Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

This report was not approved formally by the Committee prior to the suspension of the Assembly on 14 October 2002, but is published by order of the Speaker.

Committee of the Centre

Monday 9 September 2002


Commissioner for Children 
and Young People Bill: 
Committee Stage
(NIA 20/01)

Members present:

Mr Poots (Chairperson)
Mr Gibson (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Beggs
Dr Birnie
Mr Ervine
Mr Kennedy
Ms Lewsley
Dr McDonnell
Mr McElduff
Dr O’Hagan
Mr Shannon


Ms M Battle ) Deputy Children’s) Commissioner for Wales
Mr P Clarke ) Children’s Commissioner for Wales

The Chairperson:

I welcome Mr Peter Clarke, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, and Ms Maria Battle, the Deputy Commissioner. Mr Clarke will give a short presentation, and the Committee will then ask some questions.

Mr Clarke:

Thank you and good afternoon. I am pleased to be here. I am very keen that Northern Ireland should appoint a children’s commissioner, if only for the selfish reason that I want to have a peer group in the United Kingdom as soon as possible.

With the Committee’s agreement, I will spend 10 or 15 minutes looking at some major points that Ms Battle and I noted as we read through the draft Bill. Then we will willingly answer questions, and, at that point, I will be much happier to explain details and share my experiences of my first 18 months in office.

I congratulate the Committee on the consultation process that it undertook with regard to this Bill. When I was at the special session on children in New York, it was mentioned several times in the first ever world meeting of ombudsmen for children, and that is to your credit. Something similar was attempted in Wales, but your consultation process has been exemplary, and I want to pass on those congratulations.

The Bill, which I read from cover to cover, is very clear. My post, and its powers and remit, was established by two Acts of Parliament — the Care Standards Act 2000 and subsequently the Children’s Commissioner for Wales Act 2001. The post suffers from some lack of coherence, which is not evident in your Bill. It seems to be extremely well written and coherent.

I have identified seven points in the Bill that I would like to comment on, and then I will talk generally about my recruitment and share with you some of that process.

When compared to the Children’s Commissioner for Wales Act 2001, the principal aim of your Bill is very helpful as it is not confined so much by geography. I have powers that relate to children normally resident in Wales, and that has caused some difficulty for children who are placed, for example, in children’s homes in England. The Act did not allow me to continue to deal with a child involved with my office who then moved to England. I welcome the provision made in your Bill for that relatively small, yet for the child, very important point.

My second point relates to the role of parents, which is a more substantial issue. I have read the Hansard of the debates on my Bills going through the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and the issue was of concern then. I have also read the Hansard of the debate in the Assembly, and I see it played a prominent part here also. My stance on the matter is partly informed by the fact that I am a parent. When running Childline, and also in my present post, I regard it, as a parent, as an asset to have someone whose job it is to safeguard the rights of my children. My role is in partnership with parents.

Many things, many of an abstract and technical nature, impinge on the lives of our children. Therefore it is important, as a parent, that there are others out there looking at those issues to ensure that my children’s rights are safeguarded. My experience in my first year in the post has borne that out. The broad partnership between my office and parents has been the key feature. In that first year, 50% of cases were brought by parents, with only 25% brought by children. The remaining 25% of cases were brought by a variety of agencies, professionals and advocates. Parents see me as an ally and use my office in that way. I have had no single case that has meant getting involved in any way in the parental home. In one or two cases it has struck me that the parents might not be acting in the best interests of the child, and the child is my primary focus of attention. In some cases we know all too well about domestic abuse, where parents are clearly not acting in the best interests of the child. In those circumstances, my office has a clear role and remit to ensure that the child’s interests are paramount.

I am happy to answer any questions on that because the relationship with parents is an important area of concern. Your Bill requires the commissioner to have due regard to the interests of parents. That aspect is not included in the Children’s Commissioner for Wales Act 2001, although the question was debated in Parliament. However, we have not found it to be an issue that we have had to grapple with yet. I know of one or two cases in which parents have advocated on behalf of their child’s rights vehemently and strongly and in which they have been at loggerheads with a particular agency. As a result, the child has been left behind and has lost out in the process. Individual conversations with the child have made it clear that he or she did not want to go as far as the parents wanted to go.

