When it began in 1939, the Citizens Advice Bureau for Hammersmith & Fulham operated from a horse box. With a budget of £25, it assisted 878 people in its first year.
Eighty years on, Citizens Advice is located at the council’s Avonmore Library in North End Crescent. In the past year, it helped 12,000 people supported by a budget of more than £1million.
The anniversary was marked with a ribbon-cutting, as H&F Mayor Cllr Daryl Brown also declared the new-look children’s library area open, following a £6,000 refurbishment.
Joining her for the birthday celebration was Cllr Wesley Harcourt, H&F Cabinet Member for the Environment, who also serves as a trustee for the Citizens Advice Bureau.
“It’s an essential service,” he said. “People have rights, and you need Citizens Advice to enforce them – not everyone is rich enough to be able to afford lawyers. We believe in fairness for all, and the service is critical in helping people get access to their rights, in these difficult times.”
There was also a tree-planting near the entrance, with local schoolchildren burying ‘wishes’ scribbled on little bits of paper under the roots of a silver birch, replacing an old cherry tree which blew down in a storm.
“The top four issues we deal with are benefits, debt, housing and employment, consistently and in that order,” said Citizens Advice H&F chief executive Simi Ryatt. “We’re here to help anyone with free, confidential, impartial and independent advice.”
“Our workload is greater today,” she said. “Twenty years ago, a client might have had one issue. Now we find we have to unpick four or five issues.” She also said that mental health was an increasing factor, with the service assisting more vulnerable people with complex needs.
Funding from council
Simi paid tribute to the support Citizens Advice receives from H&F Council. “We’re extremely fortunate that the council has given us a 10-year funding contract, as we can use that to build other funding.”
She said that for every £1 invested in Citizens Advice, the service delivered £10 in wider social benefits to the public.
Citizens Advice in H&F runs a dozen targeted projects (from homelessness prevention to debt counselling), funded by outside donors. The centre’s 115 active volunteers receive training, but so successful is it that half go on to take up full-time jobs... necessitating further recruitment.
Help with tech
Among the centre’s most valued services are the tech talk project, combining coffee, cake and demystifying digital coaching; and ‘tech mates’, the one-to-one computer assistance which helps clients set-up email, do online banking and apply for universal credit.
Digital inclusion co-ordinator Yinka Inniss-Charles explained: “Our Friday coffee morning presentations cover such things as online searching and remaining safe online. The one-to-one support is bespoke, tailored to each person’s needs, but there is also an important socialising side to it.”
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