Friday, 30 September 2011

Citizens Advice Annual Conference 2011

Below is the text of my speech to the Citizens Advice Conference held in York earlier this month.

'Thank you for inviting me here today to speak at your annual conference.  It’s lovely to see old friends again and to meet new people coming into the service still dedicated to the ideals of CAB.

I have to say if I could have seen into the future at my first conference in 1986, I would not have believed I’d be standing here today and a lot, if not all, is down to the experiences and lessons I have learnt through working 23 years as a CAB Manager/Chief Executive in St. Helens – I must be a slow learner to need such a long apprenticeship.

Although when I review the knowledge that CAB has brought to me it probably is not all that surprising and CAB work is an excellent foundation for political activity.

When I was asked to speak, I thought I would review some of the history of the CAB, looking back at our challenges as well as forward to the future and I re-read a lovely little book titled ‘The Story of the Citizens Advice Bureau’ published for the Silver Jubilee in 1964 – no I wasn’t actually there then.

And, I was struck by a comment made by the Home Secretary at the 1959 conference, 'Whilst all of us in public work are there because we are interested in the social improvement of our people, we differ from you in that we have so little intimate knowledge of these subjects'.

I don’t think you’d find a politician today who would admit that quite so frankly.

That is why the social policy role of the CAB is so important and I don’t mind admitting that, since my election, I have often felt very guilty and regretted not making a larger contribution to that work when I had the chance.

My predecessor as M.P. for Makerfield, Sir Ian McCartney, a previous recipient of CAB Parliamentarian of the Year and a man for whom I have huge respect, once said to me that  the best legislation is founded in constituency casework citing the example of the legislation he introduced regarding the flammability of foam furniture that had resulted from a tragic death in the constituency.

However, this is not a view universally shared by MPs and, indeed, constituencies do vary dramatically, so the pivotal role of a national service giving actual examples of cases, snapshots of people’s lives, is vitally important – and very difficult to refute.

The parliamentary briefings prepared for debates and committees are well respected and immensely useful raising the profile of the service and also making legislators stop and think about the effect that the legislation has had and will have on the lives of people throughout the country.  It can be a very strange and almost sheltered life in Parliament and I am always happy to return home and get back to helping people with their real lives but the CAB briefings take those real lives to all parliamentarians, and give examples from all types of areas, rural areas, urban areas, wealthy areas, areas of deprivation that we cannot possibly all experience.
I think that’s my plug for the social policy work over, so I would now like to turn to the future.

I think the word I hear most often is ‘challenging’ and I wouldn’t disagree with that but I also believe there are opportunities.

As I said, I have been re-reading our history and there have been major challenges in the past, in fact all government funding was removed for a short time but the service still survived and has grown in both scope and influence.

The CAB and local Bureaux are almost sacrosanct – everybody from David Cameron through to new backbench M.P.s praises the work of their local Bureau and relies upon their services.

However, whenever I hear this praise, I am reminded of one of my AGMs in the early 1990s when the local Mayor, who was also the member for funding the voluntary sector, was the keynote speaker.  Naturally, he was fulsome in his praise of the service. The vote of thanks was given by one of the older volunteers, a wonderful feisty person who had been with the service a considerable time and she thanked him for his kind words, then saying, ‘But, in an old phrase, fine words butter no parsnips and what we need is the money to keep providing the service and not the grant freeze you have proposed’....... We did get the money.

It feels a bit like that now and part of the reason is the complex funding structure of most Bureaux and the interdependence of each strand. It is difficult because there is no one government department that provides all the funding and takes the responsibility and there is even some confusion about where the national grant is spent.

That’s why, besides contributing to social policy work, the other thing I would urge you to do is go back and talk to your politicians both local and national.  Explain the effects of cuts – your Bureau may not receive legal aid funding directly but may have a specialist who comes to the Bureau from a central unit. Leave your M.P. in no doubt what would happen should that service be withdrawn.

The CAB service is talking the language politicians want to hear, in fact the minister in the Legal Aid bill committee stated that he wanted to ‘empower’ individuals to deal with their problems. Well local Bureaux have been doing that for years and doing it very efficiently and cost effectively.

No politician can imagine a world without their local CAB but they need to have demonstrated not only the cases that are helped but the efficiency and cost effectiveness of the service and the collaboration with other agencies so this myth of ‘duplication of services’,   would that  there were in my area,  can be well and truly scotched.

You have a great brand –which everyone believes they understand.  I remember someone saying to me – when I said I worked for CAB,  “I know what you do – you tell people where to go” – Perhaps that’s why I went into politics, to actually do that!

But, actually they don’t understand.  Inform them and keep informing them.

You have a great volunteer base who do incredible and professional working, supported by dedicated teams of paid staff – tell them how it works – explain the costs of volunteering as well as the benefits.

Keep your public profile high and keep inviting politicians to the Bureau and sending them short, sharp snappy profiles of your work.

Research them – what are their interests, what select committees are they on, how can you help them?
I can’t tell you how much the service is valued – it is a much loved institution – but equally it is not fully understood particularly on a local level.  I’ll do my bit to keep the service in the spot light and correct any misconceptions.... but really it’s down to you.  The door is open – keep pushing it!

I began with a quote from the fascinating and quaint 1964 history and I would like to end with one which I believe is still true today. It is from the 1963 Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, who said, 'Surely we have come to recognise that human needs can be met in full only by a partnership between the statutory and voluntary services. Each needs the other if the highest standards are to be achieved; they will not be achieved if we work in isolation. That’s as true now as it was then and the CAB service will continue to adapt and change but it will always be needed.'

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