Dear Al…

    Welcome to your new and challenging role. After considerable
    speculation, fears, and lost sweepstakes, smoke has at last
    appeared over the roof of the Department for Education and Skills’
    buildings, signalling your arrival as England’s first children’s
    commissioner. We very much welcome your appointment, having already
    experienced your energy and enthusiasm in your role as children’s
    health advisor to the NHS since 2001. Your passion to positively
    affect the lives of children and young people goes
    unquestioned.

    We don’t underestimate the considerable challenges you face in
    addressing your new 11 million constituents and you will be only
    too aware of the anodyne investigation powers that you have, which
    are in sharp contrast to your commissioner colleagues in Wales,
    Northern Ireland and Scotland.

    You are forbidden from investigating individual cases unless it
    is the secretary of state’s view that the case raises issues that
    are relevant to other children, and unlike in Wales, Northern
    Ireland and Scotland you can’t respond to children’s individual
    complaints. Also, unlike in the other three countries, the
    principal aim of the children’s commissioner post in England has
    been diluted to promoting awareness of children’s views and
    interests rather than promoting their rights and welfare
    outright.

    You will be only too aware of the largely unsuccessful lobbying
    that went on by organisations like Barnardo’s, and by your fellow
    commissioners to ensure that England’s children’s commissioner
    could be allowed to fight for children without any restrictions.
    Without doubt there will be battles ahead as, for example, you seek
    to clarify your powers to conduct investigations of children’s
    services providers. If you agree with the view that the most
    unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning, then surely
    you will need to investigate individual cases where things have
    gone tragically wrong. After all, it was the death of Victoria
    Climbie that led to the Children Act 2004 and your new post.

    Inevitably, you will need to fight early on to make sure you can
    get your hands on an adequate level of resources. Initial DfES
    estimates put the running costs at £2.5m per annum, which
    seems somewhat modest in comparison to £1.4m, the 2004-5
    budget for Wales which has a population of just 662,779 under-18s.
    Symbolically, the budget you receive will indicate just how
    seriously your new office is perceived by those who hold the purse
    strings.

    No doubt one of the most enjoyable, and perhaps testing, parts
    of the interview process was the role of young people in your
    selection. To have emerged successfully from this ordeal will help
    your street cred, which I gather will also be reinforced by your
    taste for the band Franz Ferdinand and your willingness to endure
    Dick and Dom in da Bungalow on Saturday mornings. These things
    provide good foundations for a post based on encouraging children’s
    participation. Your willingness to listen, consult and find new
    ways of engaging with children and young people could provide new
    models for us all.

    Not only is the commissioner post significant because it is new
    and will set precedents, but it has been established during a
    period of dramatic change in children’s services. As you have been
    so much at the heart of some of these strategic developments you
    are well placed to take forward the agenda. But the real challenge
    will be in deciding where to focus your attention. Ironically, at a
    time when these changes are taking place with the aim of improving
    services for children, it is possible that the original intentions
    may be overlooked. For example, the preoccupation with structures,
    the jockeying for new positions, and the integration of services
    such as Sure Start into mainstream local authorities could all have
    the potential to shift the focus from the “why” to the “how”.

    Through close engagement with your other commissioner colleagues
    you will be able to make comparisons between the way children’s
    services are evolving differently across the UK. But should your
    focus be on the Treasury’s commitment to eradicate child poverty by
    2020 or on the DfES as it takes forward the Children Act agenda?
    Should it be on early years and new service structures or on the
    Home Office and its increasingly punitive juvenile justice
    initiatives? It will be interesting to see how open the doors of
    these other departments will be. But since children’s rights cross
    government boundaries, you must take the opportunity to re-open the
    debate about joined-up government. Those who have heard you speak
    know of your support for countries like Sweden, where matters
    involving children go right the way through government.

    Your appointment is welcome because you will keep firmly in mind
    those children whose interests can be marginalised or ignored.
    Barnardo’s work with you and Great Ormond Street Hospital on
    children who require long-term ventilation is a good case in point.
    These children often endure long periods in regional hospitals, far
    from their families, and require enormous level of cross service
    co-operation, if they are to return home with medical and social
    support. They represent all of the challenges that the Children Act
    faces if we are to put children at the centre of turf wars between
    education, social services, health and housing. While statutory and
    voluntary organisations regret the diluted powers of the English
    commissioner, your appointment signals a willingness from
    government to engage with the strategic issues, outlined above,
    which are all too familiar to you.

    All of us now need to express a commitment, alongside you, to
    make this post work as well as we can for the sake of children and
    young people. The American statesman Benjamin Franklin said: “If
    you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten
    either write things worth reading or do things worth writing”. With
    the children’s commissioner for England we have an opportunity for
    both of these to be achieved.

    Chris Hanvey is UK operations director of
    Barnardo’s.

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