Read our consultation response to the Scottish Government Consultation on Advocacy Standards

AdvoCard is a user led independent advocacy service for individuals who identify as having a mental health condition. We are based in Edinburgh and provide advocacy support in 3 specific areas – hospital-based advocacy for those who are currently inpatients of the Royal Edinburgh hospital or have been detained on wards in other Edinburgh based hospitals, prison-based advocacy for inmates of HMP Edinburgh and community-based advocacy for those out-with these institutions. As part of our community team we provide a dedicated service for welfare reform and social security advocacy. This service has been in place for 6 years now and in the last year dealt with 725 referrals, a 577% increase in referrals from year one.

In order to prepare our response, we held several focus groups where individuals who have used the current Welfare Reform advocacy service at AdvoCard were asked to provide feedback on the draft advocacy standards.

In order to reach as many people as possible we held focus group meetings at our offices and at three different mental health services in Edinburgh.

In total we spoke to 65 people over the four groups. At each meeting, we discussed the proposed changes to the new benefits that are being devolved to Scotland and the type of support that people felt that they would need to help them through those changes. We then discussed the proposed standards in relation to the type of support that people felt that they would need. This response reflects the issues and concerns raised during these meetings along with observations that we have made as an organisation currently providing independent advocacy in social security.

Do you agree with the definition of advocacy?

AdvoCard agree with the definition of advocacy in these standards. When people refer to our social security service their main priority is to engage support to make sure that they are heard, that they are listened to and that they are given the chance to say exactly how their conditions affect them. In our focus groups there were no issues raised with the definition, with many of the people agreeing that this is an accurate reflection of what an advocacy worker should do.

It was also agreed that the distinction between advice and advocacy was an important factor. Many services often confuse advocacy with advice, particularly when it comes to support with social security and it is important that this distinction is made here to avoid confusion not only for those who may refer to the service but also for services that may seek to provide advocacy in the future.  

However, whilst we support the overarching definition of advocacy as laid out here, we do share the concerns of the SIAA that the definition refers to “advocacy” and “advocacy worker” rather than “independent advocacy” and “independent advocacy worker”. We feel that as the standards apply to the provision of “independent advocacy services” that the term should be used consistency throughout the standards to avoid confusion.     

Is anything missing from this definition and, if so, what?

We are concerned with the statement – You are entitled to the support of an advocacy worker if you have a disability and, because of your disability, you need help with the Scottish social security system.

Whilst it is appreciated that the Scottish Government do not intend to limit the definition of what the term disability means, many of the people who use our service and those who attended the focus groups do not identify their mental health conditions as a disability. This may result in them not being aware that they are entitled to use advocacy support. More clarity is need to address this.  

 Do you agree with the principle of “independence”?

Whilst we appreciate that the definition in the standards meets the definition as described in the Social Security Scotland Act, neither AdvoCard nor the people who have used our service, agree that adhering to this definition in the standards will provide the best possible service for those who will have cause to engage with Independent Advocacy.

At our focus groups we discussed what it means to be an Independent Advocacy Service working to SIAA standards and principles and what it would also mean as defined by the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018. We explained to people that the definition of advocacy used here means that agencies that provide employment support, benefit advice, social support etc can all provide “independent” advocacy for the purposes of social security.

Most people were alarmed at this. Although it was explained that the terms of the Act did not require any service to be completely independent it was felt that the standards and principles should be used to tighten the definition of what it means to be independent. Many of the people present were involved in the campaign to have the right to access independent advocacy included in the Act and commented that this is not what they were campaigning for.  Some commented that they were concerned about conflict of interest and the likelihood of impartiality from advocacy workers.

 “It’s important that the person helping you is on your side and not just doing what their service decides is right for you.”

Currently, independent advocacy organisations work to SIAA’s ‘Principles, Standards and Code of Practice’, which defines an independent advocacy organisation as one that, “…. only provides independent advocacy. All the activities it undertakes are about providing, promoting, supporting and defending independent advocacy. Its independence means that it does not provide any other services and so it is structurally, financially and psychologically separate from other organisations and interests”.

For those who use our service the issue of being financially and psychologically separate is an important one. At our focus groups, concern was raised that organisations that provide other services will not be able to maintain independence no matter what guidelines and safety features are put in place. It was felt that the members of staff providing advocacy within that organisation would be affected by organisational culture, service requirements and maintaining relationships with other team members who provide other areas of support such as advice or employment support. Therefore, they may struggle to maintain their level of psychological independence from the organisation and may try to steer the direction of work with the person seeking advocacy towards one that fits with their organisational culture and benefits their organisational outcomes. There is also a danger that a person may have used the organisation for another purpose, such as advice, and been unhappy with the service so therefore feels that they cannot access the service for advocacy as they are too closely related.

Is anything missing from the standards and if so, what?

We support the SIAA call for a definition of independence that will ensure meaningful independence, rather than independence in name only. This requires a far more nuanced assessment of what makes a person or organisation independent than the current definition of, ‘a person other than the Scottish Ministers’.

Do you agree with the principle of “person centred”?

