The Fairness Group
The government established the Fairness Group in 2016, bringing central and local government, the debt advice sector, and the debt collection industry together.
The Fairness Group is responsible for examining fairness in government debt management practices, and making evidence-based recommendations for change. This includes fairness in relation to the treatment of vulnerable customers, while ensuring the Government is fair to taxpayers and those that do pay on time, by taking a proportional response to those that do not.
The Vulnerability Sub-Group
The Fairness Group Vulnerability Sub Group was established in February 2019 to understand how vulnerability is currently identified and supported, in the context of how government interacts with people in debt – and to develop recommendations on how these processes can be improved.
In January 2020 the Fairness Group approved the Vulnerability Sub Group’s recommendation of the creation of a vulnerability toolkit for staff.
The Vulnerability Toolkit
This vulnerability toolkit aims to bring together existing industry-standard tools used in the identification and support of vulnerable customers.
Across government, many organisations have already established the spirit of these tools in their debt management strategies. Through embedding the information set out in this guide, leaders and experts involved in the design and administration of government debt strategies can fully leverage the successes that the adoption of these tools has brought to other creditor sectors.
As government organisations face new challenges in responding to Covid-19, the implementation of these proven best-practice tools can ensure that government continues to provide the best possible support to individuals in vulnerable circumstances.
With special thanks to Chris Fitch, Vulnerability Lead (Money Advice Trust) and Research Fellow (Personal Finance Research Centre, Bristol University) for his fundamental contribution to this guide and with thanks to the organisations who helped shape this toolkit:
- Christians Against Poverty
- The Department of Health & Social Care
- The Department for Work & Pensions
- The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency
- HM Revenue and Customs
- The Insolvency Service
- The Ministry of Justice
- The Money Advice Trust
- Somerset West and Taunton Council
- StepChange Debt Charity
Identifying vulnerable customers
This section outlines the four key methods used in the identification of vulnerable individuals alongside best-practice principles.
Best practice checklist for identifying vulnerable customers
An individual contacts an organisation and:
- Makes a direct disclosure via; call, letter, email, webchat, get help forms and other available channels (“My circumstances are bad, can you help?”)
- Makes an indirect disclosure (“I’m really struggling today, I’m so down”, “I don’t understand you”)
Organisations should provide every customer the opportunity to self-disclose. Organisations should seek to operate multiple channels and routes which encourage customers to share information about their vulnerability and their associated needs.
Frontline and specialist staff should routinely tell all customers that disclosing a vulnerable situation can potentially result in additional support being provided.
Frontline staff should be trained to recognise ‘red flags’ including;
- Individual factors – passing mentions of illness, disability or impairment; reference to contact with the health
sector or social care sector; reference to the receipt of specific benefits.
- Behavioural cues – sounding flustered, anxious, confused or asking unrelated questions.
- Wider circumstances – excessive or unusual expenditure, life events (such as time in hospital, imprisonment, bereavement, income shocks).
- Organisational actions – reference by the customer to things that have or haven’t been done that have caused difficulty.
Frontline staff should be trained to recognise where customers are facing certain limitations which affect their ability to make decisions (See BRUCE Protocol).
A third party involved in the support of a vulnerable individual contacts a firm to disclose e.g. carer, GP, debt advice administrator, hospital, debt and mental health evidence forms.
Organisations should maintain procedures for receipt of third-party disclosures and develop links with local and national support services to ensure that third parties are aware of routes to provide disclosures.
An organisation uses internal data to identify a vulnerable or potentially vulnerable individual.
Organisations should seek to leverage internal data sources to identify customers at risk of vulnerability (e.g. financial vulnerability triggers, such as missed payments).
An organisation uses external data to identify a vulnerable or potentially vulnerable individual.
Organisations should look to develop or purchase services which use Credit Reference Agency data and Open Banking/Finance data within tools and analytics services to identify customers in or at risk of financial vulnerability.
Organisations should look at creating data partnerships within and outside of their sector to proactively identify customers in need of additional support.
Organisations should look to technology to enhance vulnerability identification utilising tools such as text and speech analysing software and third-party vulnerability referral forms/databases.
