IT SOUNDS too good to be true. A service where anyone can receive professional advice on anything – absolutely free.

But that is what the Citizens Advice Bureau offers – free, confidential, impartial, non-judgemental and independent advice, information and advocacy to help people going through a range of different problems.

And, despite the rise of the internet and self-help websites, the chief executive of the Basildon CAB branch, says they are busier than ever with people coming to them with welfare and benefits concerns.

Kathy Peach said: “The recession only affects a certain element of the advice we give.

“The welfare reforms have put pressure on different elements.

People on low incomes, who have used benefits to supplement their income, may suddenly find they are without them.

“Some are struggling on zero hours contracts, or a benefits cap or the under-occupancy charge.

“While I acknowledge the economy is improving, there are a lot of residents still struggling with umpteen different challenges.”

The CAB in Basildon, Billericay and Wickford has helped more than 6,000 individuals with more than 15,000 problems in the last financial year, a rise of about five per cent on the year before.

The branches saw clients almost 5,000 times in the last three months of last year, a 22 per cent rise on the previous quarter.

Ms Peach said: “Demand has increased and it seems to increase year on year.

“Until the last six months it was more about our ability to deal with it. We increased the client numbers, but we did not have the ability to deal with many more.

“Even if you went back six months we were turning people away, but we aren’t any more.”

One of the reasons the branch can deal with so many clients is the financial backing it receives from Basildon Council.

This is in contrast to the Castle Point branch which was in danger of closing due to a shortfall in its budget last month, until Castle Point Council stepped in with a £7,000 donation and helped find more funding.

Ms Peach said: “Basildon Council is very supportive of us.

They have been extremely helpful.

We get a core grant from them that continues and they fund large projects helping council tenants and anyone struggling as a result of the benefit changes.”

The branch has also changed its working practices to cope, assessing if each visitor could be helped simply by being directed to information rather than sitting down for a face-to-face interviewwith an advisor.

The CAB is run by an army of volunteers who are trained for up to nine months to provide a wide range of help from referring visitors to information to helping clients write letters, perhaps to businesses or employers.

Some branches even have solicitors who give up their time to give very expensive legal advice for free, although clients are limited to one appointment of between 20 and 30 minutes.

These volunteers are now pioneering new ways to help people in an effort to rival the likes of Martin Lewis’s Money Supermaket website by trying out a newweb chat and email service.

Ms Peach said it was important that, wherever people were getting their advice, they got the right advice.

She said: “It depends on the quality of advice someone gets.

“We are audited and have been awarded the Quality Advice Standard.

“If you get advice from you could get a good level, as is Martin Lewis’s site and Shelter’s, which can be a good service and level of information.

“But if you get advice from a mate down the pub to do ‘X’, it might not be a good idea.”