Acting commissioner threatens to order review as counselling service wait continues
A PUBLIC review will be launched if the slow progress in creating a national school-based counselling service is found to be failing children, the Assembly government has been warned.
Maria Battle, acting children's commissioner for Wales, threatened to evoke the full powers of her office in ordering the review during a meeting with Assembly members last week. However, she does not have the muscle to order that the service, one of 31 recommendations made in the 2004 Clywch Report, be acted upon.
The creation of a service that would give every child in Wales access to a fully-trained counsellor, is seen as major legacy of the late Peter Clarke.
The former children's commissioner, who died of cancer in January, had already told of his "severe disappointment" in a lack of progress.
He originally recommended that the service should be in place within 12 months. But 18 months after it should have happened, a newly devised draft strategy has yet to be consulted upon.
At a meeting with a joint committee of AMs, Ms Battle said the latest draft counselling strategy announced in February was a "step in the right direction".
But clearly unhappy, she added that progress on recommendations in both counselling and advocacy would be monitored closely.
"They are the major issues Peter said he was angry about and we are doing everything we can to influence their development," she told Assembly Members.
"If what happens does not go far enough, we will consider what we are going to do - including using the commissioner's legal powers if it is thought that children are being failed."
Mr Clarke came up with a raft of recommendations to protect children in his ground-breaking Clywch Report after investigating the handling of abuse allegations at Ysgol Gyfun Rhydfelen, Pontypridd, during the 1980s and 1990s.
It involved allegations surrounding former drama teacher John Owen, who committed suicide after been charged with sexually abusing pupils at the school.
Mr Clarke had been so concerned with slow progress on key recommendations he had become part of the working group tasked with developing a counselling strategy when he briefly returned to his post before Christmas.
Ms Battle said Mr Clarke firmly believed the service would help children with problems ranging from binge-drinking to sexual abuse and bullying.
It was announced last month that children in Wales would have access to up to 4,000 counselling sessions paid for by the Assembly government this year. But funding has been passed only to 10 "counselling-friendly" local authorities out of 22, which will receive an equal share of pound;200,000 from the government this year.
In 2007-8 a further pound;200,000 will be shared between three new LAs, which effectively signifies a funding cut.
At the time of the announcement, Janet Ryder, Plaid Cymru's shadow education spokesperson, said it was an insult to children desperately in need of help.
During the meeting, it was agreed that a special group to oversee action on recommendations coming from the children's commissioner's office should be set up after the Assembly government elections in May.
Children are dying because mental health services for young people are under-funded in Wales, it was claimed during the meeting. Helen Mary Jones, Plaid Cymru's shadow health spokesperson, described mental health provision for children and teenagers in Wales as a "national disgrace".
"I've come across cases that are unbelievable and unbearably tragic," she told Assembly members.
In his annual report for 2005-6, Peter Clarke said not enough funding was in place for young people's mental health needs. He claimed at least pound;10 million more was needed every year to address the need.
Acting children's commissioner Maria Battle told AMs: "We meet a lot of mental health professionals who are pulling their hair out and are worried that children are at risk of death. It is a postcode lottery, and there are children waiting for in-patient treatment that is not available," she added.
Ms Battle is to hold talks with the health inspectorate Wales before deciding if a review is necessary.