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Lord Laming moved Amendment No. 11:

("(e) the provision of independent advocacy assistance for children and young people").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 11, I shall speak also to Amendments No. 25, 26, 29 and 31.

The amendment aims to ensure that there is regulation and the availability of independent advocacy for young people who are looked after and who are leaving care. As the Minister said earlier--and

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I agree with him--young people looked after are generally less mature than their peers. We have already expressed concern about their general poor educational standards and limited resources for living independently.

Many young people who are looked after feel that they have had a lifetime, or at least too many years, of having other people make decisions about what is supposed to be good for them. Sometimes they feel that they are up against a vast bureaucratic organisation and they even feel intense anger towards those who are there to help them, whether justified or not. There needs to be another way of ensuring that young people have their voice heard. Often the situations are complicated. In an earlier discussion the Minister referred to the complaints procedure that is available for young people, and that is to be welcomed. However, they need to have available to them adequate advocacy arrangements, which need to be required so that the local authority is capable of being evaluated against the standard and availability of provision.

I hope that the Minister will see that the amendments are intended to ensure that young people leaving care will have available to them adequate advocacy arrangements so that if they feel unable to present their concerns to the authorities satisfactorily there will be somebody to stand alongside them, to assist them, and represent them as and when needed. I beg to move.

Earl Howe: I rise to speak to Amendments Nos. 11 and 25. Children often tell us that they are not listened to, proper explanations are not given and decisions are taken over their heads. They say that they feel powerless in those circumstances. I associate myself with the analysis of the problem given by the noble Lord, Lord Laming.

Child law is complex and the practice of social services departments is variable, to say the least, and frequently now resource led. Advocacy is the means whereby the law can be properly implemented on behalf of children. Not only that, public care itself fails many children and there has been a plethora of reports detailing abuse and neglect in the care system, as we all know. Without a legal right to advocacy, the rights and welfare of children are not being properly safeguarded.

The experience of young people using an advocate is that it makes a significant difference to what happens to them. Obviously they do not get exactly what they want on every occasion, but 85 per cent of users of advocacy services say that the outcome achieved most of what they wanted and they felt that the advocate made a difference.

I have here some comments from young people about the impact of advocacy. One said:

    "She was able to communicate for me in a way that made those in authority listen in a way that I couldn't".

Another said:

    "My advocate did in three weeks what I had been trying to do for three years".

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The third said:

    "She was the best, I would recommend her to everyone".

The need for independent and confidential advocacy services for children and young people looked after by local authorities has been clearly illustrated and endorsed by the findings of Sir William Utting in his review.

This has been picked up by the Government in their Quality Protects programme and in November 1999 it was stated that,

    "particular attention should be given to ... enhancing [young people's] voices, for example through the development of individual advocacy services".

The provision of these services to date has been on a fairly ad hoc basis, with great variations in regional and local availability and the quality of service. At present there is no statutory requirement for local authorities to fund, or even to permit, advocates to visit children who are looked after by them. It is not right, in principle, that the provision of advocacy should be dependent on the whim and/or financial support of the authority with whom the young person may be in dispute. Those practices are discriminatory and, as I understand, in breach of Article 2 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Turning briefly to Amendment No. 25, this is a much more straightforward amendment. As the Bill stands at present, there is no requirement for the Secretary of State to make any regulations at all. Although the 1991 regulations are under review, it seems sensible that they should form the basis for the complaint system under this section. At Second Reading the Minister said [at col. 1158 of the Official Report] that it was anticipated that the existing Children Act complaints procedure would be used. If so, I believe this should be reflected on the face of the Bill. The significance of this complaints procedure as distinct from the procedure under the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 is the requirement of an independent element in both the investigation and panel review hearing. Young people are not confident in using complaints procedures and this is why the independent element is so important, together with the provision of independent advocacy support.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones: I rise briefly to support both the noble Lord, Lord Laming, in putting his amendment and the noble Earl, Lord Howe. Independent advocacy is an instrument whose time has come. There is no doubt about that. We had a number of debates about this in the Care Standards Bill. As the noble Earl, Lord Howe, pointed out, the Government have accepted that independent advocacy is desirable but nowhere do we see that reflected in either the Care Standards Bill or, indeed, in this Bill. It is something which service users of all descriptions are now seeking.