When parents contact my office, we try to talk directly to the child at some point during that process. It may not be possible because of the age or ability of the child, but we try to ensure that the child understands what is happening and that we are trying to act in his or her best interests.

The third point is to do with the commissioner’s duties in your Bill. Most I would advocate myself, but the one that gives me slight concern is the duty to advise the Assembly itself. I do not know what is happening here, but in Wales the National Assembly has been coming out with policy documents at a very fast rate. I am just worried about the workload consequences if the commissioner is required to give advice across the whole remit. I note that the budget you are proposing for an annual running cost for your commissioner is more generous than that which I am allowed, so it may be that your commissioner would be able to find a sufficient workforce to do that task. It is just a cautionary note really. So many bits of paper are coming out of the National Assembly for Wales that were I required to make comment on all of them, particularly when one considers that my remit covers everything from town planning through to libraries, museums, as well as the more obvious areas of education and social services, it could be something that will become predominant in the office. I just think that that is worthy of consideration at least.

Clause 4 of the Bill, which sets out the commissioner’s general powers, seems positive. There is a clear power to undertake research, and that is missing from the 2001 Act. There is a clear right to give guidance, which again is there by implication, but not so explicitly, in the 2001 Act. I also like the general power to give recommendations and representations to any body. The number of bodies to which I can do that are in fact restricted roughly along the lines of primary and secondary legislation, and devolution to the Assembly. Therefore that right is welcome.

Clauses 5, 6 and 7 are all to do with investigation of complaints and suchlike. I particularly welcome within the commissioner’s remit the inclusion of inspection arrangements. Again, that is not directly or explicitly stated in the 2001 Act. It is there really by inference because I have powers over any Assembly-sponsored public body — for instance, the Social Services Inspectorate. That is much more clearly and explicitly laid out in your Bill. I welcome that clarity. I also welcome the right of the commissioner to take legal proceedings. I do not have that right. I can assist a child to take proceedings, but I cannot instigate those proceedings myself. That is a useful additional power. I cannot think of a particular situation yet in which I would have wanted that, but it would be nice to know that it was in the armoury.

The power to conduct formal investigations, set out in clause 12, interests me. That clause recommends that the commissioner’s investigations be conducted in private. I have mixed feelings about that, partly deriving from the fact that I am in the middle of a public examination under my own Act into allegations surrounding a particular schoolteacher. There were long delays to any consideration of some of the matters, and there was a general and widespread belief among some people that there had been a cover-up of some sort. The ability of my office to undertake a public examination is one good way of confronting that head-on because it is difficult for anyone to sustain the view of a cover-up if evidence is being given in the public arena.

Having said that, there are, however, all sorts of legal consequences from holding a public hearing, not least of which has been the vigorous involvement of lawyers. At times, that makes me feel that we are distorting some of the primary terms of reference for the inquiry that I have set up. Therefore I do not give a firm view on it; I just say that there are matters to be considered, particularly if the commissioner holds such hearings in private. If there were a circumstance in which there were concerns about a cover-up, a private hearing might not be the best way to deal with those concerns directly. I only offer that opinion; as I say, it is not a clear recommendation as such.

While we are on that subject, I should like to say that I welcome the fact that children being held in juvenile justice institutions are included in the commissioner’s remit. That is specifically excluded from the 2001 Act. Consider a child who is in a children’s home when I first hear of the case; if I am examining some issue pertaining to care and the child is moved to a juvenile justice institution, that child falls outside my terms of reference. That has been a concern for me from the moment I took up my appointment, and I shall be going back to the National Assembly to highlight that issue. I welcome the fact that it is not so in your Bill. I understand that the Committee has found a compromise on the way in which that can be dealt with.

To be fair to the people who run such juvenile justice institutions, I should mention that I have been invited by the governors to Parc Prison in Bridgend, to Cardiff Prison and to Swansea Prison to talk to young people held in those institutions, and a similar invitation has been extended to me to visit another juvenile justice institution in Wales. Many Welsh children end up in England and thus beyond my present remit. The juvenile justice element of your Bill and the lack of geographical restriction are to be welcomed.

I look at such issues from the point of view of a child or young person. A major task for the commissioner is establishing credibility in the eyes of children and young people. It is very bad for those efforts if a child has to be told, "I’m sorry. I cannot deal with you any more because you have now gone into a juvenile justice institution." That might come at the very point when children most need to know that the commissioner can examine the systems designed to protect them. That umbrella of security, for what it is worth, is not available to them, and it is commendable that it is dealt with in the Assembly’s Bill.

