Executive Officer’s message

Executive Officer’s message

COVID 19 poses many challenges for financial counsellors in Victoria. ‘Working from Home’ isolates workers and expands their needs for support and risks to wellbeing, and FCVic has an important role to play in supporting our members and responding to those needs. We are holding regular zoom meetings of networks and working groups to reduce isolation and provide avenues of support.

At the same time, proper welfare assistance from the Commonwealth has shown how quickly a difference can be made to poverty and hardship where there is political leadership. There has been a clear reduction in need for financial counselling assistance in many areas. Yet an air of unreality pervades. We can anticipate a looming hardship crisis, as relatively generous jobseeker and jobkeeper allowances are reduced or ceased, but unemployment remains at high levels and the economy struggles. There is a small window at present to prepare for what is likely to be an unprecedented wave of demand. The Federal government has put funding into the sector to help it expand and prepare, and we are urging the State Government to partner with us in planning for this in Victoria.

Integrated Services Project Update – April 2020

Integrated Services Project Update – April 2020

The partnership between FCVic and Social Security Rights Victoria (SSRV), the Integrated Services Project (ISP) aims to improve client outcomes through financial counsellors and social security lawyers working together more effectively.

Priority to clients

During 2020, the ISP will prioritise integrated service provision to clients. We will increase the number of integrated legal/financial counselling services and continue to explore ways that financial counsellors and social security lawyers can effectively work together on Centrelink matters. As we established in 2019, integrated service provision by different professionals (or joined up or wrap-around service) can take many forms and occurs along a continuum. This may range from warm referrals to supported casework or even to active co-casework on a matter that is appealed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The following case study is an example of the type of integrated service undertaken in 2019 and the benefit derived for the client.

Jane was overpaid more than $5,000 of Parenting Payment. Jane sought assistance with appealing this debt. The reason for the overpayment was a failure by Centrelink to take into account Jane’s partner’s income when calculating her fortnightly payments. Centrelink’s position was that Jane had to report her partner’s income each fortnight, and that the reporting, usually done on a yearly basis as an estimate, was not sufficient. Jane maintained that she had done everything Centrelink required of her, and had complied with the instructions they had sent her.

Jane was referred to SSRV by her financial counsellor.  The SSRV lawyer worked closely with Jane and her financial counsellor and represented Jane at the AAT Social Services and Child Support Division (Tier 1). Unfortunately the outcome was unfavourable for Jane. SSRV assisted with lodging an appeal to the AAT’s General Division (Tier 2). However, the appeal did not proceed to hearing as a Centrelink legal representative contacted SSRV with an offer to settle. The offer involved reducing the debt significantly, and meant Jane would be entitled to a refund of some of the recovered money. Jane instructed SSRV to accept this offer.

The connection with the financial counsellor helped to enhance SSRV’s interactions with Jane who lived in a regional area. The financial counsellor was able to provide the hands on support. The financial counsellor prepared a statement of financial circumstances which was crucial in showing Jane had financial hardship for the purposes of a special circumstances waiver.

Jane provided the following feedback about how it felt having a financial counsellor and SSRV working together to take her case – Really good. Having the support of both was helpful and stopped me making mistakes. It was good to have the financial counsellor specifically, as I could sit down with someone face to face, ask questions, and go through the paperwork together.

Working with Financial Counsellors

We are now well into Year 2 of the ISP. Patricia Bove (Financial Counsellor) and Karl Schaffarczyk (Community Lawyer) continue to work with FCVic staff to build on the achievements and learnings of 2019. The report into the implementation and evaluation of the ISP during year one will be launched in late May. Keep an eye out for invitations to the event.

ISP staff will continue to engage with the Victorian financial counselling sector and provide information, resources and training during the year. This will include involvement in an upcoming FCVic organised professional development session relating to migrants and refugees.

In 2020, the ISP will prioritise systemic advocacy work to address policy and procedural issues and concerns arising through common clients/issues/services and broader collaborative activities between the financial counselling sector and SSRV. The FCVic Centrelink Working Group is anticipated to play a central role in joint approaches to systemic advocacy. In 2019, the Raise the Rate campaign was a key focus for the working group, perhaps maintaining the new rate will be a focus in 2020.

Continuity of Advice Lines

Financial counsellors are invited to call the SSRV Worker Help Line (0429 450 346*/ 03 9481 0655 – 9.00am-5.00pm, Monday – Thursday) for information and support in assisting clients with Centrelink matters and to make referrals to SSRV.

Individuals can be referred the SSRV General Advice Line (0419 793 652*/ 03 9481 0355), which is operating between 9.30am -12.30pm, Monday to Thursday).  These are the primary pathways for intake and assessment for further legal casework and representation services.

*Direct mobile phone numbers to telephone advice services while SSRV delivers services remotely during the COVID-19 response period. Calls to the usual numbers will be diverted to these mobile numbers.

