England left trailing as children gain champions

Frances Rickford reports on what MPs heard from European
children’s commissioners at a recent Westminster seminar.

Question: what do the countries of Wales, Spain, Norway, France,
Scotland and Georgia have in common? Answer: they all have, or are
about to have, an independent ombudsman for children.

Twenty seven countries now have someone in the role of
children’s commissioner or ombudsman and Scotland and
Northern Ireland will soon join the list.

Last month MPs at Westminster had a chance to find out more
about just what a children’s ombudsman does. With support
from 0-19 and the National Family and Parenting Institute, the All
Party Group for Children and the Associate Parliamentary Group for
Parents and Families invited Trond Waage the Norwegian
children’s ombudsman, and Peter Clarke the children’s
commissioner for Wales to explain how their respective systems
work, and what they achieve for children.

Norway was the first country to legislate to establish a
national ombudsman for children, and Waage is the third person in
the post. The law was passed in 1981, and split the Norwegian
legislature with a 49-51 vote in favour. Opponents were anxious
that parental authority and responsibility could be undermined by a
children’s ombudsman. Now there is no significant political
opposition to the existence of ombudsman, said Waage, and parents
are supportive of the ombudsman’s office. “They are demanding
quite a lot on behalf of their child, and children in general –
they are fighting for children’s rights rather than
parents’ rights.”

His office has a staff of 15, including a lawyer, a
psychologist, a sociologist, an economist, and a doctor. His role
is both reactive as a watchdog, and proactive in proposing change
and setting the agenda, and he’s in regular touch with
children through direct calls and e-mails to his office, special
hearings held in schools and an “internet parliament” in which
students from 10 schools across Norway feed in their ideas and
opinions. “The best protection and the best provision is when
children participate” said Waage.

Because of the suspension of the Northern Ireland assembly last
autumn, the final step in legislating for a children’s
commissioner in Northern Ireland was an order introduced in the
House of Commons in January, but the groundwork had already been
done. The post is due to be advertised this month (April) and the
first commissioner is expected to be in post by the summer.

In Scotland too the process of establishing an independent voice
for children is well under way. A bill was laid before the Scottish
parliament in December and was last week expected to go forward for
Royal Assent after a debate on the third stage. The new
office’s £1.2m budget includes funds to enable the
commissioner to get out to meet and listen to as many children and
young people as possible.

The first country in the UK to appoint a children’s
commissioner was of course Wales. Commissioner Peter Clarke told
the seminar his office’s independence was critical.
He’d been appointed by the National Assembly for a period of
seven years, with no possibility of reappointment, but he does not
report to the national assembly. He has powers to conduct reviews,
to require documents from public bodies and to conduct examinations
in the same way as a public inquiry.

He said he only got involved in individual cases when every
other route had been explored, but would suggest to young people
who approached him about individual cases that they copied all
correspondence to him, and told the other parties they are doing
so. “It’s surprising how things seem to speed up once
we’re included in the correspondence over a case!” he

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended last
autumn that the UK establish an independent body “to monitor,
protect and promote all the rights of the Convention (on the rights
of the child) for all children.”

England’s 11 million children still have no independent
voice, and Lord Laming’s proposal that the chief executive of
a national agency for children and families could also fulfil the
functions of a children’s commissioner misses the crucial
point of independence from government, said Veronica Plowden, joint
national co-ordinator of the Children’s Rights Alliance. “A
children’s commissioner is an independent children’s
rights champion. English children should have the same protection
of their rights as their peers in the other countries of the UK,”
she said.

Countries with independent bodies that protect
children’s rights

Australia, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Columbia, Costa Rica,
Denmark, France, Georgia, Guatemala, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland,
Lithuania, Macedonia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Philippines,
Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, Slovenia, South
Africa, Spain, Sweden, Wales.

Source: Children’s Rights Alliance

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