Article 39 has submitted a request for an internal review to the Office of Children’s Commissioner, following its failure to answer a series of questions on the Family Review, which was announced in March 2022.
In a freedom of information request in April, Article 39’s Director asked the Office of Children’s Commissioner to provide the following information, the second and third requests relating directly to the statutory duties of the Commissioner, which are set out in Part 1 of the Children Act 2004:
- Copies of correspondence between the Children’s Commissioner for England and the Minister of State at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Minister for Equalities in respect of the Family Review.
- Information which sets out how a) children generally and b) children living away from home or receiving social care will be involved in the Family Review.
- Information which sets out how the Children’s Commissioner for England will have regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child when undertaking the Family Review.
- How many days a week, and for what duration of time (months/years), the Children’s Commissioner for England expects to dedicate to the Family Review.
- How much funding the Children’s Commissioner for England’s office has received from a) central government and b) any other sources to undertake this particular piece of work.
The Office of Commissioner’s response in June stated that there was no correspondence between the Children’s Commissioner and the Minister of State at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Minister for Equalities, despite the Family Review being set up at his request.
The Commissioner’s business plan for 2022/23 was provided in response to questions 2-4, although the document does not answer the questions. On question 5, relating to government funding for the Family Review, the Office of Children’s Commissioner pointed to the future publication of its annual accounts and budget. This aspect of the freedom of information request is therefore not part of the internal review. The internal review should take up to 20 working days (response due no later than 1 August).
The Family Review is one of two very significant pieces of work the Children’s Commissioner is undertaking for the UK Government, the other being a review of sex and relationships education in schools. Extracts from the letter from government to the Children’s Commissioner in respect of this second review were published in The Times newspaper last month. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s website states she has been asked by the Education Secretary to explore:
- How we can support schools to teach high quality RSE effectively and with confidence.
- How teachers can feel fully equipped to teach these subjects well.
- How we can include the voice of children and young people in achieving the DfE’s aims for RSE more widely.
As well as undertaking two reviews for government, the Children’s Commissioner is a high profile member of the Department for Education’s ‘Attendance Alliance’. No representatives from student councils or other bodies of children and young people are listed as members of this group (full list here).
Schools Week has reported that the Children’s Commissioner was appointed in June as a director of the School-Led Development Trust, an amalgam of four academy trusts (the Harris Federation, Outwood Grange Academies Trust, Oasis Community Learning and Star Academies) which came together last year to bid to run the new National Institute of Teaching.
Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, said:
“The Office of Children’s Commissioner is meant to be an entirely separate body from government, with its sole statutory purpose to promote and protect the rights of children. The law states that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child underpins the work of the Office, and this goes beyond just knowing which articles of the treaty relate to which broad areas of government policy. The Commissioner is meant to be helping to make this treaty real in children’s lives, and that means standing up to government policy which breaches the rights of children, whether that be insufficient and discriminatory social security, inadequate protection and provision for thousands of children in care, custody and mental health hospitals, and the obscene threat of children coming to this country for safety being sent to Rwanda.
“A major part of the Office of Children’s Commissioner’s statutory role is to create spaces within and outside of government for children and young people to be directly heard and to have influence in decisions affecting them. It’s absurd that there are no students on the Department for Education’s Attendance Alliance. Ensuring their meaningful involvement in this group would the kind of development we’d be expecting the Office of Children’s Commissioner to be leading.
“Being a director of the Trust leading the new National Institute of Teaching ties the Children’s Commissioner into a formal relationship with the Department for Education, as well as the four major academy chains, which on paper, even if not in practice, compromises the fulfilment of her statutory role. It’s vital that the Children’s Commissioner both acts with independence and is seen to act with independence. I cannot see how this directorship is compatible with being the Children’s Commissioner for England.”