Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340
MONDAY 17 JUNE 2002
340. If one were to give the body that range
of powers obviously there is a limit to how many sub-groups of
human rights commission one could create, how many equality agencies
and so on. Let us suppose that you had a Children's Rights Commission
or Commissioner entirely on their own, which I think you would
prefer to one that was like the ombudsman system in Scandinavia
or Central Eastern Europe, where you have different ombudsmen
but they link together, as it were, in a federal way. Parliament
would not be likely to give you those powers or a sufficient budget,
would they, if it were just a single Children's Rights Commissioner?
If you want powers of that magnitude, do you not need the Children's
Rights Commissioner to be one of several commissioners specialising
in children's rights but also women's rights, racial equality
and so on, so that we can get the necessary resources and the
interconnection between the different aspects of human rights
within a single agency? Have I made my question clear?
(Ms Rantzen) Absolutely clear.
(Ms Easton) I think the important thing is the profile
of children within an agency and certainly I think the experience
of many organisations is where children are part of it it is very
difficult to keep them as a priority and that would be our concern
about the children's commissioner being part of a larger body.
However, I think the principles are more important, principles
like direct access for children, the profile of the children,
again quite difficult to do when it is part of another organisation
to convince children that it really is a child friendly place.
I think there are various challenges that have to be overcome
and it may be that the children's commission will predate some
of the bringing together and lessons can be learned so that it
could be. I think that was certainly one of our views. It is about
how they can listen to children in an organisation, all those
sorts of issues, how can children's voices be heard. Those would
be the sort of worries that we would have.
(Ms Rantzen) If I was labelling this person, and you
may think this is a detail, I would call this person a commissioner
for children and I would lose the "rights" word. This
is entirely pragmatic. There is a strange response, which I think
you may have discovered from the coverage of last week, which
reading between the lines one could tell was a fantastic submission
by the young people sitting here. Adults in England are very frightened
of children having rights but they are not frightened of children
having needs. They understand that children have needs. We are
a caring population but we are nervous of children who walk in
protest and carry banners and stand up for their rights. If one
labelled this a commissioner for children and made it a big launch
and if the Government said "this is a very important role
and this person is really looking after your needs" then
I think that it would be possible to work in close federal partnership
in the commission with other commissioners. On subjects like racial
bullying or bullying related to disabled children they could work
very closely together.
341. That is a very interesting answer, if I
may say so. The children who came to us last time, unlike many
of the press reports, gave rather modest, well thought out relevant
opinions which you would have thought would have humbled the more
open minded press. But they had looked at the topic of rights.
There are certainly large numbers of children who are not aware
that they have rights. Even if we do not use the `r' word, have
you any ideas about how a Children's Rights Commissioner might
raise awareness amongst children that they are entitled to a certain
(Ms Easton) I will start, if I may. We have a simple
idea that children when they are starting school, or perhaps annually,
are given a small card on which some of what they can expect as
their rights is laid out for them and also sources of help, so
we would hope our number was on there as well. It sounds perhaps
a trivial thing but it is something that most adults would expect
when they go into a new institution or a new organisation and
we do not credit children with the same information very often.
There are simple things. I believe one of the commissions put
information on milk cartons so that children could be made aware
of it. Childline has done a campaign where discussion of how to
talk to children about bullying and about respect was put on cereal
packets. I think it is about being creative and using innovative
ways of reaching children. Children will come up with them themselves
too, for sure.
(Ms Rantzen) I think that the moment the commissioner
is in action and starts to look at specific subjects and specific
cases and that gets coverage children will become aware of it.
For the reasons already discussed, I think the card might not
be the first thing that the commissioner should do but, again,
the idea that children have a card telling them what their rights
are might be regarded as
342. That would be sent up by The Guardian.
(Ms Rantzen) Absolutely.
343. It is good practice in some schools that
children are told what is expected of them and what they are entitled
to expect in return.
(Ms Rantzen) Exactly, rights and responsibilities.
(Ms Easton) It could be wider. One of our concerns
at Childline is children saying that they do not know it is not
right to be abused.
Mr McNamara: You come to a question then of
where innocence ends and problems start.
344. As you were answering my colleague's question
I began to wonder what you saw as the likely relationship between
a children's rights commission/commissioner and a helpline such
as yourself. Are you trying to go out of business?
(Ms Rantzen) Yes, definitely. If we could go out of
business tomorrow we would go. With regrets, we are very fond
of each other, and with a feeling of, I suppose, privilege that
so many children have used us. If we could find a way of resolving
the problems that children ring us about that would be our first
ambition. I think it would be a very close relationship between
Childline and a commissioner, I hope it would be, we would want
it to be. We would very much want to be able to bring to any commissioner
the voices of the children who ring us and we hope that it would
go both ways, that he would ask us about any particular problems
that we have. I hope that we would be, if you like, the constituency
of children who are not being heard elsewhere, the invisible children.
