Examination of Witness (Questions 104
MONDAY 13 MAY 2002
104. Mr Leadbetter, thank you very much for
coming here today to appear before the Joint Committee on Human
Rights. You know we are now well on the way with our inquiry into
the case for a Human Rights Commission and this is the first of
what I think could be described as themed sessions seeking to
establish whether there are unmet needs which a Human Rights Commission
should address, so in this session and also in the next session
the Committee is considering issues concerning children. We are
very grateful to you for appearing before us. What we hope to
find out from today is whether you and our other witnesses can
help us in establishing what practical difference a Human Rights
Commission or a Children's Rights Commissioner, say, could make
in improving conditions for children for whom social services
are responsible. Perhaps I can start by asking, in the run-up
to the Human Rights Act and in the early years of its implementation,
what were the expectations of the Human Rights Act and what has
been your impression of its impact on social services departments?
(Mr Leadbetter) I think overall the impact
was positive. Social services departments took it seriously, most
organised training, many directors took advantage of external
training. There was a slight downside to this though. There was
also a degree of anxiety created by the Human Rights Act. If I
move from the general to the specific, I attended training organised
by Belinda Schwar and when I finished the training I was convinced
we were going to get inundated by applications for potential infringement
of human rights so we organised a method for dealing with that,
and then were actually disappointed that very little came through.
I think overall the implementation has been positive but I think
the impact has been patchy. I had also expected our staff to be
more assertive, when they were representing children, and to speak
on their human rights, and I almost expected staff to go a little
overboard, and in analysing it I have been a little disappointed
that staff have not used the human rights legislation more in
putting forward the needs of children. It has not been as widespread
as one might have expected.
105. Would you say then that in a way perhaps
the response has been that the Human Rights Act is about legal
compliance rather than about the application of human rights principles
A. It is both. It was very dominated in the
early days by concern about legal challenge and the cost of that,
but latterly there is a growing sense in the organisation, and
indeed from the Essex perspective where we use external advocates,
of people representing the rights of those children and using
the Human Rights Act. For example, we had a child badly placed
and we wanted to move the child, the first challenge we got was,
"that a move would infringe the child's human rights"
from the advocate. I think it is gradually gaining a footing.
106. What would you say was the level of priority
now for the development of a human rights culture in social services
departments post-jitters over implementation?
A. I think it is high and possibly, and I would
be interested to hear what colleagues have to say, social services
departments lead the way. Most now employ children rights officers,
most fund those out of their own budgets, and arguably the children's
rights officer should be employed by local authorities (at the
corporate centre) and have responsibility right across the board.
In Essex we also fund the children's legal centre at the University
of Essex to provide independent legal representation of children,
but it tends to be social services departments in the vanguard
107. Do you know whether the Department of Health
has given any advice to social services departments or the Lord
A. I cannot recall any specific advice apart
from advice about general implications of the Act.
108. Mr Leadbetter, can I put a rather broad
question to you first of all in relation to tackling child abuse.
What difference do you think a Human Rights Commission could make
to the business of trying to tackle the scale of child abuse with
a view to moving forward as well as dealing with child abuse which
A. I think there is a fundamental issue here.
The ADSS response to the Victoria Climbie Inquiry majored on this
in the sixth and final submission which I have copied to you,
and it is the place of children in the hearts and minds of the
majority of the population. We still believe there is a legacy
of "children must be seen and not heard". We also believe
that the famous Frank Dobson speech, where he spoke about children
in public care should be considered as "being like your own
children", was really the first time any Government had taken
its responsibilities to children in the looked-after system seriously
and prioritised them. I would still argue they are not prioritised
sufficiently in health. So you have a range of factors there.
