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Child Advocacy Services

Jane Hutt, Minister for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills

As Minister with responsibility for children with the lead in championing children’s rights, I am pleased to update Members on the Welsh Assembly Government’s current thinking on the provision of advocacy services for children and young people in Wales. I recognise Members’ interest in this important subject and I welcome the fact that the Children and Young People Committee is currently reviewing advocacy services.

The Government’s aim is to make effective advocacy provision for all children and young people in Wales. Advocacy can be essential to the safety and wellbeing of children and it is an important means of developing children’s participation and delivering their entitlements.

Since the withdrawal of advocacy services provided by the Children’s Society in 2002, it has been a challenge to develop an appropriate type and level of service. However, good progress has been made in enhancing accessible, quality advocacy services over recent years in Wales and we now need to build on that progress.

We have based our approach thus far on a growing body of evidence on what works to make advocacy effective. As well as providing a means of speedy and, where possible, local redress when things go wrong, advocacy can have a significant effect on the culture of service delivery, helping to make it more child-focused and respectful of children’s rights. It is about early intervention to prevent problems manifesting, and to build the confidence of children and young people. These messages are consistent with the views expressed in the July plenary on advocacy.

In 2002, the Assembly Government established a task group to undertake a comprehensive review of advocacy services. This task group reported in 2005 and a second task group worked on the detail of how to move forward. It was on these proposals that we undertook a major consultation exercise earlier this year. I am pleased to report that I am publishing a summary of the consultation responses this afternoon to accompany my statement.

The proposals arising from the task groups were consistent with the recommendations in 'Keeping Us Safe’, the report of the safeguarding vulnerable children review led by Gwenda Thomas, and with the findings of a study by Cardiff University which drew on contributions from 1,000 children and young people in Wales.

Our thinking has been moved on by the results of the consultation exercise and, in particular, by the strong message that all children and young people are potentially vulnerable and should have access to some level of advocacy. I am currently of the view that any new framework for delivering advocacy services should make some form of universal provision, as well as more specialist provision for particularly vulnerable groups. In this way, all children and young people in Wales, wherever they are, and whatever their circumstances, will be able to safely and straightforwardly access advocacy support.

The commitment and determination of agencies already in the field, including local authorities, to champion the voice of the child is key to the successful delivery of independent, high-quality, accessible advocacy services in which we can all place our trust. I recognise, however, that independence is central to the provision of advocacy services, so I am minded to put in place a strong set of governance arrangements.

To promote any future developments, and to ensure that the support structures are in place to deliver on this important agenda, I am minded to establish, within the Assembly, a new advocacy development and performance unit, whose key function will be to develop the national service, establish an independent scrutiny board, and provide a strategic framework and leadership for implementing advocacy nationally and locally. The unit would commission, manage and monitor any national advocacy resource, and would monitor the implementation of a specialist integrated service.

However we proceed, it is my intention that, in future, advocacy services should be regulated and inspected by the Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales, and that advocates offering the more specialist services should be registered with the Care Council for Wales. I am also considering establishing an independent board of non-executive members, including children and young people, to have a strong scrutiny and quality assurance role.

The board could report annually to the Assembly Government, and might be called to account by the Assembly’s Children and Young People Committee, as it chooses.

At present, there is a statutory duty on local authorities to provide advocacy services to vulnerable children, and the resources to do that have been made available through the usual means. However, local authorities in Wales, unlike those in England, are required by statutory guidance to commission such services from independent providers. We need to build on the solid foundations of the existing arrangements, but transfer the responsibility for the commissioning of integrated advocacy services to the children and young people’s partnerships.

That would be in line with our policy of encouraging coherent service delivery at local and regional level, and of supporting multi-agency approaches to dealing with children’s issues across a broad front.

I am also encouraged by the interest shown by children and young people partnerships, which want to come together to jointly commission and deliver regional provision of integrated advocacy under a one-stop shop integrated model in their areas. This demonstrates their commitment to 'Making the Connections’ in the best interests of improving public services for children and young people.

I hope that Members will see that the Government’s position thus far is a considered one, and one that has been arrived at after an extensive and comprehensive evidence-gathering process. However, it is important that we now take on board the consideration of the Children and Young People Committee, and so I will defer making final decisions on how best to proceed until the committee has completed its deliberations.

I would then propose a comprehensive and independent review of all these arrangements after a maximum of five years.