Similarly — unless I have lost myself along the way, this is my seventh point — the powers of entry and inspection in your Bill are extremely welcome. I have already felt the absence of those powers in my first 18 months in office. I have got around the problem in one or two places by the simple expedient of children asking me to have tea with them in their children’s home, but it is curious that I have no explicit right of access to children under the Welsh legislation. I have all sorts of powers to act on their behalf, but not the simple power of being able to go to them, wherever they are, and talk to them, and to demand to see them if necessary. I consider that a serious shortcoming, and your Bill has remedied that.

Those are the main points concerning the legislation. I have not, by any means, covered everything. However, for Ms Battle and myself, those seem to be the main elements worthy of comment given the experience of my first year.

I now wish to discuss the development phase of the position of commissioner. I assume that your Bill will be enacted, and I see that the attached notes mention a separate budget for the development phase of the commissioner’s office. That is a vital element. I was literally handed £800,000 by an Act of Parliament — not even a set of Regulations, for they were not passed until August 2001. That figure represents a year’s running costs, and I was told to go away and get on with the job.

The problem was not that my assignment was anything less than immensely enjoyable and achievable, but that it was always going to be very difficult to live up to people’s hopes and expectations for the post if the primary task for the first year was to develop an office and organisation from scratch. I therefore wish to reassert the importance of having a clear public understanding that the office, when it is established, will need time to develop and should not be expected to be a Rolls-Royce ready to glide out of the garage. I believe that we are not going to be making those any more, so I shall have to change my figure of speech.

Similarly, I note that, as in my own case, the books will be audited by the Northern Ireland Audit Office to make the office accountable. The full implications came as something of a shock to me, since it was not made clear to me as accounting officer for the Children’s Commission until approximately June 2002. It is vital that your first commissioner be given a great deal of support to ensure that financial systems are in place that allow him or her to go through the first year’s audit with less anxiety than I have experienced over mine. Many of those systems are quite arcane, even if one is used to dealing with, and accounting for, fairly large budgets. What is required of, for example, the Audit Office is unique. It may be that the person you recruit is not highly skilled in that area, and therefore support during the development phase would be useful.

Finally, I want to share my experience of being interviewed by children and young people. I was interviewed, as were the other five shortlisted candidates, for an hour and a quarter by a panel of 12 young people aged from 12 to 19. They spent two weekends being prepared for this, which included ensuring that they understood equal opportunities employment practices. They designed and asked the questions, scored our answers and asked supplementary questions. They conducted the entire proceedings. There were two advisers in the room, but at no point did they feel the need to intervene. The questions were extremely perceptive. I recommend the direct involvement of children in the process.

One puts on a bit of a show when trying to get a job. Two or three questions into the interview I realised that that would not cut it with those young people. Either I was going to authentically show them who I am, and hope that that was who they wanted, or I might as well have left the room. It is difficult to sustain any image in such a setting that the children and young people will not see through.

The young people were drawn from a variety of backgrounds, including a significant number who were in care or who might be deemed "trouble children". It was superb that the National Assembly for Wales did that, and that is to its credit, not mine.

After an hour and a quarter of that, we had a short period to recover, and then we were ushered into another room where we were required to undertake a role play designed by the children and young people that involved a telephone call from a young person. We witnessed various plays and scenarios, which they enacted before us, and then we had to answer questions. There were around another eight young people involved in that part of the interview, which lasted for a further hour.

The 20 young people then got together, compared notes and elected two of their number who sat alongside Jane Hutt and the other Ministers on the formal panel the following day. They had full voting rights. That is the first time in the world that children have been directly involved in a public appointment at that level, and I commend it as a way forward.

It is team building; my staff will suffer if I have had to. Every one of my staff has been interviewed by panels that have contained at least two young people. That will be the practice of my office for evermore, or at least for the seven years that I am in the post. Many people were concerned about working with the young people and being interviewed by them, particularly some of the senior civil servants in Wales, and understandably so. However, everyone involved has said that it was well worth doing. The young people behaved in an exemplary fashion. I have been interviewed many times, sometimes by adults who were less well behaved than those young people. They were focused, they stuck to the task, and they were clearly concentrating on what they had to do. They saw it as a chance to have a direct say in the appointment of their champion, and they took it.

