Appointment of the Children's Commissioner for England - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 20-39)


12 OCTOBER 2009

  Q20 Mr Chaytor: Once you had been shortlisted you were required to give a presentation on the most important issues facing children and young people, and a group of young people was involved in that. Do you think that's a good idea?

  Maggie Atkinson: I think it's an excellent idea. I've experienced it twice now in my career. If you're going to be the sort of post holder that is going to have regular contact with, and a constructive and hopefully powerful relationship with children and young people, and you appoint somebody who doesn't like them very much or to whom they can't speak, or who they feel won't listen to them, you are on a bit of a hiding to nothing. They were very well briefed; they were properly chaperoned by two adults in the room, who took notes; they were very articulate and very engaged in the process; and actually they were as searching as the adult panel the next day, but in a different way.

  Q21 Mr Chaytor: But if it is such a good idea, why weren't they invited back for the final interview?

  Maggie Atkinson: You would probably have to ask the Department that question, but I would guess that the main reason is that this is an appointment of government, albeit to a corporation sole and non-departmental public body. I would guess that, in the same way as localities do this, you use your children and young people's panel to ask wide-ranging and sometimes quite challenging and daring questions that are not about the nuts and bolts of doing the job. The final panel interview is about the nuts and bolts of doing the job—"How will you relate to Ministers? What happens if you don't get your own way? How are you with the media?"—whereas the children and young people wanted to know what I thought was bugging children and young people across the country and to tell what they'd want me to say on their behalf. The two events were very different indeed.

  Q22 Mr Chaytor: How do you reconcile your defence of the involvement of children and young people at the shortlisting stage with your response to Graham's question about leaving representation to the UK Youth Parliament? Because there you were saying, "Well, these are all part-time young people with other preoccupations," and that they couldn't possibly be trusted to get their judgments right, but here you are saying, "This was a really good idea and it should be built into the system."

  Maggie Atkinson: Absolutely. That young people's group was, of course, the Children and Youth board of the DCSF, which now and again—

  Q23 Mr Chaytor: How do you get on the Children and Youth board at the DCSF?

  Maggie Atkinson: I don't know.[2] They're from all over the country. They were from Manchester and Dudley—goodness only knows where they weren't from—and I gather, from the officials who briefed me about what they do, that now and again they are brought out of school or taken on weekend training in order to fulfil their roles. Now and again, they are asked to look at a piece of very specific policy that has a very direct effect on the rights and well-being of children and young people. They are not called on day in and day out to engage in that policy process—and they are not if you use them to help you in localities either.

  Q24 Mr Chaytor: But they are hand-picked by somebody in the DCSF presumably? They are not elected or plucked out by a random process.

  Maggie Atkinson: I honestly don't know whether they are an elected group or not. They may well be representatives of their own elected bodies in their own localities.

  Q25 Mr Chaytor: Was there anything in the whole recruitment process, other than your concerns about the original output, that you would not adopt as good practice in running the Children's Commissioner's office?

  Maggie Atkinson: I don't think there is about running the office. I think I would reflect back to you that a closing date of 2 July, for a first interview on 1 September and a second interview on 2 September, and some time in late September the call to tell you, is perhaps a tad long. I appreciate that it was advertised and closed, and that Parliament then broke for the summer recess, but I could have gone off and got a job in Madagascar between applying for this and being told I was the preferred candidate. In terms of being a candidate, it hasn't been stress-free.

  Q26 Mr Timpson: You were asked earlier about independence. Can I ask you about that again in the context of the selection process and the charge that the selection panel itself wasn't independent enough and wasn't made up of the right type of people who should be making that very important decision? We had someone from the DCSF and someone from the Ministry of Justice, but would you have liked to see a different make-up and people who were perhaps more involved in the charitable sector for young people and children, for example, as opposed to people from within Departments, to make it a more independent process?

  Maggie Atkinson: One of the panel was Sir Paul Ennals, who is chief executive of the National Children's Bureau. There was also a representative of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, who was there to ensure that probity was followed and that the right questions were asked about my interests, potential conflicts and so on. Because Sir Paul is not only chief executive of the NCB but also engaged in the children's inter-agency group, which represents organisations such as the NSPCC, Action for Children, the Children's Society and others, I think he brought into that room the right balance of that sector. Children's and young people's services are delivered by an increasingly diverse sector, as you know, from early years through to youth work, children's homes and many schools. Sir Paul, because he brings that background with him, is, I think, a champion of that sector. Unless you were prepared to expand that panel to a cast of thousands, which would have made it a very diffuse and potentially unsatisfactory experience for both interviewers and interviewees, I am not sure how much further you could have gone. You could certainly have asked, for example, for somebody from a single-issue organisation—a charity—to come, but because the NCB covers a panoply of interests, from early years to young offenders, I think Sir Paul was the right choice, and he was certainly a very challenging interviewer.

