THE FRONTLINE INTERVIEW WITH INCOMEMAX FOUNDER LEE HEALEY
By Graham O’Malley
Published in IMA Quarterly Account Spring Edition 2016
Q. Please tell readers a little bit about your background and how that has helped setting up IncomeMax
I’ve been working in the world of welfare and money advice for 21 years. My first job was with the DWP as a decision maker. I then moved into the charitable advice sector as a benefits adviser. I had a couple of years working at Advice UK delivering training and designing advice qualifications before returning to frontline advice work. In 2009 I founded IncomeMax as a social enterprise which could help people to take control of their finances. It was really exciting setting up a new organisation. I knew it could make a real difference to people.
Q. What is unique about IncomeMAX?
We help people to take control of their finances through personal money advice. We are experts in helping vulnerable and low income households to maximise their income through benefits, energy bills, water bills and employment. We also help clients to access debt advice and to make savings on their household budget. The advice we provide is tailored to each client and is delivered by advisers who are extensively trained. Benefits are a big part of what we do but we don’t use benefit calculators; my DWP background taught me that welfare advice should really be delivered by advisers that understand complex issues like premiums, elements, mortgage interest and PIP/ESA scoring systems. We provide a lot of support and advocacy to clients to ensure the additional money we find for them is realised. Our customers are referred to us by forward thinking organisations that really see the value in income maximisation support for their customers. This currently includes EDF Energy, Nationwide Building Society and SSE.
Q. What are the biggest successes for IncomeMAX so far?
We have confirmed £millions of extra income for thousands of clients since 2009. Many of the people we have been able to help were not aware of the support that was available to them and it has changed their lives. As a result of the advice we provide, many of our customers increase their income, start to deal with debts and feel much better about their finances. Clients we work with increase their income by on average £3000 per year. We recently had a client that was missing out on a pension of £40,000. The money enabled the customer to pay off their mortgage balance.
Q. Many advisers see revolving door clients. Are you able to measure the long-term resilience of Income MAX customers? If so how is this done?
Income maximisation is such an important tool to ensure customers become sustainable with their finances moving forward. I think it is a shame that welfare advice has become so undervalued over the last decade by government and funders. We’re getting lots of interest from the debt advice sector and creditors who are keen to strengthen their income maximisation strategies. There is so much value in good, modern income maximisation and welfare advice which includes benefits advice, energy bill & water bill support and charitable grants. Basically, we see it as our job to get in place anything and everything that might be available to that household. This often steadies the ship, allowing the customer to enter the debt advice process in better shape and with a better chance of developing long-term financial resilience. We have also developed case and reporting systems which really measure the impact of our work.
Q. IncomeMAX is a ‘simple, personal, clear, respectful’ service. Are creditors both in consumer credit and the public sector achieving this?
I worry that things are over-complicated things for consumers and as a result this is a barrier to people getting the advice, services and support they need. Financial and government services can be fiendishly complex for people to understand and access. There has been such a big shift towards digital and online, which works for some people but not everyone. It is quite old fashioned but I really wanted to create a service where real people can talk to a real person that really cares. My team love talking to customers and helping them and they work really hard to make sure we achieve good outcomes for them wherever possible.
Q. The MAS Financial Capability Strategy aims for more collective working across the sector. Do you think this is the start of winning the battle for a financially capable population?
It is so important for the credit and debt advice industry to continue working together to create the best possible services and products for consumers but we also need improved government support and funding for advice services and a willingness from society as a whole to become more financially savvy regardless of where you sit on the income scale. We’ve got to educate our kids as early as possible about money, debt and saving. Collaborative working is essential. It is no good us all working in silos. Forums like the Money Advice Liaison Group (MALG) and organisations like the Institute of Money Advisers (IMA) do a fantastic job of bringing creditors, advice services, governments, regulators and stakeholders together. I would really like to see DWP and HMRC working much more closely with the credit and debt advice sector.
