital support during the pandemic 

A further 99 repurposed iPads were given to 22 community organisations from Eastbourne to Edinburgh and the community partners who are using them to deliver digital support to customers. 

We are Digital, a remote one-to-one training service, has now seen 76 customers complete up to 6 hours of tailored digital skills training. Over 40 of these customers now have access to a device and 22 received data sims for internet access. 

We have received many heartfelt thankyou messages from customers who received devices: 

“Thank you so much for supporting me in receiving a tablet this weekend – I will now be able to relax and complete my Support and Coaching assignments.”  

“It bought smiles to my three children who all required a tablet to sit and focus and do their home-schooling work – so excited to start on Monday. Thank you so much.”  

By being commercially minded we can deliver more social value for our customers and colleagues, ensuring our communities thrive. This is what People First is all about.   

If you know of any customers who could benefit from digital training, please email Francesca Broxton with the customer’s contact details. Alternatively, they can contact her directly on 07585 765 882.

WE ARE DIGITAL

Digital platforms have played an important role this past year, so with less physical contact and more day to day life being carried out online, Places for People (PFP) strived to ensure that those lacking in technical knowledge weren’t left behind, during the pandemic.

Quick thinking colleagues evolved the We Are Digital programme, an initiative funded by Places Foundation, transitioning the model from pre-COVID physical training courses to, safer 1-2-1 distance learning. 

One year on, more than 100 customers signed up to learn digital skills that’ll help them stay connected in our modern world. 

“At the start of the pandemic we had to suspend our We are Digital courses,” says Francesca Broxton who is PFP’s digital inclusion officer. “The physical group classes just couldn’t work within the strict lockdown rules, but we were determined to find another way to operate.” 

With additional Places Foundation Impact funding, the programme was moved out of the classroom training, with tutors providing distance learning support.  A leaflet campaign was launched offering customers anything between one and six hours of free support, conducted safely and within the guidelines by phone and video. The experienced tutors who’d helped the programme to be a success to date, were enlisted to coach people from afar – people like Eulalee who has gone from having limited digital skills to now being able to use email, keep in touch with family and friends using WhatsApp and Zoom, bank online and stay connected by joining in with her local church’s Zoom meetings.

She says for her it was the best way to learn, and feels it’s keeping her brain active as it’s an interactive source of entertainment: “You can connect anywhere in the world - modern technology is marvellous.”

While Eulalee and other attendees grasped much from the course, some customers were fearful of the prospect of learning online. 81-year-old Tony from Sheffield didn’t think he’d be able to grasp digital skills without the help of a face to face teacher but thanks to a telephone lesson prior to his course, Tony was able to grasp the basics and talk through the software in advance.

Now Tony has the digital skills which help keep him connected; having shielded for much of the past year, Tony’s missed much time with his three children, four grandchildren and three great grandchildren. His course has helped him to learn how to use a tablet and do much more online. He can now keep in touch with his family and manage his online banking - meaning he doesn’t have to leave the house and put himself at risk when managing his finances. “There’s so much potential, and it opens the world to me,” he says. 

The tutors have also helped people access Universal Credit online too; the team use a dummy form to mimic and show customers how to submit it digitally, again ensuring that a crucial part of their lives isn’t affected.  

While such tutoring provision has been a great help, there was still another challenge faced by customers in the community – a lack of hardware on which to undertake the necessary digital interactions. The team thankfully found a way to resolve this, distributing unused tech from within the company: “We are a large business; that means a lot of colleagues are in need of upgraded tech as their roles change. Because of that we have access to decommissioned iPads and laptops no longer needed by staff, these are instead given out for free to people in the community. Funding was also secured to invest in WIFI dongles, connecting those who didn’t have access to their own internet.  

The programme has continued to evolve as lockdown has prevailed; while many of the initial customers were older people looking to connect, Francesca’s seen a much broader mix of people reach out for help – and her team’s happily obliged. “Recently we’ve helped parents who’ve needed to swiftly grasp online learning software as they undertake home schooling, and we’ve helped a customer who was offered a college place, but needed a laptop to distance learn – something we were able to provide for her.”

Ultimately, the success of the course means that many more people can now stay connected with their pre-pandemic lives through family video calls, ordering repeat prescriptions and online shopping. As the lockdown continues, Places Foundation will continue to invest in the course, offering any PFP customers across the country up to three online sessions. 

