As you read this report, my staff at the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) and I are three months into fulfilling my reformed remit. On 1 April, following the passing of the Children and Families Act 2014, my role was strengthened. As a result, my primary statutory function is now to promote and protect children’s rights with particular, but not exclusive, regard to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). This includes continuing to promote awareness of the views and interests of all children and young people in England, but by law, my work must concentrate on those whose voices would otherwise not be heard or whose rights are in danger of or are already being denied.
The Children and Families Act 2014 says our work must ‘have particular regard to the rights of children who are within section 8A (children living away from home or receiving social care) and other groups of children who the Commissioner considers to be at particular risk of having their rights infringed.’ It says we cannot conduct an investigation into an individual child’s case, but can provide advice, assistance and representation to children in or leaving care; living and learning away home; or at home but receiving social care services.
The Children and Families Act repealed the role and remit of the Children’s Rights Director and his Office, who had been championing the rights of these groups of children since 2001. That work, together with two staff, transferred to the Office of the Children’s Commissioner on 1 April 2014.
I am immensely pleased that Parliament has strengthened the work done at the OCC on behalf of children in England and across the UK on non-devolved issues. Staff at the OCC and I are looking forward to developing our reformed and strengthened remit during the year ahead.
During 2013−14 we continued to focus on promoting and protecting children’s rights, in the spirit of recommendations made by the independent review of my remit commissioned by the Secretary of State for Education four years ago.
Last year we concluded two impactful, high profile national Inquiries: into children and young people excluded from school and into those who are sexually exploited by gangs and groups. Both raised the profile of breaches of children’s rights and catalysed positive change in both policy and practice. We also published evidence-based research and advice to decision makers on:
- children and young people’s experiences of telling people about neglect and abuse, the barriers they face and how professionals can help them
- disabled young people’s experiences of being raised in low income families
- young people’s hopes and dreams for the future – work led by Amplify, my young people’s advisory group.
In addition, we developed and published good practice principles for use in children’s health complaints systems, and practical materials for both primary and secondary schools to use to keep their pupils safe and create a safeguarding culture.
We continued to conduct and publish Child Rights Impact Assessments (CRIAs) of key government policies: one on the impact on children of budgetary and fiscal measures since 2010 and another on the Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. They were well received, and have been quoted in Parliament and used by practitioners. As always, children and young people’s views have been at the heart of all of our work. Their voices and lived experiences ring out in all our publications. Everything we did in 2013−14 was informed by them. We did much to promote and protect children’s rights over the past 12 months, including:
- addressing over 800 requests for advice about individual children and young people
- contributing to conferences, think tanks’ work, high level forums, round tables and other events influencing policy and practice
- speaking out about children and young people’s lives in the media giving evidence in Parliament as new laws were drafted and subsequently debated
- intervening in legal cases where the issue was likely to exemplify issues for the wider child population
- undertaking both announced and unannounced visits to the secure youth justice estate, mental health estate and secure children’s homes.
Every year, my staff and I meet thousands of children and young people. I continue to be both delighted and deeply impressed by the fact that the vast majority are active, well rounded citizens, raised in stable loving homes and educated in great schools, who already contribute enormously to the communities in which they live.
I remain concerned that the substantial minority of less fortunate children and young people, often made so by accident of birth, are not afforded the same opportunities and do not fare as well as the majority. Many of them are resilient enough to overcome the challenges life throws at them, with the support of the State, its services and others. But there are still too many who are not, and who require additional help and support from us all. These children and young people were at the centre of our work in 2013−14 and will remain so, given my statutory remit. This report is largely a retrospective look at a successful year. What you will read in it is tangible proof of the strength and impact of what we do.
In each section of the report you will find clear examples of how children and young people were involved in our work. We also look forward to a great year in 2014−15. The details of what we intend to accomplish are detailed in our Business Plan, available on our website and already underway.
Sometimes, what we do at the OCC plays the ‘long game’. We set out our challenges and feedback to the system on children and young people’s behalf, and need to go on restating them and pressing for change. At other times, we require, and have the power to insist on, far more rapid change. We are, at every stage, clear that whilst sometimes our impact is ours alone, we are also determined to remain a member of strong partnerships and work in conjunction with others.
We go into 2014−15 as a year of both continuity and change with justified optimism about our role and a firm appreciation of how much we achieve and the impact we have on the lives and life chances of our children and young people.
Dr Maggie Atkinson