80 Years of service in Westminster
The Citizens Advice Bureaux make the world appear to many citizens in distress to contain some element of reason and friendship. The adviser at a Citizens Advice Bureau is only a fellow citizen with time and knowledge and, if he is worthy of his position, with infinite patience.’ Lord Beveridge, 1948.
Citizens Advice celebrates its 80th anniversary on 4 September 2019 when the bureau in Westminster was one of the first 200 opened on 4 September 1939 as a front-line emergency wartime service.
The idea of a locally-based service offering advice to citizens can be traced back to the 1924 Betterton Report on Public Assistance. With war looming, in 1938 the National Council of Social Services examined how to meet the needs of the civilian population in wartime. Its conclusion was that ‘Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB) should be established throughout the country, particularly in the large cities and industrial areas where social disorganisation may be acute’.
On 4 September 1939, the day after war began, 200 offices opened as an emergency service; some 80 across the London area, among them Westminster, Paddington, Pimlico, and Marylebone. By 1995 these separate offices were unified as Westminster CAB Service.
In its 7th September 1939 edition, the Manchester Guardian noted:
“The function of the civilian advice Bureau will be to act as a clearing house for information and advice for the benefit of civilians who are faced with special difficulties and problems as a result of wartime dislocation of normal life. It is expected that these difficulties will fall into two main categories: those arising out of the dislocation or diversion to defence purposes of the normal health and relieving agencies, public social services, medical personnel and charitable.’
Most of the initial bureaux were run by people of standing in the community, usually the likes of the clergy, doctors, bank managers, and social workers, all of them volunteers. They were run from houses, town halls, libraries and churches. Even horse boxes were converted for use as mobile offices that were more able to get into bomb damaged areas where the need was greatest.
Bureaux stocked a variety of leaflets and explained everything from rationing and Red Cross messages to war damage relief. Some of the most complex problems involved finding lost relatives who had been in a bombed area. Family incomes were dramatically reduced when fathers, husbands and sons were called up, so advice was needed on repairing clothes and radios, and even preparing meals with the few ingredients available on rationing. Common among them were problems concerning rationing, evacuees, permits, wartime regulations, the location of missing relatives (often working together with organisations like the Red Cross), prisoners of war, and debt (common then as now because many household incomes were drastically reduced by conscription), as well as war damage claims and rehousing issues brought about by the destruction of homes and property.
By 1942, there were 1,074 bureaux in a wide range of improvised offices such as cafes, church halls and private homes. By the end of the war it was commonly acknowledged that the Citizens Advice Bureaux had more than fulfilled their original expectations. However government funding was less readily available in peacetime, and by 1953 the number of bureaux across the UK had halved to some 415. In some areas the continued existence of the CAB service was only possible because of the support of charitable trusts such as the Nuffield Foundation, the Carnegie Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Government funding did not start again until seven years later in 1960, due to the huge number of queries caused by the Rent Act of 1957. And in 1973, the government funded NACAB, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, to enlarge the network and then doubled its funding in 1979.
Since 2003, the operating name of the NACAB changed to Citizens Advice. In the same year Citizens Advice became the first advice sector organisation to begin to audit the quality of their advice.
For a detailed overview of the history of the national Citizens Advice click here.
Since its wartime origin 80 years ago, it has evolved and adapted its services in response to changing social conditions and new legislation. It is now a national network of 300 independent charities delivering services with 30,000 staff including 19,000 volunteers. In 2017/18 it dealt with 2.6m problems, received 25m visits to the national website, and delivered £2.6bn of direct financial benefit to society.
While many of the issues it dealt with during the war such as housing, homelessness, landlord and tenant, bailiffs, squalor, debt and evictions are still evident, its services have evolved in response to changing social conditions, new legislation and the impact of technology. Its wide-ranging advice service now includes consumer protection, pensions advice, money advice and the witness support service. It not only provides crisis debt advice, but also education and training to improve financial literacy to minimise the risk of people falling into debt. The support provided by local pro bono solicitors giving specialist legal advice helps fill the gaps in access to justice caused by the reductions in legal aid and the emergence of legal advice deserts across the country. More recently it has joined other organisations to educate citizens at risk from the onslaught of digital on-line threats, such as scams, cyber crime and identity fraud. From the early days of solely face-to-face client interviews, its service delivery model has also changed using the benefits of digital access via email, and the website to provide 24 hour access to detailed information and also via an improved telephone Adviceline and now online web chat.
