Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 104 - 119)

MONDAY 13 MAY 2002



  104. Mr Leadbetter, thank you very much for coming here today to appear before the Joint Committee on Human Rights. You know we are now well on the way with our inquiry into the case for a Human Rights Commission and this is the first of what I think could be described as themed sessions seeking to establish whether there are unmet needs which a Human Rights Commission should address, so in this session and also in the next session the Committee is considering issues concerning children. We are very grateful to you for appearing before us. What we hope to find out from today is whether you and our other witnesses can help us in establishing what practical difference a Human Rights Commission or a Children's Rights Commissioner, say, could make in improving conditions for children for whom social services are responsible. Perhaps I can start by asking, in the run-up to the Human Rights Act and in the early years of its implementation, what were the expectations of the Human Rights Act and what has been your impression of its impact on social services departments?

  (Mr Leadbetter) I think overall the impact was positive. Social services departments took it seriously, most organised training, many directors took advantage of external training. There was a slight downside to this though. There was also a degree of anxiety created by the Human Rights Act. If I move from the general to the specific, I attended training organised by Belinda Schwar and when I finished the training I was convinced we were going to get inundated by applications for potential infringement of human rights so we organised a method for dealing with that, and then were actually disappointed that very little came through. I think overall the implementation has been positive but I think the impact has been patchy. I had also expected our staff to be more assertive, when they were representing children, and to speak on their human rights, and I almost expected staff to go a little overboard, and in analysing it I have been a little disappointed that staff have not used the human rights legislation more in putting forward the needs of children. It has not been as widespread as one might have expected.

  105. Would you say then that in a way perhaps the response has been that the Human Rights Act is about legal compliance rather than about the application of human rights principles in decision-making?

  A. It is both. It was very dominated in the early days by concern about legal challenge and the cost of that, but latterly there is a growing sense in the organisation, and indeed from the Essex perspective where we use external advocates, of people representing the rights of those children and using the Human Rights Act. For example, we had a child badly placed and we wanted to move the child, the first challenge we got was, "that a move would infringe the child's human rights" from the advocate. I think it is gradually gaining a footing.

  106. What would you say was the level of priority now for the development of a human rights culture in social services departments post-jitters over implementation?

  A. I think it is high and possibly, and I would be interested to hear what colleagues have to say, social services departments lead the way. Most now employ children rights officers, most fund those out of their own budgets, and arguably the children's rights officer should be employed by local authorities (at the corporate centre) and have responsibility right across the board. In Essex we also fund the children's legal centre at the University of Essex to provide independent legal representation of children, but it tends to be social services departments in the vanguard of that.

  107. Do you know whether the Department of Health has given any advice to social services departments or the Lord Chancellor's Department?

  A. I cannot recall any specific advice apart from advice about general implications of the Act.

Mr Woodward

  108. Mr Leadbetter, can I put a rather broad question to you first of all in relation to tackling child abuse. What difference do you think a Human Rights Commission could make to the business of trying to tackle the scale of child abuse with a view to moving forward as well as dealing with child abuse which has happened?

  A. I think there is a fundamental issue here. The ADSS response to the Victoria Climbie Inquiry majored on this in the sixth and final submission which I have copied to you, and it is the place of children in the hearts and minds of the majority of the population. We still believe there is a legacy of "children must be seen and not heard". We also believe that the famous Frank Dobson speech, where he spoke about children in public care should be considered as "being like your own children", was really the first time any Government had taken its responsibilities to children in the looked-after system seriously and prioritised them. I would still argue they are not prioritised sufficiently in health. So you have a range of factors there. We believe in the Association that, and there are downsides to this which I will come on to, the appointment of a Children's Human Rights Commissioner will need specific powers and we believe those powers will need to involve intervention on specific cases, and could also lead to a proper debate on the place of children in our hearts and minds. There is a very famous example, and I will not go on too long, but at the very same time as the James Bulger murder when Thompson and Venables were sentenced and named, a similar situation occurred in Norway, who have had a Children's Rights Commissioner since 1981. I am sorry, you probably know all this. Does it not have significance that in Norway they dealt with a very similar murder in a way which rehabilitated the children in the community, encouraged a public debate about why a child would do such a thing, soul-searched about what the community could have done differently, took the child back to the place of the murder, gave the child therapy, and in England what we did was lock up the kids and then there was an outcry when they were released? I am not saying a Children's Rights Commissioner could do all that but did the fact that Norway had one, and it has been researched and has made significant impact on policy, affect public opinion in a profound way?

