MEGA Young People, We Won’t Stop!

So first off this wasn’t just another meeting, we had in fact received a message detailing that advocacy areas would now be under the Minister of Health and Social Services solely as opposed to the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty; during the summer ministers had met to strategically review the evidence relating to the current and future states of advocacy provided by the “Missing Voices” Report, MEGA six-month report, evaluation of MEIC (which I helped set up as part of a previous role on the Extended National Youth Advocacy Board), and early messages from the CSSIW’s inspection of care planning and safeguarding arrangements across all local authorities in Wales.

During these meetings two immediate actions were concluded. Firstly, [as previously mentioned,] to bring advocacy under a single Ministerial Portfolio; Secondly, to invite local government to bring forward a model for securing a national approach to statutory advocacy for looked after children, children in need and other specified individuals.

A Strategic Leadership Group, chaired by Albert Heaney, Director for Social Services, and comprising representatives from the Welsh Local Government Association, the Association of Directors of Social Services Cymru, the Children’s  Commissioner’s Office has been established to develop priority actions to, deliver a functional business model, underpinning a national approach to advocacy. The Group has established a focussed Task and Finish Group to report back to the Strategic Leadership Group at the end of January on progress.

In the interim, officials in discussion with the Chair of MEGA have concluded to apply a period of pause and review to the work of both the MEGA and the YPEG pending the outcomes of the work to develop a national approach to advocacy. As the revised statutory advocacy landscape emerges in the Spring, they anticipate that they will engage with both the MEGA and the YPEG to ensure that there is effective opportunity for participation in shaping the statutory advocacy landscape.

As you can tell that is all from the letter, and if you know me you will know that I rejected the period of rest as did the other young people on the basis that we were/are service users of some description and know how things work in practice rather than theory. As I mentioned in my previous post around 1/3 of local authorities are spending less than half of what is recommended on advocacy per child or young person, this is partly because the Welsh Assembly are unaware centrally of how local authorities are distributing their funding, and some even see it as a non-essential service so they will do the bare minimum to meet statutory standards. A few weeks ago I was part of a tender team for the North Wales advocacy contract, they were already underspending on services and were asking for a further 40% reduction in costs, applicants refused and another tender was offered where by service providers would name their price.

Since this review local authorities have been advised not to offer tender until a framework has been set out, once a contract has been signed it will be very difficult to terminate, if not impossible meaning that any plans may have to be delayed with many contracts spanning three years. The Vale of Glamorgan have adhered to this advice and are staying off their tender and staying with their current provider until this new framework comes to fruition which will hopefully come into effect in October.

With no formalised vision of a single service provider written on paper for Wales yet they are looking to Northern Ireland for inspiration, a much smaller geographical area with many shared issues, a different legal system and basically not Wales. Currently it is a postcode lottery in Wales as to which local council you come under and the emphasis and funding they put into advocacy, there could be specialist provision for those in one area but not their neighbouring constituency which causes a lot of problems if a c/yp has to move for any reason.

Another current issue with advocacy is the entitlement, strictly speaking if you have mental health issues you can be entitled to one, if you have educational issues you can be entitled to another and if you are in care another. This entitlement currently negates and undermines the whole idea of advocacy where you should be able to build a rapport and speak freely rather than having [potentially] three more adults [interfering] in the situation, there is also the question of who funds them as each of these areas are allocated different funding within local authorities again creating a postcode lottery.

So far has been a big rant on the negatives, so apologies, but here are our potential solutions. Firstly when a child goes into care, is in need, or is one of these other specified individuals then they should get a face to face meeting with an advocate who can explain their role and offer their help. This is what is known as an active offer which is done in Dumfries and Galloway [and subsequently reflected in their tender process] where as social workers can currently get away with claiming they have made an active offer or class “Do you want an advocate” as such. What we have suggested is to incorporate an active offer as a component within care meetings which the chair will then be obligated to check, and to that matter social workers need to be actively educated on what an advocate does rather than just leaving them to think they make their jobs harder or assist with complaints [which is usually the last course of action we will suggest].

With younger people particularly there is a fear of the new, and so they should be made aware that they can nominate a friend, family member, teacher, etc. to be their advocate and they do not have to have a seasoned professional. Again the idea of advocacy is to provide a voice to the c/yp and sometimes that is best done by those who already know them. If things are too difficult I do believe that local authorities should provide funding for, and offer independent visitors, these are basically impartial people who will befriend the c/yp and take them somewhere comfortable to escape for a while or chat about anything in the world [within reason].

With the severe underfunding it is a shared view that an inspectorate should be introduced, as there is with social services, so that the Welsh Government can step in where a local authority is failing in funding or management of services by putting them into special measures. This inspectorate will be armed with national standards and outcomes as set out in the Regulation and Inspection Bill. These standards would also include the way in which tenders would operate and provide for a more consistent service throughout Wales.

One of the main things which were not redressed however is the 88% of young people leaving care who would like to continue having advocates, any information on the possibility of an advocate after care should be included in a leaving care pack which would include transitioning into adult services or a period of settling into adult independent life.

So that is the story so far and we will be reconvening in March and keeping in touch via email/phone.

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