Many people have tried to define the rôle of the citizens' advice bureau in its partnership with the state. Guides to the ignorant - said the Lord Chancellor at the 1959 conference - through the complicated paths of the law, who influence the law itself by their experience. Mr. Evangelist who told Christian plainly on his Pilgrim's Progress, said Lord Denning, that Mr. Legality 'never had any power to remove burdens such as thine art and never will have', and, who took his burdens from him and set him again on the right way. Ambassadors between the ordinary citizen and the Whitehall and local authority experts, said Mr. Butler when he was Home Secretary. These are all different facets of the same piece of work, which should have shown through this brief history from its beginning.
First comes the guide to the ignorant through the complicated paths of the law; and who is not ignorant nowadays about some at least of the patchwork of distinct but interrelated rules and regulations that govern our welfare from the cradle to the grave? And if he knows the rule, how can he be sure whether it applies in his case, which seems to him to be a little different from the common run; and, if not, why should it not be stretched for his benefit; and what is the sense of it all anyway? The guide has not only the responsibility of knowing the rules, how they overlap and interplay and may occasionally be modified or adapted, but also of explaining the sense of them to the disgruntled and sometimes of reminding him that there are two sides to a bargain, and that the obligations do not all lie on the other side, whether it is the pensions office, the hire purchase trader, the local housing office, or whatever it may be.
Look at the guide from a slightly different angle, as provider of advice as well as information, and there is Bunyan's Mr. Evangelist who set Christian again on the right way or, in the official CAB wording: 'helps the citizen to benefit from and to use wisely the services provided for him by the state'. Perhaps Evangelist's task was the easier of the two for he could see at a glance the size and shape of the burdens that kept Christian back, but the CAB worker often has no such clear view of the modern citizen's burden. Someone once said that he thought an essential part of CAB training should be a study of the poem about King John when he threatened the Abbot of Canterbury with death unless he could answer three questions, the third of which was: 'you must tell me quite clearly what I do think.' Often the bureau worker has to try to interpret the enquirer's own real thoughts to him before beginning to find the answer.
Then there is the CAB worker as ambassador between the ordinary citizen and the Whitehall and local government experts. The first task is to give information to the citizen and to explain what that means to him in terms of his own position; but it may be equally important to give information about him (if he agrees) to the expert, who may not have all the facts of his case or may have misunderstood them; or who may, with the intervention of a responsible third party, see that something can properly be done to help him after all. And not only in the individual case; bureau workers may 'influence the law itself by their experience'. As the then Home Secretary frankly said at the 1959 CAB conference: 'Whilst all of us in public work are there because we are interested in the social improvement of our people, we differ from you in that we have so little intimate knowledge of these subjects.' The bureau workers have that intimate knowledge. Whenever a new scheme for 'the social improvement of our people' starts to work, or a long established one begins to show wear and tear, scores of bureaux all over the country tell headquarters where they find that the new shoe pinches or the old one is losing its good fit. From the early war days when the government asked CABx to tell them of 'rumours calculated to create alarm and despondency' or of hardships for special categories of people under clothes rationing, until today when they need to know about the detailed results of housing policies or the effect on individual patients of the divisions in the health service, the authorities central and local have come to rely a great deal on the bureaux' intimate knowledge of the needs of the citizen and the shortcomings of the law, so that they may know what things have to be put right.
Such are the major roles of the citizens' advice bureaux. What are the characteristics which help them to carry these through?
The first is no doubt the independence and impartiality of the CAB service as a whole and of each bureau in its own place and cirumstances. The CAB is the Third Party, the Mutual Friend, on equally good terms with the citizen and those who govern or serve him and having the confidence of both. It is, as Lord Denning once said, 'supported indeed by the state but not controlled by it; supported by local authorities but not controlled by them, and I hope, like the law, never to be controlled by any public authority.' The bureau has also another freedom: the freedom from those restrictions inevitably imposed on actions for which the community as a whole is fully responsible. Bureau workers are rational, cautious, fully aware of their public duty, but CAB work springs from a private initiative and is free to experiment, to battle for the border-line hard cases, to find ways of helping the exceptional and the odd-man-out.
That care and sympathy for the individual is another characteristic quality of CAB work. 'The Bureau', wrote Lord Beveridge long ago in Voluntary Action, 'makes the world appear to many citizens in distress to contain some element of reason and friendship.'
But the bureau worker does not do this at the expense of the authorities. He has the understanding and respect for the 'powers-that-be' which comes from close acquaintance with their representatives on the spot and with the principles that direct them, and he helps his enquirer, if he can, to see the 'element of reason and friendship' there as well as in the bureau.
For the CAB aims to integrate, combining the parts into a whole, not to divide. It does not as a rule take one side or another, because it sees the sides as different parts of a single pattern. This is often a complicated pattern made up, perhaps, of two people's different rights or wishes, and not only of related statutory provisions or restrictions but of the contribution of other local voluntary societies or people with special skills or gifts which may help. This ability, through knowledge and experience, to draw all these people and things into play to resolve a particular dilemma is one of the characteristics of the CAB service which may bring to mind again, in a different context, the suggested war-time motto: 'We're all in it together.'