Examination of Witnesses (Questions 331
MONDAY 17 JUNE 2002
331. Thank you for appearing before us today.
Last week, a number of us went to Cardiff and met Peter Clarke,
who used to be your Director in Wales and is now the Children's
Rights Commissioner for Wales. We spent some very useful time
with him and his staff. Ms Easton, you are the Chief Executive
of Childline, and Ms Rantzen, you are the Chairman of the Board
of Trustees. Am I right in saying that Childline has been going
now for nearly 16 years, since 1986; it has ten call centres across
the UK; it has 950 volunteer counsellors; and you have counselled
over 1,260,000 children and young people and given help and advice
for over 111,000 adults in that time? That is very impressive.
We have obviously had a snapshot of the kinds of cases that are
brought to you of physical or sexual abuse, bullying, family relationships,
and worrying about a friend's welfare; but which issues that children
phone in about indicate to you that there are breaches of children's
(Ms Rantzen) If we look at the category of abusesexual
abuse, physical abuse, neglect and so onone of the areas
that most perturbs us is that we are very often the only people
that children feel able to turn to for help. We cannot always
supply effective help for them. Therefore, we think that the basic
infringement of human rights as it applies to children in this
area is that they are not protected and kept safe, and they do
not have recourse to law, as the law stands at the moment. I am
aware that I am in the presence of extremely distinguished lawyers,
but I would say that one of the functions of a commissioner for
children would be to take up the challenge of the Pigot Report,
which is now well over ten years old, and to examine the whole
area of children's interface with the law, particularly those
who are victims of a crime. This is an enormous proportion of
our calls and it has been from the very beginning. It was, in
a sense, one of the reasons Childline was set up, to try and reach
that community of children who are too frightened and too intimidated
by all the protection agencies and by the possibilities of going
to law. As one child told me, "it was my job to suffer".
(Ms Easton) You are aware that bullying is another
issue that we hear of from more than 20,000 children at Childline
every year. It is of great concern to us. It is the range of bullying
that would be covered under human rights discriminationhumiliation,
degrading treatment and physical abuse. We are concerned that
there are not independent means of evaluating and monitoring effectiveness
of bullying policies. We know there are bullying policies but
what we hear from young people is that they are either on the
shelves gathering dust or, more importantly, they have not been
involved in the discussion and implementation, and therefore they
do not function. We would see that there is more to be done in
relation to the whole issue of bullying, although it is higher
on the agenda than in the past, so that hopefully we do not get
20,000 calls a year. We would like to be more redundant.
332. You heard Professor Brighouse talk about
the bullying issue. I am not remotely asking you to agree or disagree
or underline what he said because you will each have your own
perspectives. It strikes me that bullying has been around for
a very long time, and it has taken a very long time to want to
do something about it. To reiterate my earlier remark, one of
our problems is that we do not take children's voices seriously
enough. It is always unwise for a Member of Parliament to be critical
of the press, but that was brilliantly revealed in the way the
press reported on the children who came here last week. They did
not take them seriously, and what they did not take seriously
they were terrified of because they had views. If we take what
Childline has learnt from these 20,000 kids a year about bullying,
do you think, and is it Childline's experience, that we are getting
it right now? Where are we still failing?
(Ms Easton) I think we are heading in
the right direction, but children's voices are not being heard.
Having a bullying policy in a school where there is not a climate
of listening to children will not work anyway, so it is a wider
issue of any environment where there are childrenbecause
we know that bullying is not only in schoolsthat children's
voices are heard, and when they are in pain or when they are suffering
they feel they can go and talk about it. Otherwise, the bullying
policy will fail. The way to ensure that that happens is to involve
young people from the outset so that there is a climate in all
environments of listening to children's voices; otherwise, these
are policies that are designed and implemented by adults, in which
children have not participated. We know from the children that
call us that they do have the solutions very often if they are
involved in the discussions. They know what will help. The other
thing we hear is that if things are not implemented, they do not
know where to go. Then they are stuckwhere do they go subsequently?