Get in touch

Please contact Karl (karl@ssrv.org.au) or Patricia (patricia@ssrv.org.au) at SSRV to discuss the ISP and related services and activities. We are keen to hear from financial counsellors about how the COVID-19 crisis and government/other responses are impacting upon your clients and communities and their engagement with the social security system.

Interview with Sandra Blake, Small Business Bushfire Financial Counsellor

Interview with Sandra Blake, Small Business Bushfire Financial Counsellor

Please tell us about your background.

When you are born and raised on a farm as I was you have dirt in your shoes from a young age and once you’ve got dirt in your shoes its really difficult to get it out. Apart from a few years in my twenties, home has always been my farm. It was an upbringing I was keen to replicate with my own three daughters.

As a library technician I worked in public libraries, sometimes driving a large bookmobile. Later I added training quals and a decommissioned bookmobile was transformed into a computer-learning centre with desks and laptops in the back where basic computer skills were taught to indigenous and newly arrived refugees in an unthreatening space. My handsome printer husband was keen to be his own boss so we bought a printing business. I have always done the books for our business while pursuing my own career path.

What motivated you to pursue financial counselling?

While teaching in the training van it became evident that those I was trying to help would benefit from financial literacy. I came across a course called Financial Counselling, completed the diploma then used the points as credits towards a degree in Social Science/Welfare.

By working in various fields as a financial counsellor I’ve built valuable, strong, supportive networks across a wide genre. Those roles have been: solo generalist financial counsellor (FC) in a busy welfare agency where I saw far too many clients, burnt out and got compassion fatigue; FC for students at a university; Telephone FC at MoneyHelp (now National Debt Helpline); Financial Literacy educator; Rural FC visiting farmers from broad acre crops in the Riverina to dairy farms in the Upper Murray talking issues from debt management to succession plans; Outreach FC, and two current roles: Small Business Bushfire Financial Counsellor and Older Person’s Financial Counsellor.

What are the unique aspects of your role or the area you work in?

It felt important to help however I could after the recent devastating fires. I evacuated from our farm and the fire-fighter printer husband was away for many days and nights with the CFA, so I do relate. When Fiona [Guthrie] asked if I would help establish a new telephone service to assist small businesses in bushfire recovery I accepted the challenge. It happened quickly; treasury offered funds on the proviso that the service was up and running within the month. There was so much to organise.

Now we have a full team of specially trained FCs and while we have capacity, answer calls from small business affected by COVID-19 not only bushfire. We talk through what grants, assistances or loans they may be eligible for and debt problems. Business owners are passionate about their livelihood; it consumes their total being. Their distress is clearly audible over the phone, but callers are always left with something. Working on this project with the team at Financial Counselling Australia (FCA) has been invigorating.

I also have a part-time role as Older Person’s FC at Royal Melbourne Hospital. This is the first time an FC has been directly employed by a hospital. Melbourne Health hope to write a paper on this work with a vision towards financial counsellors becoming employed more regularly in hospitals. There are two parts to this job: educating staff about what a financial counsellor does, and assisting older people in their home who have been identified as victims of financial abuse.

What has been your proudest achievement to date?

As an FC: Successfully advocating for positive changes that assist the masses. I’ve long been advocating for reform of payday lending and rent-to-buy services after witnessing widespread harm they cause in my community. I took time off from work to volunteer with independent MP Cathy McGowan and met with various other MPs. With regard to passing the Small Amount Credit Contract (SACC) bill, Cathy said we “kicked a goal along the way to winning the match”.

That’s definitely been a marathon and continues. I still follow this closely and have spoken at two senate hearings. I do believe it will pass, hopefully without too many amendments. Change isn’t always so onerous to achieve, e.g. advocating for policy change with your local credit union to benefit the vulnerable. Getting to know your local leaders, and ensuring they know you and what you do is a great way to bring about change. These people will come to you for opinions when they know what you have to offer.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the financial counselling sector?

It’s taken two unmatched disasters this year to bring about industry funding. From this arises the challenge of sourcing and adequately training new staff to execute our work. Then support, recognition and respect for financial counsellors is needed.

FCVic has made sound progress towards educating agency managers about our needs. Hopefully this advocacy continues and results in supportive, respectful agencies that rightfully acknowledge the true value of our work and knowledge base. Our sector can ill afford to lose quality, experienced members.

What has been the most valuable resource or advice you’ve received?

Garry Rothman told me once early on: “Remember, if you can’t help them, don’t harm them”.
Thanks Garry.

The Hume Region Network of FCVic has always been a terrific support and resource for information sharing.

What book are you reading at the moment?

Adele Ferguson’s Banking Bad. I remember Adele announcing at an earlier conference the need for a Banking Royal Commission. It was a privilege to hear her again at the FCVic conference in 2019 speaking about her book written on that topic. My eldest daughter is a librarian and with my own library background we are never short of a good read in our home.

What is your favourite app?

Words with Friends. Anyone up for a challenge? I’m sandylea.