A Guide to the Functions of the Citizens Advice Bureau

The Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB) exists to help people with problems across a broad spectrum. Their stated aim is to “…provide the advice people need for the problems they face and improve the policies and practices that affect people’s lives.” This can be legal, financial and emotional advice and support.

One of the most important factors relating to the CAB is that they are an independent service and can provide completely impartial, confidential advice and support on all the problems brought through their doors.The other important point for many people is that the service is completely free and open to everyone.The CAB aims to promote equality, challenge discrimination and value diversity.

The Citizen’s Advice Bureau came into being as an offshoot of the government’s social welfare programme in the 1930s. On September 4 1939 the first 20 branches opened with the remit of meeting the needs of a wartime population, and “…should be established throughout the country, particularly in the large cities and industrial areas where social disorganisation may be acute.”

Then, as today, debt was one of the biggest issues, although the offices dealt with a wide variety of problems, including locating loved ones, lost ration books and evacuation issues. The number of CAB branches, often run out of private homes and local amenities, hit a peak in 1942 at 1074, but has since declined through both erratic funding and fluctuating social need.

In 1999 adviceguide.org.uk was launched, allowing people to access help 24/7 via the internet. This linked directly into another guiding principal of the CAB; the importance of people learning how to help themselves. Self-help is a basic skill which the CAB actively promotes when offering guidance to people who come to them for help.

Adding to the accessibility of their services, the CAB took on external visits for those who could not attend a branch and also expanded the language range for Adviceguide, opening it up to speakers of Urdu, Chinese, Welsh, Punjabi, Gujarati and Bengali. Another vital point the CAB is very keen to promote and offer is being able to access free legal advice for those who have no means to pay for solicitors or general legal help.

According to the latest figures on the CAB website, in 2010/11 there were 3,400 CAB locations run by 22,000 volunteers – mostly unpaid – and traffic to the self-help Adviceguide site had reason to 11 million hits.

Taking a look at a CAB document, “Introduction to the Citizen’s Advice Service” it becomes clear exactly how wide ranging the help and advice offered is and needs to be. A breakdown of problems dealt with in England and Wales alone covers sixteen separate problem areas which generated over 7000 different issues in a year. These ranged from debt and benefits, through housing, education, immigration and tax to family, health and consumer services issues.

All of this work is done by volunteers, 20% of whom are under 25 and a further 20% are from minority groups which aids accessibility to the help available by opening up language and cultural barriers. The CAB also produces a variety of leaflets which are posted out, placed in libraries, doctors surgeries, hospitalsand general places of social contact. The idea of the leaflets is not only to tell people what they do, but also to give some sound, simple advice which could prevent a problem occurring through the benefit of foreknowledge.

The CAB is a great campaigner, especially in terms of social justice, access to rights and advice for all, helping people avoid greater debt by educating them about the pitfalls of payday loan services and also working alongside but independently of, government and local service providers. They are currently involved in such diverse campaigns as raising awareness of the Equality Act 2010, fuel poverty in Wales, stopping scam crime and are against harassment by bailiffs.

The Citizen’s Advice Bureau is a vital point of contact, a buffer of knowledge between the little man and the often impersonal and unforgiving world of debt, financial hardship and legal confusion. Without them 2 million people a year would go without the advice and support they are actually entitled to.