  Q27 Mr Timpson: Thank you for that. I think that what I was getting at was why was it necessary for there to be someone from the DCSF and someone from the Ministry of Justice making up half the selection panel, when, particularly with some of the criticisms made previously, we are trying to give the public confidence that this is a truly independent decision, as opposed to a decision made by a government department that may have a vested interest in the outcome?

  Maggie Atkinson: Mainly I would say that those two Departments were chief among the represented ones; you could have had more. There could have been the Department of Health, for example, or others. I would say, and I did not make the panel up so I am guessing, that those two Departments particularly were represented because the DCSF is the sponsor department for this non-departmental public body and the Ministry of Justice is one of the ones into whose business the commissioner has a direct right of entry. I have the right to go into a young offenders institution without fear or favour, and I would say that there was a need for the Minister to have confidence that a senior civil servant from that Department was at least present. The other thing about this, of course, is that the commissioner has a duty to review how well Every Child Matters is being delivered, and the Ministry of Justice is one of the Departments that has "dual key" responsibility with the DCSF[3] for the delivery of that strategy. Therefore, if what you are asking is, "Were they challenging enough?", I have to tell you that yes, they were.

  Q28 Chairman: Maggie, do you think that childhood is threatened in our country?

  Maggie Atkinson: I am not so certain that it is threatened. I think that it is very difficult to see where children have the right to be children anymore. I am going to sound like my grandma: when I was a child, it was perfectly natural, on the edge of the mining village where I was brought up, to go off into the fields with a bottle of water and not be seen for nine hours—just off. I have absolutely no doubt that there were the same number of relatively dangerous adults about then as there are now—it's just that we didn't know about them. In a world of 24-hour media, when children and young people are under intense pressure from role models who you might not necessarily want for your own children and young people, the possibilities for just being a kid are limited. I think that we need, as a nation, to understand that children are noisy, messy and gangly, and they are just as likely to fall over as they are to stand upright[4] and just as likely to need to explore and take risks are they ever were. As a nation, we have become scared of letting them do that and of letting them develop their own resilience. We need to come back to the notion of children being children.

  Q29 Chairman: What are your three things that are endangering childhood?

  Maggie Atkinson: I think the celebrity culture has an awful lot to answer for. We are sold the notion—we are sold it as adults as well, but adults are less impressionable—that you can have millions in your back pocket and that if you are pretty good at kicking a football up a pitch you will earn millions and millions in a year and that it will all come to you. I think that celebrity culture is a huge threat. Children and young people tell me that they are really concerned about how easy it still is if you are 14 but look 19 to get hold of legal but intoxicating substances, including drink and cigarettes. How easy it is to get hold of things that will do you harm is a serious threat. If there is a third one, it is the pressure that we as a society seem determined to continue to put our children under in terms of how hot-housed many of them are at school. Those are my three big ones.

  Q30 Chairman: Would you add pornography to the availability of harmful materials?

  Maggie Atkinson: I think I would bring that in under the whole business of the 24-hour media and celebrity availability and the fact that it is all too easy to stray on to an internet site. I have a deeply evangelical Christian friend who typed "angels" into Google and pulled up all sorts of things that she would rather not have looked at, simply because of the headline word. Her children were in the room at the time. It is scary how easy those things are to get hold of. You have to make a much more conscious decision to get anywhere near that than you do to walk down the street and go into your local off-licence and buy drink, if you are 14-plus.

  Q31 Chairman: How do you avoid Rupert Murdoch's pornography empire? Through Sky, he makes and distributes an enormous amount of pornography, which is available to children. You know that. That's easier than walking into an off-licence and pretending to be older than you are, isn't it?

  Maggie Atkinson: It very much depends on how well you are parented, to be honest. Whether you have easy and open access depends on what guards there are on the system in your home. Those of us who are part of the generation that is still only learning to text do not understand quite how much access to 24-hour, online material our children and young people have.

  Q32 Chairman: Would you campaign about that sort of thing?

  Maggie Atkinson: I am not sure that the Children's Commissioner is a campaigning role. It is an influencing role and a drawing-to-attention role, but to me the word "campaigning" smacks of active politics. This is not a political appointment—rather, this is not a political post. It is undoubtedly part of the machinery of government, but it is not a political post.