Over the years it has supported clients during the so-called credit crunch and recession of the 1980s, the launch of decimal currency, the poll tax, council tax, successive changes to the benefits system and new legislation related to employment, immigration and housing/landlord and tenant relations.
One of its joint aims is to influence and campaign for change when laws and public practices are unfair or unreasonable. The front-line data it collects on clients’ problems provides powerful and indisputable evidence with which to lobby central and local government. Most recently its Universal Credit (UC) campaign led to some improvements in the process. Similar success stories include the cap on Payday loan interest and tighter regulation, the reduction in employment tribunal fees, the introduction of the tenancy deposit scheme and the new Tenants’ Fees Act.
In Westminster, the local Citizens Advice office’s ‘Putting It Right’ campaign is a powerful local initiative challenging local agencies in cases of unfairness and poor procedure to deliver benefits for both the individual client and to secure future improvement for the good of the wider client group.
Citizens Advice Westminster
The London Council of Social Services and the National Council of Social Services jointly established some 80 Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB) in every borough in London by the time of the outbreak of war in 1939.
There were initially 4 branches in Westminster. Westminster opened on 2 September 1939 at premises provided by St Martin’s in the Fields, Trafalgar Square. It moved to Charing Cross Road in 1941 and to Covent Garden in 1993; renamed Covent Garden CAB. Paddington CAB opened in Gloucester Gardens in 1939 and moved to Harrow Road in 1948. Pimlico (pictured) opened on 1 March 1948 in Lupus Street and St Marylebone branch in Edgware Road.
The CAB proved to be so useful that the service was continued after the end of the war. The Family Welfare Association (FWA) became responsible for inner London and the London Council of Social Services for Greater London. This situation remained until 1976 when the organisation became independent as NACAB.
Since then the management and structure has evolved through the emergence of the Greater London Citizens Advice Bureau (GLCAB) in 1972 as central employer to all London staff, and the receipt of core funding from Westminster City Council at the start of the 1990s. In 1995 Citizens Advice Westminster was incorporated and a local management committee took over with increased managerial and financial responsibilities and core funding from Westminster City Council, supplemented by grants from charitable funds and the National Lottery.
The 1990s were a period of evolution, governance change and consolidation with a number of moves to larger and better premises. A new Pimlico office was formally opened by HRH The Princess Royal in October 1995. This office also welcomed the High Commissioner for Mauritius and a delegation from Lithuania on a fact-finding visit to help them set up or improve advice services in their countries. Covent Garden was closed in 1998, with staff relocated to the other Westminster bureaux and Marylebone closed in 2001. Westminster CAB launched its own website in 1998 to provide an alternative method to the mainstream face-to-face and telephone services.
After 40 years in Harrow Road and 70 in Pimlico, Westminster CAB opened its new office in Conduit Place, Paddington which was officially launched by the Lord Mayor of Westminster, Councillor Angela Harvey on 5 September 2012. The larger and more pleasant working conditions for both staff and clients also meant that it could increase its opening hours from 16 to 24 hours a week, resulting in a 50 per cent increase in opening time, 25 per cent increase in telephone calls and 22 new volunteers, enabling full advice service in summer periods.
Issues and services
In cataloguing the changing problems and advice services over the years, it can be seen that many of those that clients faced at the start of the war were unique and of the time, but many are still evident today such as poverty, debt, disrepair, housing costs, low incomes, bailiffs, homelessness and hunger.
The report of a CAB worker in the Southwark annual report at the start of the war describes what volunteers were faced with as the London bureaux opened to the public: “We attended classes on air-raid precautions and first aid including advice on how to deal with panic in shelters and delivering a baby. The first air-raid warning on a Sunday was a false alarm but then our work began, joining a crowded office interviewing, rather timidly, in holes and corners and passages among the routine work going on in a Family Welfare Office”.
