The reasons for having a shop front office near the Scottish
Parliament neatly sum up much of how Kathleen Marshall,
Scotland’s first commissioner for children, sees her job: to
make it the kind of place that the public, especially children and
young people, feel they can approach. But somewhere, too, to nab
the nearby politicians.
Eventually, the new office will house the commission’s 15
staff but, at the moment, says the third person in the UK to hold
such a post, “I’m still ordering the paper clips”. She took
up the reins at the end of April and already the Antisocial
Behaviour Bill and the review of the children’s panel system
are sitting on her desk.
She admits that some of her work will be necessarily reactive
but the remit given to her by the Commissioner for Children and
Young People (Scotland) Act 2003 is very broad. So much so that it
is not just politicians who will be buttonholed: she can look at
the actions of any public, voluntary or commercial provider when
safeguarding the welfare and rights of children. This could mean,
for example, that she could investigate advertising on
She is not allowed to investigate individual cases but Marshall
believes this will allow her to concentrate on policy development
and practice guidance.
Qualifying as a solicitor in 1975, she worked in local
government and was director of the Scottish Child Care Law Centre
from 1989 to 1994. Soon she was appointed professor with the Centre
for the Child and Society, Glasgow University. There she produced a
book, Children’s Rights in the Balance, on the
relationship between children’s participation and the
child’s best interests as enshrined in Articles 3 and 12 of
the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. She carried out work
on children with HIV and produced guidelines on consent to
treatment, while research into education and the rights of the
child resulted in a video and training materials. She has just
published Honouring Children. The Rights of the Child in
Christian Perspective, which she wrote with US theologian,
The commissioner cannot undertake work covered by other
agencies, such as the public service ombudsman, but if there was
dissatisfaction at a decision, while she could not return to it,
she could, she says with a knowing smile, look at how it was dealt
Other matters outside her remit are those reserved to the UK
government. The detention of asylum-seeking children in the Home
Office’s Dungavel Centre in South Lanarkshire is an example.
But she is not deterred. She intends to investigate because, “there
may be reserved matters but there are no reserved children”.
“Whatever their immigration status, they are children first,
they are human beings who have rights”, she says. Formal
investigation may be ruled out here but looking at the
children’s situation and commenting is not. She intends to do
Physical punishment will be the subject of an investigation. She
cannot avoid it, she says, as even the revised law in Scotland,
which restricts what punishment can be given, does not reach
international standards. It is in conflict with Article 19 of the
UN Convention, the EU Social Charter and, arguably, with the
European Convention on Human Rights.
Marshall, a mother of three, intends to create a reference group
of young people – at the moment she is using the children and young
people who took part in the interviews for her post as “a think
She envisages “three levels of engagement”: long-term
investigations for two years or so; issues that take a few months
to look at; and reacting as matter arise.
Her work will divided between matters concerning children over
12 and those under 12 and she will engage children and young people
to help her set those priorities. But there will be a third strand
to her work, including minority issues which might get lost if left
to selection by voting.
All this – and more – she will be doing with a £1.5m budget
in the first year and £1.25m a year thereafter.
She wants to work with anyone who has children’s rights at
heart. “I’m not at all worried about anyone doing things in
my field – all I need to make sure is that they do them properly”,
However, Marshall says: “Governments have ratified the UN
convention and by doing so have made a promise to children and we
commissioners are holding governments to keeping that promise.”