Oliver Stevenson

This week I travelled to Manchester to pilot a debt awareness programme in local branches.

A recent survey by the Money Advice Service showed that of the 63 million people in the UK, a staggering 8.8 million (14%) are over-indebted. That's not people who dip into their overdraft every once in a while, or who used their credit card this Christmas to tide themselves over until January pay day, it's people whose financial situation has become so unsustainable that they can no longer cope with their debts. In Manchester, two in five people (41%) are over-indebted, making it the 3rd most over-indebted local authority in the UK, just behind Nottingham and Hull.

What's more, yesterday (January 20th) was Blue Monday, the day when the Christmas credit card bills began to start thudding on to our doormats. For that reason, StepChange Debt Charity named this week 'Debt Awareness Week' and so I travelled to Manchester with my colleague Zoe to help amplify the message in one the UK's most heavily affected cities.

First, we organised frontline staff training with the help of organisations such as StepChange Debt Charity and Citizens Advice, who can help customers manage their debts more effectively, and in some cases write it off completely. As well as helping colleagues identify some of the early warning signs of debt, we also helped colleagues understand what it might feel like to be over-indebted (perhaps having to choose between eating and heating your home), and also to understand why customers might (and too often do) wait years before admitting they need help.

We then set up unmanned stalls in three of the key branches in the city centre so that customers affected by debt could learn more about the options available to them (and stocked them with chocolates to maximise footfall!).

We also spent time with the Barclays Financial Assist team, our internal debt management team, who proactively contact the customers showing signs of losing control over their finances in order to help them get back on track.

Over the next few weeks we'll be tracking the internal and external referrals made by those three branches to see whether or not we had any impact. It's our belief that by raising customer and colleague awareness, we can begin to tackle financial difficulty in Manchester, and if successful we hope to roll out the awareness programme in other heavily affected areas across the UK.