The need for independent advocacy

People can find it difficult at times for their voice to be heard when actions or decisions are being taken that affect their lives. Some people in society are much more likely than others to be treated badly, either because of structural barriers, inequality, discrimination and prejudice or because of their own vulnerability, or a combination of factors.

The characteristics which may mean that people are at risk include the protected characteristics as identified by the Equality Act (2010). These are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

Other factors that will also have an impact on a person include socio economic background, personal capacity, adverse childhood experiences, reputation, dislocation, abuse, family breakdown and social isolation. Some people have to rely on powerful service systems for help with all aspects of their life including housing, personal assistance, decision-making, income, occupation and mobility. Institutions and support services can affect every aspect of someone’s life (potentially with long term consequences), particularly when people have been immersed in the service system since childhood, and when they have no strong allies outside. For some people, their family can be part of the problem. Independent advocacy is about broadening horizons and widening the options that people have. It is about speaking up if you notice that something is wrong. Sometimes people tolerate things in their lives because they don’t know they can be changed. Independent advocacy can help them address this.

Service systems are not and will never be perfect. Individuals who rely on these systems often have limited personal power and resources to argue their case. This is especially true for people who do not use words to communicate, for children and young people, for people who cannot read or write in the language of the system, for people who have been labelled with a negative reputation, and for people who are disabled or with capacity issues.

If people do not have well-motivated and capable family and friends to speak up for them, they are at risk of poor treatment and of not getting what they need. They may not have their views, wishes and feelings taken into account properly, as is their right. They are also the least likely to exercise their right to make a complaint. Even family and friends are often ignored.

People who are articulate and know the system might be ignored because other people’s prejudice and dismissive attitude extends to them because of an imbalance of power.

This also applies to groups of people who are marginalised, discriminated against and disempowered. Even though there are many references in legislation and government policy that refer to an expectation that people are involved in decision making at all levels, these groups often find it challenging to have a collective voice, organise themselves and engage with the system. When they are included, they are sometimes patronised or side-lined, only able to respond to the agendas set by others. It is important groups are resourced and supported appropriately to explore and set their own agenda and influence decisions, policy, legislation and services that shape and effect their lives.

Even where people have rights in law, for example to an assessment or to a second opinion, they are often unaware of these rights. While policies may be in place, for example about medication being regularly reviewed, or about people being given information, these are not always followed.

Collective independent advocacy provides opportunities for people to have a meaningful voice in legislative processes, policy making and strategic planning, combating discrimination, inequality and enabling people to take part as active citizens.

Commissioning independent advocacy should be in addition to, not instead of, improving services. Independent advocacy is not a sticking plaster to compensate for poor service quality. Statutory agencies have a duty to listen and respond to all the people they serve and to work to high standards. There is a huge disparity between the size and power of the service system and the powerlessness of the people and groups. Small neglects and mistakes by service systems can have a huge impact on individuals, the system and society

“Power can be taken, but not given. The process of the taking is empowerment in itself.”