  109. There is a point which follows directly out of this, which is in a sense you could argue "Do all three", but if you are going to prioritise and you had to choose one, if you had to choose between, say, a Children's Commissioner, a Minister for Children or a Human Rights Commission, which would you put at the top of that list and what would your priority of those three be, if we want to change the whole culture, as you rightly I think say, of children being both seen and heard and also, whether it is in the Health Service or elsewhere, being prioritised? How important is the Human Rights Commission alongside or instead of a Children's Commissioner or a Minister for Children?

  A. You are asking me to prioritise, so I will. A Children's Rights Commissioner first. Joint second, a Minister for Children and a Human Rights Commission but only with the proviso that the Minister for Children is untrammelled by other responsibilities and sits in the Cabinet. The current Minister for Children is also, I believe, responsible for, for example, youth justice. I believe there could be a conflict of interest there and indeed there may well be in announcements about wanting to lock up a new cohort of young people. So a Children's Rights Commissioner first. Independent; powerful; with access to children; access to CAFCAS; access to reviewing offices of social services; able to change guidance or legislation to require for example social services departments to fund family group conferences; to ensure independent reviewing officers are set up in every department and make it a power and responsibility for those independent reviewing officers to report cases where social services departments may be slipping on care plans—and I believe that is preferable to the starring of care plans to have the ability to report matters to the Children's Rights Commissioner and the ability, if you like, to take issue with the local authority in a more powerful way than is now often the case.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

  110. The powers of a minister in a ministry, which I think is being put, under very specific primary legislation, would have vast powers, would it not?

  A. It would. I suppose I am not confident at the moment about the competing demands on that ministerial role.

  Lord Campbell of Alloway: We have to deal with it at times.

Mr Woodward

  111. You have pointed out the importance of the Children's Commissioner. At the moment we have one in Wales and there are other systems elsewhere, and clearly England rather suffers at the moment. At the moment the proposal is, let's review and see how things go in Wales and then we can make a decision. What is the impact of this wait in England, and are children suffering as a consequence? Is there enough evidence in your experience already in Wales to justify the Government getting a move on?

  A. I think it is too early to say whether there is enough evidence in Wales. I think there is enough evidence in Norway and Scandinavia and New Zealand where they have Children's Rights Commissioners. I am frankly surprised, verging on astonished, that the Government seemed unwilling to do this, and I realise I am speaking to members of the Government. I do not understand, and we had discussions at the very early stages, why the Government is opposed to this. It has set up so many mechanisms where there are strong watchdog roles, for example, Alan Milburn's announcement and Gordon Brown's announcement about the health and social care inspectorates. Yet, we still seem to leave our children, particularly those who do not have a voice, and that is not an insignificant number, without a voice.

  112. As a supplementary can I ask a very practical question. Whatever the individual views of Members of Parliament and elsewhere about the case of Sarah Payne and what followed from that, undoubtedly with their readers the News of the World ran an extremely successful campaign in raising the issues which surrounded Megan's law and the idea of Sarah's law here, and it attracted a great deal of controversy. Some people have said to me, and I say this partly with my trustee of ChildLine hat on, that had we had either a Minister for Children or a Children's Commission in England and/or a Human Rights Commission which would have encompassed those things, that actually that would have been far more successfully handled and actually the outcome of that probably would have been everything that those who were campaigning on behalf of Megan's law and Sarah's law might have wanted but in a way which would have allowed us to take the best of that and not necessarily some of the bad problems which came out of it, and that we might now have something either on the statute book or about to go on to the statute book which protected children without at the same time perhaps creating the very violent situations which surrounded some wrongly-named individuals. What is your view on that?

