There’s a box of tissues on every desk at the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) office at Maritana Gate. They’re not a cosmetic prop.
The seat I recently sat in, opposite Anna Walsh (Money Advice Co-ordinator with Waterford MABS) has been occupied by hundreds of distraught men and women, wondering what sort of a future they can provide for their children. Those politicians clarion calling about the economic recovery would do well to sit where Anna sits for even one working day and listen. Just listen. Thousand of citizens don’t feel like they’re part of any Republic of Opportunity. “I’ve met many couples in here,” said Anna’s colleague Louise O’Brien, “who have both gone through insolvency cases – which is a very difficult experience. The aim, from our perspective and the couples of course, is to make the household solvent, so that the household becomes free of debt, so that a family can breathe a little easier. That might sound a little dramatic but that’s a reality for a lot of people. When you’re talking to someone at your desk, those tissues are there for a very good reason and any office you’ll go into here, you’ll see a box of tissues. The effect that financial distress has on peoples’ health, on relationships and what it does to their children, you can’t underestimate how deeply these issues run – and continue to.”
Anna, Louise and their colleagues have assisted over 20,000 people with a range of financial issues since Waterford MABS first opened its doors in Ballybeg 25 years ago.
From debt counselling to household management and assisting clients through the treacly task of dealing with creditors, MABS have gone about their work with complete discretion and precious little flag waving. We’re talking about people of action here, a group of committed individuals who are positively influencing people’s lives, helping a great many people on this city and county to sleep at night. The recession’s hidden heroes and heroines, if you will. So any opportunity to sit with Anna and her colleagues to talk about the nature of their work is always welcome, offering a timely reminder of this free and, sadly, all too necessary service. As Minister of State John Halligan put it at the launch of MABS’ Personal Insolvency Practitioner Research Report last week: “I can’t say I’m surprised at the impact which Waterford MABS has made. Anna Walsh, as you will all know, is a force to be reckoned with. When she decides that something will be done, mark my words, it will be done.”
Speaking about the Personal Insolvency Practitioner Report (researched by Louise O’Brien) which was launched at the Granville Hotel on Monday week last, Anna stated: “The heading of the report, and what we would like to have been in a position to entitle this piece of research, was ‘Too Poor To Be Insolvent’.” Louise explained: “The only cost incurred by any of our clients who apply for a DSA (Debt Settlement Arrangement) or PIA (Personal Insolvency Arrangement) through MABS is €10 and that’s not to MABS – they need to have their signature witnessed on a statutory declaration, for which a solicitor receives €10, a fee that more than a few of them waive, it’s worth pointing out. And what we saw through a lot of our cases was that, for a nominal amount of money – which differs from case to case, of course – we found that we could settle a considerable number of debts, and in some cases you’re talking about people owing between €170,000 and €180,000. A lot of that debt would have been residual mortgage debt, when they’ve already lost their family home, who then have to try and come up with solutions for their secondary debt which would have been the main portion of their mortgage, and that can be significant.” Providing funding for a full-time Personal Insolvency Practitioner (PIP) in each of the eight newly configured MABS regions, given that Central Bank figures (from the end of 2016) suggest that almost 40 per cent of borrowers in long-term arrears hadn’t engaged with their lender, appears entirely logical.
But that green light has yet to be flicked by Minister Doherty who admittedly appears positively disposed towards the MABS report which she received at the Granville.
“This (PIP) service is not a service which can be advertised at the moment because it’s not a nationally established service within MABS,” said Louise O’Brien.
Anna Walsh added: “In fairness, there are clear (Departmental) signs of support, but just not quite to the extent where everyone in this office would like them to be. Right now, Waterford MABS is the only such service in the country which is in a position to offer the full suite of options under insolvency – we’ve even taken bankruptcy cases as a last resort when we’re the only option left available for some people.” As a last option, given the expertise and humanity that Waterford MABS has built up over the past quarter century, I for one am struggling to think of a better option for those who desperately need financial assistance, guidance and, just as significantly, a kind ear.
Waterford MABS is a free service. Its offices are open from Monday to Friday (9am to 5pm) and can be reached on 0761-07-2050 or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).