That’s crucial as people rebuild their lives; Francesca concludes: “Fundamentally this course is about keeping people in touch, but we’re seeing greater achievements each day. We’re now helping people who’ve lost their jobs in the pandemic, people who’ve worked in trade roles for years and suddenly need new digital skills, it’s helping everybody and for that, I’m incredibly proud.”  

Money Advice Team provides vital service

As Places for People customers face ever-changing Government legislation and complexities with programmes like Universal Credit, our Places for People Money Advice Team  provides a vital service.

Guiding hundreds of people each week, this highly-skilled team is trained to help with benefit claims, ensuring that all of our customers understand the system and don’t miss out on any entitled allowances – helping with online applications and providing support via phone and email. This ensures we can provide support across the country without being geographically tied to one area.

Helping people to stay in their homes

In the last financial year, 899 referrals have been made to this vital team, generating an income of £321,841.00 for our customers – money they sometimes did not know they were entitled to.

It’s helped customers navigate what can at times; be a complicated benefits system, helping them to pay their rent and most importantly – stay in their homes.

Financial wellbeing

“Being part of the Money Advice Team is very challenging but extremely rewarding at the same time,” explains Places for People’s Money Advice Team Leader, Peter Whittington. “As a team, we often have to react to ever changing priorities but we always have one eye on future benefit changes that we know will affect our customers.  – This allows us to offer customers foresight and the chance to apply for benefits in advance, preventing any financial woes before they happen.”

Peter adds that his team’s expertise goes well beyond purely benefit advice: “We provide advice and support around rent related benefits such as Universal Credit, Housing Benefit and Discretionary Housing Payment. We can assist with applications and advocate on customer’s behalf’s in complex cases. Where other financial issues are present, such as debt or utility arrears, we assist by signposting to specialist agencies’

“We have a wide spectrum of customers from young adults in financial difficulty to elderly customers who are struggling alone or have taken on the role of carer for an unwell partner. Whatever the situation, we try our utmost to find a solution that improves their financial wellbeing.”

One customer benefitted from the service following a transition from Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and Housing Benefit to Universal Credit (UC) that did not go as planned.

Explaining the situation, the customer advised: “The delays in sorting out my claim meant I was behind financially, that in turn resulted in very significant arrears on my rent account with Places for People. The mistake took about six months to resolve, subsequently taking its toll on my mental health as I spent hours on the phone to the benefits department, writing emails and filling in forms almost every day – doing anything I could to get it sorted.

“It’s fair to say that during that time I received very little useful support from my local council and the benefits department itself. I was dismissed, passed around and told it was my fault.

Genuinely caring

“The real help and care came from my Places for People Money Advisor. As soon as I was put in touch with them, I felt that they genuinely cared about understanding the circumstances and also my mental health.

“My Money Advisor’s support and care surprised me greatly – not least because my struggle with the benefits department had prevented me from paying Places for People their rent! At no time however did he take a critical position – instead he worked hard and tirelessly to resolve my situation, helping me through the stress of it all. He remained a reliable, professional and compassionate supporter throughout.”

As well as telephone support, the Money Advisor also helped the customer draft emails and letters to the benefits department and the council, contacting numerous people and putting permitted arrangements in place on the customer’s behalf. “This was hugely helpful given the deteriorating state of my mental health,” the customer continued. “My advisor also collaborated with colleagues within Places for People to help others understand the situation – and he advised me how to conduct myself to achieve the result we were both looking for, including advice about what to expect in court. He even took the time to find the relevant technical UC regulations because he believed I was receiving the incorrect amount.

“He sent me an email with the relevant regulations and suggested I paste it into my UC journal. I did this and it resulted in a significant increase to my UC entitlement and a lump sum ‘special’ payment. This is obviously good for me but also good for Places for People because it helps me to maintain a healthy rent account. This UC payment increase simply would not have happened without my advisor going above and beyond to help me.

“Thanks to my advisor I am still in my own home, and my mental health remained strong enough to deal with the strain caused by the whole ordeal. I am very grateful to Places for People for the patience I was shown, but I feel especially grateful for the individual advisor’s help.”

Complexities within an ever changing benefits system

This is not a standalone case and The Money Advice Team regularly assist customers in similar situations. Peter concludes: “Places for People invests in its staff, so it means my team can stay at the top of its game, ensuring that the advice we offer to customers is always pertinent and up to date. 

“We do some great work and it’s important that we have the foresight to help our customers, easing the financial burden and the impact it can have on their day to day lives."

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