HL Deb 15 July 1971 vol 322 cc613-22

9.27 p.m.

BARONESS BURTON OF COVENTRY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will carry out a review of the future of the Citizens Advice Bureaux and of the grant aid made to them, including the sources from which it is derived. The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am sorry to detain the House but I really had no option. As the House may have noted, I have amended the wording of my Motion in view of what was said yesterday by Lord Sandford. I have, of course, discussed this with him. In fact, what now appears on the Order Paper is what I actually intended, at the end of the debate, asking the Minister who was to reply to recommend to the Government as a first step towards helping in this most unhappy affair. And I shall come back to it later.

Might I just mention that Lord Amulree has expressed much regret at being unable to speak tonight and to say at the same time how glad I am that Lord Wells-Pestell is to take part? I think his experience, his pioneering activities and expertise in the whole field of social services are known to everyone associated with this subject.

My Lords, I am raising this matter for three reasons: one, I think injustice has been done; two, I think that an essential development of the Citizens Advice Bureaux has been prevented; three, I think that the value and service to the community from the Citizens Advice Bureaux must suffer as a result. And this last point is where I differ from what the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, said yesterday, at col. 350 of the OFFICIAL REPORT. This is much more than a matter of personality but it is one fundamentally of structure. For the benefit of anyone who knows little of the Citizens Advice Bureaux, and to quote the Molony Report, at paragraph 489, the Citizens Advice Bureaux originated during the last war to help the public with information and advice in disturbed conditions of life. The Local Government Act of 1948 (Sections 134 and 136), authorised local authorities to give financial or other support to the Bureaux in the guise of information or advice centres. The constitutions of the Bureaux vary from place to place. The majority are controlled by independent committees in which voluntary organisations play the prominent part. The Bureaux staff is largely voluntary. Each bureau is independent but the National Citizens' Advice Bureaux Committee guides the conduct of the work and generally supervises the service. Their value to the citizen became particularly well known in connection with problems associated with the Rent Acts.

The Report goes on to say in paragraph 490: Since there are no obvious limits to their fields of interest, Bureaux have inevitably attracted dissatisfied and perplexed consumers. Over recent years an increase has been observed in the number of people seeking advice over unsatisfactory goods and services, hire-purchase problems and the means of getting redress.

Under the heading"High Value of Work"in paragraph 492, the Molony Committee state: We regard the work described as most beneficial. The fact that many of the complaints handled lack substance does not detract from its overall value. It is important that those consumers who are worried and perplexed about their difficulties should be able to unburden themselves to a sympathetic ear and receive an independent and realistic appraisal of the position. For those with more genuine grievance it is a valuable assistance to have their case presented for them with a forceful clarity which they could not personally command.

I have quoted these comments, my Lords, because, although they were printed in 1962, they say what I believe to be true to-day. The Citizens' Advice Bureaux render a service which is invaluable to people in time of stress and worry. I think they render an indispensable service to the social life and needs of to-day.

Before the last war I had the pleasure of working with the National Council of Social Service. Indeed, it was through their help that I was able to go and work in a Quaker settlement in the Rhondda Valley in the 1930s. After that we were able to co-operate in London—in the East End. So I have only pleasant memories of the N.C.S.S. The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, told us yesterday of his own past connection with them, too. During my ten years in another place obviously I had many contacts with the C.A.B. both locally and nationally. Since 1962 I have worked closely with them because of our mutual interest in consumer work: and of course the carrying out of the responsibilities accepted by them as a result of the Malony Report recommendations being accepted by the Government.

For the past two, three or four years it has become more and more obvious to me that if the C.A.B. were to develop their potential some sort of arrangement with the N.C.S.S. would have to be worked out. I believe that such an arrangement would have to give the C.A.B. whole or partial independence. It is no secret to interested people that discussions proceeded over a very long period on this problem. I think equally that those interested people, anxious for the well-being of the work being done, realised that the less said in public the better. Because of this feeling, which I am sure was the right one, I said nothing tangible in the House until 1969. But on November 26, 1969 (at col. 1266), I made what I hoped was a moderate comment: I believe that the Citizens' Advice Bureaux should continue as at present, but only if given adequate finance and independence. This must be forthcoming in the near, the very near, future. If not, then the work will not be successful because of lack of adequate implementation. Responsibility here lies primarily with the National Council of Social Services and with the Government. I hope the Minister will comment for the Government, and I understand that the whole position is now under review between the National Council of Social Service and the National Citizens' Advice Bureaux Council. I hope that the foregoing may be regarded as part 1, or as the explanatory and introductory section, of what I want to say to-night.

What opens my part 2 came as a complete surprise to me, anyway. In the Guardian of June 30, I saw a headline: C.A.B. Council to Meet on Dismissal. The article went on to say: The national council of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux is to hold an emergency meeting on Tuesday to decide what action to take over the dismissal of Miss Joan Pridham, its secretary for the past seven years, by its parent body, the National Council for Social Services. The dismissal has already led the chairman of the CAB Council, Sir Harold Banwell, to announce his resignation. Further powerful support for the greater independence of the CAB is already being mustered. Following this, I sent a letter to The Times, and I was appreciative of their publishing it on July 9. The Minister will obviously have a copy, and I do not propose to weary the House with it.

