Watchdog is ready to bark

30th April 2004 at 01:00
Europe's 22nd children's commissioner took up her post on Monday - and quickly received a warning that she faces an uphill struggle.

Kathleen Marshall took centre stage at a conference in Edinburgh to mark the event, which was attended by children's agencies and experts as well as young people themselves.

In one of several polls taken throughout the day, 54 per cent of those attending said that the biggest obstacle facing the commissioner would be "an unsympathetic climate towards the rights of children".

In response, Professor Marshall said the vote showed "what a task it is" to pursue her remit of promoting and safeguarding the rights of those under the age of 18.

Professor Marshall, who was one of the early campaigners for a children's commissioner in Scotland, acknowledged that one of the main tasks during her first year in the pound;72,000 a year post would be to "manage expectations" of what could be achieved - including her own.

Nevertheless she reeled off a series of issues that would be preoccupying her, from "the flight of social workers" out of child protection work to obesity in young people. Professor Marshall also revealed that she intended visiting schools. One of her powers is to promote best practice among "service providers", which includes education authorities and schools as well as private and voluntary sector organisations.

Another poll taken at the conference showed that children's representatives feel there is already a school issue awaiting Professor Marshall's attention - 80 per cent say schools are not doing enough to tackle bullying. It was also voted as the third "big issue" facing children in Scotland, just behind lack of a secure home environment and child poverty.

Despite the issues already crowding in on her, the commissioner said her first priority would be to set up consultation mechanisms with young people to find out what their priorities are, including interactive websites and focus groups. Young people would also be appointed to her staff.

Her first year would not, however, feature any formal investigations - despite the headlines that greeted her opposition to the Scottish Executive's antisocial behaviour Bill and the detention of children from asylum-seeking families, criticisms of which she repeated on Monday.

Fact-finding would take precedence.

While she stressed several times the importance of working with the media to raise awareness both of her existence and of children's issues, the new commissioner appeared to take to heart advice from Peter Clark, the children's commissioner in Wales, who told the conference that it is "very easy to become a rent-a-quote".

Professor Marshall said she hoped "to hit the ground running" while still giving considered responses to the issues. She played down suggestions that she may not have enough powers. If she found she did not, she would make representations. But, she added: "A good watchdog barks before it bites."

Jackie Baillie, the former Minister for Social Justice who was a prime mover in the establishment of the commissioner's post, said the Scottish Parliament would reconsider the case for additional powers if necessary.

Influence could be exercised in other ways, Ms Baillie suggested, and she would be "astonished" if MSPs and ministers ignored any recommendations in the commissioner's annual report.

The conference heard from Jacob Doek, a law professor from Amsterdam who chairs the United Nations committee on the rights of the child. Professor Doek urged the Scottish commissioner to be "accessible to children" which meant not just having an open door policy but developing "an outreaching, proactive approach".

He counselled against regarding the commissioner as someone who deals only with children in care, youngsters with disabilities or refugees. Wider policies on transport, education and housing also affect young people and should be part of the remit.

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