Tools for supporting conversations
Supporting staff to effectively handle disclosures of vulnerable situations, and to have conversations with customers about their individual circumstances, is crucial in going beyond merely identifying vulnerability to taking effective action. This section includes two tools in common use in the credit industry – TEXAS and IDEA – which aim to support staff to achieve this.
Handling disclosures of vulnerability – TEXAS
Disclosures represent a moment of maximum opportunity – often the first time a customer has disclosed highly personal information about their situation. These conversations can be challenging – with staff worrying about causing offence, using incorrect language or straying beyond their remit – and carry the risk that if not handled effectively, trust and future engagement can be lost.
However, there are simple steps that staff can take to deal with disclosures effectively, making it more comfortable for them and the customer, while still gathering the relevant information they need in a supportive way.
The TEXAS protocol (see below) is a widely-established tool, used by creditors across industries, to support staff with these difficult conversations.
The TEXAS Protocol
The TEXAS protocol provides a simple guide for what staff should cover when a customer discloses a vulnerability.
T – Thank the customer
(what they have told you could be useful for everyone involved):
- “Thanks for telling me about your situation, as it will help us take this into account”
E – Explain how the information will be used
(data protect requirement):
- “Let me explain how we’d like to use that information, just so you know”
This explanation should include why the information is being collected, how it will be used to help decision making, and who the data will be shared with / disclosed to.
X – eXplicit consent should be obtained
(data protection requirement):
- “Are you happy to give me permission to note down and save the information you’ve shared with me today?”
A – Ask the customer questions to get key information
(these will help you understand the situation better):
- “How does your situation make it difficult to manage your finances?”
- “How does your situation affect your ability to communicate with us?”
- “Does anyone help you manage your finances, such as a carer, relative, or other third party?”
S – Signpost or refer to internal and external help
(where this is appropriate):
At this point, staff and organisations might:
- need to internally refer the individual to a specialist team / staff member in their organisation.
- want to consider external sign-posting to an organisation (more detail on signposting is included later in this guide).
Gaining more information about circumstances – IDEA
While the TEXAS protocol helps ensure some key questions are asked to establish the core details of a customer’s situation, there may be times when staff need a more detailed understanding of the customer’s situation in order to take effective action. This could include establishing whether changes need to be made to the usual debt collection processes, or understanding what further support may be required.
The IDEA framework – like TEXAS, now used widely across creditor sectors – was developed to help staff gain more information, and to feel confident about holding a conversation which quickly focuses on the details relevant for helping the customer.
IDEA was deliberately designed to work across the whole range of vulnerabilities that a customer may present with. It ensures that staff can still feel confident having conversations with customers even if they don’t have a detailed knowledge of the particular vulnerable situation the customer is experiencing.
I – Impact
When speaking to a customer, staff should ask them what the vulnerable situation either stops the customer doing in terms of their financial situation, or what it makes harder for them to do.
Equally, for written correspondence, staff could ask themselves what they can learn from any letter or email about how the customer’s vulnerable situation is affecting their finances.
This will help provide valuable insight into both the severity of the condition and its consequences.
e.g. “What has the impact been on your personal and financial situation?”
D – Duration
Staff should discuss how long the customer has been living with the reported vulnerability, as the duration of different situations or conditions will vary. This is often clear or implied in written correspondence too. This can inform decisions about the amount of time a customer may need to consider certain options or take positive steps to improve their financial situation.
e.g. “So when did this first start to happen?”
E – Experiences
Some people may have more than one experience or episode of their vulnerable situation, whilst others may just have one. Staff will need to take such fluctuating situations into account (including the effects of any medication) and consider how the person’s situation or condition is likely to impact them now and in the future. This will involve considering both what support the customer needs in relation to their vulnerability, and how this relates to addressing the customer’s financial situation.
e.g. “To help me understand your situation better, can you tell me whether this has happened before?”, “How has it been?”
A – Assistance
Staff should consider whether the customer has been able to get any care, help, support or treatment for their condition or situation. This could open up discussions about obtaining relevant medical evidence whilst on the telephone.
Equally, in written communications, a response can be formulated that is supportive in terms of options available to the customer for further support regarding their wider vulnerable situation.
e.g. “Is there anything else we should know about the treatment or care you’re receiving? It could help us to support you better in the future.”
