Page last updated at 04:16 GMT, Friday, 4 September 2009 05:16 UK

Citizens get 70 years of advice

By Mike Sergeant
Personal finance reporter, BBC News

As the Citizens Advice Bureau network marks its 70th anniversary, how has the nature of the service changed?

Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. The very next day the first Citizens Advice Bureau opened its doors.

The network of 200 offices was planned before the war as an emergency service. The theory was that, in times of conflict, people would need clear, calm advice about all sorts of practical problems.

During the blitz, the first CAB advisers were kept busy dealing with the damage caused by air raids. Help was also given evacuating children and tracing missing relatives.

In late 1939, almost 28,000 people a month were going to CABs. By 1944 there had been a tenfold increase to 280,000 visits a month.

The war ended, but the need for free, independent help kept growing - particularly as the welfare state began a period of rapid expansion. People wanted to know how to use the NHS and how to apply for things like Legal Aid and Housing Benefit.

Changing demands

As the years passed, the nature of the advice given out by CABs evolved. Divorce became much more of an issue. Crowded cities meant that in the 1950s housing problems dominated the work of the bureaux.

The consumer boom of the 1970s was followed by rising unemployment in the 1980s and an increasingly complex benefit system. All these developments kept up the workload of advisers.

So how relevant are CABs in 2009? These days we are bombarded with advice from every angle - in books, on the internet, TV and radio.

But it seems that many people who get into difficulty still want to sit down with someone face-to-face rather than talk to distant call centres or trawl websites. Citizens Advice itself also now has a strong online presence.

Chris Kilburn
Had I not gone to the CAB that day, I would be without my house and I would have had creditors chasing me to the grave
Chris Kilburn

The organisation, which is run as a network of local charities, now deals with six million problems a year. The recession has led to a dramatic increase in issues like debt and unemployment.

Chief executive David Harker said: "Our new figures show that what started out as an emergency service in wartime is needed now more than ever as the recession continues to take its toll on people's lives."

He said inquiries about debt have increased 27% this year. The number of questions about Jobseeker's Allowance has doubled. Inquiries on redundancy are up 74%.

Chris Kilburn, who lives in Derbyshire, is one of those who have benefited from the advice on offer. He was made redundant three times in seven months and his finances went into freefall.

The local CAB recommended voluntary bankruptcy and now he has got a new job as a bus driver and a fresh start.

"Had I not gone to the CAB that day, I would be without my house and I would have had creditors chasing me to the grave," he says.

Long may they be there for us all
Roy Turner, Nottingham

Today the Citizens Advice service is one of the largest charitable organisations in the UK. Over 20,000 volunteers swell its ranks.

Even if the UK economy returns to growth this year, the social impact of the recession will be felt for a long time to come. That will mean even greater demands on the 3,200 CABs across the country.

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