Independent public advocates
Support for disaster victims to be available ‘around the clock’
The Ministry of Justice has revised its plan to create independent public advocates who will support the victims of major disasters in England and Wales.
Despite their title, public advocates need not be lawyers. Indeed, when supporting victims they will not be allowed to provide legal representation — or, indeed, health care. Some may be former emergency workers while others may be local community leaders: in deciding whether individuals are qualified for appointment as advocates, the relevant secretary of state will take into account:
their academic, professional or other qualifications, experience or skills;
their relationship with a geographical or other community; or
any other matter the secretary of state considers relevant.
Legislation on this topic was first announced by the then justice secretary Dominic Raab, back in March. But the commitment goes back more than six years.
Referring to what followed the Hillsborough football disaster of 1989, which led to 97 deaths, the Conservative election manifesto of May 2017 said:
That commitment was welcomed later in 2017 by the Right Rev James Jones KBE, former Bishop of Liverpool, in a report to the government he called The patronising disposition of unaccountable power. Jones told ministers that “the way in which families bereaved through public tragedy are treated by those in authority is in itself a burning injustice which must be addressed”.
A public consultation followed in 2018. In an impact assessment produced at the time, the government said:
One potential model would be to establish a cadre of independent public advocates, who would be paid on an ad hoc basis when required. This model may or may not involve the appointment of one permanent independent public advocate with responsibilities for overseeing the recruitment, training and deployment of the cadre of independent public advocates.
The proposals contained in the Victims and Prisoners Bill, published in March, suggest that the government was planning to appoint one advocate, or perhaps several, each time there was major incident — although there would have been no limit on each advocate’s length of service. The relevant clauses were left unchanged when the bill was reintroduced this month.
What the government is saying today is that there will be one permanent advocate — though it will still be possible for ministers to appoint additional advocates for each disaster. Amendments to this effect will be tabled before the bill reaches its report stage in the Commons next week.
So far, all we have so far is a press release. This promises that the advocate will be
readily available around the clock and can be deployed quickly in the face of an emergency, advising victims on how to access vital financial, physical and mental health services and ensuring they understand their rights.
Alex Chalk, Raab’s successor, said:
A permanent independent public advocate available for rapid deployment will mean victims can receive vital emotional and practical support from day one.
These reforms will give victims a voice when decisions are made about the type of review or inquiry to be held into a disaster and will help ensure lessons are learnt.
When not directly supporting victims, the permanent independent public advocate will be expected to build relationships with the public bodies that respond to major incidents.
Disasters such as Hillsborough, the Grenfell Tower fire and the Manchester Arena bombing demonstrate that victims should not be expected to find their own way through whatever public support may be available. It seems sensible to provide a single point of contact — though it should not have taken the government more than six years to work this out.
Any independent public advocate service must be properly organised and resourced, particularly in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. The government has very little idea of what the service will cost or even who will pay for it, as the department with policy responsibility for each disaster will apparently have to pay for advocates appointed in its aftermath.
There will be no point in having an emergency phone number if there are not enough people to answer calls and provide help to those who find themselves suddenly in need.
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