Handling Disclosures from carers – CARERS
The TEXAS and IDEA tools are useful for handling disclosures from people in vulnerable circumstances themselves. However, disclosures will often come from third parties – and in particular, carers – and it is important that staff are able to deal just as effectively with these very different conversations.
The CARERS protocol (see below) can help staff to handle disclosures from carers and other third parties. The protocol has a strong focus on compliance – including checking for authority to act, and complying with data protection requirements by ensuring account details are not discussed.
In addition to ensuring compliance, CARERS provides staff with a framework for conversations that can lead to valuable insight being captured from carers and other third parties that might otherwise have been missed.
The CARERS Protocol
C – Check for authority
If the carer or third party has evidence of their authority to act on the customer’s behalf, a more detailed discussion can be arranged (once evidence has been supplied).
If the carer cannot supply this evidence, or needs to share information about the customer now, follow steps A to S.
A – Avoid discussing any account details, making sure to explain to the carer why this isn’t possible.
R – Reassure the carer that their concerns can still, however, be recorded as observations (unverified) on the customer’s account, and can be looked into.
E – Explain to the carer their observations will need to be shared with the customer, colleagues and potentially any customers (carers will need to give their consent for this).
R – Record the carer’s observations, listening carefully, and ensuring:
- You have checked why the customer is unable to speak directly with the organisation about these issues (e.g. is there a communication issue?).
- You are clear how the customer’s vulnerable situation affects their ability to repay.
- You have confirmed with the carer what information has been recorded, and how long these unverified observations will be held on file while they are being checked.
S – Summarise the next steps, which might include:
- You (or a colleague) speaking with the customer concerned to establish if there is a problem, including checking the unverified observations made by the carer.
- The carer discussing with the customer a potential mandate to act on their behalf.
- The carer and customer working together to collect supporting medical evidence.
Additional tools for particular circumstances
The TEXAS and IDEA tools outlined in the previous section are general tools, designed to equip staff to have effective conversations with customers in a wide range of vulnerable circumstances.
However, there are some circumstances that staff can find particularly challenging to deal with, for which more specific, focused, additional tools can be useful.
The BLAKE Protocol
B – Breathe (to focus)
It can be scary to hear something like this, so take a moment to simply breathe and focus your thoughts. You can do this by acknowledging what the customer has said:
“I’m so sorry to hear you feel that way. How can we help?”
L – Listen (to understand)
We always take what the customer has shared seriously, but we also always listen carefully so we can assess the imminent risk of harm.
Listen to the customer using verbal nods and recapping key information to show your understanding.
A – Ask (to discover)
Listening is important, but where gaps continue to exist in your understanding about the current situation, you should ask questions to fill these.
Example questions are included below – staff should aim to put these into their own words and avoid using them as a script.
K – Keep safe (from harm)
Based on your understanding of the situation, and also your organisation’s policy, the emergency services should be contacted if the customer is at imminent risk of harm. During this, you may need to stay on the line to keep talking with the customer. Reassure the customer that your primary concern is their safety, and that any financial difficulty can be dealt with later.
“I’m worried about what you’ve told me – what can we do to keep you safe?”
E – End (with summary)
Once customer safety has been addressed, if it is possible to do so, staff should summarise what has been discussed and agreed, so that the call can end (and any data-recording can begin).
“We’ve been talking for a while, but before we finish let me summarise what we agreed and what will happen next…”
High risk situations
Contact the emergency services if a customer:
- is currently harming themselves, just has, or is about to
- is unable to respond (e.g. is losing consciousness)
- clearly intends to take their own life
- has a suicide plan in place
Be aware that the risk of suicide is higher if the customer has:
- also taken alcohol, drugs, or medication
- attempted suicide previously
- a mental health problem / history of these problems
You will want to find out:
- the location of the customer (if not already known)
- whether they are alone (other people may be able to help)
- if they have taken any drugs, alcohol, or medication.
Following a suicide disclosure, you will need to judge whether to ‘ease in’ to the conversation with general questions, or be more direct.
- What has led to these feelings?
- How long have you felt this way?
- Have you spoken to anybody about how you are feeling?
- How far have you taken your thoughts about suicide?
- What support or help are you receiving?
- Do you have a plan to do this (how, when, where)?
- Where are you now? (this is key for the emergency services)
- Are you alone (is there anyone there who can help you)?