I do not have anything to add to that. As I said, I welcome any questions and am happy to share honestly and openly the experience of my first 18 months in office.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much.

Our time is limited, so members’ questions should be as succinct as possible.

We have discussed whether we should have the wording "best interests" or "welfare" included in the Bill’s terminology. There have been some problems with the Northern Ireland Office and Ministers on that issue. Is that incorporated into your Bill, and has it had any effect on it?

Mr Clarke:

My primary remit includes the word "welfare":

"to safeguard and promote the rights and welfare of children".

I have taken that as a general definition and have not felt constrained by the word "welfare". I would not have allowed myself to be too constrained if it had been the other phrasing that was offered. "Welfare" is a soft and loose word that can be used to extend over a range of matters.

Mr Gibson:

To whom are you accountable? Is there some system of supervision or accountability where you are seen to be publicly accountable?

Mr Clarke:

There are several different levels. I can be removed from office by the First Minister in three ways: first, if I choose to resign, which is generous; secondly, if my health is too bad for me to continue; and thirdly — in a phrase that is apposite for a Children’s Commissioner — if I am guilty of misbehaviour. I do not intend to explore too much what that means, but there is a primary accountability in that sense.

When asked about accountability in the interview, I said that I was accountable to the children of Wales. That is not public accountability in a way in which we are used to, but I take it very seriously. Over time, we will be establishing ways of making that more real. I am accountable through the National Audit Office for the way in which I expend public money. Its audit function is not purely financial; it looks at all the systems, checks and balances that are in place.

I am also accountable through an annual report. I am suffering from having to write that at the moment. I must present it to the First Minister and to the House of Commons by 1 October. Apart from that, I am not directly accountable. I do not go the Health and Social Services Committee or any other Committee in the National Assembly to ask permission to do things. As long as I comply with the Act and the Regulations, it is deemed that I am doing all right. I could be judicially reviewed if I were I to step beyond any of those reasonable boundaries. That is the network by which I am accountable. However, I am deliberately not accountable to the Assembly itself since part of my role and function is to look at the Assembly to ensure that what it does at a policy and practice level is in the interests of children and young people.

Mr Beggs:

Thank you for coming along today and sharing your experiences to date. You have been complimentary about the Bill in comparison to your own legislation. You said that you had mixed feelings about the issue of private and public hearings, although you were not giving any clear direction. Are there any proposals in the Bill that you feel require a second look, or are there any glaring omissions that should be added to what we have proposed?

Mr Clarke:

I see no glaring omissions. I have some concerns, and I am not sure whether that is to do with my partial understanding or whether it is intrinsic to the Bill. I have a right to pursue individual cases. The balance between the ombudsman function of the Commissioner’s office with regard to individual children and the more general look at systems and policies is a difficult one. You have taken evidence from Trond Waage in Norway, and I have spoken to him, and others, at length. It is unlikely that the commissioner would be involved in individual cases, or at least there would be strong restrictions placed on that. Some restriction must be in place; otherwise the commissioner would become overwhelmed. Clear guidance must be given that, where there are other systems to gain redress, children should use them.

We have been concerned that, if children come to us who have not even started on point A, we should at least hold them, listen to them, and be alongside them as they use the local complaints procedure. It would be very useful if the primary accountability of this post were established with the children and young people. The Bill might be clarified — if I have got it right — in that regard. If children come to us about local authority or social services issues, we would ask whether they had used the complaints procedure in their local authority. If they say that they have not, we would not just tell them to go away and use it; we would tell them how they could get advice about it. We might put them in touch with a local advocate and ask them to keep in touch with us. We might also suggest that, when they are using the complaints procedure, they should let the authority know that the Children’s Commissioner’s office is aware of the problem. We have found that things tend to happen properly as a result. Therefore, if the Bill needs it — and it would take a better legal mind than mine to determine whether it does — it might be possible to change some of the wording to encourage and enable that to happen without the danger of overwhelming the office with too many individual cases.

