A Day in the Life of… Dorchester CAB
Joël Lacey goes behind the scenes of one of Dorset’s most relied-upon charities
Published in June ’11
If you were to ask a hundred people to name ten vital organisations in British life, there is little doubt that the RSPCA, the RNLI and the CAB would very often be in their lists; the only problem is, whilst all three of these are indeed vital, none is a public service. All are charities that rely upon donations and grants.
What is even less well known is that the eight Citizens’ Advice Bureaux in Dorset, as well as those in the metropolitan areas of Poole and Bournemouth, are all individual charities. As one of the busiest CAB in the county, Dorchester is an ideal bureau at which to spend a day observing the essential work that goes on.
Dorchester is unusual in that it opens five days a week and, although it can only pursue cases for those living in the DT1 to DT4 areas around Dorchester, it has often, owing to its opening hours, had to act as a first point of contact for clients from other areas, whether in Dorset, or indeed on holiday from other regions of the UK, who are in urgent and desperate need of advice.
The hub of the Dorchester operation is the computer room, where advisers, supervisors and administration staff, balance the scheduled appointments with the unknown element of the walk-in clients. It is also here that the pan-Dorset ‘out-of-hours’ phone is answered, between 9.00 and 10.00. Before the first client of the day comes in, volunteer Rob Ellott checks his appointments and talks about how he came to join: ‘I’ve been doing this for five years. When I was living down in Cornwall, I decided to do some volunteering and got partially trained down there; when we moved to Dorset, I decided to carry it on.’ In explaining his role, he says: ‘most of us are general advisers. We all deal with debt to a degree; we have to deal with everything that comes in through the door, so we don’t often get a chance to specialise.’
The CAB lists eleven areas on which they can offer advice, but manager. Daniel Cadisch. says this essentially boils down to six common areas: ‘debt, benefits, relationships, housing, consumer and employment.’ It was the last of these that led to Daniel’s first contact with the CAB when, on return from a holiday, his company started to unfairly adjust his terms and wages and he went to the CAB to get advice. Thirteen years on, he manages the Dorchester and Sherborne bureaux.
The out-of-hours phone rings. A holidaymaker, who is staying in Dorset, but outside the Dorchester area, calls to say that a government body is taking money from his bank account in relation to a decade-old dispute, which he believes already to have been settled. His number is taken, as is protocol for the CAB, and he will get a call-back from an advisor who can help him. The call is logged in the system, with all relevant details, so the information will not need to be repeated when he gets a call back.
The bell goes, to announce the first drop-in of the day. The bureau used to operate a first-come, first-served system, but has introduced a ‘gateway’ system – rather like triage at A&E – where, in a short interview, a client’s needs are established and appropriate action taken. For some, this may be a question of getting a leaflet, or of the adviser asking for more information, for the client to bring additional paperwork, or being referred to another bureau. For others, though, where the need is urgent and the problem immediate, action is taken there and then. The change in systems has led to average waiting times dropping from an hour to just ten minutes. This case is an urgent one, combining a relationship ending with the immediate threat of homelessness for the client and a child, destitution and hunger.
Rob takes notes, discusses issues of housing policy, homelessness, tax credits and benefits. Then, as is policy, he goes to discuss the client’s case with a supervisor. Action is recommended, information given to the client on alternative accommodation, emergency loans, food parcel vouchers and a follow-up appointment is arranged.Rob goes back to the computer room and has to complete his notes for the system, before he can be made available to see another client. As is often the case with clients of the CAB, it is not just one issue that presents itself, but a whole slew of them. Often clients may explain some symptoms, without consciously connecting them to an initially-undisclosed cause.
One of the bureau’s paid advisors, this one financed by the Royal British Legion to help veterans around the county, pops in before heading out to do home visits in Portland and West Dorset. The bell rings again. Another advisor, Eileen, takes the client through to an interview room. It is another relationship breakdown with its inevitable financial fall-out, this one to do with the disposal of joint assets, the settlement of a combination of personal and business debts and a request for advice on how to go about getting a divorce.
Helen Goldsack, the advice session supervisor, says that clients will often try to press advisors into giving directions on what the client should do, rather than advice on what they can do. ‘Clients will,’ she says, ‘ask “What would you do?”, but you have to step back and not give personal opinion. Our advice has to be impartial and only based on fact, not limited personal experience. This is why there is always a consultation between an advisor and supervisor and then the case notes are checked again by another supervisor, to ensure that only factual advice is given.’
Sometimes this may be referral to another agency – Shelter, Dorset Poverty Action Group or any one of dozens of other bodies – or another appointment with one of the specialists in the bureau.
The phone rings again. This time it is an existing client who has made an arrangement with a creditor to pay a certain amount, but the client’s income and outgoings figures make the sum offered simply impossible to achieve.
The waiting room is filling as advisors finish their case reports before becoming available again. A self-employed person is seeking advice on what to do about a much larger business that is months overdue in paying for work that has been carried out by the client.
In another interview room, a session has just concluded with an existing client, David Desmond, who is unstinting in his praise for the Dorchester CAB. ‘I’d been trying for nine years to get Disability Living Allowance (DLA) on my own and got nowhere.’ He had suffered with depression, dyslexia, dyspraxia, a damaged spine and epilepsy, which made it hard for him to fight alone, ‘After visiting CAB my DLA was quickly approved. It’s not just financially that I feel better, thanks to the CAB, I’m physically better as I don’t dip into depression when a bill pops though the door.’ His advice to those who cannot cope with their circumstances is simple: ‘Get to a CAB as soon as possible.’
The current economic climate, particularly with upcoming job losses in the public sector, makes the CAB more vital than ever, and to more people than ever before. Where once Daniel Cadisch would have been dealing largely with those at the fringes of poverty, the client base is changing. ‘After marital break-ups or commercial failures, we’re seeing professional people more and more.’ He has other concerns too: ‘We deal with 48% more workload than we did five years ago, but our pot of money has not increased. If we had to put our volunteers on salary, it would cost £350,000 a year.’
In the interview rooms, there are boxes to accept donations which, given the problems people are having, are surprisingly frequently added to by former clients. However, given the likely further increase in the volume of clients the CAB will have to deal with, Daniel is keen to emphasise that they accept contributions by cheque or via their website (www.dorchestercab.org.uk) too.
A new shift comes on-stream for the afternoon. More visitors drop in for advice, more appointments will be made, some will be broken; some clients will go away happy, others relieved, some just accepting that they really need to do something about their circumstances. All will be grateful for the attention, advice and help they have received. As the phone lines close down for the evening, and the doors are locked, the volunteers and staff go home; they know the process will begin again the next day.
As much of what is discussed in the rooms with clients, and between volunteers, advisers and supervisors at the CAB, is of a highly personal nature, this article is, by necessity, a redacted version of what was actually said by, and to, the people who came through the door; it is not direct reporting of what people came in to be advised about. Details of circumstances have been changed to protect the identities of those who, despite the difficulty of their circumstances, graciously allowed Dorset Life to sit in on their meetings with advisers.