The Children’s Commissioner has today (13 June) published her review of independent advocacy services in England. This shows that 29% of local authorities do not know how advocacy services are provided to children in respect of health complaints – despite them having a legal duty to make such arrangements since 2012. Nine local authorities were unable to say what advocacy arrangements are in place for social care complaints, even though this has been a statutory duty for 30 years.
A survey of managers of advocacy services found majority support (68%) for moving towards ‘one-stop’, local advocacy services – working across services and systems.
Advocacy services provide independent information and help to ensure children and young people are heard and their rights protected. The first service was set up by Leicestershire County Council in 1987. This was for children in care and care leavers. Now local authorities have myriad duties to arrange for independent advocacy for children and young people, including:
- When they receive (or are entitled to) social care services
- When they wish to make a complaint about a health service
- When they are detained in a mental health unit
- Young people who are homeless
- Children who run away or go missing.
Independent advocates also visit and help children in young offender institutions and secure training centres, though there is no statutory duty for this. Many children’s homes and mental health hospitals have ‘visiting advocates’ who regularly spend time with children, gaining their trust and being there to help them be heard as individuals or collectively.
The Children’s Commissioner makes 10 recommendations for strengthening and improving children and young people’s advocacy, including a consolidation of the law so that entitlements to advocacy are clear and the revision of national standards (statutory guidance). She urges advocacy providers to publish an ‘independence statement’ which sets out to children and young people how the advocacy service is separate from health, social care and other services. Continuing revelations of human rights abuses in prisons and mental health units underline the importance of advocates being able to act robustly and independently for children.
Article 39’s Director, Carolyne Willow, was a member of the Commissioner’s working group for this review. She said:
“Advocates are vitally important for children and young people living in institutional settings, whether this be children’s homes, mental health units or prisons. They give strength and power to children’s voices and make sure their rights are upheld. For a child who feels alone and unheard, having a person who respects them and takes the time to listen – and makes others listen – can be truly revolutionary.
“Advocates are also a lifeline for young people struggling in the community trying to access support and services.
“We hope the government, local authorities and advocacy providers will quickly accept and implement the Commissioner’s important recommendations. As we celebrate 30 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child this year, this report shows how to practically implement the treaty’s obligations. Advocates empower children who are often in extremely powerless situations; they are not an optional extra but a crucial mechanism for making sure all children enjoy their rights.“
Article 39’s work with the Children’s Commissioner was instigated by the late John Kemmis, a brilliant champion for children and young people’s rights and advocacy services. We pay tribute to him.
The Commissioner’s report and recommendations can be found here.