Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
12 OCTOBER 2009
Q20 Mr Chaytor: Once you had been
shortlisted you were required to give a presentation on the most
important issues facing children and young people, and a group
of young people was involved in that. Do you think that's a good
Maggie Atkinson: I think it's
an excellent idea. I've experienced it twice now in my career.
If you're going to be the sort of post holder that is going to
have regular contact with, and a constructive and hopefully powerful
relationship with children and young people, and you appoint somebody
who doesn't like them very much or to whom they can't speak, or
who they feel won't listen to them, you are on a bit of a hiding
to nothing. They were very well briefed; they were properly chaperoned
by two adults in the room, who took notes; they were very articulate
and very engaged in the process; and actually they were as searching
as the adult panel the next day, but in a different way.
Q21 Mr Chaytor: But if it is such
a good idea, why weren't they invited back for the final interview?
Maggie Atkinson: You would probably
have to ask the Department that question, but I would guess that
the main reason is that this is an appointment of government,
albeit to a corporation sole and non-departmental public body.
I would guess that, in the same way as localities do this, you
use your children and young people's panel to ask wide-ranging
and sometimes quite challenging and daring questions that are
not about the nuts and bolts of doing the job. The final panel
interview is about the nuts and bolts of doing the job"How
will you relate to Ministers? What happens if you don't get your
own way? How are you with the media?"whereas the children
and young people wanted to know what I thought was bugging children
and young people across the country and to tell what they'd want
me to say on their behalf. The two events were very different
Q22 Mr Chaytor: How do you reconcile
your defence of the involvement of children and young people at
the shortlisting stage with your response to Graham's question
about leaving representation to the UK Youth Parliament? Because
there you were saying, "Well, these are all part-time young
people with other preoccupations," and that they couldn't
possibly be trusted to get their judgments right, but here you
are saying, "This was a really good idea and it should be
built into the system."
Maggie Atkinson: Absolutely. That
young people's group was, of course, the Children and Youth board
of the DCSF, which now and again
Q23 Mr Chaytor: How do you get
on the Children and Youth board at the DCSF?
Maggie Atkinson: I don't know.
They're from all over the country. They were from Manchester and
Dudleygoodness only knows where they weren't fromand
I gather, from the officials who briefed me about what they do,
that now and again they are brought out of school or taken on
weekend training in order to fulfil their roles. Now and again,
they are asked to look at a piece of very specific policy that
has a very direct effect on the rights and well-being of children
and young people. They are not called on day in and day out to
engage in that policy processand they are not if you use
them to help you in localities either.
Q24 Mr Chaytor: But they are hand-picked
by somebody in the DCSF presumably? They are not elected or plucked
out by a random process.
Maggie Atkinson: I honestly don't
know whether they are an elected group or not. They may well be
representatives of their own elected bodies in their own localities.
Q25 Mr Chaytor: Was there anything
in the whole recruitment process, other than your concerns about
the original output, that you would not adopt as good practice
in running the Children's Commissioner's office?
Maggie Atkinson: I don't think
there is about running the office. I think I would reflect back
to you that a closing date of 2 July, for a first interview on
1 September and a second interview on 2 September, and some time
in late September the call to tell you, is perhaps a tad long.
I appreciate that it was advertised and closed, and that Parliament
then broke for the summer recess, but I could have gone off and
got a job in Madagascar between applying for this and being told
I was the preferred candidate. In terms of being a candidate,
it hasn't been stress-free.
Q26 Mr Timpson: You were asked
earlier about independence. Can I ask you about that again in
the context of the selection process and the charge that the selection
panel itself wasn't independent enough and wasn't made up of the
right type of people who should be making that very important
decision? We had someone from the DCSF and someone from the Ministry
of Justice, but would you have liked to see a different make-up
and people who were perhaps more involved in the charitable sector
for young people and children, for example, as opposed to people
from within Departments, to make it a more independent process?
Maggie Atkinson: One of the panel
was Sir Paul Ennals, who is chief executive of the National Children's
Bureau. There was also a representative of the Office of the Commissioner
for Public Appointments, who was there to ensure that probity
was followed and that the right questions were asked about my
interests, potential conflicts and so on. Because Sir Paul is
not only chief executive of the NCB but also engaged in the children's
inter-agency group, which represents organisations such as the
NSPCC, Action for Children, the Children's Society and others,
I think he brought into that room the right balance of that sector.
Children's and young people's services are delivered by an increasingly
diverse sector, as you know, from early years through to youth
work, children's homes and many schools. Sir Paul, because he
brings that background with him, is, I think, a champion of that
sector. Unless you were prepared to expand that panel to a cast
of thousands, which would have made it a very diffuse and potentially
unsatisfactory experience for both interviewers and interviewees,
I am not sure how much further you could have gone. You could
certainly have asked, for example, for somebody from a single-issue
organisationa charityto come, but because the NCB
covers a panoply of interests, from early years to young offenders,
I think Sir Paul was the right choice, and he was certainly a
very challenging interviewer.
