While Wales has made itself an exemplar of children’s advocacy best practice, England is lagging a long way behind and the disparity between the two countries has never been greater.
Last month Wales made great strides forward by making advocacy services easy to access for society’s most vulnerable children. Through Welsh Government funding, all children coming into care for the first time and those who are subject to a child protection case conference for the first time, will be actively offered advocacy. A proactive and vital step towards ensuring that the wishes and feelings of those in care are always heard, it’s also proof that the Welsh Government has made seismic institutional change following high profile historic cases which revealed systematic care failings.
As well as highlighting the need for children and young people to know what advocacy is, the Welsh Government has also stipulated that all advocacy services must be provided by a credible, independent provider and cannot be offered by a Local Authority’s in-house service. This focus on impartiality will ensure that the delivery of advocacy is subject to the right level of proactivity and scrutiny to achieve its core purpose – to allow the wishes and feelings of children and young people to be heard and considered properly.
However, jump over the border into England and the experience is altogether different. In England access to quality independent advocacy is inconsistent and there is no proactive offer of advocacy to any child entering care. This means that many children and young people in care may know little about advocacy or how to access it. Those that do use it are most likely to have done so based on advice in respect of a specific complaint or issue. In other words, it is sometimes used as a reactive tool when requested, for example being faced with a move to another foster carer or children’s homes within the same week, rather than as a proactive means to avoid issues arising.
For a charity like NYAS whose work is entirely focused on protecting the rights of children as set out in Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, this level of service disparity gives rise to potentially, very serious concerns.
There is a widespread acceptance that by improving the experiences of children and young people in care, which includes giving them meaningful involvement in decisions made about them, you are also improving their overall life chances. Despite this, advocacy, a service which has the power to help achieve this outcome, remains a Cinderella service.
Without acknowledging that the Advocacy Standards of 2002 are no longer relevant, we are powerless to improve this situation. A revision of the National Advocacy Standards is well overdue. Wales has achieved this already, so why are we dragging our feet in England?
While there are many local authorities in England who embrace the role of corporate parent with the efficiency, compassion and efficacy you would expect, this isn’t always the case. That’s why we are calling for an urgent review of the advocacy standards. They must be reviewed, consulted on and strengthened if we are to truly safeguard the needs of the country’s most vulnerable children and young people.
It is only through working together with the DfE, Ofsted, the Office for the Children’s Commissioner, Children in Care councils, local authorities and children’s rights charities like NYAS, that we can set about educating people that advocacy is available, improving its provision and delivering all-important equality. In the modern age, it seems unthinkable that such disparity and inequality between England and Wales could exist, or that the systems designed to protect children’s rights would be so inconsistent. In the interests of the nation’s looked after children, we call for change now.