It’s a family affair at city's award-winning advice line
David Clensy takes a look at the work of Bristol’s Family Information Service
ALL too often, as recession-fuelled budget cuts hit public services, it’s the facilities you might think are most valuable to families in times of economic gloom, that get axed.
But Bristol City Council’s Family Information Service has so far survived consecutive rounds of cuts, despite the fact that similar services have often been dramatically cut back in other authorities.
For Wendy Jackson, manager of the Family Information Service, it’s a cause for great relief.
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“We have been through a couple of big reviews, but we have fought our corner each time because we genuinely feel what we do here is important – more important than ever in the middle of a recession.
“I’ve no doubt the advice we offer to families will become more and more important, especially with the Welfare Reform Act coming through in April. That is going to change the whole landscape of the information and advice we offer.
“We’re doing plenty of training, but there will be a lot for us to learn – so members of the public are likely to be confused by the benefits they can or cannot claim.”
The service, which has been based in its current home in Easton Road since 2007, was previously run as a voluntary organisation – but was taken in-house at the council as part of the authority’s statutory obligation to offer advice to families.
Wendy, who has worked here since 2003, and has managed the department since 2005, is passionate about the service her team provides.
This week she is beaming from ear to ear, after the department was awarded the Quality Assured Award from the Day Care Trust.
“It’s great, because it’s an independent assessment of the high level of service we provide,” Wendy says.
Last year the team of five who run the service’s helpline, website, drop-in centre and outreach surgeries gave direct support to more than 23,000 families in the city – and Wendy says the number is rising steadily each year.
“Often it is mothers wanting advice about nurseries, day care centres or child minders,” she says.
“But we also get a lot of women calling to find out if it is financially worth their while giving up their benefits to go back to work.”
Adviser Jessica Kelly specialises in giving young mums this sort of sensitive financial advice.
“We never encourage parents not to return to work,” she says.
“But we’re here to give them all the information. We can sit down with them and work out their finances, and find out how returning to work will affect them.
“There can be situations where, if a person took a job for just a few hours per week they could end up being financially worse-off than being on benefits. But even then, you find a lot of people will take that cut because they want to work.”
Wendy says that a large part of the support they offer is to parents for whom English is not their first language.
“Being based here in Easton means a lot of the people that come to us for advice do not necessarily have English as their first language,” she says. Some can barely speak more than a couple of words in English, so it’s great to get them here so we can start helping them to understand whatever it is they’re struggling with – often the whole system is completely new to them.
“We had a couple of Polish ladies in here just yesterday who had come over as economic migrants a few years ago – they came over here to work. But now their circumstances have changed – they have had babies.
“So they weren’t looking for work, they needed advice on how to find suitable housing for their young families. We’re here to offer any kind of help and information, as long as it is for families who have children aged from new-born, through to 20 years old.”
The team also support and advise child care professionals – part of their remit includes organising training for self-employed child minders, and even running a toy library for child minders in the city.
“We cover a wide range of services,” Wendy says. “It certainly keeps us busy. But it’s great to now we’re helping families in the city each day. Ultimately we’re all here because we want to help children – we want to improve their prospects for the future. That’s very rewarding work to be doing.”
To contact the Family Information Service for advice call 0845 1297217, between 8.30pm and 5pm, Monday to Thursday, 8.30pm to 4.30pm on Friday. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org