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” (http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/pns/pnattach/20090192/1.pdf).

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.

Visit The Policy Press website at http://www.policypress.co.uk

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