Joint Committee On Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


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:

1.  CHILDREN'S RIGHTS VERSUS CHILD PROTECTION

  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 and Powers:

    "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 THE AUTHORITY OF PARENTS AND TEACHERS

  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 lives—or 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.

Parents

  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.

Teachers

  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 DEMOCRACY

  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 possible."

  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 2002.)

  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 mouths.

  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



 
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