  Q33 Paul Holmes: Picking up from exactly that point, you said earlier that you do not see why you cannot be a strong voice for children in this role. However, when the post was first being set up, this Committee, as the Education and Skills Committee, looked at it and expressed strong reservations. We thought it might be toothless because it was not an ombudsman on the European lines and it did not have the powers of the Welsh or Northern Irish Children's Commissioners. We were very concerned that it would be a bit pointless. Al Aynsley-Green said at a conference this July that he had done his best, despite his powers being the weakest of any commissioner in Europe. He said: "My resources are small, my offices are tiny. I simply haven't been able to do everything people expected me to." What is the point of the job?

  Maggie Atkinson: I cannot speak for Sir Al. I haven't spoken to him all that recently, so I don't know in what mood he prepares to leave. There are lots of strong advocacy organisations in this country, alongside which the Children's Commissioner has to align herself if the children and young people who are talking to her say strongly and loudly enough, "Maggie, this is a big issue for us." So, to align oneself with very prominent organisations such as Kidscape, the Kids Company, the NSPCC, Action for Children, the Children's Society or any of those organisations—ChildLine, for example—the commissioner needs to ensure that she is doing it for reasons that have been raised by children and young people in the participation and involvement exercises in which they have been engaged with the commissioner. This is not an individual case-work organisation. It is not meant to be. It is not a tub-thumping or stick-wielding organisation. It is a post for influencing, persuading, evidence-presenting and expressing the voice of the child and young person. No, it does not have exactly the same powers as some of those others, but it has an enormous potential truly to influence how people think about childhood and children.

  Q34 Paul Holmes: If you are restricted by the definition of your job—I mean all the commissioners are there to safeguard and promote the rights and welfare of children in a proactive way; you are there simply to promote an awareness of the views and interests of children—why cannot all those other organisations do that? I think it was the Northern Ireland Commissioner who gave the Government a lot of stick about the use of ASBOs, but clearly that is not your role, because you are not a campaigning commissioner. The European Court has said that the Government are breaking the law in compiling the biggest DNA database in the world, with lots of innocent children—millions of people, but lots of children—having their DNA on there. However, you are not a campaigning organisation so that is not your job. The Policing and Crime Bill, which has just finished in the House of Lords, proposes to restrict the rights of children through gang injunctions that are basically like the terrorist control orders—but you are not a campaigning organisation, so what are you going to do?

  Maggie Atkinson: I think that I need to clarify what I mean by not being a campaigning organisation, because on all of those issues I can show you documentation that the Children's Commissioner has presented back to policy makers—letters on the DNA database, letters on the determination of age by dental record check, documents presented back to Government about whether children's rights are being safeguarded and promoted in the country. My definition of being a campaigning organisation is that you actually become politicised. That is inappropriate. What the commissioner has to do I said in my application papers, which is that this role is not an inspector, not a political drum-beater. It is the holder of a very sharp light, which is illuminated by the words and the wishes of children and young people and is shone on to policy makers. It will seek out areas on which that light needs to shine. That is really important. It is not campaigning in a political sense, but the office of the Children's Commissioner has the right and the duty to say to those making policy, "You need to be aware that when you look at age discrimination, for example, there are some elements of age discrimination for under-18s that are completely appropriate, and please don't write a piece of law that backs us into a corner and makes that not possible." You have to safeguard the under-18s, and therefore age discrimination is important. Those are all statements that the Children's Commissioner has made. The Children's Commissioner has made all sorts of extremely important statements, is getting movement on the UKBA's work with unaccompanied asylum seekers—with the work of places like Yarl's Wood—and is gradually making inroads into the work of the Youth Justice Board and young offenders institutions in ways that are not about inspecting and not about political campaigning, but are about saying, "Is this good enough?"

  Q35 Paul Holmes: But I am not sure that I understand your definition of campaigning. If it is illegal to have a million and some people on the DNA database, many of whom are children, that is not political—it has been ruled illegal. Surely a Children's Commissioner should be making a lot of public noise about that, but you seem to be saying that you write letters and do things as part of the establishment behind the scenes, but you won't make a big fuss publicly, because that is political somehow.

  Maggie Atkinson: I am sorry that I'm not being as definite as I ought to be here in trying to define what I mean. Without fear or favour, and whoever's flag is flying over Whitehall, the Children's Commissioner has to be one of the people in the system who says, "It's not good enough," "It won't do," "Are you aware it isn't legal?" or "It is my duty to point out to you." It is not the Children's Commissioner's role to stomp into Parliament and to try and rewrite the law. That, for me, is where the line is drawn. It is not a law-drafting post, it is a sense and reasoning role. In my experience, the more adversarial you get, the less the other party in your discussion listens to what you have to say. I would rather do what needs to be done in this role through the presentation of very robust evidence, through persuasion and alliance with other organisations, and through weight of argument, than by wielding a big stick.

