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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, noble Lords who have debated with me for some time the issue of independent advocacy will know that I am very pleased to have been able to table an amendment that will secure the provision of advocacy services for the children and young people who need them most.

The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, posed the question of what we meant by "advocacy services". It is my understanding that there is no single accepted definition. I agree that it is important to be clear as to what we are talking about.

The National Advocacy Standards, which are due to be published by the end of this month, state:

In my Amendment No. 115A, I use the term "assistance", but I make it clear that it is intended to cover precisely these kinds of services. The National Advocacy Standards will be encompassed within Section 7 statutory guidance.

The amendment that I have tabled takes a slightly different approach from that of the other amendments in this group. My amendment inserts a new clause into the Bill which seeks to insert a new Section 26A into the Children Act. This self-contained section enables all the provisions relating to assistance to be provided in connection with the complaints procedures under the Children Act to be set out in one place.

Subsection (1) of the proposed new section provides that local authorities must make arrangements to provide assistance for children and young people who make or intend to make complaints under the Children Act procedures. This covers the standard procedure under Section 26 and also the procedure for young people leaving care under Section 24D inserted by the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000—when we had an extensive discussion about advocacy. This makes it explicit that local authorities must put in place arrangements to provide services to support these children and young people. As the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, suggested, one improvement that my amendment makes on the other amendments tabled on the issue is that it enables local authorities to arrange to provide assistance to children and young people who have not yet complained but who intend to do so. That will ensure that children will be given help in initiating complaint procedures and that they will have a voice in the process.

Subsection (2) provides that the assistance that local authorities put in place must include representation. That will ensure that the services provide for the needs of children and young people who need or wish to have someone to speak on their behalf. Subsection (3)(a)

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provides that advocacy services must not be provided by a person who is prevented from doing so through regulations. That is how we will ensure the independence of the service. We intend that the regulations will set out that a person who is the subject of a complaint, or who may be involved in considering it, and anyone involved in the line management of the case or in the casework, must not be appointed as the advocate. That means that, through the regulations, local authorities will be required to ensure that assistance is provided by those with no responsibility for the case of the child or the issues at stake in the complaint. In addition to the provisions in regulations under subsection (3)(a) of the new section, the principles of independence will also be addressed in the advocacy standards, which will be the subject of Section 7 guidance.

The other amendments tabled for Report on this issue refer to the advocacy services being independent on the face of the Bill, although they do not explain what is meant by "independent". It will be necessary, if pursued, to give a meaning to the term. Amendment No. 115 states that,

    "the Secretary of State must have regard to the principle that the provision of independent advocacy under the arrangements should, so far as practicable, be independent of the local authority which is responsible for the child or of any person who is involved in investigating or adjudicating on such a complaint".

This is intended to reflect Section 12 of the Health and Social Care Act 2001. Although I understand the intention behind it, I do not believe that it works. Unlike in the circumstances set out in the Health and Social Care Act, in these circumstances the Secretary of State will not be directly involved in arranging the provision of advocacy services.

Again, we need to be clear about what we mean by independence. Arguably, the services could never be entirely independent of the local authority, given that the local authority will always at least be commissioning and paying for them. What do we want to achieve from providing for the service to be independent? We want to ensure that the assistance provided is not influenced by the local authority. We believe that this is best done by ensuring that no-one with a direct interest in the outcome of the complaint is involved in the provision of assistance to the child or young person. We also want to ensure that the child or young person knows that the service will not be influenced. We want them to be confident that advocates are acting exclusively on their behalf and have no potential or conflicting interests and pressures. Feedback from consultation indicated that separate literature, phone numbers, logos and physical locations are more important to children and young people than the minutiae of who funds or the governance arrangements.

We believe that local authorities, subject to certain constraints, should have the freedom to decide how best to provide advocacy according to their local needs. I listened to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, and other noble Lords about their concept of independence. Quite properly, there is a range of possible approaches to the provision

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of advocacy services, including in-house and contracted-out models. I am not confident that out-of-house provision of face-to-face services is uniformly available across the country. I would be reluctant to agree that we insist that all councils enter contracts with national advocacy organisations, although they will be free to do so.

The use of the term "independent" on the face of the legislation would prevent local authorities from using an in-house model. However, under my amendment, Amendment No. 115A, local authorities may choose either to provide assistance themselves or to come to an agreement with a national or local advocacy service provider in order to meet their responsibilities. Using the regulations to be made under subsection (3)(a) of the new section, combined with the National Advocacy Standards, which will have the force of Section 7 guidance, is the appropriate way of ensuring independence but also giving sufficient flexibility to local authorities. All noble Lords here, many of whom I have heard speak, often argue for flexibility to be given to local authorities.

Subsection (3)(b) allows us to regulate how assistance will be provided. We intend that these regulations will be used to set out persons or bodies with whom local authorities may enter into arrangements to provide assistance and the degree of choice that must be provided. I listened with care to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and we will consider his points when deciding what ought to be included in the regulations. I have some sympathy with the implication that a wide group of people should be used. When we debated the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, we had a similar discussion about the kind of people who should become young people's advisers. There was a strong consensus that we should not be hidebound by professional qualifications but, rather, we should consider the personal characteristics that the people appointed should bring to the role. I then suggested that people with experience of fostering might be appropriate. When we come to consider the matter, we will have to ensure that the people providing assistance have the proper training and skills. We cannot afford to take an amateur approach. We also feel that children and young people must be offered a choice of who should act as their advocate. One size does not fit all, and the regulations under subsection (3)(b) will set out the framework within which the service will be provided.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, also asked about funding. Local authorities will be required to fund the services. Subsection (4) reflects Section 26(6) of the Children Act 1989, which provides for regulations to require local authorities to monitor the provision of assistance to ensure that they comply with regulations. That will help to ensure that requirements in the section are met. Subsection (5) reflects Section 26(8) of the Children Act, which sets out that local authorities should advertise the advocacy services as they see fit. As the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, suggested, visibility of these services will be important to ensure that they can be accessed by the children and

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young people who need them. There is little point in having an advocacy service if children do not know about it and cannot access it quickly.

In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, we hope to implement the provisions in 2004, with consultation to take place in 2003–04. I cannot give a definite commitment, but we hope to accede to that aim. Noble Lords who have discussed the matter will know that it is with much pleasure that I bring my amendment to the House. It is a real advance, and I am sure that all noble Lords support the intent behind it.

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