On July 13, The Times published a joint letter from the Chairman of the N.C.S.S. and the new Chairman of the National C.A.B. Council. I do not propose to weary the House with this, either; but the letter makes the perfectly relevant point that in a vote taken on June 8, the figures were 163 in favour and 132 against. The occasion was the national conference of the C.A.B., and the motion for independence was not voted on, as an amendment for trying to work out an agreement based on a document agreed between the chairmen of the two organisations was accepted by the vote which I have quoted. I think there was considerable confusion among those present at the conference about exactly what they were voting on, but the majority vote went for the amendment. Although I feel strongly, and am anxious about the work, I have no desire to stoke up the flames. But I want to see justice done, and I think this is not the case.

Your Lordships have probably seen in the Press various statements as to whether the chairman of the National C.A.B. Council was consulted or not, and as to whether the Council itself was consulted or not. Your Lordships have probably also seen statements to the effect that certain people have been dismissed, while others have resigned. The letter from the two chairmen states that nobody has been dismissed—apart from the secretary. My Lords, I have here a letter, which I have obtained permission to read out, from all the people concerned. I think that it should be on the record of this unhappy affair. The notepaper is headed"The National Citizens' Advice Bureaux Council ". It was, of course, the notepaper then current, so the chairman is given as Sir Harold Banwell and the secretary as Miss Joan Pridham. The date is June 29. 1971. The letter is addressed to the Citizens' Advice Bureaux, numbering some 500. It is sent and signed by two members of the Council (Mrs. Eileen M. Crosby and Mrs. Margaret Edmondson) and is as follows: Dear Organiser, You will probably have read in The Times and Guardian today that Miss Pridham's appointment as Secretary of the National CAB Council has been terminated by the NCSS honorary officers acting on the in-instructions of the NCSS Executive Committee which met on 10th June. The NCSS honorary officers wish her to take paid leave of absence immediately and until the end of her appointment. She will therefore be leaving on Friday next. 2nd July. We understand she is to be offered a small pension. The decision to terminate her appointment was taken without consulting the National CAB Council and against the advice of the Chairman and ourselves who were called to a special meeting with the NCSS honorary officers yesterday. The Chairman and we very much regret the action taken. The reason for the termination of Miss Pridham's employment is that she ` advocated a policy in complete contradiction to that agreed by the National Standing Conference of CABx'. You will all know that up to the date of the conference she did advocate independent management for the CAB Service, believing with the great majority of CAB Council members that the best opportunity for development lay in the government of the Service by the CABx themselves. Since the conference decision was that the CAB Service should continue to be an integral part of the NCSS the job of the headquarters and field staff was clearly to work towards the implementation of that decision; and this they intended to do under Miss Pridham's leadership. Mrs. Prudence King, the Assistant Secretary to the Council, Miss Ingrid Marx, who prepares the monthly Information Circular, and Miss Pridham's personal assistant, Miss Sheila Brent, have handed in their resignations today. There will be a meeting of the CAB Council on Tuesday next which it is hoped your regional representatives will be able to attend. Yours sincerely, (signed) EILEEN M. CROSBY MARGARET EDMONDSON. My Lords, I think the letter speaks for itself.

I have various suggestions on all this, but at the moment I intend to confine myself to one of which I have given notice to the Minister. I am confining myself to this one point because I think it is the most hopeful course of action at this stage. Other things will have to work themselves out as talks continue in an effort to find out whether the amendment carried on June 8 is likely to succeed. Perhaps I might just say, in passing, that I have of course seen the written reply to a Question in another place on July 2 and that my suggestion, or request, is not the one made there.

I am sure that this Government will be aware that their predecessors at the Board of Trade recommended a review of the grant aid made to Citizens' Advice Bureaux and also the sources from which this came. I think this was in March, 1970. The House probably knows that these sources are: the Department of Trade and Industry, which makes a grant direct to the Citizens' Advice Bureaux; the Department of the Environment, which makes a grant to the National Council of Social Service which then allocates that money, part of which goes to the Citizens' Advice Bureaux the voluntary funds of the National Council of Social Service, some of which are raised on behalf of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux; and the Bureaux themselves.

I want to help, and I do the Government the credit of believing that they want to help, too. One of the most helpful results of this unhappy unfair and of this short debate would be that this review should now take place with the Departments concerned. As the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, said yesterday: ' The service provided by the Citizens ' Advice Bureaux is, of course, of very great and direct concern when it comes to allocating grant…",—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14/7/71; c. 349–50.] and he then went on to make the statement with which I disagreed, as I mentioned earlier in this debate. The review for which I am asking the Minister's support would concern the future of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux and of the grant aid made to them, including the sources from which it is derived. I believe, and in this I am supported by many others, that considerable advantage would accrue if this grant aid were to come from one source and not from several. Perhaps the Government grant at least could come from one source and be made direct to the Citizens' Advice Bureaux. Then we should have a starting point for a possible reconstruction. I hope the Minister will be able to say that such a review will now take place.

