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A Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) is one of a network of independent charities throughout the UK that give free, confidential information and advice to help people with their money, legal, consumer and other problems.
The twin aims of the Citizens Advice service are:
Trained advisers help write letters, make phone calls, negotiate with creditors and represent clients at tribunals and courts.
The origins of the modern Citizens Advice service can be traced back to the Betterton Report on Public Assistance from 1924.This report recommended that advice centres should be set up to offer members of the public advice to help them with their problems. During the 1930s, as preparations and plans were drawn up for the possibility of war, the role that the voluntary sector should have was determined. The National Council for Social Service (NCSS) called a meeting in 1938 in which plans to establish 'Citizens Aid Bureaux' were devised in the event of war.
The first 200 bureaux opened on 4 September 1939, four days after World War II started. Many of these initial bureaux were run by 'people of standing' in the community, for example the local bank manager. By 1942, there were 1,074 bureaux in a wide range of improvised offices such as cafes, church halls, private homes and air raid shelters. Mobile offices also became important in ensuring that people could access advice. Many of the issues dealt with during that time were directly related to the war. These included the tracing of missing servicemen or prisoners of war, evacuations, pensions and other allowances.
Many war time bureaux closed at the end of the war, although it was apparent that there was still a need for the services that had been established. A particular problem was the chronic housing shortage in the years immediately following the end of the war. In the 1950s, the funding was cut and by 1960 there were only 415 bureaux. In 1972, The Citizens Advice service became independent. Before then, the national organisation was part of NCSS (National Council of Social Services) and most bureaux were run by the local CVS (Council for Voluntary Service).
In 1973, the government funded NACAB, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, to enlarge the network. In 2003, this changed its name to Citizens Advice (in England and Northern Ireland) and Cyngor ar Bopeth or "Advice on everything" (in Wales).
In 2003, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux (NACAB) changed its name to Citizens Advice. In Wales, it was renamed Citizens Advice Cymru (Cyngor ar bopeth Cymru).
In 2008/9, there were 416 member bureaux offering advice from over 3,300 locations in England and Wales and a further 22 bureaux in Northern Ireland all of which are independent charities.
The 1984 afternoon television drama series Miracles Take Longer depicted the type of cases that a 1980s branch would have to deal with.
The Citizens Advice service in England and Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland is guided by four principles. All Citizens Advice Bureaux and workers for the bureaux must adhere to these principles, and bureaux must demonstrate that they adhere to these principles in order to retain membership of the national umbrella bodies.
The service is also committed to:
A lot of the Citizens Advice service's work involves providing advice on issues such as debt management and welfare benefits, housing, immigration and asylum, employment, consumer complaints and landlord/tenant disputes. Advice is available in the bureaux, but also in community venues, in people's homes, by phone, by email and at www.adviceguide.org.uk.
The Citizens Advice service, both locally and nationally, also uses clients' problems as evidence to influence policy makers to review laws or administrative practices which cause undue difficulties to clients, in a process referred to as "Social Policy".
The Citizens Advice service is one of the largest volunteer organisations in the UK with over 20,000 volunteers. The majority of these are part-time volunteer advisers, but the figure also includes trustees and administrators. While volunteers have varying levels of training, they are all required to receive basic training to ensure they fully understand the nature of the service including the four basic principles. Typically there will be a paid bureau manager, advice session supervisors and in some cases some paid advisers. Some staff may be qualified to give specialist legal advice or to advise on immigration.
Each local bureau or group is a separate independent charity with independent trustees. Many bureaux are also limited companies and may have a board of directors, who will also be the organisation's trustees. Bureaux throughout the UK have varying community needs and very different resources, and consequently offer different styles and levels of service.
All bureaux in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are members of Citizens Advice, the operating name of The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. Northern Ireland bureaux are also members of the Northern Ireland Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux (NIACAB). Bureaux in Scotland are members of Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS), part of the Scottish Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux.
Citizens Advice and CAS act as umbrella bodies for the bureaux in the UK. They provide access to information, training courses and consultancy services for all bureaux, and regularly audit individual bureaux against the requirements of their respective membership standards.
All bureaux try to ensure their services are accessible to all sections of the community, so that provision can be made for the housebound, immigrant communities, rural inhabitants, elderly and disabled as appropriate.
Both Citizens Advice and CAS are registered charities and are financed partly by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, although both organisations are completely independent of central government. Member bureaux also pay heavily-subsidised subscriptions for the services offered.
They often receive significant funding by local authorities, and local solicitors may agree to provide limited legal advice pro bono. With the ever-increasing complexity of queries, many bureaux are having to resort to employing more staff to cope with constantly changing legislation.
Membership of Citizens Advice gives each bureau access to the national information portal, known as AdviserNet and to internet access provided through a Virtual Private Network.
Information on clients' problems and the advice offered to them is entered into the CASE national database, the use of which has been compulsory since 2008. Although the data on CASE is centrally stored and backed up by Citizens Advice, the data can only be accessed by the bureau that entered the information.
A replacement for CASE, Petra, has been in roll-out since 2011. Petra is based on the Microsoft CRM product.
Despite the large number of volunteers working for the organisation, level of demand for the service often far outstrips resources. Citizens Advice has recently begun looking at ways to reach all members of the community through new mediums such as email advice and digital TV.
Another initiative has been allowing university students to train as advisers to gain credits toward their degree. This was pioneered by a partnership between the University of Portsmouth and Portsmouth Citizens Advice Bureau and is also now available at Birmingham City University, University of Reading, University of Northampton, Glasgow Caledonian University, and University of Glasgow.
Media related to Citizens Advice Bureau at Wikimedia Commons
("Citizens Advice" being its working name)