Examination of Witness (Questions 120
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
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.
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
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
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 childrenthe 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.
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 hereand 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
A. That would need to be debated. Perhaps if
there was good evidence the police and social services had failed
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 mustand again I am preaching the
obviouserr 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
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 camesome
historical abuse allegationsand 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 atand again I was presentthe
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 powersand I am not
a lawyer, the lawyers will have to work that outbut 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
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.
137. Could you include travellers' children?
Chairman: Thank you very much.