Q27 Mr Timpson: Thank you for
that. I think that what I was getting at was why was it necessary
for there to be someone from the DCSF and someone from the Ministry
of Justice making up half the selection panel, when, particularly
with some of the criticisms made previously, we are trying to
give the public confidence that this is a truly independent decision,
as opposed to a decision made by a government department that
may have a vested interest in the outcome?
Maggie Atkinson: Mainly I would
say that those two Departments were chief among the represented
ones; you could have had more. There could have been the Department
of Health, for example, or others. I would say, and I did not
make the panel up so I am guessing, that those two Departments
particularly were represented because the DCSF is the sponsor
department for this non-departmental public body and the Ministry
of Justice is one of the ones into whose business the commissioner
has a direct right of entry. I have the right to go into a young
offenders institution without fear or favour, and I would say
that there was a need for the Minister to have confidence that
a senior civil servant from that Department was at least present.
The other thing about this, of course, is that the commissioner
has a duty to review how well Every Child Matters is being delivered,
and the Ministry of Justice is one of the Departments that has
"dual key" responsibility with the DCSF
for the delivery of that strategy. Therefore, if what you are
asking is, "Were they challenging enough?", I have to
tell you that yes, they were.
Q28 Chairman: Maggie, do you think
that childhood is threatened in our country?
Maggie Atkinson: I am not so certain
that it is threatened. I think that it is very difficult to see
where children have the right to be children anymore. I am going
to sound like my grandma: when I was a child, it was perfectly
natural, on the edge of the mining village where I was brought
up, to go off into the fields with a bottle of water and not be
seen for nine hoursjust off. I have absolutely no doubt
that there were the same number of relatively dangerous adults
about then as there are nowit's just that we didn't know
about them. In a world of 24-hour media, when children and young
people are under intense pressure from role models who you might
not necessarily want for your own children and young people, the
possibilities for just being a kid are limited. I think that we
need, as a nation, to understand that children are noisy, messy
and gangly, and they are just as likely to fall over as they are
to stand upright
and just as likely to need to explore and take risks are they
ever were. As a nation, we have become scared of letting them
do that and of letting them develop their own resilience. We need
to come back to the notion of children being children.
Q29 Chairman: What are your three
things that are endangering childhood?
Maggie Atkinson: I think the celebrity
culture has an awful lot to answer for. We are sold the notionwe
are sold it as adults as well, but adults are less impressionablethat
you can have millions in your back pocket and that if you are
pretty good at kicking a football up a pitch you will earn millions
and millions in a year and that it will all come to you. I think
that celebrity culture is a huge threat. Children and young people
tell me that they are really concerned about how easy it still
is if you are 14 but look 19 to get hold of legal but intoxicating
substances, including drink and cigarettes. How easy it is to
get hold of things that will do you harm is a serious threat.
If there is a third one, it is the pressure that we as a society
seem determined to continue to put our children under in terms
of how hot-housed many of them are at school. Those are my three
Q30 Chairman: Would you add pornography
to the availability of harmful materials?
Maggie Atkinson: I think I would
bring that in under the whole business of the 24-hour media and
celebrity availability and the fact that it is all too easy to
stray on to an internet site. I have a deeply evangelical Christian
friend who typed "angels" into Google and pulled up
all sorts of things that she would rather not have looked at,
simply because of the headline word. Her children were in the
room at the time. It is scary how easy those things are to get
hold of. You have to make a much more conscious decision to get
anywhere near that than you do to walk down the street and go
into your local off-licence and buy drink, if you are 14-plus.
Q31 Chairman: How do you avoid
Rupert Murdoch's pornography empire? Through Sky, he makes and
distributes an enormous amount of pornography, which is available
to children. You know that. That's easier than walking into an
off-licence and pretending to be older than you are, isn't it?
Maggie Atkinson: It very much
depends on how well you are parented, to be honest. Whether you
have easy and open access depends on what guards there are on
the system in your home. Those of us who are part of the generation
that is still only learning to text do not understand quite how
much access to 24-hour, online material our children and young
Q32 Chairman: Would you campaign
about that sort of thing?
Maggie Atkinson: I am not sure
that the Children's Commissioner is a campaigning role. It is
an influencing role and a drawing-to-attention role, but to me
the word "campaigning" smacks of active politics. This
is not a political appointmentrather, this is not a political
post. It is undoubtedly part of the machinery of government, but
it is not a political post.
Q33 Paul Holmes: Picking up from
exactly that point, you said earlier that you do not see why you
cannot be a strong voice for children in this role. However, when
the post was first being set up, this Committee, as the Education
and Skills Committee, looked at it and expressed strong reservations.
