Legal Update: In a Nutshell - Office of the Children's Commissioner reforms

Coram Children's Legal Centre
Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Proposals to reform the Office of the Children's Commissioner aim to strengthen children's rights in line with international standards.

The government has introduced proposals to reform the role of the Office of the Children's Commissioner (OCC) – the body established under the Children Act 2004 to promote awareness of the views and interests of children in England. The proposals aim to create a new role for the OCC to strengthen children's rights in line with the UK's obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The proposals are contained in the Children and Families Bill, due to undergo its reporting stage in the House of Lords this month.

What prompted the proposals?

The proposals were influenced by the findings of an independent review of the role of the OCC conducted by John Dunford in 2010. The Dunford review culminated in 46 recommendations which aim to strengthen the remit, powers and independence of the OCC. The government accepted these recommendations in principle, and used them to form the basis of the proposals, which include:

  • An amendment to the mandate of the OCC from "promoting awareness of the views and interests of children in England" to "promoting and protecting the rights of children in England" – a reform that seeks to clarify the scope of the OCC's powers;
  • Merging the role of the current OCC with that of the Office of the Children's Rights Director;
  • Extending the powers of the OCC, which would include the ability to conduct impact assessments of proposed legislation; and
  • Strengthening the OCC's independence from the government by removing the obligation of the OCC to consult with the Secretary of State before holding an inquiry into an individual case that raises a public policy issue relevant to other children, and the power of the Secretary of State to direct the OCC to conduct an inquiry into an individual case.

Do the proposals go far enough?

Although children's charities and other civil society actors have commended the government for largely incorporating the Dunford recommendations in its proposals, they highlight several areas in which the reforms do not go far enough. These areas include: that more could be done to strengthen the OCC's independence from the government, including greater parliamentary involvement in the appointment and removal of the OCC; and an explicit prohibition on the Secretary of State to interfere with the OCC's work.

Other features of the proposed reforms which could further be strengthened include:

  • Extending the types of vulnerable children cited in the Children and Families Bill, to which the OCC must have particular regard in discharging its functions, to include separated child asylum seekers or trafficked children;
  • Extending the functions of the OCC to explicitly include the power to initiate and participate in legal proceedings and to raise public awareness of children's rights;
  • Strengthening children's involvement in the OCC's work; and
  • Imposing a legal duty on public authorities to respect, protect and fulfil children's rights in discharging their public functions.

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