  Q36 Paul Holmes: In a few minutes we are going to move on to start looking at the Badman report and suggestions about the regulation of home education. As the person who is 99% of the way to being the Children's Commissioner for England at the moment, what do you think we should be saying as a Committee regarding the legislative process and the Badman report, and whether it is protecting children's interests or trampling all over the interests of home-educated children?

  Maggie Atkinson: I will take you back, if I may, to when I was an adviser in Birmingham city council, where there were quite large numbers of home-educated children—it is getting on for 20 years now since I worked in Birmingham. At that time, as an adviser I had a right and a duty not only to knock on the doors of people who were choosing electively to educate their children at home, but simply to go into their premises and, on the most headline of bases, to look at whether the environment was right, whether there were age-appropriate materials in use, and whether the children seemed okay. They were never interviewed on their own, they were never taken on one side, they were never taken away from their parents and there was never any really intrusive work that I did as an adviser from Birmingham city council. I felt it was entirely appropriate, and it was within the bounds of reason. In the last two to three years, the regulations are such that I can go no further than the doorstep. I have absolutely no doubt that the vast majority of families who choose electively to educate their children at home are doing so for entirely right reasons, for entirely honourable, fair, just, creative and admirable reasons. But I would give you two words, and they are the first and second names of the child who died—Khyra Ishaq. I do not think that it is taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut simply to be able to go across the doorstep of the home where a child is being electively home educated. Not to interfere, not to insist, not to direct, but simply to check that they are as safe as you need them to be. Khyra Ishaq was electively home educated and withdrawn from the roll of her school in Birmingham, and within 10 weeks she had starved to death. That may be an extreme case, and horrible and dreadful, and it happens very, very, very rarely indeed. None the less, it happened.

  Q37 Paul Holmes: Who rewrote the rules to stop you going across the doorstep in the way that you did 20 years ago?

  Maggie Atkinson: My understanding is that it was statutory guidance that was rewritten within the Department.

  Q38 Annette Brooke: May I slightly revisit this idea of you not being political? Obviously, political with a small "p" to me implies an agent of change—not necessarily party political. Surely you see the Children's Commissioner's remit as being an agent for change for children and young people in this country.

  Maggie Atkinson: It is not an agent of change for change's sake. Naturally, there will be issues that the commissioner raises where she considers that children are not being given a fair deal by the nation's media, for example. Where there is the possibility of a set of articles such as those that appeared in The Guardian on Saturday about young men in this country, which were very positive and very balanced, the commissioner has, I think, an absolute duty to push the media to do more of that sort of reporting, because about 72% of reporting on children in the media is negative. Actually, only about 5% of children are involved in anything nefarious or offending. So, redressing that sort of balance—absolutely, as an agent of change. Redressing the sort of issues that we know are beginning to come to the fore in young offenders institutions about restraint, isolation, searching, physical techniques—absolutely. The commissioner has a right and a duty to say something very strong about that, but they should be as informed as possible by the voice of the child and the young person, and it should not simply be because the commissioner has a bee in her bonnet. The campaigning that the commissioner does is strongly limited by the fact that she is speaking not for herself but on behalf of the nation's children and young people.

  Q39 Annette Brooke: To what extent will you be speaking on behalf of children but within the framework of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child?

  Maggie Atkinson: The post has to have regard to the UNCRC. You will know from reading the Children's Plan for 2020 that the writing team tried to work out where the two matched. I don't think that you can possibly expect to be slavishly connected to it. We celebrate its 20th birthday on 20 November at Lancaster House—rightly so, I think. You could never argue with a great deal of what is in it: that children have the right not to be in an army until they are at least 15 years of age, for example, because they are still children. There are elements of the United Nations convention that are such common sense and ingrained into our civil rights that there is no argument; but to be slavishly connected to it would be as limiting a factor as taking no notice of it at all.

2   Note by witness: The DCSF Children and Youth Board is made up of 25 children and young people under 18. They apply through local children's and youth organisations, they are selected by the National Children's Bureau through application and a selection day. They represent children of different ages, background, ethnicity and geographic location. Back

3   Note by witness: The label "dual key" is in inverted commas because, although Ministers from MoJ and DCSF have shared platforms and made joint statements as part of the implementation of the 2020 Children's Plan, it may be that formal arrangements labelled "dual key" are not in place as such. Back

4   Note by witness: This description is of course partial. Children and young people are also a positive force for good in their families and communities, and this description is not meant to decry that. Back

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