In Britain, good advice is right at hand

Whether it's a simple request for the address of some local organization, appropriate steps to take when facing unemployment, or an urgent need for guidance after the breakup of a marriage, the Citizens Advice Bureau stands ready to help. For nearly 50 years, this unique service has been operating throughout Britain to help people find answers to personal problems. The CAB began in 1939, at the outbreak of World War II. The social upheaval caused by mobilization, the evacuation of children from the cities, the torrent of wartime rules and regulations, and the effects of years of bombing - all made an accessible source of information essential in British life. After the war, the social effects of reconstruction and the intricacies of the new welfare state meant that CABs were not only retained, but expanded.

There are now over 900 advice bureaus spread throughout the United Kingdom. Most of them are located in urban areas, but mobile CABs operate in rural areas too. Although each is an independent unit, they are united and nurtured under the aegis of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaus in London.

Every CAB adheres to four basic principles: The advice is free, confidential, impartial, and independent.

The cost of running a bureau rests with the local government authority, and no charge is made to anyone seeking help. You can telephone or walk in off the street and pour out your heart and know that nothing said will be divulged to anyone without your express consent. (Even the police cannot compel the disclosure of information without the order of a court).

An ``adviser,'' while showing concern for his client, is obligated to view the situation objectively and to handle the case without regard to prejudice or pressure. Finally, though dependent on public money for its operation, the CAB service acts independently of of outside authority, and can therefore challenge the actions of government departments, professional bodies, or any other organizations affecting clients' problems.

But it also aims to help local and national policymakers by alerting them to broad trends gleaned from innumerable interviews which suggest the need for changes in legislation.

Like many outsiders, I used to think of the CAB service as a worthy but somewhat amateurish affair. That is, until I joined it as a volunteer.

In the few first weeks, the training involved observation rather than instruction. I watched and listened to the work that was being done by the voluntary ``advisers'' as well as by the professional organizers and clerical staff.

Our training proper began with a weekly session to familiarize us with the comprehensive information system on which all the work depends. This consists of a constantly updated, highly detailed series of files which deal with matters of national concern, a card index giving specifically local information, and a small library of reference books. The files are organized under categories which include topics such as: family, travel, employment, taxation, education, consumer problems, social security, legal, and many more. By using an index, and by following cross-references, needed information can be found on an almost unimaginable number of queries.

All the training was only preliminary to taking our place on the team - ready to conduct personal interviews or to take telephone calls, and to search the files for the information needed to give sound advice. You are enjoined never to speak ``out of the top of your head,'' but to turn to the files and if necessary to your colleagues - before proposing a solution.

Experience may give one a certain facility, but it can never provide one with ready answers. It doesn't take long to appreciate the need for humility! There is an ongoing commitment to keep one's self up to date, and refresher courses are a regular obligation.

In a typical morning on the end of the telephone one might find oneself dealing with a householder who has been overcharged for electricity supply, or with someone who wants to know how to go about changing his doctor. Perhaps a woman is in urgent need of accommodation, to find refuge from a violent husband. A company has changed hands and the new owners threaten to cut an employee's wages. A young man is in danger of losing his job because he has been convicted of speeding on the highway; another has been falsely accused of a crime and is seeking compensation.

A Bureau may well deal with 70 or more calls in a five-hour day. Interviews vary greatly in length. Some take only a few minutes, when the request is for straightforward information; some may require a good deal of research before a satisfactory answer is found. But many involve listening to people in distress who need to talk through their problem and must receive patient encouragement and practical advice.

Volunteers make a brief report on every interview and phone call. The nature of the problem and the advice given find their way into the annual statistics, which may reveal an unsuspected shift in popular priorities. Recently, a significant increase in cases dealing with private debts, due to misuse of credit cards, alerted many CABs to improve their training in this respect. Fed into government channels, the information may also help to influence official thinking.

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