  A. I would broadly concur with that. I think implicit in your question is the need for more elegant and public debate about this matter, not one led, frankly, by the News of the World.

  113. Although, to be fair to the News of the World, they actually raised something which really did worry people. Government does have to respond to people's genuine concerns. There were things about that case which the newspaper was quite right to pick up on. Other people may judge that the outcome of that was not quite the way they would have gone, but it does seem to me the points they were making, the things they were saying, were of real concern in people's minds. I am interested obviously in what you feel. Does the absence of a Children's Commissioner in England or a Minister for Children or a Human Rights Commission, the absence of all three, mean that these things get raised but actually—and I go back to the point you made very much earlier about priorities in the Health Service—they do not have a place to get lodged and be picked up on? Do you agree with that?

  A. I would agree. The word I would add perhaps is champion. Very early on when I was director, I was arguing for more money for children, and one of the members—the party does not matter—said, "Mike, there's no votes in children, this is going to old people". That is a rather cynical and I do not think widely-held view but if it is held by one person with responsibility for the purse strings, it is unacceptable.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

  114. You make a very powerful case for a champion for children. Obviously there are other very vulnerable groups who need champions, and one cannot go on multiplying champions with their separate commissioner roles, but if one wants to give much more weight to the rights and interests of children, would you have a view as to whether you need an independent Children's Rights Commissioner or instead a Children's Rights Commissioner within a Human Rights Commission itself. In that instance, he or she would be one of a range of Commissioners specialising, in this case, in children's rights, being the children's champion, but within a broader Human Rights Commission? Or are you saying the best way, or even perhaps the only way of doing it, is to have Children's Rights Commissioner and then other rights Commissioners for other groups?

  A. Directors of social services are used to managing limited resources, so if we had an open book we could have a Children's Rights Commissioner within an overall Commission that would be great, but I would not want waiting for that to get in the way. If you were asking me to prioritise, it would have to be our children.

  115. I understand your point and you have said you ought to have somebody in the Cabinet, but then you ought to have somebody in the Cabinet for women, for race, one could go on multiplying the examples of vulnerable groups and the Cabinet would then become a very large and unwieldy cabinet, would it not? So does one not have to try to get the voice of children's interests properly heard but in a wider human rights framework; having a Children's Rights Commissioner, but not as a kind of separate quango?

  A. That would be fine. The Association would not be opposed to that view. The only caveat would be, if it would take too long to set up all that and yet again children would be waiting, I would rather go for a Children's Commissioner.

  Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I perfectly understand.

Baroness Whitaker

  116. I would like to move on to children themselves in a slightly different way. You talked about expecting staff to be more assertive in using the Human Rights Act and also you talked about the use of external advocates, but that to me comes after another point. How are children themselves consulted by social services staff and what mechanisms are there for children to raise concerns and to seek redress?

  A. I will, if I may, move from the general to the specific and tell you what we do in Essex. I have video links for children and young people in care because Essex is a large county, so they can go to specific locations, supported by staff who are accountable to me, with or without their social worker or residential worker, and talk to me down a video link about their concerns.

  117. Supported by the staff?

  A. I have a small team of staff—

  118. Your staff?

  A. My staff, working to me. So if they (the children) have fallen out with their residential worker or social worker or are worried about their home manager, they would not have to tell them they wanted to speak to me.

  119. So if they were in a local authority care home they could do that?

  A. Yes, or if they were being worked with by a social worker. How they would find out is because we have children involved in planning, we have trained children to train our staff, children have produced their own information leaflets and their own information booklet about what it is like to come into care. For many counties, and Essex is not unique, they are pivotal to our decision-making, to our processes, to our recruitment and to our training.

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