The bill does not add up

When the Children Bill becomes the Children Act it is likely to
become one of those landmark pieces of legislation that will be
quoted and referred to endlessly. Whether it really will be the
watershed in the delivery of children’s services that we are led to
believe, only time will tell, but the initial reaction to the
proposals has been broadly positive and they are seen very much as
moving in the right direction.

However, there are three main areas of concern: the power, or
rather the lack of it, to be invested in the new children’s
commissioner for England; the role of, and focus on, schools as the
favoured model for commissioning and delivering children’s services
in future; and where the money is going to come from to turn the
vision behind the bill into a reality.

Unsurprisingly some of the most vocal opposition has centred on the
plans for a limited role for the new commissioner. It is broadly a
consultative post with no real powers, instead of the hoped-for
strong advocate on behalf of young people seen in Wales, Northern
Ireland and other parts of Europe.

The Children’s Rights Alliance for England has been campaigning for
13 years for an independent children’s rights champion and watchdog
for children in England. But it believes that it does not make
sense to give the commissioner for England fewer powers than those
held by the other UK commissioners.

Kathy Evans, principal policy manager at the Children’s Society,
one of the 130 groups which make up the alliance, says: “If this
new person will not be able to decide to investigate individual
cases or gain access to premises they will not be truly independent
or very effective,” she says. “Children are not going to have
confidence in them and will not feel able to go to them with their

“Being able to gather complaints from children is a way to gain
information from them and find out what’s really going on.”

The Children’s Society has consulted young people whose ideas
include having a young person sitting alongside the new
commissioner. They had some strong views on other proposals in the
bill including disapproving of schools being the main place they
have to go with their problems. The fear is that this could lead to
further exclusion of vulnerable groups. A group of traveller
children pointed out they were already bullied at school and this
was likely to become worse if their parents had to come in or they
had to see a social worker there.

It is a concern echoed by the new Commission for Social Care
Inspection which has heard from looked-after children about their
fears over confidentiality and alienation from the school

A third area of the government’s plans to prompt reservations is
funding. Andrew Cozens, president of the Association of Directors
of Social Services, describes the £20m to be allocated for the
first year’s transitional costs as “not very much at all”.

He says: “The notion that more can be done within existing
resources is unproven. When the Treasury embarks on the
comprehensive spending review we will be supporting the Department
for Education and Skills in its attempts to secure an improved

He cites the urgent need to invest heavily in training but there
are other areas of the bill that are likely to have costs attached
too. For one thing, you cannot have an effective and accessible
commissioner for 11 million children without it costing

At local level the fact is that child protection has been
under-resourced for ages.

The recruitment crisis in social care could still blow a hole in
the government’s plans and attracting recruits of the right calibre
is almost certain to need a cash injection. Which all poses the
question, can we improve the quality of service without addressing
the issue of lack of resources. The answer, despite ministers’
assurances, surely has to be no. 

‘Weakest possible model’ says Welsh

Peter Clarke, children’s commissioner for Wales

“I share the disappointment over the plans for a commissioner for
England. It is the weakest model they could have possibly come up
with. Unlike the proposals for England, I have the power to review
individual cases in certain circumstances and, more importantly,
the power to review services and make recommendations.

“I carried out a review on complaints and whistle-blowing around
young people in local authority care. I made 60 recommendations for
improvements to systems and the vast majority of them have already
been implemented. Councils had to collaborate with me in a way that
they will not have to with the English commissioner who will have
no powers to make recommendations.

“I can act on my own volition. For example, I have held a public
inquiry into the death of a teacher accused of sexual abuse and
again I followed it up with recommendations for change.

“I am required to involve children in the running of my office and
I’m also required to have regard to the UN Convention on the Rights
of the Child. The bill says that the English commissioner ‘may’
have regard to it.

“Because no one can tell me what to do I have never been forced by
political considerations to compromise on what I am here for – to
be a real champion for children. That is a huge difference from
what is proposed for England.

“Also, the English commissioner will have powers in respect of
non-devolved areas such as juvenile justice, probation and
benefits. There is potential for confusion here and this could undo
all our hard work on making things straightforward from the child’s

“There is going to be intensive lobbying around these areas and I
am one of those who is going to be doing the lobbying.”

‘No teeth, no bite’,  say young people

Ashley Sweetland, co-chairperson of the UK Youth
Parliament trustees
“We have doubts that schools are the most appropriate
places to focus services.   “If professionals want to build an
effective relationship it is more likely to happen on young
people’s terms and on their territory. The whole thing means more
if you have chosen to turn up – it has to be voluntary.   “As for
the plan for a commissioner, it is just a token exercise. We’ve
been calling for this for years and we expressed our views in a
response to the government’s consultation. But this falls well
short of what we wanted.   “There was huge disappointment when we
heard the proposals. It is not honouring the promise made in Every
Child Matters. The post is going to have no teeth, no bite.”   

Dan Wentworth, a member of the Right Here Right Now
young people’s rights campaign
 “We can see the logic of providing services from schools
but you don’t get much time at school for other stuff – it’s all
lessons and working towards exams.   “The other thing is, some
young people might not be comfortable about being taken out of
class in front of the others to see professionals like social
workers.   “We are going to voice our concern that this new
commissioner is not going to be independent nor a proper advocate
for young people.”

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.