The Story of
The Citizens' Advice Bureaux



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The bureau workers are the heart of the CAB service, but a heart needs a body to function in if it is to be effective. The local body is normally a local self-governing unit - the bureau management committee, which gives practical expression to the principle that a CAB is organised by the community, for the community. A service working in so many different types of place, from large industrial centres to small country towns and rural areas, with varied resources and greater or less opportunities, needs to be so organised that each bureau is free to serve its own locality in its own way. At the same time, each bureau works within the general framework of the policies and principles of a national service. One of the first of these is that the CAB should serve the community as a whole; giving information and advice that is disinterested, well-balanced and divorced from propaganda of any kind. The best guarantee of this independence and impartiality is a management committee made up of citizens of diverse interests representing the voluntary and statutory services in the area, together with a few concerned individuals. These ensure also the full understanding and support of the neighbourhood for the bureau's work, and are able to help in practical ways with finding premises and equipment for the office, recruiting workers and making the service widely known.

For example, a typical bureau set up in the early days, through the initiative of a small town's Rotary Club, had as committee chairman the editor of a respected county paper, as treasurer a local bank manager; and among the members the manager of the employment exchange, an estate agent who was able to lend part of a house for offices, and the proprietor of a retail store who gave some furniture; a Congregational minister in good relations with all the churches around; a lawyer, a borough councillor, a trade unionist, and representatives of voluntary organisations - the Red Cross, British Legion, Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families Association, diocesan Moral Welfare Association.

That kind of pattern still holds good a quarter of a century later, ensuring stability and continuity for its bureau, and making a focus for the community's welfare resources and development. It is the normal pattern, although it has never been universal. In some larger towns the bureau began, and usually continues, as a function of the local council of social service or casework agency which is then responsible for its organisation and administration, usually through a special CAB committee of similarly representative composition. In the war, when it was important to have very wide coverage for unforeseeable emergencies, a few bureaux were almost 'one-man shows', kept going by two or three devoted people who resigned themselves to having little to do there unless some new phase of the war should send a new wave of troubles in their direction. And from the first some bureaux were an integral part of the local authority services.

In a few places the service has suffered from the fact that it had to be set up in a hurry to meet an emergency without enough time for laying solid foundations. Today it takes several months to get a bureau established. Leading citizens are consulted before any decision is made and the opportunity is given at a representative promotional meeting, called usually by the chief citizen, for a thorough appraisal of the need and the best ways of meeting it, before a resolution is passed to set up a bureau. Then a steering committee goes into all the practical details such as premises, finance and the selection and basic training of the first team of workers and their organiser.

This steering committee has before it from the beginning the conditions laid down by the national committee for the registration of individual bureaux, so that in spite of local variations certain minimum standards may be achieved, such as the fully representative nature of the committee, the frequency of its meetings, the impartiality of the service, the quality and training of the workers, the adequacy of the hours of opening, and premises which will be acceptable to and inspire confidence in every member of the community.

Relations with local authorities have always been one of the most important factors in the CAB service. A great many of the questions and problems concern services or regulations administered by the local authority, brought to the bureau rather than (or in addition to) the council officers because the enquirers do not know who is responsible or because they misunderstand or mistrust 'those people at the town hall'; and the local authority officers are usually glad to have their work explained to the citizen without trouble to themselves or to have the individual's point of view explained to them. The large majority of local authorities warmly welcomed the CABx quickly set up in their areas in the war, and gave them help in kind - premises, lighting, heating, etc., or in money by way of grant under their Civil Defence powers, or both. Some also provided information centres entirely concerned with their own services, side by side with a CAB which they were aiding. Some preferred to run a general information and advice centre of their own. As a matter of principle there has always been some doubt whether a wholly free and unbiased service could be given in this way but in fact there have been some bureaux maintained by local authorities as part of their administration which have had freedom to do excellent work in accordance with CAB policy and have taken their full part as units in the national service, sharing in training, in collecting information for headquarters on special problems, in making regular returns on numbers and kinds of questions, and in generally developing the, service.