Questions about support:
- What can we do to help you?
- What can we do to keep you safe?
- Has anyone else helped you before that we could call?
Supporting suicidal customers
Talking with a customer thinking of suicide is clearly one of the most serious situations staff can face, and these conversations are among the most challenging they have to deal with.
The most solid basis for ensuring customers thinking of suicide are supported safely is an effective suicide policy, which covers what is expected of frontline staff, what immediate referrals should be made, how terminated calls should be dealt with, what ongoing help is available for the customer and the support provided to staff.
On an individual staff level, the BLAKE protocol is a tool developed to help frontline staff to manage disclosures of suicidal thoughts or behaviour. BLAKE is intended to give staff the ‘core skills’ they need to handle disclosures for as long as they need to – for example, until they are able to make an internal or external referral. The protocol is designed so that staff can make a referral at any point within the conversation.
Supporting customers with mental capacity limitations – BRUCE
Staff will often encounter customers with mental capacity limitations, which can mean they are unable to understand, remember or ‘weigh-up’ information that is shared with them, or make decisions based on this information. Customers can also have problems with decision-making as a result of factors other than mental capacity limitations – including those with language, literacy or numeracy issues.
The BRUCE protocol (see below) is an additional tool first developed to help financial services staff to identify mental capacity limitations (and other problems with decision-making). Based on the principles within the Mental Capacity Act 2005, the tool comprises questions that can be used to assess four ‘indicators’ that limitations may be present.
Once problems with understanding, remembering or weighing-up information have been identified using BRUCE, staff can hold a more effective conversation that is tailored to the customer’s circumstances. For example, staff can allow the customer more time to speak, repeat, simplify or re-explain information, offer information in writing, use simpler, more concise and jargon-free language, or ask the customer to summarise their understanding.
The BRUCE Protocol
B – Behaviour and talk
Staff should look for indicators of a limitation in the customer’s behaviour and speech.
R – Remembering
Is the customer experiencing problems with their memory or recall?
U – Understanding
Does the customer understand the information they are being given by staff?
C – Communicating
Can the customer communicate their thoughts, questions, and ultimately a decision about what they want to do?
E – Evaluating
Can the customer ‘weigh-up’ the different options open to them?
Around 1 in 4 adults in the UK experience a mental health issue, these can be short or long in duration, can change over time or sometimes even day to day. They can vary greatly person-to-person, some may experience impaired decision making, memory loss, reduced concentration, difficulty problem-solving, or increased impulsivity. Mental health issues do not automatically mean that someone is unable to manage their debts, but it can make it more difficult – half of people with mental health problems have serious difficulties using the phone to carry out essential administration.
When using BRUCE, staff should always:
- Presume customers have the mental capacity to make the decision in question, unless proof emerges they cannot do this.
- Provide reasonable support to individuals to help them make their own decisions.
- Remember that the decision is always the customers to make – customers are allowed to make unwise decisions.
- Avoid guessing what is ‘wrong’ with a customer – focusing instead on the decision-making difficulties a customer has, providing support to overcome these, and encouraging them (if possible) to talk about their difficulties.
Signposting to support services
Some vulnerable customers may be in difficult or extreme crisis situations that are not appropriate or possible for an organisation to resolve. These customers can often benefit from the support and services supplied by third party organisations. Establishing signposting and referral partnerships with local and national charities, organisations and other service providers is key to providing holistic support to those facing particular vulnerable situations.
Best practice checklist for signposting vulnerable customers:
- Referral procedure in place for staff to follow.
- Staff are confident in acknowledging where the customer’s situation falls outside of the scope and expertise of their organisation.
- Staff have up to date information regarding the referral partner.
- Staff are able to explain what support the organisation can provide and what the potential benefits for the customer are relating to their specific needs.
- A wide-ranging set of partnerships in place to facilitate a full range of services to cater for varying and complex customer needs e.g. debt and money advice, support for those experiencing mental health problems, gambling, illness, homelessness etc.
- A dedicated person directly manages the relationship with third party organisations. That individual holds regular review meetings to discuss referral volumes, outcomes and opportunities to work in partnership to support specific cohorts of customers.
Referral partners are not treated like suppliers and partnership visits are not viewed as audits.