Ms Battle:

The Welsh Assembly has two Acts of Parliament and a set of Regulations, which, of course, makes it more complex. It is wonderful to see everything incorporated into one Bill. As we were the first, only the areas that were devolved to Wales came within our powers. The majority of powers remained with the Home Office. There have been cases in which a child who has been placed in secure accommodation by the youth justice system and a child who has been placed in local authority secure accommodation through the care system are the same age and live in the same place, yet one has the protection of the Children’s Commissioner and the other does not. We cannot do anything about that.

I notice that some of the reserved matters come within the powers of the Northern Ireland commissioner, but not full examination powers. I hope to see the day when the UK commissioners — when all four are in office — will be able to deal with children no matter what other Department or service is dealing with them. Because of the length of time that powers have been devolved to Wales, that outcome was not possible because we had to compromise over the Welsh Acts as they went through the UK Parliament. I understand that there may have been a compromise here, but I hope that, once the Scottish and English commissioners are in office, a children’s commissioner will be able to deal with children across all Departments.

Dr Birnie:

Can you elaborate on your budget? You said that, compared to the proposed budget for the Northern Ireland commissioner, the budget for the Welsh Commissioner is smaller.

Mr Clarke:

I was part of the campaign group for the Children’s Commissioner, as was Ms Battle and anyone involved in children’s interests and welfare in Wales. Our budget was not derived from a long-term scientific and rational assessment of what might be needed, but as a best-guess estimate of what might be available. I have already asked for next year’s budget to be increased to £1 million, and it is likely that I will ask for more. The office is already under a great deal of pressure because its role and remit is so great. I do not think that our budget is sufficient, and I have made that known to the National Assembly.

Dr Birnie:

What is your current budget?

Mr Clarke

This year it was £813,000. Next year, I will ask for £1 million. The budget supports three project teams. Ms Battle, my deputy, heads up the legal administration team, which is self-explanatory. The primary task of the communications team is to communicate with children in Wales. For example, the team launched a logo competition because we had no logo. The team sent out 100,000 packs and received 4,000 entries from children. A 12-year-old designed the winning logo, which is with the printers. The communications team ensures that we are in touch with a whole range of things.

There is also a policy and service evaluation team. It conducts reviews and is currently embarking on a review of complaints, advocacy and whistle-blowing procedures for children in local authority social services departments, and that will be completed by March next year. There is also administrative support for the three teams and office costs to take into account. That is where the money goes, but it is not enough.

Ms Battle:

Resourcing the office is absolutely crucial to retain the independence of a commissioner. Alongside our budget, we were given an extra pot for investigations. However, if the pot is not sufficient, it inhibits what can be done. An Act can give all the powers in the world, but if the money is not there, the work cannot be undertaken. There is also a potential difficulty with the funding body. For example, if we wished to conduct a formal investigation into something that the Assembly had done or was alleged to have done, it would fund us to do that. If we did not have enough funds to do it, we should have to go back and ask for them, so there is a conflict of interest. If you are to have formal investigation powers or the three types of investigation, you may wish to put the relevant funding in a separate pot so that your commissioner could prioritise what he or she wishes to investigate without going back to you.

Mr Clarke:

We suggested that device, and there is currently a budget of £150,000 — a pure stab in the dark — for me to use for examination should I so choose; at the end of the year it would be topped up. That has already proved insufficient, and we have had to return to the Assembly to ask for the budget to be increased slightly, which is just the situation that we were trying to avoid. Obviously, finding the right level for that funding is crucially important.

Dr O’Hagan:

The sense I get from listening to you is that the Bill as it stands is much stronger than the legislation in Wales. Many on the Committee and in the Assembly would probably find that the Bill’s powers do not go far enough. I am interested in how, for example, the powers of investigation and enforcement in the Bill can be strengthened.

Mr Clarke:

We thought hard about powers of enforcement, and I understand that there are several difficulties — lawyers have certainly told me so. I am aware that many ombudsman functions of different sorts do not include powers of full enforcement, but some have limited powers. It is still fairly new for us, and we shall test it out when we have done our review of whistle-blowing, complaints and advocacy. We wish to give force to the recommendations that we make.

There have been one or two individual cases in which we should like to force a local authority to comply with its own procedures. Ultimately we have only the power of "naming and shaming" at this stage. My understanding is that, were we to have such powers of enforcement, we should also need a different set of accountabilities and should have close regard to such legislation as the Human Rights Act 1998. By inclination I should love to be able to say to an authority or agency, "You will do that because that is what you should do, given the rights and interests of the child." However, I have not yet been in many situations in which I have had to face a local authority and really felt the absence of that power, although there have been one or two instances.