We thought it might be toothless because it was not an ombudsman
on the European lines and it did not have the powers of the Welsh
or Northern Irish Children's Commissioners. We were very concerned
that it would be a bit pointless. Al Aynsley-Green said at a conference
this July that he had done his best, despite his powers being
the weakest of any commissioner in Europe. He said: "My resources
are small, my offices are tiny. I simply haven't been able to
do everything people expected me to." What is the point of
Maggie Atkinson: I cannot speak
for Sir Al. I haven't spoken to him all that recently, so I don't
know in what mood he prepares to leave. There are lots of strong
advocacy organisations in this country, alongside which the Children's
Commissioner has to align herself if the children and young people
who are talking to her say strongly and loudly enough, "Maggie,
this is a big issue for us." So, to align oneself with very
prominent organisations such as Kidscape, the Kids Company, the
NSPCC, Action for Children, the Children's Society or any of those
organisationsChildLine, for examplethe commissioner
needs to ensure that she is doing it for reasons that have been
raised by children and young people in the participation and involvement
exercises in which they have been engaged with the commissioner.
This is not an individual case-work organisation. It is not meant
to be. It is not a tub-thumping or stick-wielding organisation.
It is a post for influencing, persuading, evidence-presenting
and expressing the voice of the child and young person. No, it
does not have exactly the same powers as some of those others,
but it has an enormous potential truly to influence how people
think about childhood and children.
Q34 Paul Holmes: If you are restricted
by the definition of your jobI mean all the commissioners
are there to safeguard and promote the rights and welfare of children
in a proactive way; you are there simply to promote an awareness
of the views and interests of childrenwhy cannot all those
other organisations do that? I think it was the Northern Ireland
Commissioner who gave the Government a lot of stick about the
use of ASBOs, but clearly that is not your role, because you are
not a campaigning commissioner. The European Court has said that
the Government are breaking the law in compiling the biggest DNA
database in the world, with lots of innocent childrenmillions
of people, but lots of childrenhaving their DNA on there.
However, you are not a campaigning organisation so that is not
your job. The Policing and Crime Bill, which has just finished
in the House of Lords, proposes to restrict the rights of children
through gang injunctions that are basically like the terrorist
control ordersbut you are not a campaigning organisation,
so what are you going to do?
Maggie Atkinson: I think that
I need to clarify what I mean by not being a campaigning organisation,
because on all of those issues I can show you documentation that
the Children's Commissioner has presented back to policy makersletters
on the DNA database, letters on the determination of age by dental
record check, documents presented back to Government about whether
children's rights are being safeguarded and promoted in the country.
My definition of being a campaigning organisation is that you
actually become politicised. That is inappropriate. What the commissioner
has to do I said in my application papers, which is that this
role is not an inspector, not a political drum-beater. It is the
holder of a very sharp light, which is illuminated by the words
and the wishes of children and young people and is shone on to
policy makers. It will seek out areas on which that light needs
to shine. That is really important. It is not campaigning in a
political sense, but the office of the Children's Commissioner
has the right and the duty to say to those making policy, "You
need to be aware that when you look at age discrimination, for
example, there are some elements of age discrimination for under-18s
that are completely appropriate, and please don't write a piece
of law that backs us into a corner and makes that not possible."
You have to safeguard the under-18s, and therefore age discrimination
is important. Those are all statements that the Children's Commissioner
has made. The Children's Commissioner has made all sorts of extremely
important statements, is getting movement on the UKBA's work with
unaccompanied asylum seekerswith the work of places like
Yarl's Woodand is gradually making inroads into the work
of the Youth Justice Board and young offenders institutions in
ways that are not about inspecting and not about political campaigning,
but are about saying, "Is this good enough?"
Q35 Paul Holmes: But I am not
sure that I understand your definition of campaigning. If it is
illegal to have a million and some people on the DNA database,
many of whom are children, that is not politicalit has
been ruled illegal. Surely a Children's Commissioner should be
making a lot of public noise about that, but you seem to be saying
that you write letters and do things as part of the establishment
behind the scenes, but you won't make a big fuss publicly, because
that is political somehow.
Maggie Atkinson: I am sorry that
I'm not being as definite as I ought to be here in trying to define
what I mean. Without fear or favour, and whoever's flag is flying
over Whitehall, the Children's Commissioner has to be one of the
people in the system who says, "It's not good enough,"
"It won't do," "Are you aware it isn't legal?"
or "It is my duty to point out to you." It is not the
Children's Commissioner's role to stomp into Parliament and to
try and rewrite the law. That, for me, is where the line is drawn.
It is not a law-drafting post, it is a sense and reasoning role.
