Maggie Hartford talks to Gill Tishler, director of Oxford CAB, on 75 years of help

Oxford graduate Gill Tishler was working in Whitehall, on her way up the career ladder to becoming a high-flying civil servant, when she realised she needed a change.

“I knew that people understood what my job was, because I was the one from the TV programme Yes Prime Minister, the Principal Private Secretary in the civil service.”

The BBC comedy, popular in the 1980s, showed a beleaguered PM being manipulated by civil servants, to good and bad effect.

Ms Tishler decided to take a different path and is now director of Oxford Citizens Advice Bureau.

“I had been thinking for some time that taking my civil service experience and using it in the voluntary sector, on campaigning, would be really interesting. I had learnt a lot about how decisions are made in government.”

Her first move was to the Royal National Institute of Blind People, where she spent seven years as Parliamentary officer and then head of public affairs. Back in Oxford, she then worked for the YWCA, which had its head office in Cornmarket Street.

She joined the CAB as director of the Plymouth bureau before returning to Oxford again in 2010, and now she is spearheading the bureau’s plans to celebrate its 75th anniversary with a gala celebration at Oxford Town Hall in July.

Digging into the archives, she was surprised how quickly the queues formed when Oxford CAB opened its doors the day after the Second World War broke out. A crowd built up outside its offices in Beaumont Street to ask about blackout materials, gas masks and evacuees.

During the war years, calls reached 1,000 a month. Once rationing started, people needed help with food and clothing coupons, or somewhere to live after bombing raids. Then evacuees started to arrive from London. Families also got into debt trying to cope when the breadwinner was called up for military service.

“Some of the problems were different, but some were the same. We still get enquiries about missing persons – we refer people to the Red Cross – and, of course, debt is a huge issue.”

In its 75-year history, Oxford CAB has moved five times, and has now signed a five-year lease with its landlord, Magdalen College, for its current “idiosyncratic” offices in an historic building at 95 St Aldate’s.

When Ms Tishler arrived in 2010, she soon became aware of Oxford’s extremes of wealth and deprivation.

“Plymouth is a very poor city and has higher deprivation, but the income gap and life expectancy gap is not as marked as between, say, North Oxford and Blackbird Leys. Everywhere has people who are facing challenges, but I was struck by how that was happening here alongside such privilege, or what looks like privilege.”

She was also surprised how much advice was provided with such slender resources.

“I spent the first three months writing funding bids. Three years is a long grant these days.

“Throughout the time I have been here, Oxford City Council has continued to support the bureau in a wide range of ways, but it is only able to fund 50 per cent of what we need to keep going. We have to raise the rest ourselves – £200,000 a year.”

Over the 75 years, problems have changed remarkably little. Wartime clients asked about employment, managing on a low income, insecure housing, rogue landlords or poor practice from employers. Today the top four problems people face are debt, benefits, employment and housing.

Despite the CAB’s online and telephone service, the number of people wanting face-to-face advice is still growing, with problems becoming more complex.

“People’s lives are not straightforward, although government computer systems would like to think they are. It doesn’t take much to go wrong for people to come close to the edge. Sometimes people in bad health or with disabilities just can’t face wrestling the system.”

Last year the Oxford bureau provided advice to nearly 7,000 people, she said.

“National research shows that with our help, two in three clients leave our service with their problem completely or partially resolved and 86 per cent of clients report a positive impact of advice on their lives.”

She added: “We also use the wealth of individual stories that we hear from clients to campaign for policy changes that benefit everyone. Here in Oxford we have done our bit to bring about improvements in regulation of payday loans, and to improve the way sickness and disability benefits are administered by the DWP.”

The CAB’s campaign on private renting – “you are better protected buying a toaster than renting a flat” – is particularly relevant in Oxford, she says.

She is proud that the service has continued over 75 years of profound social and economic change.

“The common thread is that people are asking for information, and if they are able to use it, that gives them the power and the energy to exercise their rights and responsibilities.

“We help people to develop the skills and confidence they need to help themselves in future: in other words we do all we can to be the fence at the top of the cliff rather than the ambulance at the bottom.

“During the war the Government recognised that we are good at getting information to people, and that is even more true now. That is why we have been asked to provide information when the rules on pensions change, for example.

“Nowadays we provide a whole raft of information about very diverse issues and there is a recognition that we are a name to trust.

“People know that we can provide information and advice that is going to be accurate, impartial and confidential – but people are sometimes surprised that we are an independent charity, not part of local or national government.

“We rely on time and effort being given by volunteers. If we could match that in funding, life would be a lot easier.”

She is hoping the anniversary will build support for a more financially stable period after the years struggling to stay afloat financially.

“We are so grateful to the Friends of Oxford CAB, who support us for the long term. Predictable income year on year that can be used for anything is so valuable to make sure that we can keep the doors open and carry on providing the service.”

For details about the anniversary celebrations, or to become a friend of the CAB, email