AT THE Citizens Advice Bureau it's just one problem after another. But as they dealt with 1.7million debt problems alone last year, how could we manage without them? The answer is not at all, as I found out when I spent a day there.

8.45am. Arrive at Bournemouth Town Hall's grandly-named West Wing, home of the CAB. Three clients outside already.

8.50am. Backstage, at least six volunteers sip coffee and tap their notes into the CAB database.

8.52am. Into the office of director Martin Broad, whose job it is to keep this show on the road. In addition to the debt problem (around 60 per cent of Bournemouth's work) the Bureau helps with immigration, employment, housing and benefit issues. If they can't help, they know someone who will.

"We're assisting up to 50 people a day," says Martin, explaining that the service, which started at the beginning of World War II, is only part-funded by the council and remains a registered charity. "Volunteering is the core of what we do; we always want to hear from anyone who wants to help us."

The bureau's 70-strong volunteer workforce is worth an estimated £490,000 a year to the Borough.

"Clients fill in a simple form and then see one of our advisors. If we can help on the spot, we do. If not, they get an appointment. It's like the triage system at the hospital. I suppose we're A&E for people's problems."

Who are these people? "Everyone and anyone. In the vast majority of cases they're not here because of things they've done wrong, it's often just the lottery of life, although one person felt they were a distant relative of Marilyn Monroe and could I help find out if she'd left them money in her will!"

9.30am. Into Chris Williams' and Jo McMullen's cubbyhole office. They work for the Financial Inclusion Fund - the government initiative helping those without access to proper bank accounts. Chris has been in since 7.30am. Debt, he says, is only a problem if you can't pay it.

"It's not generally people who have been reckless and spent their money wildly," he says. "The majority of people I deal with have suffered a change of circumstances; a relationship breakdown, the man's run off leaving the woman holding the baby and the debt."

10.30am. At reception, things are hotting up. Five clients are waiting and Sarah Chapman and Amy Wilson, students on placement, are juggling calls, inquiries, and admin.

All visitors are given a form with a raffle ticket to keep track of numbers. They go through one raffle book of 1,000 tickets around every eight weeks. "We had 11 people in before 10am on Monday," says Amy.

Clients can be distressed but it does have its funny side. "One lady wanted directions to Asda," says Amy, while another wanted Sarah to help plan a route to Southampton Airport.

Radio 1 blares out. "It's relaxing for us and the clients, gives them something else to focus on and it means what they say to us can't be heard all over the waiting room," explains Amy.

"Mind you," says Sarah "We've had people just turn it off and one day someone re-tuned it to Classic FM!"

Over the next hour clients come and go, appointments fill up fast - the next free appointment is at the end of next week, and debt appointments are booked up until November.

11.30am. Volunteer Bridget is filing madly and a good job too: there are case forms wherever you look.

11.35am. Paul Heath types up case notes. Typically, he says, people come in with one problem but skilled advisers frequently uncover a whole string of issues.

One example was the lady who initially came about a benefit matter.

"Turned out she had moved here after being abused by her husband so she didn't know many people," says Paul. "One of the reasons she was broke was because her son hadn't got into college which meant she was receiving no state aid to help with his keep."

Paul looked into her benefit situation, found groups where she could make new friends, and obtained the right forms to help the son return to education. "It's the difference between them getting back in the driving seat of their lives or falling into despair," he says.

12.15 pm. General adviser Rae Stollard grabs a sandwich as she waits.. and waits.. for a client who is late. "She's not going to show," she concludes. "Someone else could have had that appointment!"

Like all the volunteers, she admits some clients drive them mad but they are not here to make judgements. What gets her goat? "Employers who pick on immigrants. And debt recovery companies who hound people when they know they have no right to."

12.30pm. Colin Cuthbert is affectionately known as Repo Man. But Stop The Repo Man would be more fitting. "Every other Tuesday I go to the county court to try and help with the possession orders and the rent arrears cases," he says.

His position is funded by Lloyds TSB but he is there to help anyone who needs it; potentially up to 70 each time.

Colin's job is to advise people of their options at a time when they may not be thinking clearly. "If you can pay your mortgage and put something towards your arrears the judge may grant a possession order but suspend it. That's good because it means that if you continue to pay you won't be repossessed. But if you don't, the lender can apply to take possession of the property. It means that if both sides stick to the bargain, it should be OK."

His favourite part of the job is this: "When you manage to get it sorted and you watch the strain and worry literally drain away from the client's faces."

1.30pm - Lunch. Well, it is for me! Everyone else is slaving.

2.30pm. Operations Manager Shirley White tackles her ever-present pile of work. She emphasises the CAB's impartiality and confidentiality and its charitable status, which means they are always delighted to receive contributions.

The bureau is closed to visitors for the day but the work goes on, some of it until 7.30pm. If lack of funds ever caused it to stop, we'd all be worse off.

  • Bournemouth CAB advice line 08444 994 105 for appointments tel 01202 290967 or log on to