5. Memorandum from Jill Kirby, Centre
for Policy Studies
Having expressed scepticism at the case for
appointing a Children's Commissioner, I have been asked to make
a short submission to this inquiry. My concerns are set out in
this submission under three headings:
The present case for a Children's Commissioner
is chiefly based on children's rights, rather than child protection.
The Early Day Motion tabled in the House of Commons on 22 January
by Hilton Dawson MP called for the establishment of a Children's
Rights Commissioner. Taking the example of the Children's Commissioner
for Wales, the following statement appears in the Commissioner's
Annual Report and Accounts 2001-02, under the section headed Remit
"The Commissioner must have regard to the
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in everything
he does. Children's rights underpin all his team's activities,
and the main way in which those rights will be realised in Wales
is through active participation. This will empower young people
and enlighten adults whose work and attitudes affect them."
In the section headed "The values that
drive us" the Report includes the following:
"Children and their views are always to
be treated with respect."
"Children and young people should enjoy
their full rights as set out in the UN Convention."
It should be noted, however, that protecting
children is not the same as enhancing their rights. I submit that
child protection should be the first priority of all adults working
with, and on behalf of, children.
It should always be remembered that children
are more vulnerable than adults. If we wish to protect children
from harmful intervention, there will be instances in which it
will be wrong to invite children to make decisions. To use a clear
example: a child is approached by an adult offering drugs, alcohol,
cigarettes or participation in sexual activity. The child may
express a wish to sample any or all of these things. Yet any adult
concerned for the welfare of the child will consider it proper
to overrule the child's decision in such a case.
Thus, it is generally accepted that responsible
adults should be able to set aside the rights of the child
in the interests of protecting the child. I am not satisfied
that a case can be made to reverse this assumption.
2. EFFECT ON
An important part of the role of the Children's
Commissioner in both Norway and in Wales is to invite children
to make direct representations and complaints to the Commissioner.
The following statement by the Children's Commissioner for Wales
is taken from his website:
"The law that set up the Commissioner allows
me to look into any complaints that children have, and to make
sure that they are dealt with properly. If the issue being complained
about affects other young people too, I can look into it in depth
and make strong recommendations about putting things right.
I believe that children and young people are
not respected and listened to enough by adults. I want to change
that. To do so I will need your help. Please let me know if you
have any ideas to improve your and other people's livesor
just get in touch to find out more about what the job of Commissioner
is all about."
This is a challenge to the authority of both
parents and teachers.
It is important for children to be able to place
trust in their parents or guardians. It is damaging to that trust
to invite children to contact officials rather than their parents,
carers and families. Furthermore, the establishment of such an
office is not likely to meet the needs of those children who are
exposed to real danger within their own families. It may
instead serve as a distraction from the much more pressing need
to ensure that the social services and voluntary organisations
on the "front line" of dealing with at-risk children
are properly staffed, supervised and accountable.
It is stating the obvious to point out that
the authority of teachers and headteachers will be undermined
by inviting children to report direct to a Children's Commissioner.
Again, it is important for children to be able to trust those
responsible for their education, for only in an atmosphere of
trust and respect will their educational needs be properly met.
If a child has a genuine complaint about the state of school facilities,
a concern about bullying, or is unhappy about his or her work,
then he or she should be able to raise the matter with a teacher
or helper at school.
We do not live in a repressive society. From
my experiences as a parent in both state and independent sectors,
and as a primary school governor, I would be extremely surprised
to find any school where teachers and headteachers were unwilling
or unable to listen to their pupils. Again, this proposed new
mechanism seems likely to provide at best a distraction and at
worst an encouragement to children to ignore direct channels for
complaint within their own schools.
Once trust is undermined, it is difficult to
rebuild. Those bodies who are pressing for the introduction of
a Commissioner should first consider how their actions may damage
children's trust in their families and their schools.
3. IMPACT ON
Taking again the example of the Children's Commissioner
for Wales, it is clear that much of his work is founded on the
notion of listening to groups of children. From his website:
"Most important will be finding out what
YOU think is most important! I am spending a lot of time getting
around Wales and talking with groups and individuals to find out
what you think needs doing to make your life better.
In time (hopefully by the end of the year) I
will have a team of staff who will be able to make sure that I
am in touch with lots of you. Before I got this job, I was interviewed
by a panel of young people. All my staff will also be chosen by
adults and young people.
At the moment work is going on to find offices
and get the staff. One office will be in Swansea and the other
will be in Colwyn Bay. Staff will also be coming out to schools
and youth clubs and other places to talk with as many of you as
Listening to groups of children is a practice
already much favoured in the House of Commons, and which the Minister
for Children and Young People, John Denham MP, considers an important
part of his Government's agenda for enhancing the rights of the
young. (See the Minister's replies to this inquiry on 18 November
The Health Select Committee's inquiry into sex
education recently invited young people from the National Youth
Parliament and the Wakefield Peer Group Research Project to give
their evidence to the inquiry. At a recent meeting of the Parliamentary
Group on Parenting, a peer expressed to me his concern at the
way in which children are now regularly invited to talk to meetings
at Westminster. His particular anxiety was that the children were
being manipulated by pressure groups putting words into their
I share his concern. I also query the democratic
legitimacy of these procedures. Children who are confident enough
to share their thoughts on sex education with a House of Commons
Committee, or who are first in the queue to meet the Children's
Commissioner for Wales, may be representative of their peer group.
They are not elected representatives.
Bringing children into the governing process
in this manner is also likely to engender cynicism or, in due
course, contempt for the process. If the child's views are heard
but then overruled, cynicism will result. If legislators are seen
to bow to children's pressure groups, contempt will soon follow.
This seems to me a profoundly wrong approach
to legislation governing the care and education of our children.
As adults, and indeed as legislators, it is our duty to protect
children and to put their interests first. That should not be
confused with asking groups of children what they want and then
offering it to them.
14 March 2003