The Work of the Committee in 2008-09 - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Appendix: Letter to the Chairman from Rt Hon Ed Balls MP, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

18 October 2009

Dear Barry

Thank you for your letter and the embargoed copy of your report on the appointment of the Children's Commissioner for England which I received on Friday.

The Children's Commissioner is an important Government appointment and as such was identified as being suitable for a pre-appointment hearing; a new process which Government has introduced on a pilot basis. I have considered your report very carefully and I am now writing to you to give you my response and the reasons for my decision.

A rigorous Nolan selection process was undertaken to recruit to this position. Over 40 applications were received, each of which was assessed against the personal specification for the job, confirming the strength of the field. Over ten candidates were identified for a preliminary interview and four went forward for a final interview with the independent panel, and separately with a group of children and young people. The results of both interviews were then taken into account by the independent panel in making their recommendations.

At the conclusion of this process the independent panel identified Dr Maggie Atkinson as clearly the most outstanding candidate from the field and they recommended her for appointment to the post. I accepted their recommendation and I wrote to you on 6 October to explain that I had nominated Maggie Atkinson to be the next Children's Commissioner and that I was inviting the Children, Schools and Families Committee to hold a pre-appointment hearing. The hearing took place on 12 October.

Cabinet Office guidance sets out the criteria against which Ministers should consider reports from pre-appointment hearings and I have attached the relevant sections to this letter. The guidance makes clear that I should take into account any relevant considerations contained in your report before deciding whether to proceed with this appointment, with 'relevant considerations' meaning any new, relevant facts about the candidate's suitability for the post. The guidance also says that there may also be occasions where a candidate's performance in front of the select committee is considered relevant to the post in question, but that these occasions will be exceptional.

In your report you state that you were satisfied that Maggie Atkinson demonstrated a 'high degree of professional competence'. You go on to say that you 'would have liked to have seen more sign from her of determination to assert the independence of the role, to challenge the status quo on children's behalf, and to stretch the remit of the post, in particular by championing children's rights'. You conclude that you are 'unable to endorse her appointment'.

Having considered your report I will respond by taking each of these points in turn.

I am pleased the committee thought that Maggie Atkinson demonstrated a high degree of professional competence, but on the basis of all the evidence before me and, indeed, before the committee, I would go considerably further. In my view, her career history, much of which is included in section three of your report, provides ample evidence that Maggie Atkinson is one of the most outstanding Directors of Children's Services (DCSs) in this country, and is thus an excellent candidate for the post of Children's Commissioner.

Through her achievements both in her own local authority area of Gateshead, and as the first ever sole President of the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS), she has made an exceptional contribution to the development of this new but crucial strategic role for children and young people, setting a challenging benchmark to which I hope the next generation of DCSs will aspire.

She has undoubtedly brought the DCS role of 'champion for children' to life, both locally in Gateshead and, through her ADCS role, nationally too. And, as she explained in an answer to a question from you, there are many parallels between what a DCS is charged with doing locally and with the Children's Commissioner role for England nationally.

This record of achievement has made Maggie Atkinson a highly respected figure across the voluntary and statutory children's sectors. Her demonstrable success in chairing a number of different national working groups and committees, bringing sometimes divergent views together to advance the best interests of children, is testament both to her skills as a leader in her field and to the high regard in which she is so widely held.

Your report says that you would have liked to have seen more sign from her of 'determination to assert the independence of the role….'. During the pre-appointment hearing Maggie Atkinson was challenged on a number of occasions about how independent she would be in the post of Children's Commissioner. In her response she made it clear that she would deal with situations on their merits, making reference to her leadership of ADCS, where her approach was to welcome policy 'when policy has been right-minded, and being extremely robust when it (was) not'. She also unambiguously asserted that she was 'fearlessly independent' and would 'speak truth to power'.

The question you raise in your report about Maggie Atkinson's willingness to 'challenge the status quo on children's behalf' was put to her in a number of different ways during the pre-appointment hearing. She responded to these questions at some length, but I note especially the following comments from her which set out how she expects to carry out the role:

"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?""

