Volunteers lament loss of advocacy for county's needy

A Getting Heard volunteer helps out another client
A Getting Heard volunteer helps out another client

The closure of the Oxfordshire Advocacy service is likely to have repercussions for those who find it hard to speak out for themselves.

The service has folded because the major part of its work – advocacy for people under the Care Act 2014 and the Mental Capacity Act 2005 – has been contracted to a national organisation called POhWER.

Maggie Hartford

Maggie Hartford

The Oxfordshire volunteer teams, operating under the name Getting Heard, were left with insufficient funds to continue as a separate grant ran out.

The service was put out to tender by Oxfordshire County Council, but Getting Heard said it chose not to bid because the value of the tender was reduced and it was unable to provide the service at the reduced cost.

Chair Michael Taylor said: “As we wind down the organisation we will be seeking to support our highly engaged and skilled volunteers to explore options for continuing advocacy services in Oxfordshire, whether by setting up a new charity or volunteering with another organisation.

“We are keenly aware the same austerity and cuts to funding which have obliged us to close the charity are also responsible for increasingly acute need among marginalised adults in Oxfordshire.

“We have made every effort possible to continue to respond to this need and to sustain our services but sadly, this is no longer viable.

“We offer our heartfelt regret and apologies to Oxfordshire residents for yet another withdrawal of vital services from a trusted organisation.”

Volunteer Maggie Hartford said: “I and many of the volunteers are concerned about what will happen to clients if community advocacy is not available in Oxfordshire.

“We have had referrals from the Banbury Advice Centre asking if we could accompany disabled clients to benefits hearings in Oxford and this is a growing area of our work.

“The benefits process seems to create extreme anxiety for some people who feel they don’t want to attend the interviews alone. Advice centres are becoming busier than ever as public spending cuts affect people who are already struggling,” said Ms Hartford.

“We feel while Oxfordshire County Council (OCC)may be saving money by using a cheaper provider, it could cost more money in the long run, for the health service as well as the council, if people’s problems get out of hand.”

An OCC spokesman said: “As our own funding is reduced and the need for support increases, we always ask for providers to consider more cost effective ways to deliver this service when we tender contracts.

“We were disappointed (Getting Heard) chose not to bid. We are confident PohWER will deliver a great advocacy service. They have told us they will seek external funding to provide community advocacy at no additional cost to the council.”

PohWER is working closely with Getting Heard in their transition and handover phase. The new service with PohWER will begin on October 1, 2019.

Maggie Hartford is one of a team of advocates who volunteer to help people to understand officialdom as well as helping them to speak for themselves.

“One of my Banbury clients was a man with learning difficulties. He had been working since the age of 16 and was earning a good wage stacking shelves in a shop.

“He lived with his elderly parents who had bought their house with a mortgage. His social worker was concerned about what would happen if his parents could no longer manage his finances.

“His name was on the mortgage because of his income but he didn’t understand what a mortgage was. I talked to him for some time about how he spent his wages and discovered that in the past, he had borrowed money to buy a car and did understand what it meant to borrow money.

“Although he couldn’t read or write, he actually did know how much he earned and how much it cost to buy new shoes, etc. “I explained what a mortgage was and he was able to grasp how it worked.

“I told him that he could easily have his wages paid into his own bank account and took him to a cash machine so he could see how they worked. In the end, he decided not to do this, but he said he felt more confident to talk to his father about money.

“This was an example of how volunteers with patience and plenty of time can help clients to gain the confidence to solve their own problems, something the hard-pressed social work team often doesn’t have the time to do.”

Maggie Hartford’s second example of how advocacy is necessary for some individuals tells of how she was able to give a woman confidence and to retain the benefits she relied upon.

“One middle-aged lady with learning difficulties asked for help because she had received a letter asking her to attend the jobcentre for an interview and was scared she might lose her benefits,” said Ms Hartford.

“She told us she had no idea what might happen and was worried that she would be asked questions that she couldn’t answer.

“She lived in supported housing and had never worked but was volunteering at a school for children with special needs and also doing cookery course to help her to live independently.

“We agreed to accompany her to the job centre and talked to her about how she would get there at the right time, suggesting she did a practice journey to make sure she could do it. On the day, we met her at the job centre and spent some time calming her down before the interview.

“In the end, everything was fine and the interviewer was happy that she was continuing with her volunteering and also doing some training, so her benefits continued.”

Banbury Advice Centre is constrained by cash limitations but will help wherever possible."

Contact the advice centre on 01295 279988.