“For my whole life I feel like I haven’t been listened to or taken seriously, so when someone does actually listen to me and take the time out to chat and understand me – it makes a big difference.”
These are the opening words of Article 39’s Always there for you video, in which six young people speak to camera about what advocacy means to them, launched after children’s minister Vicky Ford’s fantastic announcement that there will be a public consultation on a revised set of advocacy standards and regulations.
The minister received hearty applause when she made her statement at a Parliamentary reception to celebrate 30 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child shortly before the Covid-19 lockdown. Respect for every child’s right to be heard and taken seriously is the treaty’s heartbeat.
Brigid Robinson, managing director of Coram Voice, welcomed the consultation and said it provides a unique opportunity to ensure that advocacy services are robust, consistent and that children know their rights and their voices are heard.
Leicestershire County Council appointed the UK’s first children’s rights officer in 1987.
Sir William Utting, in his review of safeguards for children living away from home, was to describe these services as “one of the most beneficial developments” a decade later.
In 2002, children in care and care leavers gained the legal right to an advocate. Entitlements to advocacy have since extended to many other groups of children and young people – including those wishing to make an NHS complaint, those living in secure mental health hospitals and children in custody. However, national standards published as statutory guidance in 2002 have not caught up. They still narrowly focus on children in care and care leavers, and don’t address important developments within the advocacy profession – such as non-instructed advocacy, challenging institutional abuse and ensuring advocates are appropriately qualified.
Children and young people who need or have had an advocate will be central to the public consultation; Department for Education officials are producing accessible versions of documents and there will be a concerted push to hear the widest range of voices.
Emma Robinson is a specialist advocate for children and young people with disabilities at Coram Voice. She was part of an expert advisory group of advocates brought together by Article 39 to review and recommend changes to the standards. Emma proposed new requirements around non-instructed advocacy, arguing that this is critical “to ensure that those with significant barriers to communication and understanding still have access to these vital services”.
Lynn Brady, the inaugural winner of the lifetime achievement award at last year’s national advocacy awards, calls for the new standards to set out the responsibilities of commissioners and local authorities to ensure advocacy is readily available for children and young people.
Children and young people are consistently the best advocates for advocacy. They get straight to the heart of why these services matter. A young person recently told Barnardo’s children’s advocacy and participation service in Wakefield that: “My advocate supports me by listening to me. She’s someone who asks me what I want to happen and lets people know. She puts my ideas across and gets help for me”. Another said, “My advocate fights my corner in meetings for me. I couldn’t do it on my own”.
Carolyne Willow is the founder director of Article 39 and was a children’s rights officer in the early 1990s