Committee urges stronger powers for children's commissioner

By Neil Puffett

| 10 December 2012

England's children's commissioner should be given stronger powers, while the title of the role should be changed to include "young people", an influential group of MPs and peers has said.

Legislation to amend the role of the children's commissioner is due to go before parliament early next year. Image: UK Parliament

The Joint Committee on Human Rights' report into legislation to strengthen the role of the commissioner's office concludes that proposed changes in the Children and Families Bill do not go far enough in a number of areas.

It calls for the commissioner to be handed additional legal powers, as well as more clarity on where her office can intervene, and measures to assure its independence.

The report says the commissioner ought to have powers to initiate legal proceedings, including judicial review, in the commissioner’s own name.

It also recommends that the commissioner be able to intervene in court cases, making independent representations in a similar way to the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

But the report cautions that the cost of legal interventions could be prohibitive. “We acknowledge that the use of such a power could be resource intensive and we would expect it to be used sparingly in practice,” it states.

The committee meanwhile calls for the commissioner’s title to be changed to include young people, “in order to encourage older teenagers to consider the commissioner of relevance to them”.

In addition, the report states that the commissioner’s powers should be defined more clearly “on the face of the bill”, by making the primary function of “promoting and protecting the rights of children in England” include references to the United Nations Convention in the Rights of the Child.

Meanwhile, legislative changes should include a “clear duty” on the responsible government minister not to interfere with the office’s independence and to “ensure sufficient funding” for the post.

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Maggie Atkinson, has backed the committee’s recommendations.

“The draft legislation, proposed as part of the Children and Families Bill, aims to refocus my role and that of my office on both promoting and protecting children’s human rights, in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,” she said. 

“It aims to make my office more independent from government and directly accountable to Parliament, so that we can more effectively hold government and others to account in relation to the treatment of children.

“We feel the current draft could be strengthened in some areas to really fulfil its aims and I welcome the committee’s acknowledgment of this.”

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