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An User Groups Exercise Influence on the Making of Social Policies and Welfare Provision?

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British social policy has historically been dominated by politicians, academics and practitioners, with recipients of welfare provision and their carers having little say in the shaping and development, or ownership of their services. Over the past few decades there has been significant growth in service user movements who are working to transform discussions, policy initiatives, systems and research within this field (Campbell, 1996; Campbell and Oliver, 1996, cited in Beresford, 2001). The last 15 years has seen service user participation incorporated within Britain’s social and health care policy agenda, to the extent where it has now in many areas become a requirement enforced by legislation (Carr, 2004). This has not been without complication.

This essay will attempt to address some of the issues arising from service user participation. I will highlight relevant legislation promoting the rights of participation, alongside government guidance for professionals and funding available to aid service user involvement. I will sample organisations who work in conjunction with service users to exercise influence on policy, and provide examples of current projects and past campaigns which have impacted upon policy guidelines. Barriers encountered within the participation process will be identified, such as 'difficult to reach' service users, also the challenge of influencing governmental action and the discrimination felt by some participants. I intend to present relevant theory and implications for social work practice. Whilst I am aware that there are many genres of user groups, such as organisations dedicated to focusing upon disability, mental health, learning difficulties, older people, HIV/AIDs, etc., this essay will primarily concentrate upon children and young people.

Initially I will define my terms, those of �participation’ and �social policy’. According to Abrioux (1998, cited in Banks, 2006) 'participation' is an expression which can be likened to a 'sphere', implying a cyclical process, which includes '1. informing, listening to or consulting service users; 2. giving service users some involvement in decision-making; 3. joint decision-making with professionals, or service users having full decision-making powers' (Banks, 2006, p. 118). Beresford and Croft (2000, p.355) believe 'participation is crucially judged by the extent to which people can exert influence and bring about change' (cited in Trevithick, 2005, p.128).

Spicker (1995) states 'Social policy is the means of organizing the nation's resources for the 'perceived benefit' of society. The perception of what most benefits society is dependent on who is in charge of policy and on what they consider to be beneficial. The main areas of social policy studies are policy and administrative practices in health, social security, education, employment services, community care and housing management; the circumstances in which people's welfare is likely to be impaired, including disability, unemployment, mental illness, learning disability and old age; social problems like crime; issues relating to social disadvantage, including race, gender and poverty; and the range of collective social responses to these circumstances' (p.4 cited in Gormley, 1999 p.2). Whilst Stein (2001) believes 'Social policy (1) is an expression of social values, (2) is arrived at through a process of debate and decision making, (3) produces a framework for the allocation of social resources to defined categories of people for the purpose of resolving or eliminating social problems, (4) often seeks to affect the future behaviour of members of society, and (5) has the force of law' (p.5).

Historically, consumers of social services have had little voice within British social policy, however following many reviews on the quality of services and outcomes for users in the mid-1990s, New Labour government placed emphasis on a 'modernization agenda'. Here, the growth of consumer power saw views of service users as central in modernising public services (Alcock et al., 2005). Initial attempts to include user groups frequently failed to listen to views of disadvantaged and vulnerable groups, especially those of children and young people, disabled people and ethnic minorities. Nevertheless, service user participation in policy making and welfare provision has improved over the past decade, reinforced by legislation such as the 1990 National Health Service and Community Care Act which made consultation with service users a legislative duty (Carr, 2004).

In relation to children and their services, the Children Act 1989 provides a legal framework for the views of young people to be taken into account concerning issues which affect them, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child further supports the notion of children and young peoples right to participate (Hallett and Prout, 2003). The British Government responded to this by creating the policy 'Learning to Listen' (DfES, 2002), it provided departmental guidance for professionals to assist children and young people in putting forward their opinion on decisions relevant to them. �Learning to Listen’ promotes young service user opinions on three levels; individual - for example a looked after child's involvement in their personal care plan; local - where children may provide views on leisure facilities, play areas or transport; and national - whereby children may comment on policies in the making via dedicated websites (DfES, 2004). One such website, Participation Works, was launched in 2005 to improve the way professionals and agencies share information regarding the involvement of children and young people in decision and policy making. One of its strategic aims is to ensure that the opinions and experiences of children and young people inform and reflect policy and policy implementation. To aid this, work is undertaken in improving the skills of policy makers and others in effectively engaging with them (Participation Works, 2006).

There are a number of other channels for children to voice their opinions, with many young people led service user organisations working in a multi-disciplinary manner to influence social policy. An example of this is A National Voice (ANV), their campaigns aim to promote the rights and enable improved experiences for the 60,000 looked after children and 50,000 care leavers currently residing in the UK (NYA, 2007). The views of many young people are obtained by work undertaken in collaboration with The Prince's Trust, Youth Bank UK and The National Youth Agency (NYA), whilst working alongside agencies

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