Q. MAS identifies only 1 in 6 struggling with debt are seeking help. How could (or should) the sector adapt to meet demand?
Debt advice funding and services are really stretched. Debt advice cases are often time consuming and complex and there are major gaps in provision when it comes to things like early intervention debt advice, advocacy, form filling, income maximisation support, home visits and emergency debt support. We need to get consumers seeking money advice much earlier, ideally before things have spiralled out of control. If consumers were getting debt advice early, then it would stop cases becoming so complex and time consuming later on down the line. Debt advice basics such as what debts/bills to prioritise, benefits advice, cutting back on non-essential spending and early liaison with creditors makes such a difference. We need to embrace modern technology like smart phones, apps and conference calling because these have the potential to help the money advice sector save time on cases.
Q. You have appeared on the BBC and Sky News. This must be a valuable opportunity to reach a wide audience…
I feel really lucky to be on BBC and Sky news quite regularly covering the various welfare and money advice stories that make the headlines. I have made over 300 TV and radio appearances now and each time it is a great opportunity to be able to help the public understand a particular issue or topic. I’m also part of a new series on Channel 5. I always try to present a balanced view, but I can be critical of government policy when I feel it is merited. News appearances are a great opportunity to encourage the public to seek advice.
Q. Do you think we will ever successfully balance the rhetoric on those claiming benefits?
This is something I really hope we can change over the next few years. Benefits bashing isn’t helpful and is always made worse by politicians using language and rhetoric which just adds fuel to the fire. Certain TV programmes really revel in the desperately difficult lives of people on low incomes we all know newspapers run regular stories which paint a biased picture of ‘people on benefits’. The reality of course is that welfare is a much needed system which supports the likes of pensioners, carers, disabled people, unemployed people, lone parents, working families and children. All we can do is keep chipping away at people’s perceptions. I think there are strong signs already that many people’s views are changing.
Q. You wear your MIMA (Cert) well. How important has this been in partnership working?
The Certificate in Money Advice Practice is such an essential qualification for anyone working in money advice. It really provides a best practice framework for debt and money advice. The CPD scheme also means you have to keep on top of changes which is so important. The qualification has an excellent standing with creditors and debt advice services so from a partnership perspective, it’s an absolute must have qualification for IncomeMax advisers to hold. On a personal note I’m really proud to be MIMA (Cert) qualified.
Q. Do you think the impact of the free advice sector is communicated well-enough?
I think the sector is doing OK communicating the impact of advice with the funding and resources we all have available. Organisations like Citizens Advice, StepChange Debt Charity and Experian do a fantastic job getting stories, statistics and reports out in the media and the BBC are very supportive in running stories relating to advice.
Q. The IncomeMAX newsletter is provides current and comprehensive coverage of news related to money and debt. How do people keep in touch with IncomeMAX?
Our email newsletter Real Money is now read by thousands of advisers, organisations and customers each month and it is a great way of keeping in touch with people interested in real money issues. We stick to real life subjects like benefits, debt, energy and water and try to collate the most important news stories from the world of money advice. We keep the format really simple and clear. You can sign up via the website at www.incomemax.org.uk. For daily updates follow us on Twitter @Income_Max or find us on Facebook
Q. Finally, we ask all our interviewees; outside of work what do you like to do to unwind/burn up energy?
I have a lovely wife and 3 gorgeous kids to keep me busy! To burn energy I am sports and fitness mad. I swim, cycle and run and love football, badminton and golf. I have completed 4 marathons and became an IronMan triathlete in July 2015. This year, I’m running the Paris and London Marathon’s as well as my first 62 mile UltraMarathon (London to Brighton). I’m also back for more Ironman UK pain!
Produced by the IMA, Quarterly Account is the only professional journal written for the money advice sector. The publication keeps you informed of what is going on in the money advice world and how it impacts both advisers and clients. Quarterly Account ensures that you are up-to-date with any recent developments in legislation, case-law and policy relating to debt.