In the pre-appointment hearing Maggie Atkinson made it clear that she intended to be vociferous in putting forward the views of the most vulnerable children and young people about how they are treated, including those in youth offender institutions. In respect of this group she said, "The commissioner has a right and a duty to say something very strong about that, but this 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."

Your report makes specific reference to you wishing to have seen more sign from her of 'stretching the remit of the role, in particular by championing children's rights'. The Children Act 2004 makes clear that the Children's Commissioner is to promote awareness of the views and interests of children, and is to have regard to the relevant provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in their consideration of what the interests of children are. I note that in answer to questions put to her during the pre-appointment hearing about the UN Convention Maggie Atkinson says, "We celebrate [the Convention's] 20th birthday on 20 November at Lancaster House—rightly so, I think. …..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." This answer seems to me to reflect exactly the approach which the Children's Commissioner is required by the words of the statute to take towards the Convention.

And finally, on the issue of 'stretching the remit of the role', as you know the remit of the Children's Commissioner as set by Parliament in the Children Act 2004 is not within the gift of the person occupying the post to extend. I do note, however, that in her evidence to you Maggie Atkinson made reference to her intention to venture into some areas of policy that the Children's Commissioner has so far largely overlooked. In particular, she said, "I think that the next five years will potentially be really exciting for the role and will see a broadening of its spectrum and focus, and it will do that under the positive contributions strand". By this I understand her to have been referring to the Every Child Matters outcome of this name, which concerns the opportunities for children to give something back to our society as good citizens; something I think is extremely important and that I am sure your committee does too.

In accordance with the Cabinet Office guidance on pre-appointment hearings, I have now considered whether to proceed with Maggie Atkinson's appointment in the light of your report and the specific issues you have raised concerning her preparedness to assert her independence and to challenge the status quo on behalf of children; her commitment to championing children's rights; and her willingness to extend the remit of the role."

I have considered what Maggie Atkinson said at the hearing itself about these matters; her career history; and other evidence from the rigorous recruitment process, which as you know was validated by an independent OCPA (Office for the Commissioner of Public Appointments) assessor and which identified Maggie Atkinson as clearly the strongest candidate for the post. I have also taken into account the fact that when interviewed by representatives of the DCSF's Children and Youth Board she is reported to have done extremely well, demonstrating excellent rapport with children. They rated her highly, felt she understood their issues and liked her direct and engaging style.

My duty is to appoint the best person to this important job. Having considered your report, I have concluded that it does not put forward new relevant facts concerning Maggie Atkinson's suitability for the post such as to cause me to alter my nomination of her to the post of Children's Commissioner, thereby rejecting the recommendation of the independent panel established as part of the standard Nolan recruitment process. Nor do I consider that her performance at the hearing comes into the 'exceptional' category set out in the guidance. On the contrary, the transcript of the hearing leads me to the view that Maggie Atkinson gave robust and intelligent responses to the questions put to her, and in so doing further demonstrated her suitability for the role. I continue to have every confidence that Maggie Atkinson's professional and personal credentials will ensure that as Children's Commissioner she will be a strong, effective and independent voice for the children and young people of our country, which is what they need and deserve.

It is for these reasons that I have decided to appoint Maggie Atkinson to be the next Children's Commissioner for England and I am delighted that she has accepted that appointment. I look forward to her taking up office on 1 March 2010. I am sure that she will appear regularly before the Committee in her capacity as Commissioner and that if she appears early on in her tenure, she will demonstrate that she is indeed an excellent, independent and deeply committed appointee to the post.

The clerk to the Committee has kindly given us advance notice that you intend to publish your letter and report at midnight Sunday. To avoid any uncertainty, I will place this letter on the DCSF website at the same time.

I am copying this letter to Opposition spokespersons and will ensure a copy is placed in the House of Commons library.


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