23rd of February, 1940. The Bedfordshire Times and Standard announces that the Bedford Citizens’ Advice Bureau (BCAB) is up and running at 2 St Paul’s Square, in the offices of the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS).
The new Bureau will help people cope with the manifold problems of a country at war.The new Bureau is run on a shoestring. In 1943, for example, the income for the year is £25 from the Borough Council and £10 from the Ministry of Health
Problems include war damage to property and lost ration books. Like other Bureaux, the Bedford CAB also runs the Red Cross message service for communicating with friends and relatives in “enemy countries”, which reached its peak in 1941 and 1942, and ended in 1946.
A happy day for the nation comes in February 1949, when clothes rationing is abolished – and largely as a result enquiries drop to 2811.
The general annual level of enquiries is lower than during the 1940s, remaining below 2000. Although there is a big programme of council-house building, scarcity of housing is a persistent theme. The controversial 1957 Rent Act, removing controls on rents, brings far more enquiries than on any other subject.
In 1959 the Bureau deals with 1710 enquiries – housing is still high on the list. Lt Brian Cookson, a lawyer doing his national service, has been providing weekly evening sessions of legal advice. There are now 8 advisers plus organiser. The reduced number of enquiries “may reflect to some extent the more prosperous times which local industry has been enjoying”.
This 1959 paper by the Bedford Council of Social Service sets the scene for the way life is changing, and the issues for BCAB in the 1960s.
In 1962 the Bureau is on the move again to Dame Alice Street. An important milestone is reached when the Bureau applies successfully for registration as a charity – it is now working to a formal constitution set out by the National Citizens’ Advice Bureaux Committee. There are ten volunteer advisers who have dealt with 1816 enquiries on housing, family problems and of course hire purchase.
Enquiries are on the rise again to over 3,200 by the end of the decade. It’s recognised that paid help will be essential if BCAB is to continue to be registered as a CAB. Organisational practices need to be improved – the Bureau must have a “proper cross-index file”. New premises are badly needed, and in November 1968 the bureau moves to Mill Street.
Increasing demand in 1971 places an ever-growing strain on the team of trained advisers, as new legislation is continually being introduced.
By 1975 there are over 7,200 enquiries, the three largest categories being personal and family problems, landlord and tenant, and consumer affairs (which includes consumer and credit debt). The Bureau is “fully stretched at all times”, and moves to larger premises at 38 Mill Street.
BCAB’s services are expanding. Outreach in Kempston library opens in September 1982. In 1983 there are 24 voluntary advisers, including one brave man. The manager starts giving a fortnightly advice spot on Chiltern Radio, and negotiates with Bedford County Press for a regular weekly column. Despite “deplorable working conditions” at 38 Mill Street in 1984, nearly 15,500 enquiries are handled. Talks are given to schools, clubs etc.
In 1988 enquiries build up to 16,687. BCAB deals with more immigration queries, working with a large number of asylum seekers on access to benefits and services.
By 1995-6 there are 40 advisers dealing with 12,600 enquiries – 24% benefits, 18% debt, 12% employment, 10% consumer. The Bureau offers a Money Advice service, and the Tribunal Representation Service now has a paid tribunal worker plus specially trained volunteers. There are outreach sessions at Bedford Prison.
The number and type of enquiries is similar in the following year. 1999 sees the launch of the national Adviceguide website, allowing 24/7 access to advice for the first time, but that doesn’t reduce the demand for BCAB’s services – particularly for money advice.
In 2002, 21% of cases are about debt, linked to a range of other issues. The Money Advice team have 500 cases, and at least 15 new cases are opened each week. There are 3 full-time money Advisers.
2004 sees 14,740 new enquiries of which 26% are debt. There are 150 new Welfare Benefits clients.
2005 brings significant developments moving to 7a St Paul’s Square – an excellent central position for our clients:
Under new management we re-establish first our Money Advice service, and then our Welfare Benefits specialism. We improve our rating in the latest quality of advice audit, and attract more volunteers.
Bedford and District Citizens Advice Bureau were successful in gaining Lottery funding- Advice Services Transitional Fund in 2013, which with partners provided an enhanced level of advice and support to the people of Bedford Borough.
The entire Citizens Advice Network underwent a re-branding exercise in 2015, Bedford & District Citizens Advice is now known as Citizens Advice Bedford. A new website has been created which enhances the digital service provision.
Much has changed since 1939, but some things stay the same – the enthusiasm, resourcefulness and commitment of those who work here, in whatever capacity, and their determination to help their fellow citizens.