Wand waver lacks magic

Kristyn Wise is the chair of Croa, the network of
children’s rights and advocacy services across England and Wales,
and the manager of a local children’s rights service. She has
worked with children and young people for 20 years, and is the
co-author and editor of several books about young people’s

Imagine for a moment the final book in the Harry Potter series.
Harry, young champion of disadvantaged children everywhere, is
facing Lord Voldemort in what is possibly the greatest test of his
power. Voldemort has imprisoned the other Gryffindor students
inside Hogwarts Castle, and Harry is the only person who can
conceivably help them. But when he raises his wand to strike, he
finds it has turned to chocolate. In this story, Harry is able to
act only on the directions of the dark lord.

While this may be an unlikely plot for JK Rowling, it does read
like one interpretation of the children commissioner’s story as
told in the Children Bill. The bill fleshes out the government’s
announcement in Every Child Matters that it intended to
appoint a “children’s champion independent of government”.

England is the last country in the UK to establish such a post. The
green paper introducing a commissioner for England was widely
welcomed by children’s rights organisations, which had been
campaigning for a commissioner’s role since the UK ratified the UN
Convention on the Rights of the Child. But there has been
widespread dismay that the proposals outlined in the Children Bill
fall far short of the legislation already enacted in other parts of
the UK.

Hilton Dawson MP actively supported the introduction of a
commissioner for England but was disappointed by what the bill
proposed: “Instead of the best accepted human rights statement in
the world, we have an ineffective wish-list which isn’t backed by
regulations or standards. The children’s commissioner for England
will be the best-paid youth worker in the land.”

On the day the Children Bill was published, education secretary
Charles Clarke insisted that the commissioner would be “entirely
independent of government”. But the proposed legislation does not
grant the commissioner the independence the government promised, or
follow the internationally accepted guidelines on the establishment
of such posts.1 This is a massive deficit. Can we trust
governments, even those run on democratic principles, to
investigate themselves honestly? Would Harry Potter be a suitable
champion for children if Lord Voldemort pulled his strings?

Despite the obvious conflicts of interest, the Children Bill
suggests that the government, in the person of the education
secretary, will appoint the commissioner. He or she will be able to
undertake inquiries only at the behest of the government, which can
also decide whether to make public any of the commissioner’s
reports. The government will determine the funding for the
commissioner’s office, and can base this decision on any conditions
it feels are appropriate.

This combination of factors means that issues the government
doesn’t want raised may never see the light of day. In effect, the
government could control the commissioner’s programme, filling it
with meaningless tasks if it saw fit.

The Children’s Rights Alliance for England, which has spearheaded
the campaign for a commissioner, believes the postholder’s
credibility with children will be fatally undermined if he or she
is seen as an extension of government rather than as an independent

It is clear that the English commissioner will be much weaker than
his or her UK counterparts, with no power to take legal action on
behalf of children, nor able to initiate investigations, publish
their reports, enter premises or meet privately with

Peter Clarke and Nigel Williams, the commissioners for Wales and
Northern Ireland, say that, although the English commissioner will
be a strong voice for children’s views, the postholder will have
“neither the powers nor the independence that will enable those
views to be translated into meaningful action”.

The disparity between the UK commissioners is clear from the job
descriptions. The commissioners for Wales, Northern Ireland and
Scotland are required to safeguard and promote children’s rights,
while the English commissioner is expected to “promote awareness of
the views and interests of children”. And where the other UK
commissioners work specifically within the framework of the UN
Convention on the Rights of the Child, the proposed commissioner
for England “may have regard” to it.

The other commissioners also point out that the UK-wide
responsibilities of the English commissioner are unhelpful. The
Children Bill suggests that the commissioners in Wales, Northern
Ireland and Scotland will investigate devolved matters only.

Children’s rights campaigners have acknowledged that some
co-ordinating role for the UK might be useful, but are adamant that
each commissioner must be able to act on behalf of all the children
within their countries, and on any matter that they see fit. They
highlight the inappropriateness of handing out special
responsibilities to the flimsiest commissioner in the UK

The effectiveness of the children’s commissioner for England will
depend largely on the tenacity of the individual who gets the job,
and the goodwill of the government. The proposals should read
differently. Children in England deserve the same protection as
children in the rest of the UK. The powers of the English
commissioner may be bolstered as the bill makes its way through
parliament or in future legislation. But if they aren’t, our
commissioner’s wand may turn to chocolate. And a strong champion
for England’s 11 million children will remain the stuff of


This article critically examines the government’s proposals for
a children’s commissioner for England. It argues that the proposed
legislation falls far short of the “independent champion for
children” promised in Every Child Matters. In England, the
commissioner will be weaker than anywhere else in the UK and may
indeed be little more than a government puppet.


1 In 2002 the UN Committee
on the Rights of the Child published a general comment which, taken
together with the Paris Principles, serves as a set of minimum
standards for the setting up of children’s commissioner posts. Both
documents stress the importance of independent watchdogs for
children’s human rights. They emphasise a range of powers that
commissioners should hold, including the right to report
independently to the public and to government, the ability to
freely consider any question, to support children in taking cases
to court, and the power to question witnesses and access
documentary evidence. Available free from the YVT on 02933

Further information

Information about the children’s commissioner proposals is
regularly updated on the website of the Children’s Rights Alliance
for England at www.crights.org.uk.   

Information about commissioners in Northern Ireland and Wales
respectively can be found at www.niccy.org and www.childcom.org.uk.

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