At the end of the war the government appeared to give impetus to local authority provision of advice centres by deciding that arrangements for giving information about the services available within the area of an authority, 'provided either by the authority or by other authorities or by government departments', were not only of great importance but were clearly the responsibility of the local authority to provide. Throughout the war the government had recognised the support of the CAB service as largely a national responsibility and had made to the National Council of Social Service annually through the Ministry of Health a dual purpose grant: to help in setting up and maintaining local bureaux, and to meet a major part of the costs of the central and regional services which the National Council provided for CABx. In 1945 the former grant was entirely discontinued, though the Ministry of Health circular 197/45 urging local authorities to provide information centres gave them at the same time provisional powers to do so through a voluntary agency which they could grant-aid for the purpose, and the Local Government Act, 1948, confirmed this power. Certainly as a result of the circular some authorities chose to provide their own service, but many of them were so much convinced of the value of an independent bureau that in the year 1947-48 the CAB central committee was able to report that the 567 bureaux then in the field were receiving more help from local authorities in money and kind, and in general co-operation, than the 639 bureaux had had in 1946; and a year later to say that, apart from the considerable number of authorities taking full financial responsibility for bureaux, something like 35,000 a year in cash grants alone were being made to CABx. This was obviously a very tangible tribute to the service as a whole, and a result not only of the good work of the bureaux but also of the good relations which, through their committees and their staff, they were at pains to cultivate with their local authorities.

In this way the sense of responsibility of local bureaux for the organisation as well as for the day-to-day work was growing all the time. It was more severely tested by the next government move. Certain grant-aid for central and regional services had been continued year by year in the early post-war period, but at the beginning of 1950, at the time of severe economy cuts in all government services, this grant was withdrawn completely, on the ground that local authorities could now contribute to headquarters as well as local bureau funds if they so wished. Somehow CAB headquarters contrived to keep up the regular supply of information to the bureaux; to maintain their good, though financially unfruitful, contacts with government departments; to improve still more their close relations with the associations of local authorities and with an informed group of members of parliament; and generally to keep the central services alive and in touch with the widely scattered local bureaux.

But both these central services and the field services had to be drastically cut. Most of the CAB travelling officers, who had been the support and guide of the committees and staff of bureaux in their regions from the beginning, had to go. The staff at headquarters was reduced to a minimum; and a great deal of the time of those who remained was spent on devising plans to keep the service not only alive but in touch with the needs of society which, like the CAB movement, was at a difficult period of its history. At the conference in 1950, held just after the notification of the withdrawal of all government grant-aid, two questions vital to the organisation of the service in those present conditions were chiefly discussed; what financial contribution could the bureaux themselves make towards their central services; and to what extent could the bureaux, in co-operation with, for example, rural community councils or local councils of social service, or by county or regional groupings, make good the gaps in training, general guidance, and promotion which the loss of the field officers would leave?

The answers which CAB workers gave to these questions over the next three or four difficult years proved how fully they felt theniselves committed to a national service, with a shared responsibility for its maintenance and development. So far as money was concerned, some small bureaux were never able to find even the modest annual sum agreed upon, but most bureaux managed to raise their quota, and several gave generous contributions well in excess of this, often as the result of much personal effort added to their normal CAB work. As to the standard of work, the local bureaux showed remarkable initiative and tenacity. In one or two areas a single experienced CAB undertook to act as a central bureau for the county, to which the smaller ones and those dealing with a lesser volume of work could look for help over problems of special difficulty. In other areas the bureaux themselves serviced a county or regional CAB committee which could discuss local or national policy questions, arrange training days or conferences, and partly replace that important link with headquarters which the field officers had formerly provided.

These county and regional committees - advisory not executive groups - which include representatives of the CABx in the area and other organisations, and individuals with a contribution to make to the local service, indeed grew in importance with the curtailment for a time of central services. The idea of them had come early in the war when CAB workers in a locality had asked for some machinery for relating their experience with that of workers in other districts. The central committee had long consisted largely of people appointed by the regional advisory committees; and in 1950 it adopted a new name - the National Citizens' Advice Bureaux Committee - and a new constitution giving greater predominance to members representing local CABx, in order to mark recognition of the fact that the CAB service had taken its place as a permanent national service but that, to use the words already spoken as long ago as 1945 by the then national secretary of the movement: 'It is upon you and not upon us in London that the movement stands or falls.'

