Question: What counselling organisation would accept Bernard Manning as a member? Answer: The highly reputable British Association for Counselling. But should we worry?; 4 'Are the listening therapies one of the success stories of the Nineties or are they ministering to the gullible?' 4
"pull yourself together, get a few pints down you, you'll soon feel right as rain. Let me tell you about my mother-in-law, that'll cheer you up ... " An unorthodox approach to therapy, but one you might well end up with if you approached a certain Bernard Manning, (former) member of the British Association for Counselling, "performer and performance counsellor". You'd probably get even more of a shock if you had specific problems with "racial awareness" or "sexual matters", both of which he claims as his specialities; because Bernard Manning, counsellor and Bernard Manning, comedian, notorious for his - ahem - robust treatment of politically incorrect matters, are one and the same.

His acceptance by the BAC, claiming to hold a fake diploma from a fictitious college called W G Cathod (an anagram of Watchdog, the BBC programme that put him up to the scam) was pounced on by a hostile media last week. Therapy and counselling-bashing is highly popular at the moment; in particular, much has been made of the lack of regulation in the profession. But despite a barrage of criticism, demand has never been higher. Organisations such as Relate, the Samaritans and Cruse, the bereavement care charity, all report a shortage of counselling volunteers. So are the listening therapies one of the success stories of the caring Nineties, set to burgeon ever more spectacularly? Or are they run by a bunch of charlatans, minstering to gullible dupes who would be better served by "time and common sense", as the Princess Royal suggested last week?

Accepting Bernard Manning as a member does seem like a pretty spectacular own goal for the BAC. The Sun crowed gleefully that the "65-year-old funnyman" had "fooled his way into a job as a professional counsellor". In fact, explains Lynne Walsh for the BAC, that wasn't quite how things were. Membership of the BAC can be as much for information-distribution purposes or training inquiries as for those who are already counsellors, and it is open to anyone to whom it might be useful.

"Membership of the BAC is not a qualification to act as a counsellor," says Lynne Walsh. "Ordinary members, which is what Bernard Manning became, are forbidden to call themselves MBAC (Member of the British Association for Counselling). It takes hundreds of hours of theoretical and practical work on an approved course to become an accredited member. When Bernard Manning advertised in Time Out magazine, we were instantly notified by genuine accredited members who could see there was an impostor using our name." She adds that of the BAC's 13,000 members, many are not professional counsellors - many are teachers, probation officers, nurses, teachers, vicars and "anyone who might need counselling skills or supervision or information." Bernard Manning was not listed in a register intended for public distribution. No such register will actually be published until later in the year, when the BAC will be issuing one listing its accredited members - the first of its kind.

However, the fact that such a situation can arise, and lead to such embarrassment for the BAC, underlines the disordered state of affairs that exists in the counselling and therapy worlds at the moment. Professional bodies are numerous, and the public perception of what exactly they all do is confused - if a charlatan claims to be a member of the British Association for Counselling, it will take a clued-up potential client to dig around and establish they are about to be taken for a ride. Lynne Walsh agrees this is a problem. "This has been a subject for debate within the BAC for some time - we don't allow people to pretend they've got a qualification because they're an ordinary member. But if the public wrongly assumes this is a qualification, we have a problem, and the onus is on the BAC to clear up the issue."

Trying to establish order, however, is a daunting task. "Counselling has developed over the past two decades only, and as an organisation the BAC is trying to achieve in a few years what medicine has had centuries to do," points out Lynne Walsh. "The BAC's problem is that it has tried to be very open, allow a wide range of membership, and put people onto suitable courses for accreditation after they have joined, and this is why we are vulnerable to those who don't apply in good faith."

Bona fide counsellors will not welcome Bernard's fellowship. "They are pretty pragmatic people who have seen and heard it all, but it is difficult when you get such a continual shredding in the media - particularly when at the very same time there is a great demand for counsellors to give an expert voice to all kinds of television programmes and newspaper and magazine articles," says Lynne Walsh.

