Archive for October, 2009

Should the powers of England’s Children’s Commissioner be strengthened?

The recent controversy over the appointment of Dr Maggie Atkinson to the post of Children’s Commissioner for England highlights challenges that relate to the post that are touched upon in my book, Making Sense of Every Child Matters.

Dr Atkinson was apparently the unanimous choice of both the selection panel and the panel of children and young people who were involved in the selection process. However, the House of Commons Children Schools and Families report on their pre-appointment hearing concluded that they felt “unable to endorse her appointment, as we would like to have seen more sign of determination to assert the independence of the role, to challenge the status quo on children’s behalf, and to stretch the remit of the post, in particular by championing children’s rights”. Subsequently Ed Balls has confirmed the appointment having written in detail to the chair of the committee explaining his reasons for believing that she will be “a strong, effective and independent voice for children and young people’ in England” (

Whilst there have been suggestions, not least on the Radio 4 Today programme, that the disagreement has more to do with Labour Party politics than the merits of any candidate for Children’s Commissioner, it is the case that the role presents a certain structural challenge. In England, the general duty of the Children’s Commissioner is “promoting awareness of the views and interests of children” and (s)he is explicitly not allowed to “conduct an investigation of the case of an individual child” (Children Act 2004). In contrast, the other UK children’s commissioners have more powers. So, the Welsh Commissioner can investigate individual cases, has a clearer children’s rights agenda and a statutory and independent framework (Care Standards Act 2000; Children’s Commissioner for Wales Act 2001).

Nevertheless, whilst Sir Al Ainsley-Green, the current English Commissioner, was also not the ‘Esther Rantzen’ type figure the MPs committee was said to have desired, he has proved himself to be a robust and effective children’s champion. Those who have worked closely with her have strongly suggested that there is little reason to doubt that Dr Atkinson will be at least as successful. Speaking at the end of last year at the launch of Making Sense of Every Child Matters, Dr Atkinson impressed an audience that included children’s health, education and social care experts with decades of experience with her knowledge, ability and obvious commitment to children and young people. In her new role, not least because of the publicity surrounding her appointment, she will be closely watched. Alongside that scrutiny should go a parliamentary willingness to formally strengthen the powers of the England Children’s Commissioner to ensure that she can play her full part in enabling the voices of children and young people to be both heard and acted upon.

Richard Barker
Professor in Child Welfare in the School of Health, Community and Education Studies at Northumbria University and Editor of Making sense of Every Child Matters: Multi-professional practice guidance, published by the Policy Press, November 2008.

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New Yorker spoof publisher’s letter

Read this spoof publisher’s letter that recently appeared in the New Yorker. It made us smile but we hope it doesn’t ring too many bells with our authors!

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Looking back at the Party Conferences and forward to the General Election?

For many British social policy analysts, New Labour has been a disappointment and the differences between the current regime and a potential Cameron-led one are too few. However, my recent book, written with Lewis Williams, suggests that a long hard look at the longer term policy changes since 1979 can tell us quite a bit about what a return to a Conservative Government would bring and how that would compare to both New and Old Labour.

The book, A generation of change, a lifetime of difference? Social policy in Briton since 1979, looks at the past 30 years of changes in benefits and taxation and shows what has changed, for whom and with what results. We use a new and nifty approach by simulating what it would be like to live a whole life under the rules in place in 1979, 1997 and 2008. This captures the whole lifetime welfare state from the cradle to the grave for three model families:

The Lowes: low earners earning half median wages
The Meades: median earners
The Moores: high earners earning twice median wages

New Labour have done a lot to help children and pensioners, especially the Lowes, and the improvements for these groups since 1997 is marked. Old Labour’s approach was heavier on taxation and the Moores paid a lot more but got some benefits nevertheless. Old Labour also had very generous state pensions and help if you were out of a job – a problem that affects the Lowes and the Meades more than the Moores. New Labour and the Conservatives are now closer on taxation and on the treatment of those out of work, and the benefit levels for the latter have been allowed to erode to very low levels indeed.

If you are trying to make sense of the policies that will be announced between now and the General Election and put them into a bigger perspective, read the book and see just how much has changed and just what a potential difference a swing back to the Conservatives may mean.

Martin Evans

Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of Oxford and co-author of A generation of change, a lifetime of difference? Social policy in Briton since 1979

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Cyberbullying: the new visibility of an old problem

In the past year or so, policy makers have been grappling with the new visibility of an old problem. Children bullying one another at school, just like adults bullying each other at work, is a familiar problem, and yet curiously intractable. Perhaps because it’s called ‘bullying’, society doesn’t treat this as assault or abuse. Perhaps because it’s often what kids do to other kids, society doesn’t treat this as a crime. And fair enough, through school and parental management, most children (both bullies and victims) grow up, move on. But for some, the effects are serious, even tragic, and for many the effects are subtle but pernicious.

Fast forward to the age of the internet, and a lot of hostile activity is suddenly visible. Especially on social networking sites, though also on blogs, message boards and elsewhere. The semi-public, semi-private spaces of the digital age make our everyday nastiness to each other newly prominent. What’s happening to John and Edward on X Factor, where, it seems, thousands of people (many of them ‘grown ups who should know better’) have been verbally abusing these boys, seems almost commonplace. Such behaviour is the reverse of the equally unpalatable sight of teenagers insulting their teachers, also on Facebook – 15 per cent of teachers have experienced cyberbullying, a recent survey reported.

