It is has been an eventful week, and a milestone in a campaign which I and a number of Parliamentarians, ably led by the dogged Lord McColl, have been trying to get the government to agree to allow legal advocates, essentially volunteers like magistrates, to work alongside children who have escaped from trafficking.
You can read more about the context of the scandal of the lost children we are trying to address which I have posted about at Conservative Home here, and I have enclosed the longer version of the speech I had prepared which you can also find in shortened form on Hansard, during the debate on the amendment in the Freedom’s bill which would have made it possible for third parties and volunteers to build a network of such advocates nationally. In the event we secured a major concession from the government to refer the matter to the Children’s Commissioner to make recommendations on the matter, which led us to call off the division or vote. The report will add impetus to efforts to get the system changed from within, though we will not hesitate to harness legislative means to continue to keep up the pressure on the government if necessary. Lord McColl and others have shown how our Parliamentary system, and the Lords, however creaking some may believe they are, can still help secure progress in tackling injustices suffered by minorities who in this case literally cannot vote (having come into the country as aliens against their will to be slaves or farmed for their benefits sometimes as young as 11 months!).
The wider and most interesting point that has hit me during this campaign is how there must be many areas of the state where non professionals, if properly trained, could provide care and emotional and parental like support as legal advocates, better than what currently exists, if only we could open up our public services to let them in and be recognized for what they do, to provide a sort of “right to care”. Our hospitals, care homes, schools, mental health contexts, fostering environments, in an era of austerity, and often weighed down by short term managerial targets or performance contracts, are not the most conducive to being the most loving environments, even though more has been and could be done to enable public servants to increase their levels of empathy and concern (I think even the best struggle when contact time can be so limited now). Historically, and for many people, family and friends can sometimes fill the gap, and more innovations such as respite hotels near hospitals to free up beds and enable family members using online rotas to care for patients and lower the burden on professionals are needed to facilitate this. But there must be many in our increasingly isolated society, who could benefit from someone else, who is not doing it primarily for payment or by statutory dictat, helping to advocate for them. Why not start opening up the state to let them sensitively and carefully in as well?
My Lords I very much welcome amendment 57A, and I also welcome the announcement by the noble Minister which is a positive step in the right direction.
I want to primarily direct my comments to the scope that the amendment provides for the use of volunteers but before I do so, I must make some general observations.
First, my Lords, it is clear to me as it has been to other noble Lords that the level of care currently provided for rescued trafficked children is not sufficient. The fact that between 2007 and February 2010, of the 942 child victims of trafficking that were rescued, a staggering 301 were lost from local authority care is, as others have noted, a huge national embarrassment. I note that over that period the numbers lost decreased each year but the 18% loss rate in the final year is still completely unacceptable.
Moreover, my Lords, as a compassionate country we should want to do all we can to help these incredibly vulnerable children whilst in local authority care. It would be odd to congratulate ourselves merely on the basis that a child’s experience was that they were not lost. The resources of the state are seriously stretched and sadly in this context there are accounts of children being passed from social worker to social worker, having to start again with a new person, rather than having the opportunity to develop a focused, constant supportive relationship. There are also deeply disturbing accounts of social workers failing to turn up to court to accompany children. My Lords in this context of limited resources it is clear that something different and something creative must be done.
Of course there are provisions in the Children Act 1989 that should benefit trafficked children. The Act makes plain that the local authority is responsible for safeguarding the welfare of children. It also provides roles like the advocate, the independent visitor and the independent reviewing officer that have the potential to benefit trafficked children. However, even when considered collectively, these three roles fall well short of the internationally accepted definition of a Child Trafficking Guardian. Moreover, the fact that all these provisions are in place has not addressed the significant failures in the care of trafficked children that I have just highlighted.
My Lords it is for these reasons that the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord McColl – and supported across the whole house – is so important. The legal advocate he proposes crucially does not complicate matters by introducing additional bureaucratic burdens on the child. It simply provides a means of helping all the things that must already be done to be done. It provides additional capacity to help and very crucially provide more support for the child and the reassurance that there is one person who will help them who will remain constant, so they don’t have the emotional trauma of having to keep going back to square one, explaining their painful story all over again. The Legal Advocate will be able to provide general advice and support and crucially be permitted to accompany them in all their interactions with state agencies and to advocate to all those agencies on the child’s behalf. This is based on internationally accepted best practice as set out by UNICEF.
My Lords, one of the most important parts of the McColl amendment is the fact that it does not tie the government’s hand but provides scope for Legal Advocates to be the employees of statutory bodies, of voluntary organisations or volunteers with voluntary organisations. I believe that the opportunity for using the voluntary sector and volunteers is hugely significant.
On the basis of the numbers of children rescued between 2007 and 2010 we are talking roughly of about 300 a year. I know very well from my work in the voluntary sector that it would not be difficult to find 300 volunteers a year to be a volunteer Legal Advocate for one child. Indeed I have been approached by voluntary organisations that are ready to rise to the challenge. This presents us with a win-win situation because not only does it address a very pressing problem but in a way that will help to further build British social capital.
Now my Lords, I am aware that there may be those who feel nervous about the role of volunteers. I can imagine people wanting to protect their turf and an agitated Sir Humphrey Appleby telling Bernard, ‘This must be stopped. If volunteers can take functions that should be handled directly by the state, who knows where it might lead. Bernard this would be the thin end of the wedge!
In response to this I would make two key points.
First, the amendment is keenly aware that anyone serving these deeply vulnerable children must be properly trained and all will be subject to the same robust training framework. This is no place for some well-meaning volunteer who just feels compassion but has not been properly trained.
Second, to those tempted to suggest that volunteers cannot do the job I would simply point them to our magistrates system. Magistrates are volunteers. They are properly trained and have to deal with very sensitive situations. Whilst there may be some who, defensive of their turf, are tempted to justify their fears of volunteers by pointing to training, we must recognise that volunteers can be and are trained, as our magistrates system eloquently demonstrates. Another great example of the very successful use of volunteers to which I would direct noble Lords, is that provided by Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) in the United States. Court Appointed Special Advocates are trained volunteers who have a proven track record of dealing with extremely delicate situations very effectively.
Of course the opportunity to make proper care for the victims of trafficking through volunteer legal advocates is hugely important in the current fiscal environment where money is so tight. This is not to say that amendment 57 would have no cost to the state if the volunteer route was used, but it would be minimal and money very well spent when one has regard for the imperative of providing better and more sensitive care for incredibly vulnerable children, and further reductions in the numbers lost.
My Lords my political hero is Anthony Ashley Cooper the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury who arguably did more than anyone else in this house, in the other place, and beyond, to establish the tradition of compassionate Conservatism in the 19th century, demonstrating concern particularly for vulnerable children in factories, mines and sweeping chimneys. I am sure that if he were here today he would be fronting this amendment which comes in the very best tradition of my party historically and recently and which also crucially resonates with the traditions of other parties, whether your vision of society is big, open, good or otherwise. I very much hope that the whole house will support it today.