The Seafarers Advice and Information Line (SAIL) is 25 years old today. Launched on 24 September 1996 by the Seafarers Hospital Society and originally known as the Seafarers Benefits Advice Line (SBAL), it was a new telephone helpline service for seafarers operating under the umbrella of the nationally acclaimed Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) service.
SBAL opened for business with just two advisers, one full-time and one part-time, and an administrator. In the first year they dealt with 1,181 problems for 491 clients and gained £56,000 on their behalf. Now there are 10 advisers (equivalent to eight full time posts) and last year they dealt with 1,748 clients. The number of issues tackled has increased more than five-fold and money raised on behalf of clients hit an all-time high of close to £2.3m in 2020. This includes debt write-offs, rescheduled debt repayments, charitable grants and benefit entitlement.
“That’s a resounding success,” said Sandra Welch, CEO of the Society. “We’re so proud of the service and everything they’ve achieved for clients in the past 25 years. When the Society decided to set up the service in 1996 it was on a trial basis but once it got going there was never any doubt that we needed to continue with the funding. In 2016 further funding was provided by The Seafarers Charity and Greenwich Hospital and the service expanded significantly.”
The new service was launched on 24 September 1996 on board HQS Wellington – the Headquarters Ship of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners – moored on the Thames. The Rt. Hon. John Prescott MP, himself an ex-merchant seaman, was guest of honour and said:
“This helpline is great news and will be a tremendous boost for seafarers and their families. I know from personal experience how people at sea can become isolated, feeling there is no one to turn to deal with their problems.”
Since then the service has gone from strength to strength and is regarded as an essential element in the network of support available to the seafaring community. It is now managed by Citizens Advice Greenwich (formerly Eltham CAB) and funded by SHS, The Seafarers Charity and Greenwich Hospital.
In the past 25 years the problems presented by clients have become increasingly complex and time-consuming and the depth and breadth of the service provided has grown as a result. Miles Cowley, SAIL manager explained:
“On a day-to-day basis welfare benefits, debt, employment and housing problems continue to dominate and much of SAIL’s advice and casework includes negotiation with third parties on behalf of clients. Debt now takes up a significant proportion of our caseload and is both time-consuming and complex.”
There is no doubt that the need for SAIL’s services will continue to grow as the pressure on seafarers and their families increases. Emma Knight, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Greenwich said:
“Over the next few months we expect to see an increased demand for our services as government-funded Covid support is withdrawn. The loss of the Universal Credit uplift and the end of furlough will adversely affect those on a low income and seafarers will be very badly hit. Our role in helping people to reduce their debt and maximise their income will be more important than ever before as we recover from the trauma of the last 18 months.”