Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 120 - 137)

MONDAY 13 MAY 2002


  120. What then would be the role of the local authority children's rights officer? Would that be the person who would be supporting the child on the video link?

  A. Yes. She has been with the children when we have had some children wanting to talk about a sensitive issue, she has sat alongside with them when they did not want their social worker present.

  121. How do you evaluate this?

  A. We have a considerable amount of literature I could send to the Committee on that.

  Chairman: That would be very helpful.

Baroness Whitaker

  122. That would be very interesting. From your point of view it works well, you do not see any downsides to this?

  A. It is still not good enough. If the children are really, really frightened and are being abused and have been groomed by persistent and committed abusers, I am still not convinced it is enough, which supports my argument for the Children's Rights Commissioner. The evidence from ChildLine support the need for external contact points and the number of children calling is overwhelming. There are a lot of authorities switched on now to abuse. I still do not believe I get enough complaints from children in Essex.

  123. To move outside care homes, could I ask your opinion of schemes like family group conferencing or the programmes like those run by Youth at Risk?

  A. I have to declare an interest, I am on the Youth at Risk Advisory Board, and I have great respect for the work they do, because they encourage direct engagement with children and young people with that aim, and this is one of the challenges for public service is to help staff retain engagement with children and young people. That involves being open to listening, whether they tell us verbally or non-verbally, and Youth at Risk are good at that, and Youth at Risk of course operate in Essex. Family group conferencing, I am quite convinced about and would urge strongly the regulations should be changed to ensure that all local social services departments at an appropriate stage in the process use family group conferencing. In Essex we now use it for children, people with mental health problems, people with learning disabilities, for children at risk of offending or who have offended, and we are experimenting with older people too. What it does, and again I am sorry if you know this, is equalise the power relationship between professionals and people who use the service and children, and re-engage the family. We have evaluated the impact of family group conferencing with a fully kosher research programme, and there is something like an 80 per cent satisfaction rate, which is astonishingly high.

  124. Finally, I would like to return to children who are not in care but who really cannot get on with their family because of the level of violence or abuse. How do they find somebody to turn to? I would also like to include refugees in this group of children, who have real difficulty because of access and language issues.

  A. The bottom line is we believe all children entering this country should be accorded the same rights. That just goes without saying. How we make sure they access those rights is very vexed. For refugees, I believe there are issues about information given in different languages with interpreters when people enter the country. There is clearly a role for local and central government in disseminating that information. For that vulnerable group we would argue in the Association that perhaps the regulations need changing to move to making it a duty and responsibility for all those agencies to actively engage, that the regulations should state they must agree criteria for intervention in those groups, it must be agreed, that those criteria need to be monitored, and also it must be agreed that intervention will take place. Some agencies, and again I speak of health here, partly see their involvement with vulnerable children—the Bristol Inquiry, I think it was Chapter 29, spoke of lack of ownership of "children"—as being to pass it to somebody else rather than actively and robustly engage with children.

  125. So are those matters which could be furthered by a Human Rights Commission with a children's champion?

  A. I am quite convinced they could be.

Lord Parekh

  126. One follow-on question from what you have just said. Whether you have a Human Rights Commission or a Children's Rights Commissioner, the individual involved, the champion as you call him, would need certain powers in order to protect children's rights. What kind of powers do you think are needed, especially based on the kind of thing you were saying about Norway or Sweden or New Zealand, where commissioners enjoy different kinds of powers? What sort of powers would be needed in a British context?

  A. The ability to enter premises. I think there could be a debate here about what kind of premises and there is a very big debate here—and I have no easy answers. If there is a suspicion within families or larger communities of abuse, where does the privacy of the family rest compared to the right of officials to interview? Some members would argue there are already enough interventions in the family, but I think we need a debate. Arguably, if somebody had intervened more robustly with Victoria Climbie, she might not be dead.

