New Clause 1 — Independent advocacy: report

Part of Prohibition of Unpaid Internships – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 13th May 2014.

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Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 2:30 pm, 13th May 2014

I want to speak in favour of new clause 1 and new schedule 1, which call for independent advocacy and citizen involvement in decision making in public services. I commend my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for proposing them.

I wholly welcome the extension of these rights into the public sector. It is only right that people should be able to seek redress when things go wrong or to expect their complaints about service failure to be treated seriously. It is certainly right that people should have more power to influence decisions made about them by other people. I worry that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow said, the Bill in its current form will not allow that to happen as readily as it should.

A number of Labour councils are part of the Co-operative Council Innovation Network, of which I am very proud to be the patron. The councils involved are working together to find new ways to hand power to service users so that they have more control over the services they use and the people and organisations who provide them. That approach is already demonstrating that it can improve outcomes for citizens. One of the lessons those councils have learned is that handing people more power, on its own, is not enough. Many people who rely heavily on public services do so because they are extremely vulnerable or socially excluded. They lack the capacity or experience to exercise the power made available without additional support to allow them to do so.

Let me offer an example. Personalised budgets are a fantastic opportunity to give more control to people who rely heavily on care services such as home helps, day care, or assistance in managing chronic health conditions at home. Yet many of the people offered personalised budgets feel poorly equipped and supported properly to manage them. Research shows that this is one of the reasons why there has not been a higher take-up of personalised budgets, and that is a missed opportunity. The answer is to put in place the support that people need to exercise control. For someone not used to handling relatively large budgets, it can be a frightening experience to be asked to do so, particularly at a time when their health may be failing. Bringing budget-holders together with experienced advocates—people who are on their side and can help them to understand and articulate their real needs—can transform the situation. We need to build people’s capacity to participate in order to make this power meaningful.

Another example is children’s services. Many service users are children who have experienced severe trauma or disruption in their lives. They do not, of course, have any professional experience themselves of running things—they are, after all, children—but that does not mean they cannot take more control, as long as appropriate support is on offer. When I was elected leader of Lambeth council in 2006, the authority’s children’s services were rated by Ofsted as among the worst 3% in the country. By 2012, Ofsted rated exactly the same services as the best in the country by a considerable margin. One of the key reasons for that transformation was the active involvement of children in shaping their own services—but providing those children with support was fundamental in making that process work. That is why the new clause is so important in improving the Bill.

We also need much greater openness and transparency of information and data in public services. People cannot participate in decision making if they do not have full access to information. I was bitterly disappointed to see Croydon council, which covers the constituency I am proud to represent, failing to understand this. It took a decision to sell off the borough’s public libraries to a private developer in secret, behind closed doors. Doing it in that way fuelled public concern that the deal was not in the best interests of residents. That feeling appeared to be justified when the buyers, Laing, quickly sold the libraries on to another developer, Carillion—at a considerable profit, one would assume, but unfortunately we are not allowed to know.

These are public resources and public services, and decisions about them should be transparent and open; the public should be able to participate. At the council I led, I introduced a very simple open data charter which stated that the authority would publish everything that it was not legally prevented from publishing. Once we did that, the public started asking for data in different formats so that they could use them to scrutinise services more thoroughly and propose better ways to run services, and alternative providers to run better services. That approach helped to create community-run parks, a community-run youth services trust, more tenant-led housing estates, and even a new council website designed by the residents who were using it.

However, citizens need support to take advantage of these opportunities, or the potential for change that they offer will never be realised. We need the new clause and the new schedule if we want these powers really to work for everyone and not just for a privileged few.