Laming’s plan for a ‘children’s commissioner’ faces attack

The second recommendation in Lord Laming’s report is that the
government should set up a new national agency for children and
families, to be led by a chief executive who “incorporates the
responsibilities of a children’s commissioner for England”,
writes David Callaghan and Alex

Campaigners calling for an English equivalent of the Children’s
Commissioner for Wales may have started to celebrate, until they
realised the exact nature of the new ‘commissioner’s’ role.

The post will be part of a new structure featuring a ministerial
children and families board chaired by a cabinet minister. The new
agency would report to the board through its chief executive, under
Laming’s proposals.

So there would be a new structure leading to the very top of the
government in order to ensure children and families issues will
always be close to the centre of national policy thinking.

Laming’s plan has attracted support in parliament through an
early day motion backing his proposals tabled by former social
worker Hilton Dawson MP.

Felicity Collier, chief executive of Baaf Adoption and Fostering
“applauded” the idea of having a commissioner “as an advocate for
children at the heart of the policy-making process”.

But for Welsh commissioner Peter Clarke there is a serious flaw
in the plan. He warns that the essential element of a commissioner
is complete independence from government.

“My suggestion is therefore that the title of ‘children’s
commissioner’ should be dropped, and that the separate argument
about the need for a truly independent commissioner for England
still stands,” he added.

Alongside the question of independence from government, Clarke
says that a commissioner could not take responsibility for both
children and their families.

“We know families and children often have joint interests, but
those interests can come into conflict and that is particularly
likely where family members are harming children. What is vital is
that children are given the opportunity to have their voices
heard,” he said.

He adds that there also appears to be quite narrow restrictions
on what the English commissioner for children could actually

“The remit seems only to extend to serious case reviews as
outlined under the Children Act 1989, whereas I have extremely wide
powers that allow me to consider any matter affecting any child
ordinarily resident in Wales,” he says.

Ministers in Scotland are planning for a commissioner on the
lines of the Welsh commissioner, with a stated intent to publish
legislation before the parliamentary elections in May.

England already has a children’s rights director, Roger Morgan,
whose appointment nearly 18 months ago was seen as an attempt to
appease the lobby calling for a commissioner in the wake of the
Waterhouse Report into abuse in north Wales care homes.

But although health minister Jacqui Smith described the director
as a “powerful champion for some of the most vulnerable children in
our society”, the post is based within the National Care Standards
Commission so is far from independent. His role is to have an
overview of the rights of children receiving services regulated by
the commission.

Health secretary Alan Milburn gave an immediate response to Lord
Laming’s report, and welcomed some of the recommendations. But he
did not mention a children’s commissioner and that may be an
indication that the government is still cool on the idea.

So the calls for a truly independent children’s commissioner for
England are likely to continue, but  the likelihood of one being
established still appearing remote.

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