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
    participation.

    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
    champion.

    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
    children.

    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
    group.

    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
    fiction. 

    Abstract

    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.

    References

    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
    2783772.

    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.

    More from Community Care

    Comments are closed.