  127. Should you have the right to enter private homes?

  A. That would need to be debated. Perhaps if there was good evidence the police and social services had failed to act.

  128. Would you personally be in favour of it?

  A. I would lean towards that in the interests of protecting children. Certainly residential premises, hospitals, schools. Also the power to make recommendations. I must add a caveat to this. If we go down that road of a new powerful presence, we need to rationalise the other inspection regimes. In preparation for this appearance I counted up the number of monitoring and inspection visits I have had in the last 15 months, and there were 17. I have had 17 sets of inspectors and monitors coming to see me to review the monitoring services in social services in Essex; in fact it is only 16 because one of them was a person from the Treasury coming to ask me how many inspectors and monitoring visits there were in Essex, so we perhaps should not count that one. So to have another presence would, I strongly urge, need a rationalisation of that plethora of other bodies.

  129. Although I think there is something to be said for that kind of power, broad as it is with certain dangers, what about other kinds of things? For example, research shows that wherever there is family conferencing, parents being involved, the kind of abuse that takes place later on is much diminished, if you involve parents in dealing with those kinds of problems. Would that require different kinds of powers or a less punitive approach than the ones you indicated earlier?

  A. We are in blue skies country. I am assuming in making the very strong point I made about the importance of family group conferencing that is taken on board, because I would not want it to be all stick and no carrot. The evidence, as you quite rightly say, from family group conferencing is really superb. The feedback we get from parents, for example, "We always thought you were not going to help us, and now we realise you are on our side", is very heartening.

  130. So the idea would be to think in terms of a family/commissioner partnership?

  A. A family/commissioner partnership, empowering families, but there is always a conflict, and we have been wrestling with it for 30 years or so in social services, between the rights of adults, some of whom are abusing children, and the rights of children, and we always must—and again I am preaching the obvious—err on the side of the rights of children.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

  131. Just continuing with Lord Parekh's question, I am not clear from what you said whether you think of a Children's Rights Commissioner as really taking over a lot of the functions which are now performed by social services departments in the interests of children. In England and Wales, that would be a massive change in the pattern in this area of local government. Or whether you are thinking of a Children's Rights Commissioner as a champion who works with social services departments and inspection regimes as they now are, but adds much extra weight to the work which is being done and gives them a shove. When you talk about powers of entry, for example, into residential homes or private homes, that suggests a much bigger kind of piece of machinery than one would normally think of with a Children's Rights Commissioner. Is that how you see it, a fairly powerful quango able to subsume powers which are now exercised by social services, or is it ancillary to that?

  A. Thank you for the opportunity for clarifying that. I am sorry if I have not been clear. I certainly do not see it taking over social services' powers. The point I was seeking to emphasise is that the Children's Rights Commissioner must have sufficient teeth to matter. People change for a variety of reasons but mainly out of vision or fear and concern. If there is not enough vision, there maybe needs to be a bit of bite in the system. I am not suggesting they take over. Again may I take a step back and be parochial: I have had to mount certain investigations in Essex which I viewed were not done properly before I came—some historical abuse allegations—and arguably a Children's Rights Commissioner could look at that, look at the action or inaction of social services and police, and say, "I need to do something here" and in those special cases have reserve powers. But I would not see them subsuming social services, I just do not think that would be feasible, but we do need a champion with teeth.

  132. Could you give us one or two more practical examples, say, in relation to children in care and with care orders, where you think it would have made a difference in practice if there had been a Children's Rights Commissioner?

  A. Care plan made; social worker leaves; impossible to recruit replacement social worker; case slips; independent reviewing officer reviews the case; this child is due to go for adoption; nobody is preparing the child. Or perhaps a manager says, "I really cannot recruit"; but manager goes to the Council and says, "I need more money to pay social workers more"; the Council says, "I am sorry, it is much more important we repair the A130." The Children's Rights Commissioner then is involved by the independent reviewing officer and says, "This is totally unacceptable." I know there are issues here about democratic accountability but the Children's Rights Commissioner can say, "This is totally unacceptable, you need to do something about your staffing situation, your officers have given you good advice" and get very actively involved. Currently, some officers (and it is changing) in some social services departments do not feel that children's issues get the weight they deserve. Some of that emerged at—and again I was present—the Victoria Climbie Inquiry, where political decisions regarding resources may well prove to be a feature in what happened. Perhaps that is an extreme example but one which may well apply.

