Children and Families Bill

 Memorandum submitted by Derek Gould and John Devine (CF 79)

Memorandum to the House of Commons Bill Committee with reference to the proposed powers for the Children's Commissioner

To the Clerks, Chairs and Members,

1. We write in regard of the proposals in the Bill to widen the scope and powers of the Children's Commissioner. We are not professionals but are glad to have this opportunity to raise our concerns as Christians each having children and grandchildren. In particular the situation which has developed with the Charities Acts 2006/11 through lack of definition should not be perpetuated through this Bill.

2. The Charity Commission have found themselves in the public spotlight through attempted removal of charitable status from public schools and treatment of a religious charity. In our view this has been a matter of internal political bias. How will this be prevented in the office of Children's Commissioner?

3. While we would be sympathetic with the need for wider powers and the looser wording employed to widen their application to suit the broadest range of possible circumstances, we are at the same time concerned that this could open the door for the Bill itself to become the subject of abuse and be used against certain groups which hopefully were never intended to be under scrutiny.

4. In this Bill before you under clause 77 the Commissioner's primary function is enlarged with sweeping powers that could prove to be easily abused. He is able to challenge any policy or practice which he considers may lead or has led to an infringement or abuse of children's rights. Our concern is that this concentration of personal power could lead to open conflicts by its use to challenge policies or practices in faith schools, teaching in churches and even parental rights. There should be in the Bill a specific reference limiting these powers where religious belief is involved. This and other clauses raise our concern that parental rights could be set aside in the Commissioner's investigations and proceedings.

5. The powers of clause 77-3h are sweeping and include investigation of any other matter relating to the rights or interests of children. Does this power exceed the reference to and restriction to matters in the UN Convention of Children's Rights?

6. In clause 79 section 2 E 3- an interview with the child may be conducted in private if the child consents. Should not the agreement of the parent also be required depending on the age and maturity of the child? In particular we make the point that anything said or done during such an interview should not in any way undermine the beliefs and conviction of the child being interviewed. Suggestive questioning can lead to a vulnerable situation where the trusting child is manipulated to suit the process already mapped out by professionals. For example "You don't want to see your father for some time yet, do you?" The social workers report after the event merely says "he doesn't want to see his father".

7. In clause 81 section 1 the Advisory Board could well influence the Commissioner's agenda throughout the term of office. The composition of the membership should be subject to challenge by Parliament as also should the person appointed as Commissioner.

8. In clause 82 section 7B –Paras 4a & 5- in drawing up a business plan the Commissioner is given powers to interview children not only as part of their investigation but also as a prelude to drawing up his annual business plan. This has to have particular regard to groups of children who the Commissioner considers do not have adequate means by which they can make their views. Cannot the Commissioner draw evidence without this detailed step?

9. We appreciate that the present bill has been developed from a background of considerations particularly from the Dunford report of December 2010. There have been merely five comments on Part 5 of the Bill during the" Public Reading". All of these seem based on an unsaid premise that all children are victims in need protection and those caring for them-(at home, school, youth centres, church) need to be under heavy surveillance. The comments from secular persons make it clear that their policy is that matters in regard children should be decided irrespective of the "beliefs of the parents". Once the Bill has been passed this attitude in pressure groups could continue and actively influence the Advisory Board and the Commissioner. Will the reference to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children be sufficient to thwart these pressure groups?

10. We also appreciate that Clause 77-2A states that the Commissioner must have regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. We hope that this will be retained so that the Commissioner is restrained to a tested and balanced approach to these important matters before Parliament.

 

To summarise we are concerned about this Bill for the following reasons:-

· The Bill deals with the nation's most precious asset – our children - and the care of its potential.

· Religious faith should be respected as contributing to the wealth of the nation. Results from CAF's 2011 Market Tracker Report indicate that the average amount given to charity by those who are religious was £576 over the previous twelve months, compared to the £235 contributed by those of no faith.

· Persons of faith are well rounded in their appreciation of and respect for life. Their views should be respected in this Bill.

· Families are mentioned in the title but overwhelmingly the stress is on children.

· Opportunities for progressive secular humanism exist. Nothing is said about staffing the Office of the Children's Commissioner and restraint from pursuit of a secular agenda to the suppression of respect for faith.

· Article 30 of the UNCRC refers to the children of minorities or indigenous groups. They have the right to learn about and practice their own culture language and religion. The right to practice one's own culture, language and religion applies to everyone; it applies to instances where the practices are not shared by the majority of people in the country. It is our view that the value of this article underlines the need for the convention to be firmly embedded in English law.

April 2013

Prepared 19th April 2013