Helping Others column with Karen Weaver

Craven and Harrogate District Citizens Advice chairman of Trustees Simon Grenfell with retiring chairwoman Pat Shore, treasurer Sandra Jowett and chief executive Erica Cadbury.
Craven and Harrogate District Citizens Advice chairman of Trustees Simon Grenfell with retiring chairwoman Pat Shore, treasurer Sandra Jowett and chief executive Erica Cadbury.

My first proper job after leaving university was at a printing company in North London (a sticky label printing company to be accurate).

It was based in a busy sales office and I learned a huge amount about working in business, about printing (including the many different types of self-adhesive paper) and about sales. There was a young crowd of staff and I enjoyed living and working in London.

When I came to hand my notice in after just under two years there, I was instructed to make a repayment of several hundred pounds back into the profit share scheme the company operated, as I was leaving “at the wrong time of year”.

I was upset and angry about the imposition of this unknown “rule” without any warning, and very anxious about the effect on my bank account.

I felt pretty helpless and unsure of what to do, when a friend advised me to go to the local Citizens Advice Bureau.

It seemed worth a try so I queued up in a dark and chilly waiting room in a local church hall, ready to set out my concerns to… well, if I’m honest, I didn’t have a clue who I was talking to or how this service was provided.

However the person I met listened to my case and gave me very helpful information about my rights as an employee, about contracts of employment and putting things in writing. Armed with this advice I had the confidence to successfully challenge my employers, and all ended well.

Over 30 years later and last week I attended the AGM of Craven and Harrogate Districts Citizens Advice. Tucked away at the back of the Odeon Cinema, the Harrogate branch is based in modern purpose built premises, with a bright and welcoming reception area.

This provided the venue for the AGM, as trustees, members, staff and volunteers came together to mark the end of another financial year. Citizens Advice is one of those organisations that people have heard of but few know much about until they find themselves needing independent advice on money, legal, consumer or other problems.

Whilst some can afford to pay for such advice, many more cannot, and the network of Citizens Advice organisations across the country exists to provide that vital support.

The history of CABs goes back to the pre-war years and their foundation was, in part, preparation for the war itself. The first 200 bureaux opened on September 4, 1939, four days after World War II started. By 1942, there were 1,074 bureaux in a wide range of improvised offices such as cafes, church halls, private homes and air raid shelters.

Mobile offices were also important in ensuring that people could access advice.

Many of the issues dealt with were directly related to the war and included the tracing of missing servicemen or prisoners of war, evacuations, pensions and other allowances.

Many bureaux closed at the end of the war, although it was apparent that there was still a need for these services, especially with the chronic housing shortage immediately following the end of the war.

Our local Citizens Advice was founded at this early stage and remains an independent charity, not, as some people mistakenly think, a service provided by the local council.

Over seventy years later, the 2015/16 AGM demonstrated that there is still a great depth of support and commitment to this charity, with a strong board of trustees, a small but very active and professional staff team, and a dedicated group of trained volunteers working in Harrogate, Ripon and Craven.

The provision of free, confidential, independent and impartial advice remains a vital role and the statistics speak for themselves.

Last year 75 volunteers provided approximately 40,000 hours of time in the bureau and the top five advice categories were benefits and tax credits, debt, employment, housing and relationships and family issues.

More than 5,000 clients received support and this included over 12,000 individual contacts. 47 per cent of clients disclosed that they had a disability or a long-term health condition.

Longstanding chairwoman of trustees Pat Shore and treasurer Sandra Jowett were thanked for all their years of service as they concluded their terms of office at the AGM, and newly elected chairman Simon Grenfell now takes up the reins. Many people face far more serious challenges in their lives than my minor employment issue more than 30 years ago, and it is reassuring to know that our local Citizens Advice is still there for all those who need it.

Their role is tough and often unseen, and like all charities they need our support to continue their vital work.

For more information on local voluntary organisations, visit www.harcvs.org.uk.