Overview & Principles
Our concern as existing Commissioners for Children in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales is the rights and best interests of all children – every area of society’s relationship with children should be open to independent review and advocacy. We want English children to enjoy the same or better protection for their rights, and at least as good service from their Commissioner, as the children elsewhere in the UK. We want all children, to have easy access to a Commissioner who will act independently on their behalf and jointly with other Commissioners where appropriate. We need to take a holistic view of children’s needs – not one dominated by the complicated government and legal structures arising from devolution.
Deficiencies in the Children Bill Proposals
While we welcome the move to establish a Children’s Commissioner for England, and look forward to welcoming whoever is appointed to the UK Group of Children’s Commissioners, we do have profound concerns about the detail of the current proposals:
- Lack of focus on children’s rights – the Bill  charges the English Commissioner to “promote awareness of the views and interests of children” and merely proposes the Commissioner “may have regard to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child”.  Existing UK Children’s Commissioners have a much stronger focus on promoting the rights and best interests of children, and are required to take account of the UNCRC. 
- Limited powers & lack of independence – the Bill restricts the English Commissioner to undertaking formal investigations with strong inquiry powers to the case of an individual child raising general issues and only as directed by the Secretary of State.  Existing UK Children’s Commissioners have a range of powers they can use in relation to more general issues and all can initiate inquiries at their own behest.  We believe the proposals in the Bill are creating a Commissioner that while being a strong voice for children’s views will neither enjoy the powers nor the independence that will enable those views to be translated into meaningful action.
- A confusing relationship with other UK Commissioners – the Bill initially states that the Commissioner has responsibility for promoting the views and interests of children in the United Kingdom  which is then qualified by excluding the existing responsibilities of the Commissioners in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.  The Bill introduces a weak duty on the Commissioner to take account of the views of, and work undertaken by, the other Commissioners.  This duty specifically excludes formal investigations – so that the Commissioner can investigate  the case of an individual child in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales without reference to the Commissioner in that country.
In our view the Commissioner’s initial role should be limited to England, but there should be a clear duty to “work jointly and consult with” the other Commissioners on any matter where there is a UK wide interest, or with a specific Commissioner in relation to a matter where there is an interest in his or her country. This will require amendments to both Clause 2(1) and Clause 5.
There is a case for giving each Commissioner a remit which covers all matters affecting children (whether devolved or non-devolved) in that country but this would require further amendments to the primary legislation setting up the Commissioner’s offices.
For further information feel free to contact Nigel Williams the Commissioner for Children and Young People in Northern Ireland on 028 9031 1616, or by e-mail ; or the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, Peter Clarke on 01792 765600 or by e-mail . Professor Kathleen Marshall is not yet in post.
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1. Peter Clarke, Children’s Commissioner for Wales, was appointed in March 2001, and Nigel Williams, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, in October 2003. Professor Kathleen Marshall will take up her post as Commissioner for Children and Young People in Scotland in April.
4. See Article 6 of the Commissioner for Children and Young People (Northern Ireland) Order; Sections 4 & 5 of the Commissioner for Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2003; and Section 2 of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales Act 2001 and Regulation 22 of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales Regulations 2001.
6. A detailed comparative table of the powers in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland is available at www.niccy.org . There are differences in the range of powers that each Commissioner has but they are without exception stronger than those of the English Commissioner.