Two-way stretch

From 1 April, children and young people in need will have the
statutory right to independent advocacy when they are making a
complaint about a local authority service. The obvious difficulty
with the legislation that gives them this right, the Adoption and
Children Act 2002, is that it also places all of the power to
commission these services with the local authorities that they are
intending to challenge.

One consequence of this is that 1 April is ironically the date that
many vulnerable children will no longer be able to access advocacy
services. A significant number of children’s rights and advocacy
workers are being handed their redundancy notices while local
authorities begin the lengthy process of “reconsidering” their
advocacy arrangements.

The new legislation, and the Quality Protects programme that
preceded it, expects local authorities to be able to embrace
conflict, criticism and confrontation. Having an effective
children’s rights and advocacy service means signing up to the
possibility that you are going to be sued by a care leaver, taken
to a judicial review, or even to the European Court of Human
Rights. Are local authorities really up to this challenge?

The evidence is, surprisingly, that some of them are. Many
children’s rights workers say that the local authorities they work
with seem genuinely open to hearing, and acting on, the very
difficult messages that children and young people have to share
with them. For example Terry Barry, the children’s rights officer
in Gloucestershire, says: “Sometimes I’ve felt like tearing my hair
out. But by and large I think Gloucestershire is really committed
to having a children’s rights and advocacy service. . . even if
they sometimes feel like tearing their hair out as well.”

For others, the pressure to “keep the local authority sweet” can be
intense. “I have never refrained from taking the correct course of
action,” one worker says. “But I have seriously considered that my
project might be under threat as a result of actions I have

It is common knowledge that many children and young people have
been poorly served by the care system, and that some children have
been abused by their “corporate parents”. One of the main
recommendations made by Sir Ronald Waterhouse in Lost in Care was
that advocacy services were crucial for protecting and safeguarding
children in public care. Allowing conflicts of interest to riddle
the very services that have been set up to protect these children
can have frightening consequences.

One worker employed in a large voluntary organisation acted as an
advocate for young people in secure accommodation. Alarmed by the
number of young people making allegations that they were being
physically abused by staff at the unit, and his own experience of
the unit managers not taking the children’s claims seriously, the
advocate wrote a letter outlining his concerns to his managers. His
managers refused to pass the letter on to the local authority
responsible for the unit, and he believes this is because the
advocacy contract was up for renewal in a few months’ time. “Their
argument was ‘softly, softly catchee monkey’,” he said, “but in the
meantime I considered there were a number of young people left
vulnerable, and a culture that denied even the possibility of abuse
left unchallenged.”

Another advocacy manager spoke about his contact with a private
children’s home where the manager was considering whether or not to
continue providing advocacy for the children who lived there. The
manager of the home felt that advocacy was beneficial to the
children who had used it but that it was “not a good business
proposition”. It was bad for business because a local authority
that had been challenged by an advocate was likely to take its
business to “less troublesome” units where advocacy was not so
readily available to young people.

These sorts of conflicts of interest are likely to be even more
acute for the 30 or so “in-house” children’s rights services, where
advocates are actually local authority employees. And as the
manager of an “in-house” service for the last four and a half
years, I know that they can be. It is difficult to tell your
employers things they would really rather not hear. It can be even
more difficult for them not to react badly.

Local authority advocacy workers have found themselves on the
receiving end of their employers’ “disappointment” or disciplinary
action and can even end up unemployed. They can find themselves
fighting battles about the content of their annual reports or their
presentations, they can be shunned by their colleagues, told to
hand over confidential files, “dressed down” in public, have their
work assessed on the basis of whether or not it is “corporately
helpful”, told not to take on particular cases or not to take
particular actions. Few local authorities want to see their dirty
linen washed in public, and many will avoid it if they possibly
can. I have no doubt that my own practice has at times been
compromised by the mutually exclusive agendas that my employment
within a local authority has forced upon me almost daily.

There is significant evidence that the current provision of
“independent advocacy” isn’t independent at all. Even for services
that will continue to exist as the Adoption and Children Act comes
into effect, even for services that are absolutely thriving today
and are achieving real outcomes for the children who use them,
their experience may not always be so positive. It is based on
nothing more concrete than the goodwill of local authority
managers. The difficulty is that this goodwill is not necessarily
permanent. It can be withdrawn, it can be replaced, and so can the
senior managers who are genuinely able to give it.

Many had hoped that the Children Bill, published by the government
on the 4 March, would help to eradicate the inherent contradictions
of the current system. The creation of a children’s commissioner
for England holds the possibility that children’s rights and
advocacy services could be commissioned independently of local
authorities by connecting them to the new commissioner’s office. A
perfect and simple solution, it would ensure that advocacy services
were commissioned and evaluated on the basis of the outcomes they
achieve for children rather than on their popularity (or lack of
it) with social services staff.

Far from addressing the conflicts of interest experienced by
children’s rights workers, however, the bill looks set to
exacerbate them by replicating the problems in the children’s
commissioner post itself. The commissioner will only be able to
carry out formal investigations where instructed to by the
secretary of state, who will also have the power to publish or
withhold inquiry reports. The commissioner for England will be far
weaker than any of his or her counterparts in other UK countries,
and the proposed legislation is a long way off meeting
international guidelines.

Without considerable amendment, the Children Bill, and the
children’s commissioner it creates, will not go nearly far enough
to ensure that the rights of children and young people are
respected. Indeed, the bill as it now stands suggests that the new
commissioner will have no explicit role with regard to

Should advocacy services and local authorities look to work
together to improve outcomes for the most vulnerable of young
people? Of course they should, but on something that looks a bit
more like an equal footing. The voices from Whitehall reassure us
that every child matters. The question is, do they really mean

Kristyn Wise is the chairperson of CROA, the network of
children’s rights and advocacy services across England and Wales.
She is also the manager of a local authority children’s rights

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