Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340 - 351)



  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.

Baroness Whitaker

  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 respect?
  (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.

Mr McNamara

  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.

Lord Parekh

  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.

Norman Baker

  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 commissioner's hands.

Mr McNamara

  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 am told.

Mr Woodward

  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.

Mr McNamara

  350. Do you think that if you have 200 a year that is indicative of the success of the case conference system or not?
  (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 mean—I would say it implies there are many more children who do not ring us about it, many more.


  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 force?
  (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.

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