The Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England is set to rebrand the role this month in what chief executive Rob Williams says is a move “to focus on a relatively small number of big issues where we can make a difference rather than a noise”.
The launch of its long-term strategy comes amid growing concern among charities and practitioners that, with just £3m for nearly 12 million children and limited powers, the commissioner, Professor Al Aynsley-Green (pictured right), has not lived up to expectations.
A recent survey by Community Care of 468 children’s social workers found that 44% believe he is having no impact on the rights of children. By contrast, in an earlier poll in 2005, 87% predicted that he would have a very or fairly positive impact.
In an interview with Community Care in July 2005 – just one month into the job – Aynsley-Green said he was keen to hear from professionals, including social workers. Yet it is clear that he still does not appear on the radar for many of them.
Beth Malone, manager of the central leaving care team at Norfolk Council, says there is a consensus among practitioners that the commissioner “has not been good at bringing his name or his role to the attention of frontline workers”. She says he should make contact with champions in each local authority to get his message to the grassroots.
The role of the children’s commissioner for England is to look after the interests, and act as the voice of, children and young people. Aynsley-Green’s main tactics include influencing parents and politicians, scrutinising government policy, holding organisations to account, and promoting the participation of children. But, unlike his counterparts in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the English commissioner does not have the power to take up individual cases. He also has a lower per capita budget. The commissioner’s office in Wales, for example, is receiving £1.8m this year for 650,000 children (see The Welsh Experience).
For many, these limited powers are at the root of his low profile. Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, says the power to take up individual test cases is critical. “If he doesn’t have the power to raise those cases it’s difficult for him to raise his profile and get children and young people to understand his role. It’s the system that is at fault,” she says.
Anyone hoping that the new strategy will entail a larger budget allied to enhanced powers to tackle these issues will be disappointed. Williams says the five-year strategy will focus on making the best use of existing resources and powers. He argues that there is “a lot of theory but no hard evidence” that different powers attached to the other UK commissioners are having more effect.
Part of the process will involve dampening down expectations that the commissioner can become involved in all children’s issues. “We absolutely can’t, and that would be the case even if we had a much bigger budget,” Williams says.
Bob Reitemeier, chief executive of the Children’s Society, remains adamant that having the power to pursue “very selectively” some individual cases should be integral to the commissioner role. He adds that the role is also weakened by only “having regard” for the rights of children rather than being fully signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Despite evidence to suggest the commissioner has shown his commitment to asylum-seeking children with visits to children held at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, and to unconvicted children whose details are held by the Home Office on the national DNA database, for many the jury is still out on the commissioner’s success.
Terri Dowty, of Action on Rights for Children, warns: “His low profile creates an impression that he is avoiding controversy, and a suspicion that he sees his role as being a critical friend of government rather than a watchdog with teeth.” She cites the commissioner’s work on tackling bullying as evidence that he has concentrated on “the surface of issues” rather than “challenging the structures that create the problems”.
Even here, the commissioner failed to please everyone. David Barnes, professional officer representing British Association of Social Workers members who work with children, says his work failed to make the connection with violence against young people generally, which is their greatest fear. Dowty questions whether the commissioner uses his full powers and whether he relies too much on “trying to influence from within the Westminster tent”. She contrasts this with the Northern Ireland office, which she says does not hesitate to go to court.
But others accept the commissioner has to be close to government to get things done. Crook says he should not be too campaigning and separate, suggesting that should be the job of voluntary organisations.
Ultimately she believes there should be a wider structural change, involving the appointment of a cabinet minister for children, a House of Commons select committee for children and “legislation to give the commissioner more power as an independent champion of children and their rights”.
Perhaps then social workers would begin to notice an impact on children’s rights.
* Closer working relationship with non-governmental children’s organisations to combine their experience and knowledge with his statutory powers.
* More staff and resources to improve links with voluntary organisations who are reaching children he cannot reach.
* More effective use of his existing powers. Carolyne Willow, national co-ordinator of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, says: “He has enough powers to make an impact. Therefore any failings can’t all be put down to the legislative framework.”
The Welsh Experience (back to top)
The volume of individual cases taken up by the office of the Welsh commissioner – something that the English commissioner does not have the power to do – has increased steadily each year, with 566 children helped by the advice and support service in 2005-6.
Assistant commissioner Sara Reid says most of the contact is over the telephone and cases mainly concern education, particularly special educational needs, and social services.
She says the Welsh commissioner, Peter Clarke, who died of cancer in January, regarded his legal powers as “the tools in the toolkit he needed to do his job effectively”. She adds: “Some of the tools get used more than others, but having that level of choice has been invaluable.”
Reid says the commissioner’s reports and policy reviews have already provoked action from the Welsh Assembly Government on child poverty, improving safeguards in schools, independent advocacy, children’s complaints officers and participation.
* The Office of the Children’s Commissioner
* Chapter three of the updated Working Together guidance, which sets out how the boards are supposed to work from
* LSCB key resources
This article appeared in the 3 May issue under the headline “Time to increase the impact factor”