I was at a mental health service users conference and one of the key things they wanted was independent advocacy, because if you are up against the public

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services, if you are up against the big battalions, that will provide the kind of reassurance and assistance that is really needed. Nowhere is it more important than for these vulnerable young people who are faced with some very important decisions being made and people who appear extremely powerful in relation to their own lives.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, mentioned the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, but it is far from clear whether the Government are complying with that convention. One way of making clear that we are observing that convention is to provide independent advocacy for these young people. Therefore, while I recognise that there may be financial constraints about which we will no doubt have further discussions, in principle this must be the right way to go. This will provide the right kind of protection for these young people and I urge the Minister to consider the matter.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: The element of independence is very important and, if I might mention it again, in young offenders' institutions there is an independent body--the Board of Visitors. So many issues can be sorted out while they are little molehills and before they become mountains. This would help when there are problems in giving support to the young person's adviser, and the sorting out of the complicated forms for benefit. We have talked about disabled young people within the Bill. Their benefits are so complicated that they have a citizens' advice service to help them sort out those complicated forms. Many of these people will not have had good education and some of them cannot read or write. The issue is important.

The Earl of Listowel: I support the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and the noble Earl, Lord Howe, drawing attention to the lack of educational qualifications of children in care, currently leaving with one minimal paper qualification. We are talking about people who are not trained to express themselves well. They are not trained to think carefully and analytically--skills we take for granted but which they lack.

I should also like to point out another difficulty these young people face if they feel they have been rejected by their previous carers, whoever they may be. Faced with new carers those young people feel a tremendous debt of gratitude to those people. That makes them vulnerable to anything those carers suggest. That is another reason that the support of independent advocates is so important to these young people.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I am grateful to noble Lords for returning us to a matter that we have already discussed in the Care Standards Bill. Many of the same arguments are being deployed today as have been deployed already in that Bill. I should be the first to acknowledge that advocacy can be a very important part of the armoury of ensuring that young people are provided with the right kind of support that they require, particularly in the difficult circumstances to which many noble Lords have referred.

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It is my understanding that advocacy is grounded in Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which assures to children capable of forming their own views the right to express those views freely. It is also worth pointing out that the Children Act includes provisions respecting the entitlement of children to be consulted and to have their views and feelings taken into account.

I fully accept the point made, particularly by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, that current provision in relation to advocacy is patchy. However, a number of local authorities and voluntary organisations have done very good work in this area. We have a number of excellent national advocacy services which are available to help local authorities in that area. My own department has funded many of these organisations to prepare national standards for children's advocacy services, and these were subject to extensive consultation last year. My understanding is that they are due to be published in the spring.

In addition, listening to children is a major theme of the safeguards review and the Quality Protects programme. Indeed children's participation is a priority area for the special grant under Quality Protects. As part of that, the Quality Protects programme is mapping at the moment current provision in relation to advocacy. This will inform us in terms of our future intentions and will enable greater coherence to be provided in the future. This package of initiatives as a whole to secure advocacy and to ensure that it is of a high standard is a visible indication of the Government's wish and commitment to advocacy, both in principle and practice. It is because of the measures that we are taking that we do not see the need to specify it on the face of the Bill. Perhaps I may turn to the amendments because they raise a series of specific points about provisions in the Children Act and new provisions in the Bill.

Amendment No. 29 introduces advocacy into Section 22 of the Children Act. The amendment would require a local authority to permit a child the assistance of an independent advocate whenever the local authority was engaged in ascertaining the wishes or feelings of the child, or making decisions taking account of those wishes and feelings. I ought to stress the word "whenever" here as the decisions that could relate to it could be both great and small. There are obviously a great many minor decisions to be made about a child in care. While the Government are committed to the principle of advocacy, it is important that we do not intrude where there could be an enormous bureaucratic burden to all concerned.

Amendment No. 11 concerns advocacy as part of the needs assessment process for "relevant children". This would specify that the regulations setting out the assessment process must deal with the provision of independent advocacy for those young people. Members of the Committee are right to recognise the important of the assessment process which we discussed earlier. It is the vital first step in drawing up the pathway plans and obviously it is important that the young person feels ownership of that. A pathway

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plan, no matter how well thought out, will not work if the young person feels it is being imposed upon him or her.

We anticipate that the key relationship in ensuring that the plan is properly owned and that it works will be the relationship between the young person and the young person's adviser. That is what the Bill is all about. The adviser will not be an advocate in that sense, because it will not be the adviser's role to put the young person's case uncritically, right or wrong. However, it will be very much the role of the young person's adviser to negotiate as necessary with the young person about the content of the plan, as we have already debated. Sometimes the young person's adviser will need to inject a note of realism into the aspirations of the young person. For other young people, they will have the opposite task, which will be to ensure that they have sufficient ambition in order to realise their potential. Clearly, the reason we are here today is that so many young people in the past have not had the ambition, they have not had the support and have not realise their potential.

Once that relationship has been established and the essentials have been agreed, the young person's adviser may well act as an advocate to ensure the right support from the local authority and other key players. The discussion that the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, raised earlier is a case in point, where having gone through the process of establishing a relationship with a young person in developing the pathway plan, that young person's adviser could then well be an advocate for that young person in negotiating with the local authority in the circumstances which the noble Baroness put forward.

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