Whoever took up the post of children’s commissioner was going to have a job convincing people of the role’s credibility.
Campaigners have voiced concerns over the commissioner’s independence and drawn unfavourable comparisons with counterparts in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland over his powers. The removal of the word “rights” from parts of the job description, the result of an amendment during parliamentary debates on the Children Act 2004, is also worrying.
Less than a month into his full-time job, Al Aynsley-Green is keen, however, to prove his credibility. He will seek the views and experiences of children and young people before commenting.
This is why he says he will not comment on Youth Justice Board figures that show 700 young people have been jailed for breaching antisocial behaviour orders last year. Nor will he take the approach of Scotland’s children’s commissioner Kathleen Marshall and attack the way in which some asylum-seeking children are removed by immigration officials. Marshall has called for the end to the detention of children.
Aynsley-Green says: “I am going to resist making ad hoc comments on anecdotal evidence.” On these issues, as with others, he believes he will lack credibility without such an approach.
This is why he has made 400 visits to various organisations and settings, including children sleeping rough, in the past four years to understand what it is like to be a child. Even now he is out somewhere one night a week visiting children. “I have worn out many pairs of shoes,” he says.
Aynsley-Green has also visited young offender institutions and despite his decision to “reserve judgment” on the Asbo figures, he says they and youth justice are in his thinking. His postbag indicates that youth justice is one of the four main issues people are concerned about. Top of the list is bullying, while asylum and immigration, and disabilities are the other two.
His accessibility to children, young people and professionals – he urges people to e-mail him with their concerns – is an encouraging sign that Aynsley-Green will not rely solely on research and academia but find out about issues at grassroots level.
He will work closely with the other children’s commissioners and will have overall responsibility for issues that are not devolved, such as immigration. “I have no intention of wading in with lead boots,” he says.
Much of Aynsley-Green’s first six months in post will be spent sorting out the “nuts and bolts” of the commission, such as premises and staffing, and working with other organisations to find out what the commission can do that they do not.
With just £3m to fund the commission and its work, Aynsley-Green asks people to be realistic about what he can focus on at any one time. He is not unhappy with the allocation but says he will “examine repeatedly whether it is adequate”.
He is involved in 16 areas of work and is keen to develop links with small voluntary groups rather than just the national children’s charities.
He is also keen to hear from professionals, including social workers, about issues affecting children.
“The reality is thousands and thousands of children and young people are effectively protected [by social workers] so I want to say thank you,” he says.
- E-mail the children’s commissioner at firstname.lastname@example.org