That is where a children's commissioner could make an enormous
(Ms Rantzen) It is not only a case of having somewhere
to go, which is terribly important, but it is also being given
permission to recognise a problem and ask for help. Listening
to Professor Brighouse was very interesting because, clearly,
he is aware of the severity of the problems that can be caused
by bullying. When we opened our bullying line at Childline in
the eighties, we were greeted by a large group of journalists
who said to us, "but surely this is a normal part of growing
up?" In other words, the children felt that they must not
tell tales, and the adults felt that this was not a serious problem.
The presence of a commissioner for children provides a focus for
children, just as the creation of Childline did. We do understand
that some children are facing problems they cannot solve by themselves.
333. I want to touch on that specific issue.
Now that we have the Children's Commissioner in Wales, I am curious
to know what difference you think it may be making in Wales, where
Childline is taking calls from people in Wales. Is any benefit
beginning to show?
(Ms Rantzen) It is early days, but certainly it means
that we have a partner, somebody that we can refer specific problems
to when they occur to us in sufficient numbers, or when they appear
to reveal a problem in the system. It is marvellous to have somebody
who can take up specific cases and eliminate specific problems.
334. At the moment, without one in England,
if Childline identifies, as it has done, a problem about bullying
on the scale that it is, where do you take those issues to at
the moment? You have 20,000 calls and goodness knows how many
calls about child abuse or teenage pregnancy: where do you take
(Ms Rantzen) We hold conferences. We speak to experts.
We produce publications. However, they may not land on any specific
desk; and, if they do, the children may not recognise that this
problem is being taken up and may not themselves refer their own
problems in that area to that desk.
335. There is no government department that
you can specifically push this material to.
(Ms Rantzen) It depends on the area.
(Ms Easton) We would enable a particular child or
a particular family, and support them, if they chose to take their
complaint through the education system, for example.
(Ms Rantzen) The two areas we discussed are particularly
difficult to make anyone face as their specific problem. We now
have legislation for bullying, but when it comes to children and
the law, and the law as it relates to child abuse, is very difficult
to find anyone who is prepared to do that.
336. You believe that the authorities are not
necessarily acting sympathetically, and hence the need for your
organisation, which receives the calls that you have taken. I
am keen to know how you see the situation with a Children's Rights
Commissioner or otherwise, where some people might conclude that
abuse is taking place, but the child itself reaches a different
conclusion. I have been involved with a case where there has been
an allegation of a 22-year old man having sex with a 12-year old
girl. That has led to a great number of other parents across the
country contacting me on that issue. In each case, the police
have said they are not prepared to act unless they take it from
the child. The child, in that circumstance, says that they are
happy with the relationship and do not wish to make a complaint.
How do we deal with that situation? If we listen to childrenand
we are talking about children's rightsthey say they have
the right to make judgments of that nature, but the law and parents
would say that that is an inappropriate relationship.
(Ms Rantzen) We are very familiar with that dilemma
in another context. We have many thousands of children who have
rung us over the years, saying, "I love my father but I hate
what he is doing to me." One child said very early on, when
we had just opened our phone linesand I find it very significant:
"I cannot tell you who I am but have two daddies; I have
lovely daddy and monster daddy. If I tell you who I am, you will
take away monster daddy, but I will lose lovely daddy as well."
For me, the strength of a commissioner for children would be to
look at a legal process, including the punishment, from the child's
point of view. If I may shift from the specific example that you
giveand I am not familiar with the details of the particular
caseI think it is very important that we find a subtlety
of response when it comes to the law, which takes on board all
the needs of the child; and for the child to be carefully counselled
and supported to understand that the child's safety and protection
comes first. Children are not always aware of this. They are not
always aware of what they may be losing in a relationship which
has an abusive and exploitive aspect, but which also has the loving
aspect that they need. In answer to that, I would say that the
children's commissioner role would be to look at that whole situation,
not from the point of view of the angry adults outside it, and
not from the point of view of the adult involved with it, but
from the point of view of the safety and health of that child.
