Citizens’ Advice Bureau (CAB) Shetland manager Les Irving celebrated 10 years in the job last Friday.
Originally from Gateshead, Mr Irving came to Shetland in 1981 to work for the SIC social work department, which he did for almost 18 years. On 18th December 1999 he took up the post of CAB manager, based then at Commercial Street in Lerwick. Looking back over the decade, Mr Irving said: “I don’t know if ‘celebrate’ is quite the right word, really. We advise people who are living with very difficult circumstances: debt, redundancy, housing worries, problems at work, etc. Often they are very depressed and their problem is impacting on their family relationship or their job. We regularly see people who are in tears with worry.
“But on the other hand it is very satisfying to be able to help such people, and assist them to turn their lives around. We have achieved a great deal in the last decade. We’ve expanded our service considerably, to meet the growing demand. The number of cases we’ve dealt with has more than doubled in that time. And last year we helped 16 per cent of the total population of Shetland, which is astonishing really.”
Mr Irving’s time in charge of the bureau has seen significant growth. When he took over they had three paid staff and 13 volunteers, dealt with 2,500 clients a year, secured £127,751 for clients and managed just over £1 million of debt. Now it is 13 paid staff (shortly rising to 15) and 29 volunteers, deal with 7,000 clients, secure £1.5 million for clients and manage £3.3 million of debt.
In the early days CAB only gave face-to-face and phone advice, but now it advises by email and text messages too – in fact Shetland was the first branch in the country to do so.
Mr Irving said: “I’d say the biggest change is the pace of the work. The level of demand is growing all the time, and we have to work hard to keep up. We are constantly in need of volunteers to join our advice team – and we’ll be recruiting new volunteers again in the New Year if anyone is interested. Technology has advanced too, of course, and that affects the way we work.
“In terms of the type of cases we see, I’d say that personal debt has grown as an issue – even just over the last couple of years. But housing and benefit problems are also very consistently high on the scale of things we deal with. We now employ specialist paid staff to cope with these increasingly complex areas of work, but our volunteer advisers will always remain the bedrock of our service.
“We have also extended our areas of work into community mediation, restorative justice with both adults and children, family mediation, children’s rights – these are projects that you will not find in any other CAB in Scotland or even the UK. I don’t know whether this makes us innovative or reckless, but what I do know is that they have the same positive impact on people’s lives as our more traditional services. “But of course some things don’t change at all. The basic principle of our service is that people need help, and so we need to provide it. That was the case in 1999, and it is the case today. And similarly, our guiding ethos remains the same. The CAB exists to give advice which is free, impartial and confidential. That hasn’t changed, and never will.”
As to the future, Mr Irving said Shetland had, sadly, never been in more need of a strong advice service. All the sectors of the local economy were facing challenges, and despite the way service had expanded, the level of demand kept getting higher too.
He said: “Our waiting room is rarely empty, and our telephone service is never idle either. People are facing personal crises every day. So they turn to us – and I shudder to think what would happen to them if we weren’t here to advise them.
“So we intend to be here as long as people need us. I feel very much a part of this community and am proud of the role the CAB plays in it, particularly the amazing commitment of all our volunteers.
“We never turn anyone away. Whatever your problem is, come and see us or pick up the phone to talk to us. We don’t have a magic wand I’m afraid. We won’t be able to wish your problem away. But we will do our best to help you get to grips with it. That’s what we’re here for.”
The service has not been without its funny moments either, as Mr Irving recalled.
“A 76-year-old man from Unst had won tickets for T in the Park and he wanted to know if he would pay his transport. A woman phoned to ask if we knew where she could buy directoire knickers. Then when we introduced the email advice, one of the first messages was a woman asking: ‘How long do I have to be employed before I can get pregnant?’”
CAB Scotland chief executive Kaliani Lyle, who recently travelled to Shetland to meet Mr Irving and his team, congratulated him on his decade as manager.
She said: “Les is one of these people who sums up what the CAB is all about. He cares passionately about his community, understands people on a very personal level, and works incredibly hard to help them.
“The growth of the bureau over the last 10 years has been tremendous, and it clearly offers an excellent service to the people in Shetland. That is a tribute to all the staff and volunteers of course, but Les is the man at the helm and he deserves enormous credit.
I congratulate him on his 10th anniversary and hope he will be here for many years to come.”