Finally, may I state quite categorically that I have raised this matter purely on my own initiative. Nobody else is implicated in any way whatsoever. My Lords, I do not like injustice.

9.45 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry has put the position so adequately and clearly that I think there is little for me to say. In fact, I doubt whether there are any"t's"for me to cross or any"i's"for me to dot. Like my noble friend, I am gravely concerned at what is taking place at the present moment between the National Council of Social Service and the Citizens' Advice Bureaux, because those of us who have worked for many years in the field of voluntary social service know from personal experience that difficulties within can have very serious repercussions on the outside; and if there is one thing which has made a tremendous contribution to our society in recent years, it has been the work of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux. I think I would go so far as to say that when the Citizens' Advice Bureaux came into being just before the war and became, if I may be permitted to say so, extremely efficient after the war, they filled a gap in our vast and comprehensive network of social services in this country; and it is with this in mind that I say that I fear the argument which is going on between these two organisations may have serious repercussions on the work of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux and on the value of their contribution to the community.

I think we sometimes see the Citizens' Advice Bureaux as an organisation staffed by people who are merely telling people what to do. In point of fact, their work goes much deeper than that. They spend a good deal of time with people, and often successfully resolve and bring to a successful conclusion the inquiries they undertake. But it is not only the individual help that they are able to give to people going there for advice: they have become a means by which Government Departments are able to explain the various policies which they are pursuing and have set in motion for the benefit of the people, and I believe that this is one of the most important contributions which the Citizens' Advice Bureaux make at the present moment and have made for some considerable time.

I should have thought the time had come when this organisation should have an opportunity to stand on its own feet, because I believe that the extent of its contribution and its value could be considerably increased if it was completely independent, able to raise what money it needed, able to make its own application to one Government Department for money to enable it to carry on, and, what I think is even much more important, if it could be entirely responsible for the formation of its own policy and the carrying out of that policy. As I said a moment or two ago, the argument which is going on within these two organisations will, I think, militate against that happening. And, like my noble friend, who as I have said has put the position so adequately and so clearly that it leaves little more for me to say, I ask the Government—because the Government provide, through the Exchequer, a very substantial grant to the National Council of Social Service, and, in so doing, to the Citizens' Advice Bureaux—to undertake some kind of inquiry whereby there can be one grant and also, through that inquiry, perhaps give some advice as to the desirability of making the Citizens' Advice Bureaux an independent organisation capable of running their own affairs.

9.50 p.m.


My Lords, earlier this week I thought it right to declare my own close interest in the National Council of Social Service. Now perhaps I ought to do the reverse, and say that although my daughter's name is Margaret Edmondson she is not the Margaret Edmondson referred to in the letter read by the noble Baroness.

The genuine and personal concern of the noble Baroness in speaking on this question is evidence in itself of the high esteem in which the National Council of Social Service and the Citizens Advice Bureaux are both held. Her Majesty's Government join in acknowledging the great value of the work done by the Citizens Advice Bureaux in explaining the rights and the benefits made available to citizens by the complex legislation of our present society, and in giving friendly and impartial independent advice in cases of perplexity and difficulty. The Government's Manifesto, in considering the means for improving the quality of life, recognised the important contribution in social welfare and to the environment that voluntary and volunteer organisations are already making; and the National Council of Social Service has a valuable part to play, and does play a valuable part, in co-ordinating the efforts and policies across the whole voluntary movement.

The dispute, such as it has been, was about the relationship between the Citizens Advice Bureaux Council and the National Council of Social Service. Her Majesty's Government have taken the view that the way in which these two bodies arrange their affairs is a matter entirely for those bodies, and have therefore not sought to intervene. The changes that have taken place in the administration of the Citizens Advice Bureaux movement are, of course, internal matters in which Her Majesty's Government have no function whatever.

The position now is that the dispute appears to be well on the way to being resolved, and it is our earnest hope that the two Councils will speedily settle any remaining differences there may be between them, and that the valuable service they both provide to the community will continue and develop. For these reasons, therefore, there is no cause for the Government to take any initiative in the remaining tidying up operations, although perhaps I do not need to say that we should be ready to give help if the two Councils ask for it. Equally, but unlike the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Her Majesty's Government see no reason in the present situation to undertake any special review of the future of the Citizens Advice Bureaux services or of its finance. That is not to say that the Departments concerned do not and will not of course review the services provided by the Citizens Advice Bureaux whenever the appropriate levels of grant next come to be determined.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord suggest that it would be helpful to the Citizens Advice Bureaux if one single Government grant were paid direct to them. This is certainly something which might be considered if it were to be put forward formally. I see that there might be some administrative difficulties, but, more important, there might be some disadvantages to the Citizens Advice Bureaux in such an arrangement. While it would give the Bureaux greater financial independence in relation to other voluntary bodies, it would do so at a price of much greater direct dependence on central Government. That, my Lords, could be put in simpler and more personal terms as: Hold on to nurse, For fear of finding something worse ".