In April the children’s commissioner for England is to be appointed. Undoubtedly he or she will look to the three people already in the equivalent post in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for their experience of working with front-line staff who provide services to the most vulnerable children.
With all three commissioners relatively new to the job, their relationships with social services are still being forged. Despite arriving in her new job with no building, staff or logistical support, Scotland’s commissioner, Kathleen Marshall, set about trying to open the channels of communication between her office and care staff in daily contact with children.
She says: “You need the perspective of people working on the front line – that communication is critical so they can contact me if they think children’s rights are not being respected.”
A priority has been to meet groups of children and young people and the front-line staff who work directly with them. So far she has met children’s rights officers and is now speaking to detached youth workers. These meetings, she believes, give her a true sense of how policy and practice are affecting children.
Marshall acknowledges that communication will depend on front-line care staff feeling safe about sharing their views. “I want to create a mechanism where people have permission to speak to me confidentially, whereby they know what to expect and can feel assured,” she says. “I have to consider protocols because, if I’m encouraging people to come to me, what information can then be published, and under what conditions?”
Of course, each commissioner must promote the interests of all children, not just those who need the help of the social care sector. Barnardo’s chief executive Roger Singleton says a balance has to be struck in terms of the time the new commissioner devotes to children as a whole and the resources and effort their office puts into vulnerable children. He says: “These are relatively small in numbers, but might be said to have a proportionately greater claim on the commissioner’s time.”
On arriving in the post, Wales’s children’s commissioner, Peter Clarke, used the press to highlight issues children wanted addressing. He even went to far as to break the news of a recruitment crisis that was affecting children.
Caerphilly Council social services director Joe Howsam says: “If you believe in the rights of children and are trying to promote child-centred services Clarke can be uncomfortably upfront, but you support him in his statement. If you are not like that he can be a large irritant.”
Criticism, however constructively intended though, can be difficult to take, particularly when directed towards a sector that is constantly stretched in time and resources. But if the role of England’s children commissioner is to have any teeth, then the way that policy is applied by front-line services must surely be scrutinised. And if children are unhappy robust comment can be expected.
John Coughlan, chair of the Association of Directors of Social Services’ children and families committee, hopes that, although the commissioner in England will promote a rights agenda for children, they will also understand the pressure on service providers. “I’m not putting forward an agenda for compromise, but that we will want to work together,” he says. “I don’t think we’re anticipating a commissioner’s role that says ‘what’s wrong with services’?.”
Coughlan adds the sector is more than aware that the paramount concern for services is children but at the same time they struggle with resources and face competing forces internally. “I’m more interested in ways of seeing a partnership with the commissioner, so they can become a contributor and supporter of services. I don’t see it as an adversarial relationship.”
With some experience of working with a fiercely independent commissioner on which to draw, Howsam believes that the effectiveness of Clarke’s relationship with front-line services and children in Wales rests substantially on the levels of respect he has built. He is concerned that the comparative lack of independence to be enjoyed by the English children’s commissioner could reduce the role’s impact when it comes to gaining the respect of workers.
He says: “The power of the commissioner in Wales is dependent on his credibility and his officers’ credibility. He enjoys a high standing by making the point that he is independent and that children come first.” The Welsh commissioner’s freedom to roam, he adds, allows him to link in directly with children’s groups and gain an understanding of what their issues are, rather than simply be lobbied endlessly about the gripes of large organisations.
There is a potential future issue for all children’s commissioners to watch out for: maintaining their credibility and keeping the thinking of their own staff fresh. Attention will also need to be given to how professionals from various disciplines can contribute their expertise to the commissioner’s office. Although England is the last nation in the UK to appoint a children’s commissioner, perhaps it will be the first to tackle these issues.