Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 331 - 339)




  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 human rights?
  (Ms Rantzen) If we look at the category of abuse—sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect and so on—one 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 discrimination—humiliation, 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.

Mr Woodward

  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 children—because we know that bullying is not only in schools—that 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 stuck—where do they go subsequently? That is where a children's commissioner could make an enormous difference.
  (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 that to?
  (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.

Norman Baker

  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 children—and we are talking about children's rights—they 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 lines—and 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 give—and I am not familiar with the details of the particular case—I 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.

Mr McNamara

  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.

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