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16 December 2011

A year in the life of the OCC

Maggie Atkinson - Children's Commissioner for England:

Today (16 Dec) is the 20th anniversary of the UK Government ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). This landmark date provides a marker for us to assess children's rights against the Conventions standards and other international human rights treaties. I'm delighted, on this landmark date, to welcome the Government's publication of its response to the consultation on the contents of the legislation to create a new Office of the Children's Commissioner for England, and a new and more independent and stronger Commissioner.  This legislation is likely follow an announcement in the Spring/Summer 2012 Queen's Speech saying such legislation will go forward in the 2012-13 Parliamentary session.  In the meantime our vital work for children continues, and we will continue to work with the Office of the Children's Rights Director and Department for Education colleagues to inform the legislative process, not least because a new law will take some time to go through Parliament and then be enacted, and there is work to do!  You can read my full statement on our website.

Today we publish our recently submitted views on England's human rights record for children.  We sent this in as our contribution to the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The UN Human Rights Council examines the state of human rights in Member States every four to five years, and early 2012 will see the UK government's next examination as part of this process. Our press release and submission are available here.

The Right Year for Children year of action also starts today. This is run by a coalition of organisations that want greater awareness and respect for children's rights in England. Thousands of children across the country have sent messages to the Prime Minister on cardboard and paper footprints to mark today's start of a year. You can join the year's activities by becoming a partner or supporter and following RY4C on Twitter.

On Tuesday as part of my work on our School Exclusions Inquiry I visited a school which has gone through many iterations over many years. It is now an academy and I spoke to the headteacher, teachers, and a group of pupils who spoke to me without any of the school's adults present. It was useful to question and probe, as we have during all our other visits. The pupils were very articulate and eager to reflect on their experiences of being pupils at the school, the older ones in particular telling us how they felt about the way the school was before, and how it is now.  

On the same day I spoke at the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Legal Aid about the parts of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill currently making its way through Parliament. I shared a platform with Baroness Oona King, Enver Solomon from the Children's Society and Barbara Rayment from Youth Access

The presentations focused on different aspects of what changes to (by which we mean in effect the lessening of) Legal Aid eligibility could mean for the most vulnerable children and young people in our society.  I concentrated on:

  • children's rights, voices and interests not being properly heard,
  • the Government not having done a children's rights based assessment of the impact of the proposed changes in the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill currently going through Parliament, and
  • the natural justice issues the changes raise

I based much of what I said  on our submission to the Government's early 2011 consultation on the matter, though of course I updated my remarks as the Bill has had a lot of Parliamentary time since then and there have been some changes. 

The APPG's discussion was well received and the meeting well attended, and we will watch with interest what influence the discussion might have on the continuing Parliamentary progress of the Bill.

This week I chaired the second meeting of my Interim Advisory Board, and as I had expected we had a lively and constructive discussion.  The board is not an executive body, but is there to challenge, monitor and scrutinise, support, advise and reflect with us on our strategy, the influence we exert, and the business we all do at the OCC.  The board's members are from a wide range of backgrounds and come to these meetings and their dealings with us with a great deal of expertise in their respective fields.  Their advice, and their challenges on how we ought to frame our coming year's plans and manage continuing change and development, will prove invaluable to us over time.

As this is my last blog of the year I also wanted to remind you of a few highlights from 2011.

At the beginning of the year Demos published the Home Front report, which we commissioned. It looked at how parents and their children can be supported to live fulfilling and strong family lives, and examined their concerns. Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg and I both spoke at the launch.

In April we forwarded our second submission to the Munro Review of Child Protection. As well as gathering views from young people Jenny Clifton our Principal Policy Advisor (Safeguarding) played, and has since continued to play, a vital role and also sat on the Children and Young People's Sub Group of the Munro Review.

In June we held a Parliamentary reception to launch our `I think I must have been born bad' report. It contained 19 recommendations to protect the rights and mental and emotional wellbeing of children in custody, and contained powerful testimonies from young people who had experienced incarceration, many of whom had not received enough support whilst they were there.

In July we submitted our response to the Family Justice Review. But our role did not end there. We held a number of focus groups with young people who had experienced family courts on behalf of the Review, and Sue Berelowitz, Deputy Commissioner, presented a video about their issues to the Family Justice Conference in the Autumn. Through exercising our unique powers, we continue to raise and promote the voice of children and young people, and to challenge society to fulfil their rights.

In July I launched our first ever formal Inquiry, the School Exclusions Inquiry. Since then we have visited schools of various kinds up and down the country, as well as local authorities, alternative providers, community leaders, parents, children and young people. and others. Our formal evidence sessions have included presentations from and the questioning of everyone from lawyers to academics. The report will be published in March, so watch this space!

October saw the launch of our two year Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups (CSEGG) led by Deputy Children's Commissioner, Sue Berelowitz. We aim to throw light on the scale, scope, nature and extent of the sexual exploitation, victimisation and abuse that girls and boys in England are subjected by street gangs and loosely formed groups.  A second year's work will then follow, to develop recommendations on improvements for all concerned.

Last month the four UK Children's Commissioner's issued our Midterm report on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We highlighted our concern over the impact of the Coalition Government's Spending Review on the needs of vulnerable children.

On 11th November Children's Commissioner's Takeover Day again brought thousands of children together with organisations across the country. Everyone from the Deputy Prime Minister to the Editor of Metro took part. For a day a young person even took over a £500m children's services budget!

I will leave you on that note, showing what children and young people are capable of!

Have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Maggie Atkinson, Children's Commissioner for England