345. Do you imagine that the commission itself
would have some kind of helpline? I am beginning to wonder about
the relationship between the two. I think your approach has largely
been long-term and children have confidence in you, they talk
to you in privacy and they know that you will not report to their
parents or go and do anything damaging to their parents, you try
and sort things out in your own way. The Children's Rights Commissioner,
on the other hand, is partly carrot and partly stick and is much
more institutional. Do you not see that your own approach is quite
different from what the Children's Rights Commissioner is likely
to do and that you may not go out of business because you handle
the whole thing differently?
(Ms Rantzen) That already exists. If you take a child
against whom a crime is being committed, let us say abuse, we
explore with the child whether the child wants rescuing and whether
the child is prepared for the court process. We talk in partnership
with the child as to what that will entail. We cannot force any
child to do this and it would be dangerous to do so because a
child who complains of abuse and then retracts is a child who
is in even greater danger. We work with the child. It could well
be that Childline was aware that children were bringing problems
which could be dealt with well by the children's commissioner
and one would then explore with the child whether the child wanted
that case to go forward and through the process, whatever that
involved. I think we would be working all the time with the possibility
of putting that problem on the commissioner's desk.
346. Is that what is happening in Wales now?
(Ms Rantzen) Early days, but constant conversations.
(Ms Easton) I think the relationship would need to
be worked out and we would hope that in a number of ways in terms
of access to research, in terms of what children are telling us
and the sorts of campaigns that we run with that would be carried
forward that we would work closely with the commissioner, that
we could be a gateway and filter and take referrals but there
would also need to be direct access obviously. We hope that it
would not progress without us because we think the relationship
could be very close.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill
347. Peter Newell gave evidence to us that he
thought a Commissioner for children could not deal with individual
complaints because it would be overwhelmed, it would have to refer
complaints to particular agencies. I just wonder in the light
of your answers to Lord Parekh is this not the position, that
a Commissioner for children would have to be strategic, that the
commissioner would have to deal with big questions, practices,
systems, treatment of children by the criminal courts of child
abuse and matters of policy, discrimination issues and that kind
of things, issues that might require a general inquiry or legal
proceedings, but what it could not do is provide a helpline like
yours in the way that you do? It would be ridiculous to seek to
make it become like that because it would be totally bogged down
and yet it needs to be on very close terms with you, it needs
to co-operate with you and you need to be able to bully it, to
push it, to press it to be more effective but you would be, to
some extent, its contact point in the community. It could not,
therefore, simply put you out of business however you might wish
that to happen. Is that sort of division of functions roughly
right or not?
(Ms Easton) I think the fact that it would have to
be strategic as a priority is right. However, I think there could
be cases particularly perhaps where according to the commissioner
the right process had not been conducted for a child where there
would be a referring back to make sure that complaints are dealt
with properly but what happens if they are not, for example. I
can see that the commissioner would have a role there, and also
that the commissioner may choose to test cases because certainly
in our experience there are individual children whose cases then
lead to a change of policy for a large number of children, so
I would have thought the commissioner would have to be making
all sorts of decisions.
(Ms Rantzen) I think it would be wrong to rule out
the capacity to take up individual cases because they do often
illuminate serious problems. I think it would be sad to tie the
348. How many cases do you have where children
are complaining about the outcome of case conferences?
(Ms Easton) I do not know that I have
(Ms Rantzen) Several dozen every year. About 200 I
349. Can I just ask the same question I asked
Professor Brighouse, which is given that we have a commissioner
in Wales for children and the Government, I think for good reasons
we could argue on that, have said they want to wait and see whether
the commissioner is a success, from your experience of Childline,
and Professor Brighouse was quite clear about what his views are
on this, do you think there is any merit in waiting any longer?
(Ms Rantzen) No.
350. Do you think that if you have 200 a year
that is indicative of the success of the case conference system
(Ms Rantzen) No, I do not think so. Obviously these
are very vulnerable children going through specific sets of circumstances.
The fact that we have 200 does not meanI would say it implies
there are many more children who do not ring us about it, many
351. Earlier on you did say that you work routinely
with the police, social services and other agencies. The Humans
Right Act has been in force for just over 18 months. Have you,
as an organisation, personally detected any change in the attitudes
of those public authorities since that Human Rights Act came into
(Ms Easton) I have only been in the post of Chief
Executive of Childline for not quite a year so assessing a change
like that would be quite difficult. My experience in the past
when I was at Childline was that the police were very quick to
respond to protect children and whether the Human Rights Act has
made a change to that, I do not know.
(Ms Rantzen) I think the differences are more the
result of caseloads and professional attitudes. Nobody has said
to me as I have gone round the organisation "Thank goodness
for the human rights legislation, it has made such a difference".
When it comes to working in partnership with social services we
have found their response has been very patchy. When it comes
to response from the police we have found from the beginning that
they have been eager and active to help us protect children. I
am not in that saying that social workers do not want to help
children, I am talking really about caseloads, about resources
and about other problems that social services obviously face.
Chairman: Thank you very much for appearing
before us, we have found this very useful as part of this very
complex and no doubt very long inquiry into human rights and whether
there should be a Human Rights Commission. Thank you very much.