RAE co-ordinated the campaign for a Children's Commissioner for England for 13 years. The campaign was supported by 130+ organisations – including all the major children’s charities, the Royal Colleges, the Association of Directors of Social Services and local government bodies. It was established after the publication of Martin Rosenbaum and Peter Newell's book 'Taking children seriously' (1991). This explained:
Many adults (especially of course parents) are concerned about children and young people, and raise their voices in support of making society better for them. Many professionals have the welfare of children and young people as their concern. And many children's organisations do valuable work lobbying and campaigning for children's rights. But these organisations would be the first to say that despite the political efforts some adults make on behalf of children and young people, their concerns are a very low political priority and the political process tends to see the issues involved from an adult rather than a child perspective.
Norway was the first country in the world to appoint a Children's Ombudsperson - in 1981 - and in 2002 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child urged States around the world to establish independent human rights institutions for children. The Committee said in its General Comment no. 2:
While adults and children alike need independent NHRIs to protect their human rights, additional justifications exist for ensuring that children’s human rights are given special attention. These include the facts that children’s developmental state makes them particularly vulnerable to human rights violations; their opinions are still rarely taken into account; most children have no vote and cannot play a meaningful role in the political process that determines Governments’ response to human rights; children encounter significant problems in using the judicial system to protect their rights or to seek remedies for violations of their rights; and children’s access to organizations that may protect their rights is generally limited.
In 2004, the England campaign was finally successful - but not wholly so. After Children's Commissioners had been established in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, the then Government agreed to introduce the role for England. However, the initial plans set out in the Children Bill, introduced into the Lords in March 2004, barely resembled a Children's Commissioner. They were vigorously attacked by a cross-section of Peers, led by Baroness Walmsley (Liberal Democrats) and Earl Howe (Conservatives). In the Commons, the push for a genuine rights-based Children's Commissioner was led by Hilton Dawson (former Labour MP; now chief executive of British Association of Social Workers) and Tim Loughton (Conservative MP; now junior Minister in the Department for Education). As the Bill progressed through Parliament, several significant changes were made (shown in the order they were achieved):
1. The Commissioner “must” have regard to the Convention on the Rights of the Child
2. There is a duty on the Commissioner to prepare child-friendly materials
3. The Commissioner has the power of entry to institutional premises “at any reasonable time” and the right to interview children, if appropriate in private
4. “Any person exercising functions under any enactment” has to provide the Commissioner with information reasonably requested
5. The Commissioner's remit includes care leavers and young people with learning disabilities up to the age of 21
6. The Commissioner has the power to initiate formal inquiries after consulting Secretary of State
7. The Commissioner’s reports have absolute privilege and other statements have qualified privilege in relation to law on defamation
8. In relation to an inquiry directed by the Secretary of State, the Secretary of State can only make amendments to an inquiry report in order to protect the identity of a child
9. The Commissioner has the power to require bodies to respond to his/her recommendations
10. The Secretary of State must lay a copy of the Commissioner’s annual report before each House of Parliament “as soon as possible”
11. Children have to be involved in the recruitment of the Commissioner.
On 10 November 2004, cross-party Peers pushed for the second time for a strong rights-based Children's Commissioner. The amendment that would have given children in England a Commissioner on a par with the rest of the UK and Europe was lost in the final stage of the Children Bill’s passage by 105 to 117 votes.
Peers who voted against a strong, rights-based Commissioner in November 2004:
• 109 Labour Peers
• 3 Cross-benchers
• 2 Ulster Unionist Peers
• 1 Conservative Peer
• 1 Liberal Democrat Peer
• 1 Independent Labour Peer
Sir Professor Al Aynsley-Green was appointed England's first Children's Commissioner in March 2005. Dr. Maggie Atkinson took over from Sir Al in March 2010. Click here to find out more about the Office of Children's Commissioner (opens new website).
The Commissioner campaign officially disbanded in November 2004 and was reconvened in July 2010 following the announcement of the Dunford Review.
In 2007, CRAE's campaign for a Children's Commissioner was one of eight case studies included in an NCVO publication 'Campaigning for success. How to cope if you achieve your campaign goal'.