Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Barker moved Amendment No. 6:

("(3) No local authority shall exercise the powers conferred by this section in respect of a child or young person who is not assisted by an independent advocate, unless having been informed of his right to an independent advocate, he has refused to avail himself of such assistance.".").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 8. These proposals relate to the second of the major issues referred to earlier by the noble Earl, Lord Howe; namely, the need to establish in the Bill a legal right of advocacy--and advocacy solely in relation to complaints procedures.

When the Bill was in Grand Committee, there was much discussion about a general right of advocacy. Since that time, the matter has been reconsidered at some length. On this side of the House, we have arrived at the conclusion that, although a general provision of advocacy may be unnecessary, the right of a young child to advocacy during a complaints procedure continues to be necessary.

The Minister is extremely fond of the word "balance". Those of us who meet the Minister in regard to a number of different Bills may perhaps be termed members of the "balance club". Perhaps we should have a self-denying ordinance to use the word "balance" only once. I want to use it now.

9 Mar 2000 : Column 1263

I have spoken on other occasions about balance but also about the idea of equation. A number of different factors need to be considered in relation to the word "balance". The more the Minister talks about devolving matters to regulation and guidance, the more some of us will continue to press for a right of advocacy. In that way we shall seek to ensure the correct balance to protect people's rights in all these matters.

Noble Lords may have heard me speak previously about the necessity of advocacy for certain groups of people. I remember once being very touched by a remark made by a middle-aged woman who was a chair user. She said that every major decision in her life had been taken where there was an oak table which smelt of polish. She said that she could not now look at oak table or smell polish without having a rising sense of fear about what was going to be done to her and about whether she would understand what was going to be done to her. That is an evocation of what happens to some people when they are in care.

The right to an advocate during a complaints procedure is an essential ingredient to make sure that the procedure works properly. It should deal not only with serious allegations but should also establish good practice. By the time someone in care has gone to the lengths of using a complaints procedure, that person has summoned up an enormous amount of courage to make the complaint and run the risk of being removed from what is his or her only home. In those circumstances, people have a right to support.

Why is it necessary to have an express right of support on the face of the Bill? Because, without such express provision, it simply will not happen. We have talked already about duties and expectations that will be placed on hard-pressed local authorities. Some of us have expressed doubts as to whether the many priorities that we see in relation to vulnerable people will come anywhere near the top of a local authority list of spending priorities.

I believe that the provision of an advocate in a complaints process is, apart from anything else, one of the key determining factors in good practice--good practice both in relation to people being enabled to express their views and their complaints, but also in providing protection for the staff who are subject to some of those complaints. We must bear in mind that often in residential care complaints are raised which are erroneous and vindictive. We have spoken about that in other circumstances. Having an advocate there has a two-way effect. I believe very strongly that we need to put this matter on the face of the Bill. The Minister has said before that the Government are sympathetic to this issue, but without it being written expressly into the Bill it will not happen. It will be like a Sam Goldwyn verbal contract and not worth the paper it is written on. Therefore, this is one of the key elements of making sure that this Bill works in practice. I beg to move.

9 Mar 2000 : Column 1264

Earl Howe: My Lords, I support these amendments. I believe that the noble Baroness has summed up the case very well and I do not intend to repeat the points that she made. As has been said on earlier occasions, there is no doubt whatsoever of the degree of user satisfaction for advocacy services. Their impact and benefit are immense. That was recognised explicitly by Sir William Utting in his review. The trouble at present is that the provision of advocacy services is patchy both in quality and quantity across the country.

Young people who are looked after are generally less emotionally mature and certainly less educationally accomplished than their contemporaries. They need to be able to look to an independent adult to stand alongside them and speak for them when necessary.

As the noble Baroness reminded us, the Minister expressed the Government's support for independent advocacy through their Quality Protects programme but resisted the idea of introducing a legal right. I found what the Minister said only partly reassuring. The problem is that without an express legal duty to do so, local authorities frequently do not provide what is hoped of them, whatever good intentions are there in the first instance.

I can only conclude that a child's right to advocacy when making a complaint should be enshrined in primary legislation. There is the point that the proposed right reflects Article 12(2) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It may also reflect Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Government have made a commitment to the provision of advocacy support for 16 and 17 year-olds who come within the scope of this Bill. They have given no commitment to younger children who come within the remit of the Children Act. If the Government accept that advocacy is important for 16 and 17 year-olds, it is illogical not to extend that protection to all children who may be involved in making a complaint at some point. For all those reasons I support the amendments.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, I attended a meeting this week about a commissioner for children. A Minister, Mr Paul Boateng, spoke out very strongly that the voice of the child should be heard. Can the Government say whether there is really joined-up thinking? How is the voice of a child in care to be heard? I would like the Minister to think how it would be heard unless there is an advocate to speak for it. It is very difficult. We have to look back at all the reports that have been made. The Welsh report was the last one. It said that nobody believed the child. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I speak to the point of low self-esteem in these young people. When one has had an unsettled childhood one is likely to have a lower self-esteem and be less assertive. They must be important factors in putting a duty on those who are the state parent, as it were, to provide a mechanism to

