Citizens Advice at 75
Citizens Advice celebrates its 75th anniversary this month. Here, chief executive Gillian Guy looks back over the last three-quarters of a century of advice-giving and examines how Citizens Advice will continue to play a vital role in helping the public with their everyday problems.
Citizens Advice is going to need a very large cake this autumn, as we celebrate 75 years of helping people. The first 200 Citizens Advice Bureaux opened their doors on 4 September 1939, the day after the Second World War broke out. While many of the issues we were originally set up to deal with, such as lost ration books, bombing raid damage or evacuation, are firmly consigned to the history books, others, such as problems with money, housing or work, remain as pertinent now as they did three-quarters of a century ago.
Over the past 75 years, we have seen trends come and go. Having been set up to help with the wartime struggles of the 1940s, Citizens Advice then evolved with the rise of consumer issues in the 1950s, followed by housing problems in the 1960s and benefits confusion in the 1980s. As time has passed, we have always adapted to new social challenges, right through to the economic crash in the late 2000s, which was followed by these current years of austerity.
Evolution of Citizens Advice: from front room to website
The role that Citizens Advice plays in society is just as important now as it has ever been. From welfare reform to the payday lending market, the cost of housing to rising energy bills, we live in an increasingly complex world, so it is vital that people are able to access the free and impartial advice they need to solve their problems and stand up for themselves. In 2013/14, two million people walked through our doors, and we helped them to solve 5.5 million problems. Debt, welfare benefits, housing and employment have consistently been the most common issues people seek help with as they struggle to make ends meet. More people go to our website for advice on basic rights at work than for any other issues, as employees want to find out more about things like holiday pay and contract terms and conditions.
‘People need Citizens Advice as much now as they have ever done over the past 75 years and we are working tirelessly to make sure everyone can get advice both when they need it and in a way that suits them.’
It is not just the issues that have changed; where, when and how people get advice has also evolved. When the service started, Citizens Advice Bureaux operated in all sorts of informal settings, including many people’s front rooms. Today we deliver advice to people in over 3,000 locations, including libraries, nurseries and GPs’ surgeries. Our service has transformed, and we now provide help over the phone, via e-mail and online, where our ‘Adviceguide’ goes from strength to strength, with over one-third of the UK’s online population using this self-help website. We are also helping a growing number of people over the phone, both via the Citizens Advice consumer helpline and our Adviceline.
One thing that has remained constant over the years is the role of volunteers, right at the very heart of Citizens Advice. Today, over 22,000 volunteers give their time to the service and last year they donated an incredible seven million hours of their time, amounting to a contribution of £109m. We also know just how much volunteers get out of working for Citizens Advice, and they tell us about the positive effects of volunteering with us, for example, in finding work and improving their mental health.
Campaigning to secure free and independent advice
Getting the right advice can turn people’s lives around. The benefits of a strong network of advice and support go beyond the impact on individual lives. In 2012/13, the Citizens Advice service contributed at least £750m to society, for example, by reducing the need for people to contact the Department for Work and Pensions about their benefits.
While the 28,000 staff and volunteers, and the millions of people we have helped over the years, know and understand the importance of being able to access free, independent and impartial advice, we are keen for people outside the service to acknowledge its value too. That is why we launched our ‘Advice for the future’ campaign earlier this summer. We are calling on people up and down the country, including politicians, other voluntary organisations and those in the public services, to sign our pledge to back funding for free and impartial advice.1See: www.citizensadvice.org.uk/index/campaigns/current_campaigns/adviceforthefuture.htm
Tameside CAB celebrates the 75th anniversary with a ‘1939’ party
The campaign comes at a pretty poignant time. The age of austerity means that funding on every scale, from national spending to local authority budgets, is under pressure. While bureaux are very resilient and have done a great job at diversifying their funding streams, the 84 per cent cut in legal aid funding to bureaux has a direct impact on the number of people who can receive specialist legal support. In 2014/15, bureaux will provide legal support to just 16,000 cases, an 88 per cent drop from the 136,000 cases in 2013/14, Nine out of ten Citizens Advice Bureaux (92 per cent) have reported that it is now difficult to refer people to the specialist legal advice they need. We have also seen a 62 per cent increase in people seeking online advice about help with legal costs.
Where limited provision of legal aid remains, people have to meet very stringent criteria. The length of time it takes to get legal aid means people’s situations often become far worse than they would have been with earlier intervention. In some cases, legal aid is now simply not available to our clients such as to help with getting employers to pay outstanding wages or challenging unfair benefits decisions.
People need Citizens Advice as much now as they have ever done over the past 75 years and we are working tirelessly to make sure that everyone can get advice both when they need it and in a way which suits them. Our unique position in the heart of communities means that we will always be among the first to help people overcome their problems and can spot issues before they become apparent to others. We are proud of our 75-year history, but we are not complacent about what the future holds and what new problems people will face. We are working hard to make sure that we are ready to offer the advice people need for the next 75 years and beyond.