Duty to assess provision of independent advocacy services
‘(1) A local authority must prepare assessments of the sufficiency of the provision of independent advocacy services (whether or not by them) for looked after children for whom they are responsible (“advocacy assessments”).
(2) The first advocacy assessment must be prepared before the end of the period of one year beginning at the commencement of this section.
(3) Subsequent advocacy assessments must be prepared at intervals not exceeding three years.
(4) The local authority must keep an advocacy assessment under review until the independent advocacy assessment is superseded by a further advocacy assessment.
(5) Regulations may make provision requiring an advocacy assessment—
(a) to deal with prescribed matters or be prepared according to prescribed criteria;
(b) to be in the prescribed form;
(c) to be published in the prescribed manner and in a manner that can be understood by children.
(6) In preparing an advocacy assessment and keeping it under review, a local authority must—
(a) consult such persons, or persons of such a description, as may be prescribed including looked after children and those who provide independent advocacy services;
(b) have regard to any guidance given from time to time by the Secretary of State.’.—[Mr. Kidney.]
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 32—Access to advocacy services—
‘In section 26A of the 1989 Act (Advocacy services), after subsection (5) insert—
“(5A) Every local authority shall make a report on access to advocacy services in their local area annually to the Secretary of State.”’.
I shall be brief, because we debated advocacy fully in a previous sitting and we all agreed that advocacy in the right place is a good thing and part of a good-quality service for all children in care. Perhaps some of us on the Committee were more enthusiastic about the range and rate at which advocacy should be available to children in care, and perhaps the Ministers were not quite so keen; nevertheless, we all agreed.
There is a need to improve access to advocacy, so the new clause would require local authorities to make assessments to show that they have an adequate supply of advocates in their area and to keep that assessment under review and up to date. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South has linked that with new clause 32, which is about local authorities providing a report on access to those services.
I hope that my hon. Friend accepts that new clause 32 is far more modest than new clause 31, and in fact encapsulates the drivers that would require new clause 31. Although it is brief and modest, it represents the least the Government can do to ensure that advocacy services are available.
I will not allow my hon. Friend to undersell new clause 32, as it makes an excellent companion to new clause 31. Together, they would ensure that local authorities had at the forefront of their mind the need for adequate provision of advocacy services for all the children for whom they are responsible.
I am grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford acknowledged the important debate that we had on Tuesday, during which I set out our view on advocacy in the context of clause 11 and made it clear that listening to children is crucial to improving outcomes for them, both individually and in relation to the system as a whole, and to improving system-wide standards. New clauses 31 and 32 pick up on the related issue of how local authorities contract and make arrangements for advocacy provision, and how they should be making effective provision for those services.
I can tell both my hon. Friends that we already require local authorities to monitor their services by keeping a record of each representation received, its outcome and whether there was compliance with the time limits set out in regulations. They are also required to compile a report at the end of each financial year on the operation of their complaints and representations procedure. However, I intend to go further and through statutory guidance require local authorities as part of that report to review their advocacy services annually, to ensure compliance with national standards. We will set out that that will necessarily involve local authority staff seeking regular feedback from children about their experiences of the service.
In revising that guidance and including that provision, we will of course consult widely. We have no doubt that the expertise of third sector advocacy services and the charities represented on the National Children’s Advocacy Consortium will make an invaluable contribution to ensuring that we get that guidance right and that it takes into account good practice on how all children should be listened to, including those who are hard to reach, such as those who require additional communication assistance or help from translation services so that local authorities can ensure that their views are heard. I do not want to require local authorities to publish a separate assessment of advocacy, but I think that extending the statutory guidance in the way that I have outlined will cover the issues that my hon. Friends are concerned about.
I will include another provision: the general quality of advocacy services that we get from those reports and from elsewhere will be included as an item in the annual ministerial stock-take of services to looked-after children that we committed in the White Paper to having every year. Moreover, when Ofsted inspects local authority services for looked-after children, as it will do regularly in a thematic review, it will take into account how local authorities, as corporate parents, are listening to children’s voices and providing for the advocacy service to enable complaints or representations to be made.
I hope that that with those three additional levers in the system, my hon. Friend will accept that we are strengthening the way in which local authorities will have to monitor the quality of their advocacy services, show compliance and take steps to improve them if that is necessary. I hope that those assurances are sufficient to persuade my hon. Friend not to press the new clause.
My right hon. Friend has made three excellent announcements. I am grateful to her for all of them. They are very welcome. I am sure that with an annual review of these services, consultation with young people and their families and carers and the stock-take that she has described, we will see an overall improvement in the performance of local authorities in commissioning good-quality advocacy services from, among others, the kind of organisations that we have been talking about for the past two weeks, such as NCH and A National Voice, which are great organisations for providing these services. With the initiatives that my right hon. Friend has just announced, I am sure that new clause 31 is not necessary. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.