It is early days for Al Aynsley-Green, the new children’s commissioner. Working on a full-time basis only since July last year, it would be unrealistic to expect evidence of huge change. However, a recent session before the House of Commons education and skills select committee has provided some answers about how the former Great Ormond Street paediatric clinician has responded to his critics to date and some insight into his plans for the future.
From the off there were two main concerns about the way the children’s commissioner post was created. The first of these is that its incumbent would be restricted to only seeking and promoting the views of children and young people rather than having a duty to promote and protect their rights. The second is that the post did not seem to be sufficiently independent of government.
Aynsley-Green admits that not being permitted to take up individual cases is a worry for him, but accepts that the potential workload could be beyond current capacity.
On the issue of independence, however, he is not overly concerned. He insists that, while he will be the first to celebrate what government does well, he will not hesitate to challenge where necessary. Indeed, he has not been slow in raising questions on a range of issues, including the use of antisocial behaviour orders, the detention of asylum-seeking children, and bullying in schools.
So what of the future? The children’s commissioner is clear that everything the commission does must be embedded in what children and young people themselves are saying and has identified eight key themes he wishes to pursue: the role of children and young people in society; bullying; asylum and immigration; antisocial behaviour; disability; vulnerable children; minority groups; and health and well-being.
The key issue, then, is what added value the commission can bring to these issues. In this respect the children’s commissioner has resource issues. The English budget of £3m for 11.8m children is small, working out at just 25 pence per child per year compared with £1 and £1.80 per child per year in Scotland and Wales respectively. It is, as Aynsley-Green himself has admitted, a serious challenge.
On the plus side, things within the commission are beginning to take shape. The senior management team is now in post, and 10 advisers have been brought in from the voluntary sector to help shape future policies.
This is an important issue – the commissioner is in effect attempting to make good the resource shortfall by forming alliances with the children’s services voluntary sector. But this is a risky strategy. As Aynsley-Green told the select committee, he needs to work carefully with the voluntary sector but cannot afford to be in their pockets.
Ideally the commission would have a presence in every region of England. This was part of the initial thinking around the commissioner role, and young people say they want to have somebody locally they can turn to for help. But although Aynsley-Green is currently examining the Swedish model of local ombudsmen and local commissioners, it is not easy to see how his resources could stretch to fit this sort of approach.
Perhaps the important thing for now is for people to be realistic about what the office of the children’s commissioner can reasonably be expected to achieve at this early stage. There is no doubting Aynsley-Green’s commitment but he has admitted to “a serious sense of fright” at people’s enormous expectations. As the commission moves into its first full year, we need to ensure there is a measured debate about the balance between the desirable and the attainable.
Bob Hudson is a specialist adviser to the House of Commons education and skills select committee