  133. Can you think of a good example of access to justice for children in care?

  A. May I say something about this? Children in care have a rough deal with justice. You will know the prosecution rates are less than 5 per cent of reported offences where children are concerned and conviction rates are about the same. They are the poorest rates of return for prosecution, for a variety of reasons. In addition there is an issue often not sufficiently spoken of, which is the ability in criminal proceedings, where there may be a child witness who is in care, for the defence to do a trawl of the child's file. They do that by asking the permission of the judge to disclose, but we have significant evidence of judges giving permission to disclose on matters which are not material to the case to show, for example, that a child in care has told a few white lies, or a few black lies, but told a few lies. The defence then use that to discredit a vulnerable child witness, so not only do we not get justice but we get inappropriate and discriminatory treatment for children in care. I have been trying to raise this through various offices, like the President's Interdisciplinary Committee, for a number of years. I would imagine a parent who was a bit obsessive and kept a file of a child's life would not be subject to getting that file subject to disclosure, so why does that happen for children in care? I believe that is another concrete example of where our Children's Rights Commissioner or a Minister for Children or whoever would say, "This is clearly infringing the human rights of children, not only to a fair trial but to often be humiliated in criminal proceedings."

  134. That would not be done by the children's legal centre or lawyers or somebody like that?

  A. It could be if you are attached to them but there is no right of appeal against the judge's decision for disclosure, so the child has nowhere to go. I believe it is a not insignificant problem with the law.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

  135. My question rather follows from Lord Parekh's and Lord Lester of Herne Hill's. I have been listening with great care to your proposals, and they are proposals in essence to safeguard children's rights, protect children, but you concede, it is obvious, that this cannot happen without exercising powers. You have to have powers of the social services, you have to have powers of the police, you have to have the protection of the criminal law. What on earth in practice are you going to do? We have a structure which is working by and large reasonably well, and by and large the social services do a good job. Of course, there are desperately sad and terrible cases, but by and large the police do a good job, and by and large the courts do not do too badly. What do you want to do? Do you want to take those powers away and, against some primary legislation, put them altogether and hand them to a commissioner? What is the object? Why should it be better? I am a wretched lawyer, so I look at things like this, and of course I have dealt with these things in practice in courts. What is it exactly? I do not understand. How are you going to transfer these powers and exercise them in another mould?

  A. Thank you for your comments about the public services, I think we are doing well but I would say, "Could do better". We have had Waterhouse and so on, and currently there are over 90 large scale inquiries into child abuse going on in the country, and children's voices not being heard. One of the common features if you look at these inquiries, up to the latest one and way back to Maria Colwell, is that children were there, they were telling us one way or another and no one was listening. The idea of a children's rights champion is not to cut across current powers, not necessarily to have more powers, perhaps the idea is to have reserved powers—and I am not a lawyer, the lawyers will have to work that out—but the commissioner would have to have some teeth, and I do strongly believe it is needed. I recognise the points you make but against that I would say, our children have too long been left without a voice.


  136. Mr Leadbetter, thank you very much for appearing before us. For myself, I would say that we have made very good use of the short time we have had with you and have found it very interesting and useful. You will appreciate that we cannot possibly cover all the human rights problems which children face comprehensively in oral evidence, so if in the next day or two there are things you think you could have said, or which you think the Committee might like to see, please, please, do send us any written evidence which you think might be useful to us in the course of our inquiry.

  A. Thank you very much and I will also provide you with information on vulnerable children's services.

Baroness Whitaker

  137. Could you include travellers' children?

  A. Yes.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

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