Many such issues will need to be resolved at the point where, one hopes, they have or intend to have a commissioner for children in England, since the authorities will have to deal with devolved and non-devolved matters differently. For example, they will have to decide whether the English children’s commissioner will have full powers over Home Office functions. In a way, it has been possible to get around that issue in the context of our having devolution without an English commissioner being in the frame. There will be much harder decisions to make concerning such matters when we reach that point. I am sorry that I cannot be more helpful.

Ms Battle:

We have the same powers of enforcement — or lack of enforcement — as you propose to have; it is the "naming and shaming" aspect that differs. The office is generally held in high esteem, and people tend to comply without the need for any further powers. However, as Mr Clarke said, we are coming to the end of the first large-scale formal investigation and the review of complaints, whistle-blowing and advocacy. We shall know then whether we shall be listened to.

Dr O’Hagan:

What about powers of investigation?

Ms Battle:

I feel that powers of investigation should be open to all services, and they should be the same in all services. More powers are contained in your Bill than in our Act. You can talk to any service provider about any child; we are restricted to those areas that have been devolved. With any other matter, we must go to the Assembly to make representations, so the best scenario would be equality throughout.

Mr Clarke:

We have not allowed that to inhibit us in our public statements.

Ms Battle:

Or in going to Whitehall.

Mr Shannon:

One of my concerns is the role and rights of parents, ensuring at all times that children’s rights are safeguarded as well. Have you experienced any such problems in your position, and how have you been able to ensure that adversarial viewpoints are not adopted?

Mr Clarke:

I have not experienced any such problems; in fact, it has been almost the opposite. Parents have been knocking on my door and phoning me to say, "Can you do something about this situation that my child is involved in?". That could be any one of a whole range of issues: special educational needs; exclusion from school; children in care. To date, and I am really being genuine, parents have come to me as an ally, and I have responded as an ally for the child.

There have been one or two cases in which it seemed to me that the parents were not acting in the best interests of the child, but they have been relatively minor matters. I recall one argument over school uniform, where it seemed to that the parent was perhaps going a little further than the young person wanted to, but that has been resolved by discussion. We have not yet had, or I cannot think of, a single case in which the parent has objected to our involvement. I cannot really anticipate what it might be like were that to happen.

Although I may go to the media, which I have done, and say that I am against smacking children — that is a belief that I hold as Children’s Commissioner. We have managed to conduct that debate even though some other parents have had different views. My view has not offended or upset them, and no one has questioned my right to hold that view. That is one area in which one might expect there to be a conflicting view. I am genuinely saying that we have not yet experienced that conflict.

Mr Shannon:

That is positive.

Ms Battle:

As Mr Clarke said, 50% of our cases last year were brought to us by parents, and we were their last hope. They were really exasperated and desperate for their children. Therefore, we have worked with parents.

Mr McElduff:

How accessible are you to the children and parents of Wales?

Mr Clarke:

We are not yet accessible enough, and my communications team, in particular, is focusing on ways to improve that. We have a temporary web site, which is pretty bad. However, we are working with groups of young people and a team of experts — who themselves look no more than children to me, but then I am very old — who are working on making the web site exciting and accessible.

The communications team will be piloting an ambassador scheme in the autumn. We want ambassadors in every school, but the pilot will be conducted in some schools. A group of young people will take responsibility for sharing information among their peers about who I am, what my role and function is, and how they can get in touch with me. We shall support them, and give them the information and back-up that they need to do that. The purpose of that pilot is to extend it across Wales in a rolling programme.

We attend events such as the Eisteddfod, which is the biggest youth festival in Europe. We have a stand there. We also attended the adult Eisteddfod, where our tent was full of young people. If invited by a group of young people, the team and I shall go to any function. We shall drop other business if we have to. I have attended more than 100 functions in the first year to which it has been the children who have invited me. I have attended schools, youth clubs, meetings, conferences, et cetera. We also have a visitor room in each of our two offices. Once that is properly equipped — when we have enough money to set it up — we shall invite children from schools, youth clubs and children’s homes to visit their commissioner. We hope to make their stay enjoyable and accessible.

