Consumer: On the front line with Citizens Advice Bureau in Leeds

Dianne Lyons, chief executive of Leeds Citizens Advice Bureau.

Dianne Lyons, chief executive of Leeds Citizens Advice Bureau.

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With the Citizens Advice Bureau in Leeds facing funding cuts, Neil Hudson looks at the impact.

The Citizens Advice Bureau was borne out of the social malaise which plagued the country in the run up to the Second World War.

While we are closing offices, our plan is to increase our telephone service so we can be more accessible to the people who need us.

As an organisation, it predates the NHS, the first 200 branches throwing open their doors in a mishmash of public and private buildings in 1939 and Leeds can stake its claim to being there right at the start.

The government first began considering plans for some kind of national advice service four years earlier, and from the outset its remit was to deal with the rudimentary struggles facing ordinary people - the loss of ration books, homelessness and issues to do with evacuation.

It was state funded but after 1945, with post-war austerity beginning to bite, its income from the Ministry of Health was cut and it was forced to seek charitable donations.

By the 1960s it still had over 1,000 branches and as the UK underwent a rapid social and cultural change, it found itself dealing with a dizzying array of queries on housing, benefits, debt and family matters. In 1965, it dealt with 1.25 million queries.

Now, more than 70 years after its inception and as the country weathers another period of austerity, it is facing funding cuts once again.

In Leeds, the bulk of the service’s £1.5m annual budget comes from Leeds City Council, which has been forced to make cuts of 10 per cent, which from April will mean the closure of four of its branches - in Cross Gates, Morley, Otley and Pudsey.

The Money Advice Service, which in Leeds has a budget of around £220,000 will not be affected by the cuts, as it is funded from a levy on the banks.

But Dianne Lyons, chief executive of Leeds CAB, says that rather than cutting the service they offer, they plan to extend it, albeit using different means.

“We have been looking at how we can best meet the needs of people in Leeds in terms of providing advice and we’ve been working with Leeds City Council to find out how best we can do that. Recent changes to the benefits system have seen an increase in demand for advice.

“While we are closing offices, our plan is to increase our telephone service so we can be more accessible to the people who need us. We understand the difficulties facing the local authority and so the offices which we are closing have already had their hours cut over the years.

“In addition to the Leeds city centre office, we will also have a branch in Chapeltown and provide advice sessions at 40 locations around the city in places like GP surgeries, schools and health centres.”

Today, the service in Leeds fields up to 80 calls a day, dealing with some of the most vulnerable people in the city. Often, those who seek advice are at their wit’s end and face losing their home or having their family torn apart.

Around a third of calls relate to benefits issues, another third are to do with debts, the rest relate to employment, consumer and legal matters.

Dianne, 53, originally from Portsmouth, began her career as a volunteer in the CAB in her twenties and rose through the ranks, working in a number of different centres before taking on the Leeds job 12 years ago.

“We are going to pool resources in the city centre, we are also gearing up for an increasing number of calls about pensions, which is necessary following the recent changes and there is a dedicated service - Pensionwise - which will deal with that,” she says.

“Last year we helped 20,000 people - that’s double what we did five years ago - and we aim to increase that over the next two years. In the past, people had to physically come in to see us but that’s often not the best way to access the service and get the advice you need.”

While the service is placing more emphasis on its call centre, Dianne is keen to stress there will still be easy access to face-to-face advice but the visible lack of presence is not lost on her. “We’re aware when the offices close, people will think we have just gone but we are trying to reassure people we are maintaining things - given the cuts we face, closing the offices and increasing our telephone service was the next best thing.”

Marie Mooney is team leader for the Gateway service, the front-line for people calling the CAB. “When people call on the phone, we are able to quickly explore what their needs are and either give advice there and then or refer them on,” she says.

The CAB works closely with the Financial Conduct Authority and regularly refers cases to them but often the problems can be sorted out through phone calls to government and other departments, with officers acting on the client’s behalf.

Marilyn Banister is a team leader for the advice casework section and has worked for the CAB for 10 years.

“We’ve had cases where we’ve been able to save someone from losing their house, arrange for solicitors to help them, help get their benefits reinstated. A lot of the time, it’s people who are not good at dealing with bureaucracy and they may have missed an appointment and as a result had their benefits cut,” she says.

“Getting in touch with us can be a big step for some people but most of the time we can help them to move forward.”

* To contact the CAB in Leeds call 0113 223 4400

RISE OF THE CITIZENS ADVICE BUREAU

When war against Germany was declared on September 3, 1939, the Citizens Advice Bureau’s first 200 branches opened the following day.

They operated wherever they could - in 1942, the number of bureaus peaked at 1,074, with one even operating from a converted horse box, which would park up near bombed areas.

Emphasis shifted to consumer protection in the 1970s as the economy changed and recessions in the 1980s meant more people than ever needed help.