'We're All in it Together'

How the Citizen's Advice Bureau Came About

This introduction will be complemented by the history of the local CAB in due course.

The Work Of The Citizens' Advice Bureau, Eldon House, Croydon, England, 1940
The Work Of The Citizens' Advice Bureau, Eldon House, Croydon, England, 1940
Image source: © IWM (D 522)

World War 2, 1939 - 1945

It is 1939. Changing conditions are quickly affecting the population. Families are being broken up, or expanded with the addition of 'evacuees' from bombed areas. Wives and husbands, parents and children, bosses and staff, are being separated and are very anxious about their loved ones, their livelihoods, and their own difficult circumstances. Families and businesses are threatened as men and teenaged boys are 'called up' for military service, fire service, civil defence, and Home Guard. Everyone needs help. They have questions which need answering, and require practical assistance. But there is no such organised help available, so something has to be arranged.

A plan for a national service was needed. This would include purpose and scope, methods of working, information gathering, recording, and provision, communications across Government and other services, and places where people could come and be supported. Funding was needed, and staff would be required.

The Times 31 Aug 1939
The Times 31 Aug 1939

Within a short space of time there were 1,000 Citizen's Advice Bureaux (CABx) around the UK, linked by a central advisory service, and staffed mainly by volunteers who equipped themselves for the work. Their skill and devotion to duty made them a household name in war-time, and laid the foundation for a continuing peace-time service.

Starting Up

War time caused the need for an emergency service of free and unbiased information for all, whatever their background. Two hundred bureaux opened on the day that war was declared, the rest over following years. Volunteer staff were ready to accept training and some discipline, and a use for their experience, expertise, knowledge, and common sense.

Discussions had started in 1938, when the National Council for Social Services (NCSS) realised there would need to be support for ordinary people in the event of an outbreak of war. War inevitably brings with it restrictions, and personal problems. Urban and rural populations would present some different perspectives, but also some similar ones. Advisers would need to be skilled interviewers, and be sensitive to local conditions, available services, and new needs. The NCSS through its regional officers guided the fledgling CABx, and provided a headquarters to supply reliable information on essential matters, and maintain close contact.

Places were found that could be used for meetings between these new advisers and whoever came looking for support. A wall for posters, a table for information leaflets, and a space to discuss needs following air-raids, fires and floods, relatives 'on the Front', or children sent away from home for safety. Offshoots of various existing services were pooled into the new C.A.B., with an owl as emblem, denoting wisdom. Offices and rooms were lent by these services, local authorities, clubs, churches, libraries, and businesses. If air-raids subsequently bombed these premises, others were found.

In the first few weeks of the war, a harassed Government had to devise and pass plans, regulations, social policies, and laws to cope with the new situation. Soon the NCSS was able to organise a regular, detailed, and nation-wide service of information and guidance to the CABx, which were dealing with rapid and far-reaching changes of social life in a war situation.

Questions and Solutions

Local CABx were in constant touch with local offices of central departments - Ministry of Health, Unemployment Assistance Board, Ministry of Labour and National Service - and departments of its local authority - housing, health, education, etc - and other voluntary social service organisations - Soldiers', Sailors', and Airmens' Families Association (SSAFA), The British Red Cross Society, British Legion, Association for the Blind, etc. It was also associated with trade unions, chambers of commerce, local solicitors and estate agents, for example.

Enquirers wanted to know about 'reserved occupations', deferment of military service, entitlement to allowances and pensions, lodgings after bomb damage, requisitioned property, and tracing family in the Forces, or missing relatives. CABx could help with finding answers to these queries, and help with filling out application forms, or getting financial assistance.

The Assistance Board had to carry out a 'means test' for applicants seeking a 'special allowance' before the authorities could consider applications. CABx were often able to speed up proceedings thereby minimising distress for applicants. CAB advisers found, through their work, that they were often dealing with two sides of the same question, and so had to be thoroughly impartial.

The war also caused shortages of food and materials, rising prices, bomb damage and losses, and of course deaths, loss of limbs, and psychological problems. Government began to gather data from CABx about serious problems created by the war, which helped them adapt policies to demonstrated needs. They had to make plans for evacuation, protection against gas attacks, deep shelters, treatment for casualties, rescue and welfare, and compensation for damage and injury.

It was the CAB which sorted out individual problems, and helped the often dazed and bomb-shocked clients find solutions, even when the volunteers' own homes or family circumstances had suffered the same fate. It was they who advised where to apply for shelter, clothes, money for food, how to trace relatives, or get the fare to travel to friends who could give them a room, or to ask for compassionate leave for husband or son. Their assistance grew to encompass issues related to rationing of food and clothes, how to send letters and parcels to prisoners of war, explaining income-tax to new earners, for example women who took up war work while their men were away fighting, marital and relationship problems, and even to help refugees finding themselves in the UK.

The CAB soon became an accepted partner in the authorities' welfare plans as well as in emergencies, showing adaptability to changing circumstances, and knowledge of the local environment as well as national structures.

After the war ended, the CAB was still there to help with resettlement and return to peace-time life and normality, but to continue to assist people improve their lives.

This article was researched and written by Louise Aitken © 2014

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