British Welfare Reform


America might take cues from Britain’s Citizens Advice Bureaux.

Americans are used to the concept of constitutional litigation, which is launched by federally-subsidized legal-services office that seeks to invalidate state or municipal laws. They often overwhelm the unprepared assistant state attorney generals and assistant city solicitors, who must defend municipal and state laws at a moments notice. Federally-subsidized legal services offices have a lot of young lawyers. They are often “full of enthusiasm but not understanding,” Justice Brandeis famously said. Public law offices are known for their ability to foster maturity, tolerance and an understanding of conservative viewpoints.

After activist groups initiate the litigation process there is a celebration of inlegitimacy. They aren’t responsible for individual clients and they are assisted and abetted through the American practice of judiciary review of statutes. This equips thousands with a baton and provides them with an opportunity to assist and encourage others. This practice is very different from the European one, where the constitutional review power is only vested in the highest court.

In Britain, by contrast, poorer potential litigants have recourse to Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABs), a distinctive British social institution established at the outset of World War II of which there were 1000 by the war’s end. They were initially established to help the general public with matters such as wartime evacuation and call-ups.

At the end of World War II, the bureaux were directed to helping individuals comply with regulations of welfare state. This included housing, installment purchase and consumer protection legislation. By 1969, the bureaux had between 5000 and 8000 volunteers, 75 percent of them women, and not more than 2000 part-time employees; the volunteers were housewives, retired teachers, nurses, social workers, and professional men. By 1993-94, there were 27,000 workers, 90 percent of them unpaid, processing 7.6 million inquiries, about 24 percent of which related to social security and consumer matters respectively, and 10 percent each to family, housing, and employment matters. Two-thirds of the bureaux functioned without paid help and only 9 had paid solicitors; there were volunteer solicitors in about 15 percent of the bureaux.

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The bureaux are an example of the Charity Organization Society’s philosophy. They emphasize casework, give advice that is separate from material aid and do not impose any means tests. By 1994, the CABs received central-government grants of PS12.2 million and local-government grants of PS37 million, or about $140 million at the rate of exchange then prevailing; adjusting for population, the equivalent for a U.S. program would be $840 million. Four times as much value was attributed to volunteers than were government appropriations.

In fiscal year 2022, the American legal-services program received federal appropriations of $600 million, and state, local, and private contributions of almost twice that amount, for a total approximating $2 billion.

The CAB issues reference and training materials–800 items in a four-drawer filing cabinet, supplemented monthly. According to some, the CABs fight like tigers in order to stop children being placed into foster care. The advice bureaux, unlike bureaucratic agencies offer clients the “luxury of talking” and are expected to give all possible options to their clients and refrain from disclosing their political views.

There are legal-services programs available in Britain. They are focused on individual cases and not on trying to change social policy by bringing class action suits. Because it replaces American contingent fees in tort cases, the British legal-aid program can be quite expensive.

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Prof. Alfred J. Kahn made proposals for American neighborhood information centers in a 1966 study for the Columbia School of Social Work, but they were stillborn. It is regrettable, as CABs can be nonpartisan and advisors to them are older people who see human nature the way it is. American’s “War on Poverty” explicitly favored class advocacy over individual casework. Its neighborhood offices are managed by professionals and not volunteers who dedicate themselves to overthrowing existing social institutions, and creating new ones. American programs have emphasized legal services over social work and encouraged a culture that encourages complaining rather than constructive effort. The national partisan war has kept it in constant conflict. By contrast, when the CAB program was questioned by a doctrinaire Thatcher government cabinet minister in1983, he was relegated to the back-benches, with the program receiving nearly unanimous support from Conservative members of the House of Commons.

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About 3.4 percent of volunteers are ethnic minorities who make up 5.1 percent of the British population; 2.7 percent are disabled persons, and 54 percent are over the age of 55. Of those aided by CABs, 60 percent are not working, 11 percent are single parents, 27 percent are black and 90 percent have below-average income. About 40 percent of the population consults the CAB at least once in their lifetime, and one-third of the online population consults it at least once each year. Australia, New Zealand and Ghana have all imitated the CAB.

The Bureaux are a powerful force in law reform and expose many middle-class laymen the issues of the poor. America can learn from them.

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