Too few people are getting independent advocacy they are legally entitled to under the Care Act 2014, experts warn.
Four months after a local authority’s failure to arrange an advocate for a woman led to the first successful legal challenge under the Care Act, council reports reveal a dearth of referrals for independent advocacy. One local authority averaged less than two a month. A second saw just 9% of predicted demand.
Advocacy trainers and providers fear vulnerable adults are being left without support to challenge council decisions about their care.
Councils say they are investigating low referral numbers and working to raise awareness of advocacy support.
The advocacy duty
Under the Care Act, councils are legally required to offer an advocate to anyone who has ‘substantial difficulty’ being involved in assessments, care planning, reviews and safeguarding cases and lacks a suitable friend or relative to represent them.
The advocacy rights came into force in April. The government says more than 32,000 people should benefit this year. But the latest set of Care Act updates filed by councils, and feedback from providers, suggest many are missing out.
Referrals ‘way below’ expectations
A report published this month shows Reading council planned to spend £130,000 for more than 4,000 hours of Care Act advocacy this year. Six months in, just £5,000 has been spent on 170 hours of support. Only 26 people have accessed the service – less than 3% of all assessed for care and support needs.
“Demand is well below what we would expect,” the report says.
The council is running events to raise awareness of the new advocacy entitlement and said “ongoing monitoring” of referral rates was needed.
A report for Nottinghamshire council shows just six people were referred for independent advocacy in the first three months after the act came into force. The council is investigating whether people are being referred appropriately.
One advocate working in the south of England, who asked not to be named, told Community Care his service received fewer than 10 referrals despite expecting hundreds.
Kate Mercer, a leading advocacy trainer, said she knew providers with similarly low referral numbers: “It’s patchy but overall there’s real concern in the sector that councils are either deliberately not promoting advocacy at a time of cutbacks or, a less cynical view, that they simply don’t have the resources to train staff to know when to refer.
“The risk is people won’t know what they’re entitled to, councils will do the bare minimum and – with no advocate involved – no-one pushes anything forward.”
Advocacy providers warn short-term commissioning is contributing to the problem.
Almost two-thirds (63%) of Care Act advocacy contracts are for less than a year, according to evidence submitted by the Care and Support Alliance to a Public Accounts Committee inquiry last month. One in four deals is a ‘spot purchase’ contract, where councils only pay a fee per referral.
Advocacy is meant to receive £45m funding through the Better Care Fund, a pooled budget between councils and NHS providers. However, a survey of advocacy providers included in the evidence to MPs suggests services expect to receive less than half of the promised funding.
Phillippa Ashcroft, head of policy at VoiceAbility, said the situation made it harder for providers to plan and build awareness of services.
She said: “If you look at the type of commissioning, particularly spot purchasing, it points to more of a gatekeeping mentality. It makes it difficult for providers to train staff and really build momentum locally.
“When Independent Mental Capacity Advocacy was brought in a few years ago, there was significant funding in the start-up phase and there was a network of mental capacity leads championing it. It had a whole raft of support. Care Act advocacy doesn’t have anything like that.”
Ashcroft said some councils had implemented the advocacy duty well, but described the national picture as “poor overall”. Part of the problem is delays in people getting social care assessments, she added.
“This is what we hear from people ringing into our helpline. The advocacy duty actually applies from the point of first contact, request or referral, including self-referral, for an assessment. Advocates support people to prepare for their assessment and without access to advocacy, for both assessments and for information and advice, people have found that they are being sent round the houses instead.”