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Fresh hope in drive for children's commissioner

The Education Minister has given a strong hint that he intends to follow the examples of Wales and Northern Ireland and establish a children's commissioner for Scotland.

Jack McConnell refused to give a firm commitment during a special parliamentary debate last week, but children's organisations are convinced he has moved away from the Scottish Executive's previously lukewarm stance. An umbrella lobby group has been waging a "Scotland for Children" campaign to persuade ministers.

Mr McConnell said he would wait until the education committee of MSPs had completed its report on the matter before taking a final decision. The Executive is "sympathetic" to the idea," he told MSPs, but added: "We want to be clear about the functions that such a commissioner should have and the added value that will be provided."

The other UK devolved administrations have followed the path already taken by Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Australia and New Zealand, all of whose governments have established a commissioner for children.

Mr McConnell made clear in his parliamentary statement that his main priority will be the 12,000 youngsters being looked after in children's homes and elsewhere. The minister's positive tone received a warm endorsement, from Opposition parties and children's organisations.

Anne Stafford, head of policy at Children 1st, said: "At last it looks like therewill be someone close to Government whose job will be solely to look out for children. This is a very good day for children in Scotland."

Douglas Hamilton, policy officer with Children in Scotland, said Mr McConnell's remarks represented a significant shift from the ambiguity of previous statements.

The Scotland for Children campaign says that, although there are more than one million children and young people in the country aged under 18, there are severe shortcomings in up-to-date knowledge of them due to "patchy, unco-ordinated and inadequate information". Children's experiences can therefore become "invisible" for the rest of the population.

Edinburgh has already broken ground by deciding to go ahead and appoint a children's commissioner, and Glasgow has since followed suit.

In his statement Mr McConnell also launched a consultation exercise to shape the new "changing children's services fund," which was announced by the First Minister last November. It will have a budget of pound;33 million from 2002 and pound;44.5m the following year.

Mr McConnell said the fund would act as a "catalyst" to ensure better outcomes for the most vulnerable children from a range of services.

"Where local authorities, health and the voluntary sector together produce proposals for better integrated and preventative services, they will receive additional funding," he said.

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