It is difficult for children from large swathes of rural Wales to get down to Swansea or up to Colwyn Bay, so we are thinking of acquiring an information bus to enable staff to travel around the central parts of Wales. They could set up in two or three schools in a day, or in a public marketplace or somewhere similar. One of our obsessions at the moment is how to make us more accessible.

Parents ring us up. They tend to access us in that way.

Mr McElduff:

Are teachers receptive to the idea of a Children’s Commissioner for Wales?

Mr Clarke:

The teaching unions were very supportive of the establishment of my post. I have made it my business to visit and talk to groups of teachers, and I meet one or two groups regularly. Trond Waage, my counterpart in Norway, invites primary school teachers and secondary school teachers to his office at the beginning of each school year to have a chat about the state of the nation’s children. I might do that in the future.

Education is one area in which there is potential for conflict with the commissioner’s office, but so far we have not had any. Most of the situations in which a conflict of interests might be perceived — for example, classroom control — we are looking to talk about the provision of additional support to teachers, not criticism of them. They are already often overloaded with tasks.

There is a common cause between my office and teachers. Teachers welcome some of the bolder experiments that have gone on in Wales, such as attempts to avoid exclusions. They have brought in youth workers, counsellors and special teachers to deal with children who are in danger of being excluded. They are not in the classroom, but they are still in the school.

We have genuinely tried to go forward as allies wherever possible. If there is a clear conflict of interest between a child and an agency worker of any sort, we support the child, but we are not looking for fights. We do not go in with a gung-ho attitude, trying to find conflict. We try to work in ways that change children’s lives. In those circumstances, it is best to get people to collaborate with you. I have given talks to several teaching bodies, and I think that they have heard that message.

Ms Battle:

We have also found that teachers look at us as a body that they can approach with their own concerns about the way matters might be being handled, be it the budgets or the local education authority. They look at us as a possible safe place to go to with their concerns. We are probably going to be listed under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 as a place where whistle-blowers can go. We all know that when we work in a particular place we see what is actually happening. We are a body that people can come to so that we can all work together for children’s interests.

I have one other point about contact with children. We are working to set up a contact line in a year or so, but that depends on budget. We require adequate financing to allow us to do that. We are doing the groundwork so that we shall be able to set it up when we have the budget.

Ms Lewsley:

You said that you do not get involved in every single case. That was a key issue for many of us, because we felt that the children’s commissioner would get bogged down in a lot of detail. In your 18 months in office, have any specific themes occurred?

Our children would be under the guidance of the commissioner up until the age of 18, or 21 if they were in care. Is it possible to extend that to a greater age than 18 for, in particular, disabled young people?

Mr Clarke:

A clear picture emerged during the first year. I do not have the percentages with me, but the biggest single issue was special educational needs provision, particularly the provision of speech therapy. Very often it was the parents who came to us with those concerns.

Other issues I would have to examine more closely.

Themes that emerge from discussions with children and young people are one of the main ways in which I set my agenda. In that area, the biggest single issue has been respect. Children and young people have said that they do not feel respected by adults in general. They cite the way in which they are treated in bus queues, leisure centres, shops, cafes and cinemas. I am of a generation where I am used to my friends saying that young people do not respect us enough; clearly that sentiment is reciprocated by the young people. That is important.

Another main issue that children and young people have brought to me in Wales is the state of school toilets. Obviously, if they happen to be in a school that has very good toilets, they do not come to me, but 50% or 60% of children are seriously upset about that. It relates to the first point about respect. Some of the older ones know that teachers’ toilets are covered by the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, while theirs are not. Pupils have all the horror stories to relate that we can all probably remember about school toilets.

I shall launch a campaign on that early this term. That is an agenda item that children have brought to me. I would not have dreamt of it myself, but it has been strongly raised.

There is a whole host of other issues, particularly concerning transport. There are young people — and not only in rural locations — who cannot afford transport. Some of them have said to me, "We have free transport for a number of old people in Wales now, why not for children as well?". Access to leisure centres and poverty issues have also been raised. Those are just some of the main issues that children have brought to us.

Mr Ervine:

I wonder how many people who could be described as unsuccessful candidates agree with your formulae for interview.

Ms Battle:

Probably none.

Mr Ervine:

In your opinion, after 18 months, and compared with what it was at the outset, what is the public attitude to the Children’s Commissioner for Wales? Did the National Assembly for Wales use public service advertising to inform people of your existence? You have dealt partially with signposting. How do people know that you exist? How do they find ways to get to you? If one is middle class, is one more inclined to be aware and understanding of the conditions or the avenues that one can traverse, rather than those who may never seek your help? Many of us will have met adults who do not know where to go to get help, never mind the children.

Mr Clarke:

I have been in the media an awful lot in the first year. I do not wish to be seen as a rent-a-quote figure, but I do want to be there when serious issues need to be talked about. It is fair to say that the public disposition towards the office is generally very positive at the moment. That is a fact.

The National Assembly for Wales has certainly performed signposting. It has been very proud of the establishment of my office, so it has also been advertising it in that sense. The class system in Wales is quite unique.

Mr Ervine:

Yes; it is Welsh.

Mr Clarke:

That is correct. I have tried very hard to ensure that my staff and I do not go only to functions, meetings and conferences at which we shall exclusively meet that band of people. We have tried to visit youth clubs on some of the most difficult and deprived estates in Wales.

It is not disproportionately the middle classes who have come to us, but my impressions are not sufficient. We are in talks with the University of Wales about a possible major piece of research to be conducted into my office. That would look at matters such as how many children know about my post, how accurate their understanding of my role is, and from what social class they come. The University of Wales will be the independent body to undertake that research. Although I can only give you an impressionistic answer at this stage, I hope to be able to give you a more academically credible one in due course.

Mr Ervine:

Is there any evidence that the elected representatives of Wales, who often can be conduits to one source of help or another, have been proactive?

Mr Clarke:

Very much so. Assembly Members, MPs and MEPs have referred several individual cases and policy issues to us. They have a reasonable awareness of what my job is about. I travelled around an awful lot to talk to people in the first year. I covered more than 30,000 miles, so there is a widespread understanding of what I am trying to do, at least.

Ms Battle:

I agree with that. For example, last week we received a letter from an 11-year-old boy. It read: "Dear Peter, I saw you on the telly. Can you help me?". The child wants to get into a school. Letters come from all social classes.

The Chairperson:

You say that you receive many complaints from parents, particularly about special needs provision. Our Bill will not allow for adults to make complaints on behalf of children. Do you see that as negative?

Mr Clarke:

I do. That is probably the most straightforward criticism. The commissioner should be able to receive complaints or concerns from any individual who has the welfare of a child at heart. That would normally be a parent, but it might be someone who is not a parent. It might be a concerned aunt or uncle, or a professional advocate — we have had several cases come from there. It might be an Assembly Member, or someone else. The Bill should not restrict the source of the referral. It should be left to the discretion of the commissioner as to whether he acts, as it is with any other case. I do not see the point in having that restriction in the Bill. I am sorry if I have failed to mention that, because it was one of my points.

The Chairperson:

Do you have memoranda of understanding with other groups that may have roles similar to your own?

Mr Clarke:

Yes. I have said that I was concerned that it should be a duty to provide advice to the Assembly itself. We are working on that. We have memoranda of understanding with all sorts of groups, such as the Welsh Local Government Association, the police, the Health Service Ombudsman, the Local Government Ombudsman, and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS), which is outside my jurisdiction. With all those groups, we are trying to draft memoranda of understanding about how we proceed mutually.

Ms Battle:

The problem of making it a duty for the commissioner to respond to a "relevant authority" or to the Assembly is that it can impinge on his independence. The commissioner should be seen to be separate from everybody, but we do give advice on good working relationships. We enter into agreed memoranda of understanding or protocols with everybody, including the National Assembly for Wales. We are developing one at the moment. The other body has written a draft, and now we are working on it from our end.

The Chairperson:

Under our Bill, the commissioner would have the power to enter residential homes, but not, it would appear, foster homes. We are getting that checked out. You do not have the power to do either. Should the commissioner be allowed to enter foster homes as well?

Ms Battle:

In the context of a full investigation, I would say yes. You have produced terms of reference; you have given people notice. If a child is in care, I would give the child a choice of where they wish to be seen — somewhere where the child feels comfortable. Children can be inhibited in foster homes. They might wish to see you in your office or in a McDonald’s.

Mr Clarke:

That has happened a few times.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much for your time; it has been very useful.

4 September 2002 (ii) / Menu / 11 September 2002