A Brief History of Citizens Advice Bureaux

The idea of a national information and advice service in the UK emerged in the years between the two world wars. Complex new regulations and the impact of the First World War on families made the need for information and advice apparent. However it would not be for another two decades that the plans would be full realised.

When war was declared on 3rd September 1939, the CAB Service was ready to mobilise its forces to allay the fears of those bombed out, drafted up or evacuated. Within the first month, 200 bureaux had been set up in houses, town halls, libraries and churches. Even horse boxes were converted for use as mobile offices; able to get into bomb damaged areas where the need was greatest.

A converted horse hox

From the start they were staffed by a committed group of volunteers. Today these volunteers would be put through a rigorous training scheme before answering any queries, but in 1939 they were social workers or trained counsellors, backed by the National Council of Social Services.

The need for advice and information was high. Not only were the problems of war brought to 'Mrs B of the Bureau' but also the every day problems which still have to be dealt with today. Bureaux stocked a variety of leaflets and explained everything from rationing and Red Cross messages to war damage relief. Some of the most complex problems involved finding lost relatives who had been in a bombed area and often meant a trip out by bureaux staff to track them down. Family incomes were dramatically reduced when fathers, husbands and sons were called up, so advice was needed on repairing clothes and radios, and even preparing meals with the few ingredients available on rationing.

In the post-war years, Government funding was channeled away from the Service and alternative funds had to be sought. Charitable trusts provided support but the number of CABx had halved by 1953. Government funding did not start again until seven years later, due to the huge number of queries caused by the Rent Act.

By the 1970's it had become essential for the CAB advisor to know about the actual regulations rather than acting as a signpost. A new phenomenon hit bureaux - large scale redundancies. During the 1980's inequality increased dramatically. Unemployment doubled and employment enquiries rose by 50%. With recession kicking in, debt and benefit enquiries reflected not only the rise in poverty, but also the increasing expertise of CABx in this area. Working with other national and local groups, CABx increasingly took the information they received from the thousands of clients they helped every year and used this in discussions with the Government on the formation of their policies. This social policy work of the CABx is a central part of the Service, helping them to address problems at the roots to lessen the impact of changes in communities.

In the past sixty years, Citizens Advice Bureaux have dealt with more than 165 million enquiries and the 15,000 volunteer advisers who give their time and energy to help others now go through a rigorous and demanding training course.

Text and pictures supplied by Citizens Advice

The last major update to this page was on 18 August 1999.

The Manchester Guardian

7th September 1939

The function of the civilian advice Bureau will be to act as a clearinghouse for information and advice for the benefit of civilians who are faced with special difficulties and problems as a result of wartime dislocation of normal life. It is expected that these difficulties will fall into two main categories: those arising out of the dislocation or diversion to defence purposes of the normal health and relieving agencies, public social services, medical personnel and charitable organisations; and those arising out of the promulgation of new regulations for public