The Early Branches of CPAG
Branches have waxed and waned within CPAG, and yet they were during the first three decades an enormous source of strength for the national organisation. Many of the members of the Group’s Executive Committee had started out as activists in branches, the reports and survey undertaken by branches fed into the national organisations publicity, submissions to government and publications, and campaigns were waged both on the ground through the branches and local press as well as within Whitehall and Westminster.
Many of the early branches were set up by academics, those involved in social service and social welfare either in the voluntary or public sector, and also those whose jobs brought them into contact with poverty such as teachers, JP’s and solicitors. York was a particularly good example of this with Jonathan Bradshaw, Molly and Michael Meacher and Adrian Sinfield, all from York University or employed in social welfare, active in the early branch, and all individuals who would go on to be significant in the national Group. In Manchester David Bull, later Chair of the executive committee was a founder member of the branch and was extremely active in promoting CPAG in the national media. In Birmingham the early executive committee had a number of academics as well as social workers, including Ann Stanyer an academic from Exeter University and then Coventry Polytechnic, who served on the national Executive committee and managed many of the branch surveys.
There was a broad pattern to the approach each new branch took. The preparation of a welfarerights handbook was an early priority, this often included both local and national statistics and varied in how it was produced. These publications were not straightforward to produce Sheffield noted the number of departments they had to consult and also that even then they did not have all the material which they needed. The need to establish a welfare rights stall was also an early priority of many branches, examples included Birmingham where they set up a welfare rights stall in Bull Ring which they noted was ‘very busy’. In Haringey, where Stuart Weir, who also worked for the national group in the early 1970s, was active, the branch noted that: ‘The Welfare Rights Stall in Tottenham on Saturday mornings has once again provided us with a reason to go on living with no sign of abatement in the steady stream of enquiries …Thanks to a grant from Haringey Council we are about to publish 4 new leaflets of our own for use on the Stall and door to door distribution in Tottenham … The Stall starred in BBC television’s programme “Grapevine” on welfare rights activities.’ Many branch minutes recount tales of the construction and transportation of these stalls – sadly no images have survived in the archives.
Surveys were also encouraged by central CPAG. Tony Lynes wrote to Mary Aveyard in Leeds in 1968 and noted that: ‘Branches have developed spontaneously along their own lines, depending very much on who were the active members. Those with university connections tend to be stronger on the research and speaking side; those in which F.S.U. people are active tend to concentrate on practical problems (wage stop etc.) Throughout the 1960s and 1970s one of the early surveys many branches undertook was a post office survey. It appears to have been the most straightforward survey, especially for those branches without any expertise in social science research. One shouldn’t under estimate the importance of this type of survey as Clydeside noted of the lack of forms: ‘Thus, one needs to be articulate, well-informed and persevering in many instances in order to obtain the correct up to date forms … Is this the old deterrent principle at work again or do people simply not care?’ In 1970 Frank Field wrote to the Sheffield branch regarding a survey on local authority rent practices: ‘I think this a very fine effort … If you want national publicity on this … would you like to get in touch with us?’ Clydeside undertook a take-up survey on rent rebates and allowances: ‘A press release was issued and the survey results were reported by BBC Radio, S.T.V. The Scotsman and the Evening Times among others… At the same time the Group produced an “instant” guide to rebates and allowances …. 10,000 were printed most of which went to various agencies concerned with advising tenants in Glasgow’.
Many branches were remarkably good at building local media contacts and building the presence of CPAG locally. In Sheffield they noted that contact with local press that year, 1968-9, had involved 3 radio interviews and also 4 feature articles. The Leeds AGM in 1974 noted that their local media presence was still strong and they had been offered a series of 12 three minute programmes on welfare rights, as well as being invited by Radio Leeds to talk about LPAG. They also had good coverage in the local press. The importance of this work was noted by Tony Lynes at a Camden meeting in 1968 when he spoke about groups already formed, Birmingham and Merseyside: ‘These groups make use of local organisations, local press and television, enlist panels of speakers – in short, they do everything possible to bring the public’s attention to the plight of people living in poverty in their immediate area. In this way, a few people who are prepared to work hard locally can wield an enormous amount of influence.’ The latter comment standing as wider testament to the commitment of the many branch activists in their efforts to report and act against poverty in their local communities.
 LSE/CPAG/66 (408) Sheffield, Letter, 24 February 1968.
 LSE/CPAG/64 (339) Clydeside, Take up Survey, 26 October 1972.
 LSE/CPAG/66 (408) Sheffield, Letter, 22 March 1970.
 LSE/CPAG/64 (339) Clydeside, Newsletter, 1972.
 LSE/CPAG/64 (336) Leeds, AGM, 7 January 1974.
 LSE/CPAG/66 (397) Camden, Meeting Report, 5 February 1968.
More images from the archives