We believe in the Association that, and there are downsides to
this which I will come on to, the appointment of a Children's
Human Rights Commissioner will need specific powers and we believe
those powers will need to involve intervention on specific cases,
and could also lead to a proper debate on the place of children
in our hearts and minds. There is a very famous example, and I
will not go on too long, but at the very same time as the James
Bulger murder when Thompson and Venables were sentenced and named,
a similar situation occurred in Norway, who have had a Children's
Rights Commissioner since 1981. I am sorry, you probably know
all this. Does it not have significance that in Norway they dealt
with a very similar murder in a way which rehabilitated the children
in the community, encouraged a public debate about why a child
would do such a thing, soul-searched about what the community
could have done differently, took the child back to the place
of the murder, gave the child therapy, and in England what we
did was lock up the kids and then there was an outcry when they
were released? I am not saying a Children's Rights Commissioner
could do all that but did the fact that Norway had one, and it
has been researched and has made significant impact on policy,
affect public opinion in a profound way?
109. There is a point which follows directly
out of this, which is in a sense you could argue "Do all
three", but if you are going to prioritise and you had to
choose one, if you had to choose between, say, a Children's Commissioner,
a Minister for Children or a Human Rights Commission, which would
you put at the top of that list and what would your priority of
those three be, if we want to change the whole culture, as you
rightly I think say, of children being both seen and heard and
also, whether it is in the Health Service or elsewhere, being
prioritised? How important is the Human Rights Commission alongside
or instead of a Children's Commissioner or a Minister for Children?
A. You are asking me to prioritise, so I will.
A Children's Rights Commissioner first. Joint second, a Minister
for Children and a Human Rights Commission but only with the proviso
that the Minister for Children is untrammelled by other responsibilities
and sits in the Cabinet. The current Minister for Children is
also, I believe, responsible for, for example, youth justice.
I believe there could be a conflict of interest there and indeed
there may well be in announcements about wanting to lock up a
new cohort of young people. So a Children's Rights Commissioner
first. Independent; powerful; with access to children; access
to CAFCAS; access to reviewing offices of social services; able
to change guidance or legislation to require for example social
services departments to fund family group conferences; to ensure
independent reviewing officers are set up in every department
and make it a power and responsibility for those independent reviewing
officers to report cases where social services departments may
be slipping on care plansand I believe that is preferable
to the starring of care plans to have the ability to report matters
to the Children's Rights Commissioner and the ability, if you
like, to take issue with the local authority in a more powerful
way than is now often the case.
Lord Campbell of Alloway
110. The powers of a minister in a ministry,
which I think is being put, under very specific primary legislation,
would have vast powers, would it not?
A. It would. I suppose I am not confident at
the moment about the competing demands on that ministerial role.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: We have to deal with
it at times.
111. You have pointed out the importance of
the Children's Commissioner. At the moment we have one in Wales
and there are other systems elsewhere, and clearly England rather
suffers at the moment. At the moment the proposal is, let's review
and see how things go in Wales and then we can make a decision.
What is the impact of this wait in England, and are children suffering
as a consequence? Is there enough evidence in your experience
already in Wales to justify the Government getting a move on?
A. I think it is too early to say whether there
is enough evidence in Wales. I think there is enough evidence
in Norway and Scandinavia and New Zealand where they have Children's
Rights Commissioners. I am frankly surprised, verging on astonished,
that the Government seemed unwilling to do this, and I realise
I am speaking to members of the Government. I do not understand,
and we had discussions at the very early stages, why the Government
is opposed to this. It has set up so many mechanisms where there
are strong watchdog roles, for example, Alan Milburn's announcement
and Gordon Brown's announcement about the health and social care
inspectorates. Yet, we still seem to leave our children, particularly
those who do not have a voice, and that is not an insignificant
number, without a voice.
112. As a supplementary can I ask a very practical
question. Whatever the individual views of Members of Parliament
and elsewhere about the case of Sarah Payne and what followed
from that, undoubtedly with their readers the News of the World
ran an extremely successful campaign in raising the issues which
surrounded Megan's law and the idea of Sarah's law here, and it
attracted a great deal of controversy. Some people have said to
me, and I say this partly with my trustee of ChildLine hat on,
that had we had either a Minister for Children or a Children's
Commission in England and/or a Human Rights Commission which would
have encompassed those things, that actually that would have been
far more successfully handled and actually the outcome of that
probably would have been everything that those who were campaigning
on behalf of Megan's law and Sarah's law might have wanted but
in a way which would have allowed us to take the best of that
and not necessarily some of the bad problems which came out of
it, and that we might now have something either on the statute
book or about to go on to the statute book which protected children
without at the same time perhaps creating the very violent situations
which surrounded some wrongly-named individuals. What is your
view on that?
