Consideration, respect, guidance….

Nearly 30 countries worldwide have a children’s commissioner or
ombudsman, including Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Yet
England’s 11.3 million children still have no independent watchdog
to champion their human rights. This is despite the United Nations
Committee on the Rights of the Child urging all governments that
have ratified the organisation’s convention to establish
independent human rights bodies to monitor, protect and promote
children’s rights.

Word from the government is that an English commissioner is finally
on the cards, to the approval of the Children’s Rights Alliance for
England. It runs the national coalition of children’s organisations
that has been campaigning for one. National co-ordinator Carolyne
Willow says: “Having a children’s rights commissioner in England
should help transform adult attitudes. The Icelandic ombudsman for
children ran an advert for parents on buses urging them to give
children ‘consideration, respect and guidance’. It would be great
to see something like that in our major cities.”

A commissioner must also be able to challenge legal and
governmental decisions, she adds, and should be willing to risk the
displeasure of government and other institutions in their pursuit
of improvements for children. Willow says: “It would be a wasted
opportunity after all this time to establish a commissioner that
lacks any real teeth. We need to draw on what works across the
world, then set about building a model that can most protect the
rights of children in our country.”

Commissioners elsewhere have achieved significant improvements. The
French ombudsman lobbied for a legal amendment to increase
protection of children placed in psychiatric institutions; the
Polish ombudsman lobbied parliament to introduce tax reduction
schemes for voluntary organisations that give grants to poor
families; and the voting age has been reduced to 16 in two small
Austrian federal states.


NORWAY
The ombudsman for children (Barneombudet)

Name: Trond Waage.

How long do you hold the post of ombudsman for?
Norway was the first country to establish a commissioner, or
ombudsman, with statutory measures to protect children and their
rights in 1981. The ombudsman is appointed for four years. I am
Norway’s third ombudsman. I have served since 1996 and am on my
second period of office. The ombudsman can hold office for two
terms.

Annual budget: The 2001 budget was 6.9m Norwegian
kroner (£594,000). The total income is from government
grants.

How independent are you? The ombudsman is
independent, non-partisan and politically neutral. Although the
ombudsman is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry for Children
and Family Affairs, neither the national assembly nor the
government has the power to instruct the ombudsman.

What is your remit and what are your powers? My
duties are to promote children’s interests to public and private
authorities. The ombudsman has the power to investigate, criticise
and publicise matters seen as important in improving the welfare of
children and young people. The ombudsman has access to all public
and private institutions for children. They take up cases on their
own initiative or at the request of others. Anyone can apply to the
ombudsman. However, they do not take up cases concerning specific,
individual conflicts between a child and its guardians or between
the guardians themselves.

What significant achievements have you had?
Pioneering new ways of staying in contact with young people through
an internet parliament, with student representatives from 25
democratically elected school councils. The aim is to let young
people have their say through mini-referendums on issues that
concern them. A children’s power-line was set up in 1989. It
gathers information about the lives of children and provides swift
replies and information to callers. 

– Further information from www.barneombudet.no


ICELAND
The ombudsman for children (Umbodsmadur barna)

Name: Thorhildur Lindal.

How long do you hold the post of ombudsman for?
The ombudsman is appointed by the prime minister for five years. I
was the first ombudsman, appointed in January 1995 and was
reappointed to serve another five years in January 2000.

Annual budget: For 2003, the budget is 24.6m
Icelandic krona (£197,000). The budget is funded entirely by
the government.

How independent are you? I am totally independent
and not subject to instructions from the government or anyone
else.

What is your remit and what are your powers? I
seek to ensure that central and local public authorities,
individuals, organisations and legal representatives give full
consideration to the interests, needs and rights of children. The
ombudsman does not deal with disputes between individuals or take
up cases of individual children if their case should legally be
resolved by the public authorities, parliament or the courts. Where
cases are taken up, it is free. I can demand all the information
needed from the authorities, individuals and others – for example,
reports and records, where I think that they have infringed the
rights, needs and interests of children in society. I can also
summon the parties concerned or go to see them. I have free access
to all institutions that house children or deal with children in
one way or another, whether publicly run or by individuals or other
organisations. My conclusions are not legally binding, but those
concerned are expected to heed my observations, recommendations and
proposals.