Psychotherapists feel similarly beleaguered. Paul Zeal, external liaison officer for the UK Council for Psychotherapy, which publishes the only accredited list of psychotherapists available in Britain, says: "One of the things that is difficult for us is that we are a council, not a trade association. We are here to protect the public, not promote psychotherapy, so we are not well-placed to counter this sniping barrage of press coverage. One of the main criticisms we face at the moment is that people say 'Oh, anyone can call themselves a psychotherapist or a counsellor' and this is quite true. Statutory regulations would solve the problem - we can't control the title without a statute to regulate entry into the profession. There is nothing to stop you or I calling ourselves a medical doctor, but it's against the law, and we'd be picked up very quickly. For my profession that law doesn't exist."

The BAC is similarly keen to achieve legal recognition. "We've had some discussions with the Department of Health - they are generally terribly in favour of counselling, but this government is not very keen on restrictive regulations for professions," says Lynne Walsh. "There are also some within the counselling world who are not in favour - who believe that you can't evaluate the good that people can do by talking out what's on their mind. We agree that it's very difficult - for example a social worker with 25 years experience might be exactly the right stuff for counselling, but have no specific counselling training. But we still believe that there has to be some kind of measurement of whether counsellors are coming up to scratch."

The BAC is to consult its members on reorganisation and the establishment of a clearer structure. It seems likely that the present tumult - a shock to the BAC heirarchy - will help to speed this up, according to Lynne Walsh. Counselling is certainly here to stay, and is getting its house in order. But some hope things will go even further. Andrew Samuels, professor of Jungian psychology at Essex University, is a founder member of Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility, a new body set up to address social issues in a forum far wider than the privacy of the consulting room.

"Doctors, lawyers, academics have all managed to find a voice on social issues. It's time for this uniquely twentieth century profession to start to speak outside its remit," says Professor Samuels. He hopes PCSR, which in the three months since it was established has gathered 500 active members and a database of a further 400, will become an authoritative voice, particularly in the political and media arenas.

"We sit with people talking about the most private stuff - not only sex and family, but the environment, war, crime. Psychiatrists have long regarded that stuff as 'outside' and have interpreted it symbolically - if you don't like Mrs Thatcher, it's a reference to your mother - but we are realising now that if you want to work with the whole person, you have to work with their political and social selves. Therapists and counsellors can speak with authority about what is happening to the national psyche in Britain."

PCSR study groups have been established to delve into areas such as the family, education and health - and also ones less obviously within their sphere of influence, such as economics. "We're particularly interested in economics," says Professor Samuels, who describes PCSR as "progressive and left-wing". "Therapists dispute the conventional model of human nature on which most economic theory depends - driven by greed and competitiveness. When someone is accused of being a hopeless idealist, it's interesting if a therapist gets up and says 'No, what you're saying is sensible'."

So could counsellors and therapists eventually be helping to make policies that will affect us all? Perhaps we should start taking them rather more seriously. Professor Samuels hopes that ultimately, whenever a policy committee meets, a therapist will be part of the group. "Something is certainly moving - there is a great hunger to link the inner and outer worlds. Politicians are only interested in the outer one, but we are about linking dream and action, and moving forward to a different and better world."

8 British Association for Counselling 01788 550899, UK Council for Psychotherapy 0171 436 3002

how to avoid getting bernard as your counsellor

You can seek out your own therapist via the British Association of Counselling or the UK Council of Psychotherapists, or you may be referred by your GP on the NHS. Which therapist is right will depend on whether you have a specific problem (divorce, death of a partner) or are looking for less clearly definable help. Many therapists will give a free or reduced- rate assessment session. Fees often operate on a sliding scale and may even be negotiable (expect to pay around pounds 15-pounds 25 per hour). Many offer free or reduced-rate counselling to low-income clients. "A lot can be accomplished from an initial phone call to the therapist," says Lynne Walsh of the BAC. "Most people's images of counselling and psychotherapy come from the media or films so it's important to ask 'What exactly are we going to do?' Let the therapist know what you want: you should be prepared to say 'It's not useful to talk about this any more' or 'I want to talk more about this'. Today's trends are towards a single session, or a few sessions, to get back on track, rather than a prolonged period of therapy, so don't feel you have to commit yourself to a series of appointments." A recommendation from someone you trust may be useful.