A. I would broadly concur with that. I think
implicit in your question is the need for more elegant and public
debate about this matter, not one led, frankly, by the News
of the World.
113. Although, to be fair to the News of
the World, they actually raised something which really did
worry people. Government does have to respond to people's genuine
concerns. There were things about that case which the newspaper
was quite right to pick up on. Other people may judge that the
outcome of that was not quite the way they would have gone, but
it does seem to me the points they were making, the things they
were saying, were of real concern in people's minds. I am interested
obviously in what you feel. Does the absence of a Children's Commissioner
in England or a Minister for Children or a Human Rights Commission,
the absence of all three, mean that these things get raised but
actuallyand I go back to the point you made very much earlier
about priorities in the Health Servicethey do not have
a place to get lodged and be picked up on? Do you agree with that?
A. I would agree. The word I would add perhaps
is champion. Very early on when I was director, I was arguing
for more money for children, and one of the membersthe
party does not mattersaid, "Mike, there's no votes
in children, this is going to old people". That is a rather
cynical and I do not think widely-held view but if it is held
by one person with responsibility for the purse strings, it is
Lord Lester of Herne Hill
114. You make a very powerful case for a champion
for children. Obviously there are other very vulnerable groups
who need champions, and one cannot go on multiplying champions
with their separate commissioner roles, but if one wants to give
much more weight to the rights and interests of children, would
you have a view as to whether you need an independent Children's
Rights Commissioner or instead a Children's Rights Commissioner
within a Human Rights Commission itself. In that instance, he
or she would be one of a range of Commissioners specialising,
in this case, in children's rights, being the children's champion,
but within a broader Human Rights Commission? Or are you saying
the best way, or even perhaps the only way of doing it, is to
have Children's Rights Commissioner and then other rights Commissioners
for other groups?
A. Directors of social services are used to
managing limited resources, so if we had an open book we could
have a Children's Rights Commissioner within an overall Commission
that would be great, but I would not want waiting for that to
get in the way. If you were asking me to prioritise, it would
have to be our children.
115. I understand your point and you have said
you ought to have somebody in the Cabinet, but then you ought
to have somebody in the Cabinet for women, for race, one could
go on multiplying the examples of vulnerable groups and the Cabinet
would then become a very large and unwieldy cabinet, would it
not? So does one not have to try to get the voice of children's
interests properly heard but in a wider human rights framework;
having a Children's Rights Commissioner, but not as a kind of
A. That would be fine. The Association would
not be opposed to that view. The only caveat would be, if it would
take too long to set up all that and yet again children would
be waiting, I would rather go for a Children's Commissioner.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I perfectly understand.
116. I would like to move on to children themselves
in a slightly different way. You talked about expecting staff
to be more assertive in using the Human Rights Act and also you
talked about the use of external advocates, but that to me comes
after another point. How are children themselves consulted by
social services staff and what mechanisms are there for children
to raise concerns and to seek redress?
A. I will, if I may, move from the general to
the specific and tell you what we do in Essex. I have video links
for children and young people in care because Essex is a large
county, so they can go to specific locations, supported by staff
who are accountable to me, with or without their social worker
or residential worker, and talk to me down a video link about
117. Supported by the staff?
A. I have a small team of staff
118. Your staff?
A. My staff, working to me. So if they (the
children) have fallen out with their residential worker or social
worker or are worried about their home manager, they would not
have to tell them they wanted to speak to me.
119. So if they were in a local authority care
home they could do that?
A. Yes, or if they were being worked with by
a social worker. How they would find out is because we have children
involved in planning, we have trained children to train our staff,
children have produced their own information leaflets and their
own information booklet about what it is like to come into care.
For many counties, and Essex is not unique, they are pivotal to
our decision-making, to our processes, to our recruitment and
to our training.