What significant achievements have you had? A
long-term project to stop bullying in school. Fifteen- to
18-year-olds are no longer placed in conventional prisons since a
report from this office. Instead, the prison and probation
administration has made an agreement with the government agency for
child protection that these children will be placed in
rehabilitation centres. Provisions in several laws have been been
amended as a result of interventions by the ombudsman, including
the act on torts. It now says that in determining indemnity for
victims of child sexual abuse the following should be studied: the
nature of the act, how long the abuse lasted and whether it
violated a family or confidential relationship. Another achievement
is the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the
Child.

Why do you think it is important for a country to have a
children’s commissioner?
Because of their role as a
spokesperson for children. My role is also to further the
well-being of children and to look after their interests, rights
and needs vis-…-vis public as well as private parties in all
walks of life. The ombudsman is a protector of all young people up
to 18.

– Further information from www.barn.is  


LITHUANIA
The controller for the protection of the rights of
the child (Lietuvos respublikos voiko teisiu apsaugos
kontrolieriaus istaiga)

Name: Grazina Imbrasiene

How long do you hold the post of ombudsman for? My
post is appointed by parliament (the Seimas) based on the
chairperson of the Seimas’s recommendation. The post lasts four
years and an ombudsman cannot serve more than two consecutive
terms. The office was set up in September 2000 and has eight
staff.

Annual budget: For 2003, the budget is 540,000
litas (£110,000). The budget is funded entirely by the
government and covers all salaries, taxes, business trips,
conferences, equipment, office equipment, office means, fuel
expenses and so on.

How independent are you? I am independent of the
state, municipal institutions, non-governmental organisations and
citizens.

What is your remit and what are your powers? I can
submit proposals to change legislation, demand information and
documents in relation to the rights and legal interests of children
and investigate complaints about the treatment of children. I can
also freely enter state and municipal institutions to examine their
activities and to participate in government meetings when
children’s issues are discussed.

What significant achievements have you had? The
establishment of the ombudsman has strengthened protection for
children’s rights and has meant children and adults in Lithuania
are better acquainted with their duties and their rights. They also
know there is an institution to which they can apply for help. As a
result, the ombudsman’s office has received 489 written and oral
complaints and has started 23 investigations into the violations of
children’s rights and interests.

Why do you think it is important for a country to have a
children’s commissioner?
It is important to have one who
is independent and can oversee the work of parliament. Because we
are responsible for dealing with all the questions, issues and
challenges that arise around children’s rights protection, the
children’s ombudsman has a lot of authority, and is trusted.

– Further information from: www.lrs.lt


ENGLAND
Wish-list for the children’s rights commissioner

Postholder: A strong figurehead, somebody that
children and young people can recognise and relate to in the public
domain, who they see working for them in a high-profile
position.

Annual budget: Using the annual costs of running
the Welsh commissioner’s office as a guide, a similarly resourced
body for England’s 11.3 million children could cost up to £15m
a year. This compares with the Commission for Racial Equality’s
£19m in 2001-2 and the Disability Rights Commission receiving
more than £12m in the same year.

Relationship with government: Independent of
government and able to review and report freely and publicly on any
matter related to children and their rights and interests.

Remit and powers: The commissioner’s work should
be guided by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. They
should have investigatory powers to carry out inquiries, a
statutory power in exceptional circumstances to deal with
individual complaints and an independent role in monitoring the
implementation of the UN convention. They should also have the
power to require government ministers to carry out child impact
reviews on any decision or proposal and be able to offer financial
or other support to any organisation that directly supports
children in understanding and claiming their human rights.

Targets and achievements: Remove children from the
prison system, increasing the age of criminal responsibility to
reflect policy in many other EU countries and changing the
treatment of young asylum seekers and refugees to become fully
compliant with human rights legislation. In addition, it is
important that the commissioner is viewed positively not just by
children but by parents and professionals too.

Why do we need one? An independent children’s
rights commissioner could provide an authoritative and constant
voice in a range of forums, including parliament and the media.
They could hold government and other agencies to account and
galvanise political, public and professional support for the rights
of children. 

– From The Case for a Children’s Rights Commissioner for
England
, Children Rights Alliance for England, January 2003.
For further information tel 020 7278 8222. E-mail: info@crights.org.uk or go to
www.crights.org.uk

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