NAWRA: origins and ancient history

Geoff Fimister, a founder member, writes……

The National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers (NAWRA) first met in January 1975, as the Welfare Rights Officers’ Group (WROG) and notes of the inaugural meeting survive.  During the 1970s, it became known as the National Welfare Rights Officers’ Group (to distinguish it from the regional versions that were beginning to emerge).

The main purpose of the group was to co-ordinate the activities of the local authority Welfare Rights Officers who had been springing up around the country in the previous couple of years – although the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) was involved from the outset, along with a few other voluntary sector rights organisations.

WROG operated as an information and ideas exchange and a campaigning and lobbying body – much as NAWRA does today.

The switch to NAWRA came about in 1992. It was fairly controversial at the time. Some members thought that a more structured organisation, with more formal terms of reference, would increase the network’s status, efficiency and effectiveness. Others felt strongly that “professionalisation” would adversely affect our credibility among claimants and grassroots advisers and campaigners. The advocates of a NAWRA rather than a WROG prevailed and we hope that history has shown those reservations to have been largely unfounded.

So how, exactly, did WROG come to be?

The late Tony Lynes was arguably the first local authority welfare rights adviser in the UK. Tony had been CPAG’s Secretary – that is, the Group’s first Director – but by 1969 was working for Oxfordshire’s Children’s Department, as a “Family Casework Organiser”. This was an already existing post, inappropriately titled for its new purpose. It now involved advising social services staff on benefit issues; preparing welfare rights information materials; and direct advice to and advocacy for claimants, including negotiating with benefit authorities and representing at appeal tribunals. As Tony put it, when I interviewed him in 1985 for a book I was writing on welfare rights work in social services, “I suppose I would have called myself a family finances consultant”.

The post lapsed when Tony left in 1971, the year before Manchester set up the first local authority Welfare Rights Service as such, headed by Paul Burgess. Several more Councils followed suit over the next couple of years, including my own post in Newcastle upon Tyne in October 1974. A group of us got together in London in January 1975 and the local government welfare rights movement was up and running. Tony was always greatly respected by local authority welfare rights workers, but not everyone realised he was our illustrious predecessor.

The first WROG meeting came about as a result of separate visits that the late John Murray and I made to CPAG’s dingy but characterful offices in Macklin Street (an alley off Drury Lane) to see Stuart Weir, then head of CPAG’s Citizens’ Rights Office. The idea of bringing together the first specimens of this exotic new species – the local authority Welfare Rights Officer – was raised in both meetings. We all thought it was a runner and Stuart offered to organise it.

John Murray (a native of Bury, Lancs, with the accent to prove it) was appointed as Welfare Rights Officer in Wandsworth on exactly the same day as I started in Newcastle. I wrote to him to make contact and he phoned me at about 4.30 one afternoon, to be told – wrongly – by the receptionist that I had gone home. “What time does it go dark up there?” asked John, puzzled – an early illustration of our national reach.

The inaugural meeting took place at the National Council of Social Service offices in London on 17 January 1975. The link will take you to scanned copies of battered and fading notes from the meeting. Participants were drawn from all over Britain. The matters discussed are of their time, but also strangely familiar. As one current CPAG employee put it to me:

“I wasn’t even born then and it’s all the same issues!”

2025 is the 50th. Anniversary. Will we still be needed in 2075? Very likely……

Were you involved in the early days of NAWRA? Please do get in touch.