England’s children’s commissioner wants to report to parliament not a government department. What would this achieve for children, asks Helen McCormack
For the first time, the children’s commissioner for England has raised the issue of his independence – or lack of it.
On the face of it, Al Aynsley-Green’s call to disentangle himself from the Department for Education and Skills and report directly to parliament should, if answered, provide a real boost to his powers.
The commissioner is alone among his UK counterparts in reporting to a department rather than parliament, with the DfES setting his budget and having the right to both instruct him to undertake an enquiry and veto any he wishes to undertake.
The government’s decision to restrict the commissioner to only having “regard” for children’s rights rather than safeguarding them, as his counterparts do, when the role was being debated in parliament was widely criticised.
This lack of power means doubt remains over whether the commissioner can become a member of the European Network of Ombudsmen for Children (Enoc), to which the other offices belong as full members, and the English office holds only associate status.
However, Aynsley-Green, a former national clinical director for children at the Department of Health, has largely quelled any concerns that he could be too close to government and has been vocal on issues including bullying, asylum, disability and smacking.
According to Paul Ennals, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau, the commissioner has chosen the right time to raise the “very relevant issue” of his long-term role.
Some within the children’s sector feel that Aynsley-Green’s wish to report to parliament might backfire and see him lose clout at the DfES without gaining influence elsewhere, notably the Home Office.
Ennals acknowledges that the strategy “carries some risk” but points out that reporting directly to the education secretary means other individuals and helping to direct support to them – future social work will be similar to that of today but the processes and the skills required will be different as budgets move into the hands of service users.
British Association of Social Workers professional officer Bridget Robb says in future a social work service could be bought in by individuals to help them make decisions about suitable support.
She says social workers may also continue to play a role on behalf of a local authority in assessing service users’ need for support. “Some of these are complex decisions to make and we would expect social workers to be involved in those decisions,” she says.
Commissioner: Peter Clarke.
Established: March 2001.
Achievements: Held public inquiry into sexual abuse, issuing the Clywch Report.
● NORTHERN IRELAND
Commissioner: Barney McNeaney (appointed in May after Nigel Williams’ death).
Established: October 2003.
Achievements: Pushed for counselling at primary schools.
Commissioner: Kathleen Marshall.
Established: April 2004
Achievements: Very vocal on forced removal of asylum seeking children
Commissioner: Al Aynsley-Green.
Established: July 2005.
Achievements: Critical report on Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre.