Happened upon a booklet the other day which explained some of the fascinating history of the Citizens Advice movement. As we still have a CAB in Bude (based at Neetside), I thought people may like to hear a little more about the movement.
It’s origins were as an emergency War service, in an attempt to serve the needs of civilian populations “throughout the country, particularly in the large cities and industrial areas where social disorganisation may be acute”. One day after war was declared, 200 bureaux opened their doors. The standard of these varied widely, being run from front rooms and even horse boxes, but now there is a standardised advice service with a sophisticated advice system, though the service continues to largely be staffed by committed and well-trained volunteers. Despite tough times in terms of changing need, and indeed funding, bureaux continued to operate post war and were rewarded with a Government grant in 1960, for its services “rendered to the community”.
Each epoch in time led to particular advice challenges. In 1940/41, for example, the Blitz and associated bomb attacks caused many problems in cities, so war damage claims and rationing generated many thousands of enquiries. People also wanted to trace relatives who had been ‘bombed out’ during the war. In the 1940s/50s, the advent of the NHS also led to numerous questions as did the 1957 Rent Act which lifted rent restrictions. By the 1960s, homelessness had grown due to rocketing rents and removal of agreements. The Divorce Reform Act also generated loads of enquiries. By the 1970s, it was introduction of redundancies, meaning contracts could be terminated not just for conduct or competence, but also for economic reasons, which led to a lot of questions from the public, as did the formation of the Office of Fair Trading and consumer rights. By the 1980s, the big issues were recession, and the obivous debt and benefit enquiries which remain prevalent during the current recession. In the 1990s, the big questions related to Disability Discrimination, changing employment patterns and asylum. By the 2000s, freely available credit and a shortage of affordable housing had led to unprededented levels of UK debt (and we’ve recently heard that Devon/Cornwall currently has extremely high debt levels). Reclamation of overpaid tax credits also caused problems.
The work of Citizens Advice was not just to help individuals resolve problems. It was also an oppotunity to spot nationwide trends and pick up on issues, an arm of the charity’s work called ‘social policy’,which aims to bring evidence-based information to the attention of those in power, to attempt to prevent or solve them. There have been decades of social policy successes by CAB: in the 1940s, extra clothing coupons for pregnant women were granted. In the 1950s, conumer protection came to the fore. The 1960s focus was on rate increases and relief. 1970s consumer problems moved on to Housing Benefit amendments in the 1980s. The 1990s led to the regulation of private bailiffs and on it goes.
One thing is for sure: the need for Citizens Advice will not go away. With the welfare reforms currently on the agenda and the introduction of Universal Ceredit forthcoming, the need for the service will be greater than ever. Bude is very lucky still to have a service in the area which remains well supported by client numbers despite the service being reduced due to funding cuts.