Expectation levels set in wake of commissioner’s appointment

    The appointment of Al Aynsley-Green as the children’s
    commissioner for England last week was met with more than a
    smattering of feel-good fanfare. But among the warm welcomes, there
    are pressing questions.
    In the current climate of home secretary Charles Clarke’s “war on
    yobs,” raising children’s concerns will be no easy matter, say
    social care observers.

    Children’s campaigners are curious to see how the commissioner
    will tackle the much-criticised confines of his role, including the
    lack of emphasis on children’s rights.

    Children’s minister Margaret Hodge won her bid to have five
    references to the word “rights” removed from the description of the
    commissioner’s role last year.

    The role was altered from promoting and safeguarding rights of
    children in England to promoting awareness of their views, although
    the commissioner will still be required to “have regard” for the
    United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

    Carolyne Willow, chair of the Children’s Rights Alliance for
    England, says: “Children need more than listening; they need all of
    their rights upheld, including those the government finds
    difficult. I hope Aynsley-Green can put the rights back into the
    role.”

    Campaigners would like to see the commissioner improve the UK’s
    poor track record on the treatment of children in custody.

    “The UK has been severely criticised by the UN Committee on the
    Rights of the Child, yet we still have a juvenile justice system
    that is not fit for children,” argues Willow.

    “We hope that the children’s commissioner will exert enormous
    pressure on the government to make it comply with human rights. In
    particular, we want to see an immediate end to children being
    detained in prison.”

    A source close to the development of the government’s green
    paper Every Child Matters, says the commissioner could face a
    tricky balancing act: “The role requires someone brilliant with
    children, and a really hard-nosed political operator. Aynsley-Green
    is possibly more the former than the latter.” The source adds:

    “The commissioner, if they do their job well, will have to be
    prepared to give messages to ministers that they do not want to
    hear.”

    Roger Singleton, chief executive of Barnardo’s, said the
    commissioner would need “to spot when things are subtly being put
    on the backburner.”

    Barbara Herts, director of charity Young Minds, who previously
    worked with Aynsley-Green at the Department of Health, points to
    his “groundbreaking” track record in working with the
    government.

    The outgoing national clinical director for children is best
    known for his work on the National Service Framework for Children,
    created in response to the Kennedy Inquiry into children’s heart
    surgery at the Bristol Royal Infirmary. He “dared to say the
    unthinkable” and showed he was “good at finding the right people
    and bringing them on his side”, says Herts.

    Aynsley-Green will need to assuage concerns about ministers’
    powers over the commissioner, in particular those that require him
    to consult government before conducting an inquiry into the case of
    an individual child.
    Willows says: “Aynsley-Green is the only commissioner in Europe who
    can be ordered by a government minister to carry out an inquiry on
    any matter relating to children. That gives ministers enormous
    power, and it is a serious violation of independence.”

    But Caroline Abrahams, director of policy at children’s charity
    NCH, says: “As with anyone, the proof of the pudding will be in the
    eating, but he certainly knows how Westminster and Whitehall
    work.

    “In his current job as children’s health tsar, he has managed to
    broker and sustain relationships with a wide range of interests
    that share his objectives.”

    Profile of Al Aynsley-Green

    • Age 61
    • Education: Guy’s Hospital Medical School, London; Oriel
      College, Oxford University; the University Children’s Hospital,
      Zurich, Switzerland.
    • Career highlights: national clinical director for children;
      Nuffield professor of child health at the Institute of Child
      Health, University College, London; Great Ormond Street Hospital
      for Children NHS Trust.
    • Child-friendly interests: Watching TV’s Dick and Dom in Da
      Bungalow and listening to Scottish rock band Franz Ferdinand.

    Children’s charities wish-list of issues for the
    children’s commissioner to deal with:

    • Bullying.
    • Mental health.
    • Suicides and self-harm in custody.
    • Promoting the needs of the most vulnerable children including
      disabled children, refugee and asylum seeking children and children
      in care.

     

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