- Regular reporting on the outcome and success of referrals.
- Regular ‘Call Calibration’ sessions held with third party referral partners including reviews of the full end-to-end customer journey.
- Examples and case studies from individuals in vulnerable situations are shared to help identify areas of weak and strong practice and establish how the organisation is perceived by customers living with a particular condition or situation.
Helping people out of debt through improved Money Management
MoneyHelper is a government organisation that joins up money and pensions guidance to make it quicker and easier to find the right help. This section of the toolkit covers guidance provided by MoneyHelper that you can share with individuals on how they can best manage their money.
How to build a budget
Learning to budget can help somebody stay on top of their bills and save money. On the MoneyHelper website people can view a beginner’s guide to managing money, including a budget planner tool that helps them see exactly where their money is being spent and how much is coming in.
Finding ways to make savings
It’s a good idea to save regularly whatever somebody’s age. The saving options available to people struggling to manage their money are covered on the MoneyHelper website
- The Savings Calculator on the MoneyHelper website can help people understand how long it will take to save a specific amount, or how much they need to save to have enough by a particular date.
- They can make saving easy by setting up a standing order or Direct Debit to move money into a savings account regularly so they don’t spend it or forget to put it aside.
- Help to Save is a savings scheme for people on low incomes who are claiming certain benefits. Help to Save gives people a bonus payment from the government of up to 50% on savings paid into the account. The MoneyHelper guide allows people to check their eligibility.
Income maximisation – Making sure an individual is receiving all the benefits and support they’re entitled to
- If somebody’s struggling to pay bills, have lost their job or are on a low income, it might be worth them considering claiming Universal Credit.
- To find out what benefits they’re entitled to, how to claim them, when they qualify, and what to do if things go wrong people can visit the MoneyHelper website.
- ‘IncomeMax Bounce Back’ is a service to provide post-pandemic support to people who need help managing their money and overcoming debt. By signing up, users receive a self-help guide to help maximise their income, with options to contact an adviser or use webchat if they need further help.
Where to seek additional money guidance
- People can contact MoneyHelper for free and impartial money guidance – 0800 138 7777 (Monday to Friday, 8am-6pm)
- MoneyHelper Typetalk support – 18001 0800 915 4622
- MoneyHelper WhatsApp live chat – +44 77 0134 2744.
- They can also call MoneyHelper for free and impartial pension guidance – 0800 011 3797 (Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm).
- Or find free debt advice, using the MoneyHelper Debt Advice Locator
Working with customers in vulnerable situations can have an impact on staff member’s wellbeing. Whether through a single event, like managing a call with a customer who is grieving or suicidal, or through repeat exposure to the effects of illness, abuse, addiction and even situations involving children – these encounters can affect staff emotionally, physically and professionally.
Staff may emotionally invest in cases, and may be discussing circumstances that resonate with them personally, which can make it difficult to switch off. The challenging nature of this work means it has the potential to lead to stress, work-related anxiety and burn-out. It is therefore important for organisations to provide appropriate support and develop staff resilience to avoid a negative impact on wellbeing.
Best practice that organisations should consider to support their staff includes:
- Staff should receive appropriate training so that they are equipped with the skills, strategies and techniques to work effectively with customers in vulnerable situations. This should complement training about specific issues customers experience e.g. different types of mental health conditions. However, awareness raising about vulnerability issues alone is not sufficient.
- Staff should also have the opportunity to share knowledge and experiences with other colleagues.
- Team members can be a positive source of support for one another. It is important that teams be given the opportunity to have a debriefing session after any serious event and run team case reviews.
- Staff should have one on one discussions with colleagues and/or managers to debrief by sharing their experiences and concerns.
- Managers should regularly speak directly with their staff to understand the challenges they are dealing with and identify when additional support is needed. Regular conversations will also help managers to recognise changes in their staff’s behaviour which might suggest they need help.
- Managers should also give staff the flexibility to take time out after a particularly difficult conversation.
Note: Elements of this checklist are reproduced from the Money Advice Service, Working collaboratively with the debt advice sector – A strategic toolkit for creditors, July 2017 and Fitch, C., Evans, J., and Trend, C., Vulnerability: a guide for debt collection – 21 questions, 21 steps, March 2017.