Memories of HFCAB

Rosemary Vase, former manager of Hammersmith & Fulham CAB, takes a look back at 25 years of advice-giving at the bureau from 1978 to 2003, at our 75th anniversary AGM

I’m very honoured to be asked to speak at the 75th anniversary of Fulham CAB. I last made a speech at the Bureau AGM about 10 years ago and thought – and hoped – it would be my last one, but here I am for a trip down memory lane!

I started at Fulham CAB in early 1978 as trainee advice worker. I had first been to Chelsea in the Kings Road so Cobbs Hall in Lillie Road was a bit of a comedown. We shared a building with the council’s social services, that is to say we had 2 tiny rooms in their building in a semi basement. One was an interviewing room with 2 desks and a filing cabinet dividing the two. Overly curious advice workers and clients could peer round the cabinets if they heard anything interesting! So confidentiality was at a premium. The other room was an admin room where about 5 of us were cramped together and although the organiser had a desk, none of the rest of us had a permanent place and we had to literally hot desk, as we did our write ups on hot storage radiators. This was where we answered the telephone as well and we were open all hours for phone and personal advice. The organiser (which is what managers were called in those days) organised absolutely everything, interviewed clients, answered the telephone, stopped fights in the waiting room, communicated with our head office and negotiated with the council for the grant. I eventually was given a permanent advice worker job at the Bureau after 3 months.

CABx were just emerging from the twin set and pearls era, although signs of it remained. I remember reading a case card (yes a card – written, no computers then) which described on the front “client rather dim and frightened, I feel”. This was written by the ex-organiser of the Bureau who was well known for poking trainees with her walking stick when she sat behind them if they gave wrong advice!

In 1980 the Bureau moved to more salubrious premises in Greyhound Road, although still part of it was a basement. We were part of a London Organisation, called for short ‘GLOCAB’s, (not a taxi firm, but Greater London Organisation of CABx) a hotbed of revolutionaries – or so Mrs Thatcher thought when she was responsible for its abolition along with all pan-London organisations, like the GLC. We were much more right on and politically correct by this time and anti racism training was the order of the day. For the first time we employed black and ethnic minority workers and became much more aware of equalities issues. It had finally dawned on the service that it needed to be closer to its clients and reflect the local population.

During the time in Greyhound Road we acquired one computer, an Amstrad. I remember that when we wanted the monthly statistics we had to turn it on on Friday evenings to give it time to churn out screeds of paper by the following Monday with the stats. I guess it takes about 2 seconds to do that now! I became the manager in 1985, the title having changed from organisers to give managers some status, so they could carry on doing everything with a better title! The funding situation was becoming increasingly complicated and we had an annual set-to with the council over the grant. The Bureau had only paid workers in those days and no volunteers, so our grant was sufficient to pay for four or five advisers, an admin worker and a manager. We did have one infamous volunteer who used her time in the Bureau to print out adverts for telephone boxes saying “buxom blonde available”…

In 1988, we were offered new premises in what had been a public lavatory in Mund Street. The area was known as Bogs Bend by locals and our first enquiry when were moving in was from someone who wanted to use the public toilet. The building consisted of masses of glass and in our first year it was surprising that no-one collapsed in there as in the summer the temperature regularly reached the 90s. Fortunately, the Council paid for air conditioning after our first summer. We shared the building with HAFAD and the plus was that it was totally disabled accessible which had certainly never been true before.

Through the late 80s and early 90s there came a time of expansion, the local authority increased the bureau’s grant. For the first time we were offered 3 year funding agreements with the council, so the necessity for an annual set-to disappeared. We also started to get funding from other sources and develop new specialist projects to reach out to people who didn’t want to or couldn’t use the conventional service. First came money advice to deal with increasing client debt problems, followed by our welfare benefits project for people with HIV/AIDS, a mental health outreach project, a debt project with the council helping clients with housing and council tax debts, an adviser in GP surgeries, a telephone advice project and, last but not least, the Legal Aid franchise in debt and welfare rights. Funding was increasingly complicated and involved many sources. So the role of the manager became much more about managing and developing projects and funding than dealing with clients. But there was always the occasional fight in the waiting room (or even amongst workers) to sort out. There were still problems with the council grant keeping pace with inflation when times were hard for the local authority and we actually had a sit-in in a council building and appeared on London TV news together with all the firebrands from the Law Centre! HAFAD moved out of the building to more suitable premises and we were able to expand in to the other side of the building, although it became very crowded with all the new workers.

We had a couple of computers by the mid 90s, Richard was our expert and no-one else knew anything about them, so every time anything went wrong we would call him and he would shout “re-boot” across the room. He came to me one day and said we needed more computers, one for everyone. I was horrified “more computers “ it was a bit like Oliver Twist asking for more. Of course, I said no. But eventually CAB nationally provided all bureaux with many more computers and by the time I left everyone had one and there was one in every interviewing room. Now I guess everyone has one and a laptop and an iPad and advice is done on Twitter !

We also took the radical step in Mund Street of changing over from an open door to an appointments system and were one of the first bureaux to do this. The position of the bureau on the West Kensington estate meant that were permanently busy with queues outside all the time and it was felt that appointments were the way forward. Although in my opinion, there is never a perfect system. I wonder how many bureaux in London and other cities have an open door policy now ?

My time with CAB ended in 2003. I think the Bureau was in good shape and had moved with the times and taken up opportunities for funding. I am sure that it has continued to develop since then and look at gaps in the service and try to remedy those. I had the privilege of working with many dedicated colleagues (some of whom are here today) and a supportive Trustee Board and I was proud to be part of a fantastic organisation that fought for the rights of people and I’m sure that it will continue to do so. I was pleased to be at the party that celebrated 50 years of Fulham CAB at Fulham Palace in 1989 and I am delighted to be here today to celebrate our 75th anniversary.