Yes, AdvoCard, and those who use our service, strongly support the principle of a person-centred approach to advocacy. The addition of a standard for a person-centred approach is seen as a welcome addition and an important factor in ensuring that any work carried out is always done at the express wishes of the person, regardless of organisational opinion. This was seen as particularly important in the area of benefit uptake and income maximisation. It has been suggested that by engaging with advocacy that the person may be supported to engage with the social security system and which will in turn aid benefit uptake and income maximisation. In many cases this may prove true, however, a person centred approach as described here must allow for circumstances where the person no longer wishes to engage with the social security system for their own personal reasons, regardless of their entitlement to claim a benefit, they may wish to withdraw a claim or chose simply not pursue their entitlement. A truly person-centred approach to advocacy will ensure that the persons wishes are respected and that the person is supported to do what is best for them.

Do you agree with the standards?

Yes, we agree with the standards as they are written.

Is anything missing from the standards and if so, what?

AdvoCard support SIAA’s concern that multiple sets of standards for independent advocacy, the SIAA standards, the Social Security standards and the Child Hearing standards, runs counter to a person-centred approach. Those who use our advocacy service also use our service for other reasons such as housing issues, children and family issues, problems with treatment and diagnosis etc. Having different organisations providing different types of advocacy working to different standards will be confusing for the individual and does little to place them at the heart of the process as claimed in the principles.

Do you agree with the principle of “accessible”?

We agree with principle of accessibility and, as an independent advocacy organisation already work to ensure that our service is accessible to all that need to use our service. We provide face to face advocacy through office-based appointments, home visits and external appointments at other agencies such as support groups etc. We also provide telephone-based appointments if necessary. With regards to additional services required, we have access to interpreters in sign language and foreign language interpreters, however these come with additional costs that are met through our own limited budget. In order to ensure continued accessibility, it is vital that the Scottish government commit to the provision of adequate funding to cover the additional costs of ensuring absolute accessibility.

Do you agree with the standards?

We do not believe that the last four standards under this principle relate to accessibility and feel that they would be much better situated elsewhere in the document, perhaps within the definition of advocacy, within the section on the principle of independence and within the section on the principle of quality assurance.

We also have concern about the principle that states, ‘If you tell your advocacy worker that you may be at risk of harm or that you want to harm yourself or someone else they will discuss this with you but may need to share this information with others without your consent’.  There is not enough information here to highlight under what circumstances an advocacy worker would decide to share information without consent. Deciding what constitutes risk of harm cannot be left to the advocacy worker alone and must be in line with current safeguarding guidelines.

This standard could be improved by a) the addition of a sentence stating that the advocacy worker will always speak with you before breaching your confidentiality and b) explicit use of the word safeguarding to describe these situations. It is critical that both independent advocates and people using independent advocacy know and understand that confidentiality will only ever be breached within the context of safeguarding.

Do you agree with having a principle of “trained”?

We agree that it is important that advocacy workers are trained in both advocacy and in social security legislation and guidance

Feedback from our focus groups showed agreement that advocacy workers should be trained and experienced in providing advocacy. They should also have a good working knowledge of the Social Security System and a good understanding of individual rights under the social security act. In addition to this, many also suggested that the advocacy worker should be trained and experienced in working with the specific group that they are providing advocacy for. For example, training in mental health conditions, autism, learning difficulties etc. There was also a suggestion that all workers should receive Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training as there is a need to discuss suicide and self-harm at face to face benefit assessments. 

Some of the comments that we received were

“I need someone who knows the right questions to ask me. I don’t like talking about my illness so if you don’t ask I won’t tell you.”

“The (…advocacy worker…) needs to know what’s going on with the benefits or what help will they be?”

 “If they don’t know what my rights are how will I know?”

“They need to have mental health training, or learning disabilities if they are working with people with learning disabilities or how will they know how to work with us?”

Do you agree with the standards?

Whilst we do agree with the standards, we do not feel that principles 1 and 4 are specific enough

Whilst we agree with the intention, we feel that these principles do very little to detail the level of training and knowledge required and leave this to the interpretation of the service provider. This can result in disparities across services. These principles would be strengthened by including the level of training required.

Do you agree with having a principle of “quality assured”?

AdvoCard agree with quality assured as a principle. In order to ensure high quality services, it is important to have robust, transparent systems in place for monitoring and evaluating the service.

Do you agree with the standards?

Of all the standards we felt that the principles of quality assurance were the most problematic. Whilst we agree with the standards, we feel that the wording could be strengthened in several places to ensure consistency across services.

1 – Advocacy workers will keep accurate and up to date written records of action taken, progress made and outcomes achieved. – reference should be made to what is considered an outcome and what the written records will be used for.

2. Advocacy services will have systems for receiving, addressing and monitoring feedback and complaints and you will be told about these. – to ensure consistency there needs to be an agreed system for feedback and complaints that will be used

throughout all advocacy services involved in the provision of advocacy in the social security and reference must be made to this in the principle.

3. Feedback and complaints forms will be available in accessible formats, without having to be requested. – this does not go far enough. To ensure a high level of service advocacy services must proactively seek feedback through various forums.

4. Advocacy services will take all feedback and complaints seriously and will respond promptly. – “promptly” is open to interpretation, to ensure a high-quality service as standard, specific timescales must be given.