Citizens Advice is the body that regulates the individual bureaux. In 2003 the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux (NACAB) changed its name to Citizens Advice. In Wales it was renamed Citizens Advice Cymru (Cyngor ar bopeth Cymru).
The Citizens Advice membership organisation and member Citizens Advice Bureaux are not departments of central or local government, but independent and separate charities staffed mainly by volunteers. Many do receive sponsors/grants from local authorities and the membership organisation receives a grant from the Government as its main source of funding. As it is a national organisation, many of the general public believe that the service is completely funded and run by the Government.
Individual Citizens Advice Bureaux typically pay a subscription fee of anywhere between £1,000 to £5,500 per year for their membership of Citizens Advice. This membership authenticates the bureaux and allows them access to the national information portal, known as AdviserNet. Each bureau is provided with internet access, provided by Citizens Advice through their VPN. Bureaux are generally issued with updated versions of AdviserNet on CD on a monthly basis, for use in advice sessions held where online access is not available, or if there are network problems.
CASE is another national database used by the majority of bureaux. Since 2008, it is compulsory for all bureaux to use CASE. Staff (predominantly volunteers) enter the client’s information into the database which is stored centrally by Citizens Advice. Although the data is stored and backed up by Citizens Advice, the data can only be accessed by the bureau that entered the information.
Citizens Advice is totally non-selective in its clients and impartial in dealing with all sorts of persons and problems and is totally free. Its primary aim is helping people by investigating their problems, exploring and explaining their options, and where appropriate helping to contact and deal with the relevant officials and organisations.
The first 200 bureaux opened on 4 September 1939, 4 days after World War II started. Many of these initial bureaux were run by 'people of standing' in the community, for example the local bank manager. By 1942 there were 1074 bureaux in a wide range of improvised offices such as cafes, church halls, private homes and air raid shelters. Mobile offices also became important in ensuring that people could access advice. Many of the issues dealt with during that time were directly related to the war. These included the tracing of missing servicemen or prisoners of war, evacuations, pensions and other allowances.
Many war time bureaux closed at the end of the war, although it was apparent that there was still a need for the services that had been established. A particular problem was the chronic housing shortage in the years immediately following the end of the war. In the 1950s the funding was cut and in the 1960s there were only 416 bureaux. In 1973 the government funded NACAB, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, to enlarge the network. In 2003 this changed its name to Citizens Advice (in England and Northern Ireland) and Cyngor ar Bopeth or "Advice on everything" (in Wales).
In 2006 there were 462 bureaux offering advice from over 3000 locations.
A 1984 afternoon television drama series Miracles Take Longer depicted the type of cases that a 1980s branch would have to deal with.
The Citizens Advice service in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland is guided by four principles. All Citizens Advice Bureaux and workers for the bureaux must adhere to these principles, and bureaux must demonstrate that they adhere to these principles in order to retain membership of the national umbrella bodies.
The service is also committed to:
A lot of the Citizens Advice service's work involves issues such as debt management and welfare benefits, housing, immigration and asylum, employment issues, consumer complaints and landlord/tenant disputes. Advice is available in the bureaux, but also in community venues, in people's homes, by phone, by email and at www.adviceguide.org.uk
The Citizens Advice service, both locally and nationally, also uses clients' problems as evidence to influence policy makers to review laws or administrative practices which cause undue difficulties to clients.
The twin aims of the Citizens Advice service are:
To ensure that individuals do not suffer through lack of knowledge of their rights and responsibilities or of the services available to them, or through an inability to express their needs effectively.
To exercise a responsible influence on the development of social policies and services both locally and nationally.
The Citizens Advice service is one of the largest volunteer organisations in the UK with over 20,000 volunteers. The majority of these are part time volunteer advisers with varying levels of training, but the figure also includes trustees and administrators. Typically there will be a paid bureau manager, advice session supervisors and in some cases some paid advisers. With the ever-increasing complexity of queries many bureaux are having to resort to employing more staff to cope with constantly changing legislation.
Each local bureaux or group is a separate independent charity with independent trustees. Many bureaux are also limited companies and may have a board of directors, who will also be the organisation's trustees. Bureaux throughout the UK have varying community needs and very different resources, and consequently offer different styles and levels of service.
They often receive significant funding by local authorities, sometimes under service level agreements and local solicitors may agree to provide limited legal advice pro bono. Some staff may be qualified to give specialist legal advice or to advise on immigration. The umbrella bodies of the service in the UK (Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland) provide access to training courses for all volunteers and employees.
All bureaux try to ensure their services are accessible to all sections of the community, so that provision can be made for the housebound, immigrant communities, rural inhabitants, elderly and disabled as appropriate.
All bureaux in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are members of Citizens Advice, the operating name of The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. Bureaux in Scotland are members of Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS), part of the Scottish Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. Both Citizens Advice and CAS are registered charities and are financed partly by the Department of Trade and Industry (although both organisations are completely independent of central government); member bureaux also pay heavily-subsidised subscriptions for the services offered. Citizens Advice and CAS provide bureaux with information, training and consultancy services, and regularly audit individual bureaux against the requirements of their respective membership standards.
Despite the large number of volunteers working for the organisation, level of demand for the service often far outstrips resources. The National Association has recently begun looking at ways to reach all members of the community through new mediums such as email advice and DigiTV.
Another initiative has been allowing university students to train as advisers to gain credits toward their degree. This was pioneered by a partnership between the University of Portsmouth and Portsmouth Citizens Advice Bureau and is due to roll out to the University of Reading and the University of Northampton by July 2007