9 Mar 2000 : Column 1265

ensure that the voice is amplified and that the child is supported in getting what it needs, and not simply fobbed off with what the state or local authority feels it convenient to give.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Baroness and other noble Lords have been very persuasive in dealing with the impact and importance of advocacy services. While I am unable to accept the amendment, I hope that I can go a long way to meet the concerns that all noble Lords have expressed on this matter. I start by repeating what I said in Grand Committee. I am the first to acknowledge that advocacy can play a very important role in ensuring that young people receive the support that they need and deserve. It is very important that the Government and the nation learn the lessons that emerge from the Waterhouse report and the experiences of the young people described in those appalling cases.

In responding to the amendment it is worth rehearsing the various ways in which at present the Government make clear their support for, and encouragement of, the growth of advocacy services. Noble Lords will be aware that the Children Act itself includes provisions to respect the entitlement of looked-after children to be consulted and to have their views and feelings taken into account whenever there is a decision to be made about them. Further, a local authority must consider a complaint made to it by the child itself or others such as the parents or persons with a sufficient interest in the child's welfare. Many complaints are brought forward by people other than the child itself.

The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, said that the voice of the child must be heard. I do not believe that any of us disagrees with that sentiment. Listening to children is a major theme of the safeguards review and the Quality Protects programme. Children's participation is a priority area for the special grant under the Quality Protects programme which is a major initiative to improve services for children. It has at its heart children's participation, listening to children and ensuring that their rights are fully protected. As part of that programme we are researching current provision in relation to advocacy. That will help us to inform future developments as we move towards an advocacy system of greater coherence and high quality.

I am the first to acknowledge the complaints made by noble Lords tonight about the current patchy performance of local authorities. As to those services which are currently provided by local authorities for children who leave care, one can point to excellent services but also very poor ones. Because of that the Government have asked local authorities to pay particular attention to the development of advocacy services.

The Department of Health's guidance to local authorities in October 1999 under the Quality Protects programme included independent advocacy services as one of six priority areas for the children's services

9 Mar 2000 : Column 1266

grant. There are also a number of very good national advocacy services which undertake work with a wide range of children. The Department of Health supports that work. The DoH has funded the development of national standards for advocacy services through a grant to the National Youth Advocacy Service. There can be no question at all that the Government are committed to advocacy and will continue to encourage the development and use of a high standard of service. We do not, however, believe that it is necessary to include it on the face of the Bill.

I turn to the two amendments before us this evening. As the noble Baroness who moved the amendment suggested, the proposal raises specific points regarding the use of advocates when pursuing complaints. Amendment No. 6 would make local authorities unable to deal with any representation or complaint by a child or young person in relation to the provisions of the Bill unless he or she was either assisted by an independent advocate or had specifically refused such assistance. Amendment No. 8 makes similar provision with regard to the general complaints procedures about children's services including those for eligible children under the provisions of the Bill.

The first point that I wish to make is that we hope that our new arrangements for young people in and leaving care will reduce the need for complaints by being more sensitive to the needs of the child as an individual. But, of course, there will be cases--few, we hope--where the relationship, for instance, between the young person and his or her adviser breaks down and as a consequence the young person does not receive the support to which he or she is entitled. For those cases a complaints procedure will be required and we shall set this out in regulations. The accompanying guidance will make it clear to local authorities that they should make advocacy services available.

As is already good practice in many local authorities, we know that many, although not all, now entertain complaints brought by advocates on behalf of children. But the guidance we shall provide which will accompany the regulations will ensure that there will be greater consistency in the use of advocacy services.

With regard to the provisions for introducing advocacy services into the complaints procedure for looked after children, noble Lords will be aware that it has become apparent that the existing procedure is imperfect. Many noble Lords referred to the Waterhouse report which provided countless examples of children who attempted to complain about an unhappy situation but whose voices were not heard, as the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, said. In relation to that, we are about to consult on how we might improve the situation. We expect to be able shortly to issue a consultation paper which will include the question of advocacy. For that reason, I believe that it would be premature to start now to introduce changes to Section 26 of the Children Act ahead of the consultation.

9 Mar 2000 : Column 1267

In conclusion, I hope that I have assured noble Lords that we are committed to advocacy in practice and in principle, but because of the measures being taken forward in this area at present, and the forthcoming consultation on the complaints procedure, we do not think that this is the time to write advocacy into the Bill.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page