With the rise in fee-charging debt firms during these tough times, Lisa Colclough (right), money advice policy manager at independent charity Citizens Advice, explains the importance of free, impartial help.

Access to free, independent and impartial debt advice for anyone who needs it has never been more important.

Citizens Advice Bureaux in England and Wales currently deal with well over 2.4 million debt problems a year – that's 9,500 new debt problems every working day.

But now our network is also facing reductions in funding at a time of growing need, as local authority cuts feed through and legal aid cuts loom.  

In the circumstances it's inevitable more people will turn to fee-charging debt management companies. Some of these offer a useful service for which people are prepared to pay.

But the current regulatory framework and economic conditions have provided fertile breeding ground for rogue operators, and we continue to see far too many people whose debt problems have been made worse by the high fees and poor service of some debt management companies.

Millions in need

According to recent official estimates, up to six million households are either in arrears with bills or credit commitments or are finding it a constant struggle to keep up.

Household budgets are under increasing pressure from rising prices, exceptionally high winter fuel bills and cuts to benefits and public services.

The starting point for free, independent and impartial debt advice is a thorough assessment of these circumstances. 

Charities such as ourselves are not interested in making money from people in debt. We don't shoehorn everyone into a solution we can make money out of.

Instead, the money advice process enables people to explore all the options open to them, deals with all the debts they have, and tackles associated problems as part of a holistic advice service. 

Free and impartial debt advice can also assist with emergencies such as bailiffs at the door, court action for repossession, eviction and loss of essential services.

Importantly, it can help you tackle your debts even if you are on benefits and have no available income to make repayment offers to creditors. 

Income maximisation – making sure you are getting all the money you may be entitled to through the benefits and tax credits system – is another important element.

Free, independent debt advice is available via different routes – by telephone, internet and face to face – and at different levels of support, ensuring people can get help in a way that best suits their needs. 

Whichever route they choose, people are empowered to understand and take control of their finances so as to get out of debt and stay that way.

Damage done

We may officially be in recovery, but for many people the damage done by the economic downturn is long-lasting and far from over.

Many never expected to find themselves with serious money problems, but have found out the hard way just how quickly things can spiral out of control once you've lost your job or had working hours cut.

We believe it's in the interests of creditors as well as those in debt to ensure everyone who needs it can get free, impartial, high-quality advice.

We believe that a levy on the finance industry is the way to ensure sustainable future funding for this vital service.