She reports that “…clothes rationing nearly overwhelmed us. Issues ranged from lost pets, including two hedgehogs, to a prisoner who had not received replies from his wife fearing her to have been bombed out, an abandoned baby and one request asking – do I get egg rations if my hens stop laying!”
An article in the 50th anniversary annual report of Westminster CAB refers to actual client issues recorded by a wartime adviser:
“Rooms damaged by a blast and uninhabitable. Does she still have to pay rent as does not think landlord will do urgent repairs. She still goes every day to feed the cat. Unable to have it destroyed as animal clinic has been bombed.”
“Client lost husband and daughter in a raid and lost all money and badly needs spectacles. Daughter is still buried under debris. As husband was Italian she is affected by the Aliens Restriction Act so cannot travel to new location without permit.”
The challenges faced by clients since then have been driven by the changes to legislation and economic and social change.
The 1965/66 Pimlico bureau annual report entry notes: “Landlord and tenant problems brought about by the 1965 Rent Act, evictions and procedure for fair rents. Also enquiries on hire purchase, education and training, consumer problems, insurance and continuing issues for ex-servicemen”.
During the recession of the 1980s, social security enquiries dominated and high unemployment levels fuelled consumer debt. Housing benefit was an ongoing issue.
In 1995-96 several new pieces of legislation had a major impact on clients. The introduction of Incapacity Benefit to replace both Sickness Benefit and Invalidity Benefit led to many clients being refused benefit under the new rules. In October 1995 changes to Income Support regulations affected housing costs as it changed the rules on the payment of mortgage interest.
In 1997/98 council tax issues were particularly acute in Westminster leading to increased income support claims, but lobbying by the national Citizens Advice resulted in existing claimants being allowed to continue to receive 100 per cent Council Tax benefit as before.
In her first annual report as Westminster Citizens Advice CEO in 2005/06, Shirley Springer (pictured) reported on the onset of the battle with legal aid cuts and introduced a theme of Access to Justice. The bureau also launched a Racial Harassment and Discrimination Unit and joined the formation of the Westminster Partnership for Racial Equality. This was also the launch year of the Westminster City Council funded unique Licensing Project to support residents concerned about the impact on their local community caused by local licensed premises and other entertainment venues.
In its 70 anniversary year 2008/09, the Prime Minister Gordon Brown and housing minister Margaret Beckett visited the Pimlico office. The PM was particularly interested in the plight of one client whose sub-prime lender had raised his interest rate from 6 to 11 per cent leaving him unable to make payments, but our advice line had helped him resolve the problem. We also received a congratulatory message from Mr Brown and from the other two main party leaders David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Gordon Brown commented that, “ …..we have listened carefully to your experts before acting to help those who have been particularly affected by the credit crisis”.
That year the Westminster service also piloted the new Gateway assessment approach whereby volunteer assessors would make an initial exploration of a client’s problems to determine the best way forward, whether by self-help or intervention by an adviser through advice or casework.
In February 2010, a new partnership was established with Westminster being a founder member of the Westminster Advice Forum, set up to act as a catalyst for developing a strong and coherent voice for the advice sector locally. As a result of Westminster’s successful bid to the council to deliver its advice services contract, the Westminster Advice Services Partnership was set up in 2013, with Age UK and the Migrant Resources Centre, now renamed Consonant. The partnership brought together three organisations with a wealth of expertise, skills and experience of delivering advice services across the different Westminster communities, with the aim of addressing their specific and diverse needs.
In 2016, Citizens Advice Westminster (the new operating name of Westminster ) joined local colleagues and other charities to support those affected by the Grenfell Tower tragedy. And in November 2017, the EU Helpline was launched to give advice to EU nationals living in Westminster.
In 2017/18, we helped over 12,000 clients solve 25,000 problems and achieved £3.2m in successful financial outcomes for local people.
Impartial and independent
A final comment from Lord Denning, then Lord Justice of Appeal, speaking at a Citizens Advice annual conference in 1957. He encapsulates the complex relationship that exists between Citizens Advice and the state and public funders to maintain the essence of its guiding principles of beingconfidential,impartial and independent. He described Citizens Advice as being: “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”.