Something is happening to civility, some argue. Perhaps. Equally the case, however, is that what happens is visible because of the internet. Our everyday interactions with each other are mediated more and more. And mediated conversations are quick and convenient, informal and impromptu. Like stones thrown in a pond they spread rapidly through ever wider circles of friends and of friends of friends. Unlike the stone, however, they leave a permanent record, unforgotten by observers and so prolonged for their victim. It is unsurprising, then, that policy makers from the European Commission down to headteachers across the country are seeking a solution. Should one control the internet or the child? Should one educate the bully or help the victim? And what if, as does happen, the bully and the victim are one and the same, locked into a cycle of fear and hostility?

Cyberbullying, so called, is just one of the risks posed to today’s children by use of the internet. In our book, Kids Online, I and my colleagues from the European research network, EU Kids Online, review the latest research across a range of online risks and, to balance this, a range of online opportunities. Our aim is to develop evidence-based policy recommendations by which all those concerned with children, and the society in which they live, can reach informed and proportionate judgments by which to shape children’s future engagement with the internet.

Sonia Livingstone

Professor of Social Psychology in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science and co-editor of Kids Online: Opportunities and risks for children.

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The inspiring voices of Muslim women

Over the past few decades the UK has seen major demographic, social and cultural changes and Muslims have emerged at the heart of countless critical debates and analysis with particular reference to mainland and global security; cohesion, participation and integration, marriage, immigration, and also educational and economic disadvantage. Many of these debates have continued to homogenize Muslim men and women, and failed to represent the rich diversity of opinion within Islam and between people. It is necessary, in a society where over the years particular voices have been silenced, that we hear authentic experiences that talk to us with genuine openness and critical reflection.

As a Muslim woman myself, and as the editor of Our Stories Our Lives, published by the Policy Press in July, I have always believed in the power of stories in reaching out to people’s hearts and minds and the importance of capturing history as it unfolds. Across the UK I have witnessed a number of changes. I see a number of Muslim women who have achieved positions of influence – in local government, business, further and higher education, charities and other organizations; women who care about the society in which they live and bring up their children; women who increasingly find a voice together to promote values and who work together to make things happen.

There’s a considerable way to go in harnessing the potential that lies at the heart of this change and there is a need to acknowledge that there also continues to be a disproportionate lack of reflection on women’s achievements and experiences. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Muslim women are paving the way forward in new, dynamic, challenging and creative ways.

Our stories, our lives featured in the Bradford Telegraph & Argus on Tuesday 6 October 2009.

Wahida Shaffi

Coordinator for the OurLives Muslim Women’s Digital Media Project and editor of Our stories, our lives.

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Sex, money and politics – is prostitution just another political football?

In her Labour Party conference speech, equalities minister Harriet Harman provided us with a vision of Labour as fighting ‘the good fight’ against social injustice, violence and inequalities. What may be news to many, though, was Ms Harman’s clear message: “prostitution is not work – it’s exploitation of women by men – often women who have mental health problems or drug and alcohol addictions”. The solution: a new criminal offence introduced to criminalise men who buy sex from a woman who is being pimped. Ah. Easy. No matter that such a new offence does nothing to ameliorate the problems Ms Harman herself chose to highlight (addictions, mental health issues, etc.).

Ms Harman’s speech, the message it sends and the suggestion of yet more primary legislation criminalising one or other aspect of what is, and remains, a perfectly legal activity (the commercial exchange of sex for money) is just one more chapter in what has become a depressingly familiar story. Throughout the history of prostitution policy reform, campaigners and politicians tend to gloss over the highly complex social realities that make up this thing called prostitution. From the drug addicted, impoverished young woman standing on the street corner in any major city across the world to the man or woman running their own successful escort business through the internet, from the woman working to pay her bills and feed her children to the highly paid provider of fetish – the sheer diversity of selling and buying sex, of the people involved and the conditions in which sex is sold gets distilled into two or three key images: the child abused; the woman trafficked; the abusive man who thinks that paying for it means he is entitled to it. And from those images, ever more ‘preventative’ (and punitive) policies are created.

Of course, this is not new. In the last decade, UK policy activity viz prostitution has intensified at an alarming rate and seemingly at odds with what researchers have known for millennia. Abuse does occur. Exploitation does occur. But sex sells and at times and in places, it sells very well. What we’ve known is this: bringing in laws which over-simplify economic, social, personal, sexual, psychological human relationships in an endeavour to ‘save the victims’ often backfires – not on the law makers, but on the very populations of individuals who are trying to be saved. But perhaps what sells just as well is being the government who brought in the policies that, this time, will finally eradicate the trade in human (female?) flesh that remains stubbornly present in our modern times. It probably sells better than the admission that successive governments have failed to tackle some of the root problems that mean that selling sex – however dangerous, however risky – might be better than other choices: poverty, social exclusion, the lack of welfare support, global inequalities in wealth, health, security, vitality. And who is going to argue against it? Who is going to argue for the choice? Who is going to support the man who wants to buy sex? Who will support the right of a woman to sell it? (Of course, there are organisations from across the globe who do – for example and – but for some reason these women’s and men’s voices rarely appear in party political messages).

So, the game goes on. Harriet Harman is asking the Governor of California to shut down an internet site because it provides ‘reviews’ of escort services and massage parlours. What she didn’t mention is that the site is legal and offers sexual health advice as well. No matter. It seems that what’s more important than the difficult and troubling realities of prostitution is winning the political goal.

Jo Phoenix
Reader in Criminology at Durham University and editor of Regulating sex for sale: Prostitution policy reform in the UK, published September 2009

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