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Charity asks children and staff to shape campaign goals

You would think asking the young people you work with, or even your own staff to plot your work for the year ahead might be risky.

CHILDREN'S CHAMPION: Carol Iddon warns of the risk of more public sector cuts as she bids to help children in care.                          Picture: Kirsty Anderson
CHILDREN'S CHAMPION: Carol Iddon warns of the risk of more public sector cuts as she bids to help children in care. Picture: Kirsty Anderson

But when the charity Action for Children held UK-wide consultations about its campaigning work for 2014, it was not expecting the Government to be ahead of it.

In the event, the biggest response from staff and children alike was that a campaign was needed to change the situation for children who leave care at 16 with minimal further support.

They urged Action for Children to campaign for local councils to retain a duty to help young people in care until the age of 21 and beyond.

But that goal was dramatically gazumped six days into this year, when the Scottish Government announced it would amend its Children And Young People Bill to ensure that from next year youngsters in care can remain there until they are 21 and ultimately expect support until they are 26.

An alliance of voluntary organisations, led by the advocacy charity Who Cares? Scotland and, in particular, by former care leavers, persuaded MSPs that change was necessary.

"It was an excellent start to the year, " says Carol Iddon, Action for Children's director of services for Scotland and north England. "We have won that battle."

More resources will be needed, she says. The £5 million to fund the move announced by the Scottish Government is small beer, in terms of the amount spent by 32 local authorities on purchasing care. But it is a start. "This will stretch local authorities, and there are questions about how it is extended," she says.

Extra provision will be needed for young people who have left the care system but are newly entitled to continuing support. The impact on children coming into the system is not clear, either.

"We already have a national shortage of foster carers. We have a gap already and that will just get bigger."

However, the announcement was a big step forward, she says, and better than what had earlier been announced in her native England. There, only children who have been in foster care are to be given a continuing right to care.

"That will lead to a two-tier system," Mrs Iddon says. "Young People in foster care will get different treatment. Anyone in residential care will face a double punishment."

The ideal, she says, is for children in care to have a long term relationship with the place they stay in. She cites the example of one of the charity's services, which still regularly welcomes back a woman in her 40s who grew up there. "The staff have mostly changed since she lived there, but it is where her emotional anchor is. So it is do-able."

Charities can have an advantage, she suggests, in delivering long term care to young people. "The statutory sector can have a higher turnover of children and staff. Staff in voluntary sector homes tend to stay longer, making attachment easier. It is a different culture and ethos."

That is reflected in language, used, she thinks. "Councils often talk about residential 'units' whereas we would tend to call them children's homes. It is important to make the setting a bit more normalised."

So while the charity's campaigning in England will attempt to get the UK Government to recognise the unfairness of a two-tier system, in Scotland, other issues will be tackled, based on the internal consultation.

"We have always had a campaigning element to our work. We thought we should talk to those we help and staff about the things that feel like burning issues to them."

In Scotland four sessions were held with young people and six with staff. Many had strong views about what the charity should do, Mrs Iddon says.

There is likely to be some campaigning done on attitudes to young people, after children told the charity more people should give them a second chance. "They do something wrong and they are labelled for life. Or they may not even do something wrong. Some young people felt they were stopped by the police because of who they were, rather than what they do," she explains. "There was a feeling that once you get that label, whether it is being in care, or anti-social or offending, it sticks with you - you are not worth rescuing.

"Society is giving up on 20% of children in some secondary schools. But among that group of young people, for instance, there are potential entrepreneurs. Real rough diamonds. If you invest in them you could harness those streetwise skills in a different way."

Another theme for the year will be the need for early intervention in families, she says. "We need to help parents and children access support at an earlier stage."

Action for Children may also campaign to encourage teenagers who are old enough to have their say in the independence referendum.

Meanwhile, defending the charity's services against public sector cuts will remain a priority for Mrs Iddon personally. Housing support services are at particular risk: traditionally quite heavily subsidised by housing benefit, they will no longer be able to be funded in that way. "Local authorities are struggling with how they might continue to pay for such services," she says.

Scotland has so far staved off the radical cuts seen in some parts of her beat, which also covers northern England.

But fears were intensified by a recent threat from Chancellor George Osborne of £25bn more cuts to come. "Some of these decisions are creating more, as opposed to less, need," she sighs. "You do think, 'Where is this going to come from?'"

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