337. When we had the young children before us
last week, they were very sceptical of a number of matters when
they were asked if they should have a minister for children, and
said "they would not have time to pay any attention to us".
About Childline, one of them said: "They do not have legal
power to change things." They were not dismissive of the
work you do, but they were pointing out specific gaps. What legal
powers do you think the commissioner should have and where do
you see the main gaps that need to be filled? Do you think that
given those gaps and the legal status of a children's commissioner,
that that would meet a fundamental need and make a real difference?
(Ms Easton) I think what you have highlighted is the
challenge ahead for a children's commissioner because unless it
does demonstrate effect children are going to have no more faith
in it than anything else. They are right, Childline on its own
does not have legal clout but it does not mean that they do not
call us and they do not look for support from us. The whole reason
we support the idea of a children's commissioner is so that we
can use the information that we gather and move forward. As I
said before, we would dearly love not to get a lot of the calls
that we get because the issues are being dealt with on a more
generic basis. We do think that the commissioner should have powers
to look at all issues that affect all children, it should not
be focused on any particular group of children. It should have
the power to monitor, promote and make sure that children's rights
are protected and that it has a power, and before we were talking
about sticks and carrots and we would hope it would have both,
the ability to encourage but that if children's needs were not
being met there would be sanctions that could be imposed and recommendations
that could be made so that action had to be taken otherwise children,
as you have said, will not believe that their voices are going
to be heard. If the commissioner is going to work it has to be
someone they can trust and they can see. The fact that it works
needs to be made very evident, so there is publicity, because
if children do not know about it then obviously they will not
have faith in it.
338. How do you see the relationship between
the commissioner and, for example, the police, social services
and so on? How would you see them impinging on each other's roles?
(Ms Rantzen) Definitely a partnership. We already
find this in Childline, that we work very closely with the police
and social services. Definitely a partnership where they need
each other's help but there is no question that there would be
occasions on which the children's commissioner's role might be
critical, might say of the police "In this area this was
a failure", or of social services. To take a simple example:
we published a report on children in care and one of the crying
needs that came from what the children told us, because we have
a special line for children living away from home, was that they
wanted to be with their brothers and sisters, they wanted to be
with their siblings, and very often when they were placed either
in a foster home or a residential children's home they were split
and they therefore lost the only love they really relied on and
knew, which was each other. Those voices need to be heard very
clearly. I think a commissioner for children would have on occasion
to criticise practice. This point of publicity is not a detail,
there is a very successful ombudsman for children in Norway who
deliberately uses the media as both a stick and a carrot to highlight
good practice and to draw attention to bad practice. I think a
children's commissioner has to be out there where he or she is
seen to be working for children and on specific issues to make
specific pronouncements. It will not replace changes in legislation
but it will contribute to changes in attitude and when attitudes
change then the law can sometimes follow.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill
339. Plainly if the Children's Rights Commissioner
were, if I may say so, as successful as you are at publicising
the problems, that would be an enormous way forward. As a lawyer
I have to talk about boring legal stuff for a little while, if
you will forgive me, about legal powers. Do you have it in mind
that the Children's Rights Commission or Commissioner should have
the same kind of powers as we now give to the Equality Commissions?
To be specific, a power to carry out a general investigation into
a problem, a power to carry out a specific investigation into
suspected unlawful conduct, a power to bring proceedings if their
recommendations are not complied with, a power to call for papers
and seek subpoenas if necessary, a power to help people with their
individual proceedings, civil or criminal, and a power to intervene
in other people's cases as a kind of friend of the court. Do you
think that full panoply of powers is necessary or do you regard
that as excessive?
(Ms Rantzen) Not at all excessive.
(Ms Easton) I would be wanting to ask you why not
if it applies to other groups particularly where children are
concerned because children have no economic independence and no
voting ability, I would have thought you would want it even more.