None the less, the importance of the headquarters organisation also increased with the development of the service, and with its difficulties. That speech in 1945 had put 'ensuring unity of purpose' as the first function of headquarters; and as the opportunities open to CABx grew and the machinery for their guidance and support diminished, this became even more essential. Setting a standard to be aimed at by the very great variety of bureaux working in different kinds of places is an equally important responsibility of the national committee, and from the early days a system of'approval', later changed to 'registration', has been in force, with increasingly exacting conditions. It took longer to achieve a model constitution which could be used by every bureau from the smallest to the largest, but this was a necessary objective when it became obvious that CABx were to be a permanent feature of the country's social structure. The adoption of the approved constitution confirms the charitable status of the bureau and ensures its inclusion in the registers of the Charity Commission - those registers which, since the passing of the Charities Act in 1960, are expected when complete to provide a comprehensive guide to all the charitable organisations in this country.

But headquarters have always recognised that the CAB service must be flexibly organised if it is to be brought within reach of everyone who might need it, and perhaps the achievement of flexibility should be regarded as their second function. For example, they realised that the needs of country people for information and advice are as great as those of townspeople and that their problems require as much skill and experience to handle; but that the small number of enquiries in anyone place, the shortage of suitable staff, and the countryman's general distaste for letting his neighbour see that he has a problem on which he is seeking advice, produce special difficulties of organisation. The help of rural community councils, of bureaux in market towns, and of 'traditional advisers' in the villages - clergy, doctors, teachers, nurses - has been useful in providing various kinds of advisory services in such places. But little could have been done without the policies worked out by headquarters over the years, and more especially their series of experiments with 'local CAB links' in close touch with experienced bureaux in nearby towns; with regular bulletins giving a brief guide to new information available at such bureaux; with mobile caravan bureaux; imaginative publicity; travelling advisers, and so on, made possible by grant-aid for five years (1957-62) from the Camegie United Kingdom Trust.

The unanimous conclusion reached as a result of all these experiments was that if the countryman was not to be palmed off with a second class service there was no short cut, and the only way to serve him adequately was to ensure that there was a fully-fledged CAB either within his reach or with facilities for visiting him, and that he should be made aware of this. So now when new bureaux are being established, representatives of the rural communities surrounding the town are brought into consultation from the beginning to ensure that the new service is geared as much to the needs of the countryman as to those of the town dweller, and that there is enough money in the budget to pay the travelling expenses of bureau workers visiting house-bound enquirers.

Relations of confidence with national trusts such as the Carnegie grant for rural experiments shows; with central government departments, with the headquarters of professional organisations and of voluntary societies, represent a third aspect of headquarters' work which for importance should perhaps take first place though in fact it would not exist without the other two. For it is because the national committee have been able to ensure unity of purpose in a diversity of independent bodies and to set a standard of excellence for a wide variety of practice that the citizens' advice bureaux have become a national organisation which can speak on equal terms with those other national institutions: which can, for example, discuss policy with the Ministry of Housing or the Ministry of Health; cooperate with The Law Society in the administration of the state legal aid scheme; work with the National Association for Mental Health on helping the public to understand the new attitudes to mental disorder; win the assistance of a university social science department to plan training for voluntary workers and of a great charitable trust to finance the experiment.

By this date the standing of the CAB service is obviously such that it has no need of the sign of public approval that government grant can give, but the renewal in 1960 of grant for the central services after a lapse of ten years, though in token form, was welcome not only as much needed financial aid. In the same way the government decision in 1963, following the recommendation of the Molony Committee, to invite CABx to play a large part in the new programme of consumer education and advice, with the help of a grant from the Board of Trade, was accepted both as another duty and as another recognition of the partnership between the state and the citizens' advice bureaux service which has become an essential feature of the welfare society.

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