Role of children's commissioner faces Euro axe

2nd October 2009 at 01:00
British counterparts up in arms as France first to announce plans to rid government of child 'defender'

Children's commissioners, including those for Britain, have responded angrily to plans to abolish the post in France.

Last week, France's children's ombudsman Dominique Versini took over as the new president of Europe's network of children's commissioners, welcoming her fellow "ombudspersons" to Paris for their annual meeting. But what should have been a celebratory occasion was overshadowed by a government threat to abolish Ms Versini's office, La Defenseur des Enfants.

Last month Ms Versini was in Moscow, invited by President Dmitry Medvedev, who had decided to create a national Russian commission for children's rights based on the French model.

The same day, in a jarring coincidence, French justice minister Michele Alliot-Marie presented cabinet with a draft bill proposing the merger of the children's rights office with two other organisations to create a general rights agency.

There had been no warning, consultation or explanation from the government, said Ms Versini, who became France's second children's "defender" three years ago. Children's rights would be diluted under the new agency, which would lack the independence and power of the present office, she claimed.

Child support agencies - from Unicef to parents' and educational associations, teaching unions and politicians - reacted with anger and concern to news of the proposal. Indeed, Unicef believes the offices of Greece, Slovenia, Georgia, Macedonia and Catalonia could also be threatened.

As Ms Versini took over the presidency of the network at last week's conference, Keith Towler, children's commissioner for Wales, told The TES that everyone recognised "the irony of this meeting taking place in Paris just after this announcement has been made".

The European Network of Ombudspersons for Children (ENOC) consists of 35 commissioners from 28 European countries. There are approximately 60 commissioners worldwide, with four in the UK (full members in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and an associate member in England).

Sir Al Aynsley-Green, England's commissioner, only has observer status because of his post's comparative lack of independence; unlike his counterparts elsewhere in the UK he cannot start an inquiry without first consulting a government minister.

In contrast, Ms Versini has often set herself against the French government. She believes that one reason ministers are axing the office is her defence of some children, especially those who are not French.

"We are there to defend the rights of all children, we can't pick and choose," she said. "When children are in a detention centre with their parents, I don't raise the matter to pick a row with the government, but because it is intolerable."

More than 20,000 children, families or their representatives have contacted the French commission since it was established in 2000 within the framework of the UN Convention. Issues tackled include visiting rights, conflicts in maintaining family ties after divorce, school problems, sexual abuse and troubles related to prison, police or absconding.

Bertrand Delanoe, mayor of Paris, said he was "stupefied" as City Hall had worked regularly with the commission "to help children who are disadvantaged, isolated, ill-treated or victims of difficult family situations".

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