Children's voices must be heard

13th February 2009 at 00:00

Scotland's children's commissioner has defended the independence of the post in the face of proposals by the Scottish Parliament to merge it with that of the Scottish Commission for Human Rights.

Kathleen Marshall told a parliamentary committee, created to review the six bodies which fall under the wing of the Parliament, that "it should not be possible for the person who represented children to be shouted down by other voices".

She added that there could be tensions between the rights of children and those of adults, for example in the public debate about the possibility of testing drug-misusing parents to check their ability to look after their children.

She had cautiously supported the proposal to test drug-misusing parents on the basis that it was a safeguard for the rights of the child; the more general human rights community expressed greater concerns for the rights of the parents.

"Both voices need to be heard. One of the reasons Scotland and many other countries (including all other UK jurisdictions) have separate offices for children's rights is that, in the clamour of debate, especially where powerful interests are involved, the voices and interests of children can be too easily drowned out," Mrs Marshall said.

The Scottish Parliament Corporate Body is proposing to streamline the group of Scottish Parliament commissioners by reducing them from six bodies to three. It argues that this would be an organisational shake-up rather than a cut back, and that the functions of the watchdogs would remain unchanged.

Children's organisations have voiced deep concerns about the move, however, and last week Mrs Marshall, Scotland's first children's commissioner who is due to retire in April, made her case for keeping the post separate.

Mrs Marshall was asked by committee member Jamie Hepburn why a merged body could not do the same job as her own office.

She replied: "We could use education as an analogy. Why do we have nursery schools and teachers, primary schools and teachers, secondary and further and higher education? Why not just have one big body in a school, given that its role is teaching? One building could be used as a teaching resource in which one group of people would teach everyone. In other aspects of education and communication with children, we recognise instinctively that we need to take different approaches, and that different people have different remits."

Mr Hepburn pressed: "But if there were a specific commissioner for children and young people within that body, would that not still work03?"

She responded: "The children's representative would have to have a statutory role with the ability to determine priorities, and a safeguarded budget to ensure money did not drift towards more powerful interests that had a vote in the system."

Mrs Marshall argued the case for a merger had still to be made, because "none of the figures or other evidence that has been put before me has indicated any added value in such a move".

On the other hand, there was value in having an independent body. The adverse implications of a merger at this early stage outweighed any of its hypothetical or theoretical advantages, she said.

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