In my experience, the more adversarial you get, the less the other
party in your discussion listens to what you have to say. I would
rather do what needs to be done in this role through the presentation
of very robust evidence, through persuasion and alliance with
other organisations, and through weight of argument, than by wielding
a big stick.
Q36 Paul Holmes: In a few minutes
we are going to move on to start looking at the Badman report
and suggestions about the regulation of home education. As the
person who is 99% of the way to being the Children's Commissioner
for England at the moment, what do you think we should be saying
as a Committee regarding the legislative process and the Badman
report, and whether it is protecting children's interests or trampling
all over the interests of home-educated children?
Maggie Atkinson: I will take you
back, if I may, to when I was an adviser in Birmingham city council,
where there were quite large numbers of home-educated childrenit
is getting on for 20 years now since I worked in Birmingham. At
that time, as an adviser I had a right and a duty not only to
knock on the doors of people who were choosing electively to educate
their children at home, but simply to go into their premises and,
on the most headline of bases, to look at whether the environment
was right, whether there were age-appropriate materials in use,
and whether the children seemed okay. They were never interviewed
on their own, they were never taken on one side, they were never
taken away from their parents and there was never any really intrusive
work that I did as an adviser from Birmingham city council. I
felt it was entirely appropriate, and it was within the bounds
of reason. In the last two to three years, the regulations are
such that I can go no further than the doorstep. I have absolutely
no doubt that the vast majority of families who choose electively
to educate their children at home are doing so for entirely right
reasons, for entirely honourable, fair, just, creative and admirable
reasons. But I would give you two words, and they are the first
and second names of the child who diedKhyra Ishaq. I do
not think that it is taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut simply
to be able to go across the doorstep of the home where a child
is being electively home educated. Not to interfere, not to insist,
not to direct, but simply to check that they are as safe as you
need them to be. Khyra Ishaq was electively home educated and
withdrawn from the roll of her school in Birmingham, and within
10 weeks she had starved to death. That may be an extreme case,
and horrible and dreadful, and it happens very, very, very rarely
indeed. None the less, it happened.
Q37 Paul Holmes: Who rewrote the
rules to stop you going across the doorstep in the way that you
did 20 years ago?
Maggie Atkinson: My understanding
is that it was statutory guidance that was rewritten within the
Q38 Annette Brooke: May I slightly
revisit this idea of you not being political? Obviously, political
with a small "p" to me implies an agent of changenot
necessarily party political. Surely you see the Children's Commissioner's
remit as being an agent for change for children and young people
in this country.
Maggie Atkinson: It is not an
agent of change for change's sake. Naturally, there will be issues
that the commissioner raises where she considers that children
are not being given a fair deal by the nation's media, for example.
Where there is the possibility of a set of articles such as those
that appeared in The Guardian on Saturday about young men
in this country, which were very positive and very balanced, the
commissioner has, I think, an absolute duty to push the media
to do more of that sort of reporting, because about 72% of reporting
on children in the media is negative. Actually, only about 5%
of children are involved in anything nefarious or offending. So,
redressing that sort of balanceabsolutely, as an agent
of change. Redressing the sort of issues that we know are beginning
to come to the fore in young offenders institutions about restraint,
isolation, searching, physical techniquesabsolutely. The
commissioner has a right and a duty to say something very strong
about that, but they should be as informed as possible by the
voice of the child and the young person, and it should not simply
be because the commissioner has a bee in her bonnet. The campaigning
that the commissioner does is strongly limited by the fact that
she is speaking not for herself but on behalf of the nation's
children and young people.
Q39 Annette Brooke: To what extent
will you be speaking on behalf of children but within the framework
of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child?
Maggie Atkinson: The post has
to have regard to the UNCRC. You will know from reading the Children's
Plan for 2020 that the writing team tried to work out where the
two matched. I don't think that you can possibly expect to be
slavishly connected to it. We celebrate its 20th birthday on 20
November at Lancaster Houserightly so, I think. You could
never argue with a great deal of what is in it: that children
have the right not to be in an army until they are at least 15
years of age, for example, because they are still children. There
are elements of the United Nations convention that are such common
sense and ingrained into our civil rights that there is no argument;
but to be slavishly connected to it would be as limiting a factor
as taking no notice of it at all.
2 Note by witness: The DCSF Children
and Youth Board is made up of 25 children and young people under
18. They apply through local children's and youth organisations,
they are selected by the National Children's Bureau through application
and a selection day. They represent children of different ages,
background, ethnicity and geographic location. Back
Note by witness: The label "dual key"
is in inverted commas because, although Ministers from MoJ and
DCSF have shared platforms and made joint statements as part of
the implementation of the 2020 Children's Plan, it may be that
formal arrangements labelled "dual key" are not in place
as such. Back
Note by witness: This description is of course
partial. Children and young people are also a positive force for
good in their families and communities, and this description is
not meant to decry that. Back