Children's Commissioner

Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 19 October 2009.

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Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 3:30, 19 October 2009

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families if he will make a statement on the appointment of the next Children's Commissioner.

Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

We established the post of Children's Commissioner to be a fearless and independent advocate for children and young people. Following a rigorous Nolan selection process, the independent selection panel recommended Dr. Maggie Atkinson to me as clearly the most outstanding candidate to succeed Sir Al Aynsley-Green when he steps down in March next year. I accepted the panel's recommendation and wrote to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families on 6 October informing the Committee that I had nominated Maggie Atkinson for the post.

That nomination has been widely welcomed.

"Maggie is an excellent choice and will fearlessly and independently promote the interests of children in England"- not my words, but those of Martin Narey, the chief executive of Barnardo's. Sir Paul Ennals, the chief executive of the National Children's Bureau and a member of the independent selection panel, has said:

"Everyone who knows Maggie knows of her robustness, her independence of mind, and her strength of character. The children and young people judged her to be the best candidate for the post, and the interview panel were unanimous in their recommendation."

The Committee held a pre-appointment hearing with Dr. Atkinson last Monday. I received a copy of its report on Friday, which I studied over the weekend, and have set out my response in a detailed letter to the Chairman. The Cabinet Office guidance on pre-appointment hearings states that Ministers will consider any relevant considerations before deciding whether to proceed with the appointment-for example, any new, relevant facts about the candidate's suitability for the post, such as an undisclosed conflict of interest. The guidance also says:

"there may also be occasions where a candidate's performance in front of the Select Committee is considered relevant to the post in question-although this should be exceptional."

At the hearing, Dr. Atkinson gave, in my view, robust and intelligent answers to the questions put to her. In its report to me, the Committee says that it was satisfied that Dr. Atkinson demonstrated

"a high degree of professional competence".

However, the Committee raised three specific concerns. The report questions whether Dr. Atkinson will do enough to assert the independence that the role of Children's Commissioner requires. In her evidence to the Committee, Dr. Atkinson said that she would be unafraid to "speak truth to power," and Sir Paul Ennals has said that she was

"the most fiercely independent of all the candidates."

The report also questions whether Dr. Atkinson will challenge the status quo on children's behalf and stretch the remit of the post, in particular by championing children's rights. Dr. Atkinson told the Committee last Monday that she would be vociferous in speaking up for the most vulnerable children, such as children in young offenders institutions. Anne Longfield, the chief executive of 4Children, has said that Dr. Atkinson

"is renowned for her forthright, straight-talking approach which challenges us all to put the needs of children first. As such she will be a strong defender of children's rights in England against all comers."

It is my duty to appoint the best person for the job, and this should not be about politics, partisanship or personality. The judgment that I had to make was whether any new information in the Committee's report should cause me to alter my nomination and-let us be clear-overturn the independent selection panel's unanimous recommendation, a decision that would have been hugely unpopular with children's organisations across the country. My conclusion having studied that report-it is set out in detail in my letter-is that the independent selection panel is right. The person best qualified to be the strong, effective and independent voice for children and young people in our country is Dr. Maggie Atkinson. On this basis, I have confirmed her appointment as the next Children's Commissioner, and I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

In his very first statement, the Prime Minister pledged that major public appointments would be subject to scrutiny by this House. He argued that the Executive had too much power and Parliament too little. Why is the Secretary of State now rowing back from that principle? Why is he overruling the unanimous view of a Labour Committee with a Labour majority and a Labour Chairman? The Secretary of State clearly wants to push one particular agenda. It is the Committee's job to provide independent scrutiny. Why exactly is this Secretary of State a better judge than a Committee of this House of who should be an independent scrutineer of the Government?

The Secretary of State has already appointed Dr. Maggie Atkinson to do his bidding in three patronage roles-as chair of a national expert group, as chair of a multi-agency steering and reference board and as chair of a new national work force partnership. In each of those roles, she has consistently supported Government policy in Department for Children, Schools and Families press releases. She has never been in the lead of any critique of Government policy. What evidence is there that she is not just another Labour establishment choice? May I ask the Secretary of State whether Ms Atkinson has ever been a member of any political party? Is it true that every time she has been appointed to a post in local government, the local authority was not Conservative controlled at the time?

The Chairman of the Select Committee has identified a pattern of behaviour from the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State has got rid of those who disagree with him, such as Lord Adonis, Cyril Taylor, Bruce Liddington, Ken Boston and Ralph Tabberer, while appointing individuals who are either pliant or conformist. Does he believe that that bolsters confidence in how he discharges his responsibilities? Does he think that it reinforces confidence in his belief in scrutiny when, instead of choosing to defend his decision in this place, his first instinct was to justify himself in a letter briefed out at 10.30 last night? What reassurances can he now give us that when it comes to public appointments and the running of his Department, there is no longer something of the night about the way in which he operates?

Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

The responsibility for this appointment is the Secretary of State's under the Children Act 2004, which established this post. I fully support the process of pre-appointment hearing and I have explained to the House the basis on which I reached my decision under the 2004 Act. The reason why I set out the issues in detail in my letter to the hon. Gentleman at 10.30 last night was that the Committee itself chose to publish its report at midnight last night, and I followed its lead.

On this particular point, it is a bit rich for me to be answering these questions from the hon. Gentleman, whose spokespeople have failed more than once in recent weeks, including last week, even to confirm that the Conservative party would keep the position of Children's Commissioner at all, let alone appoint an independent person to that position. I do not mind what the hon. Gentleman says about me. I do not mind what hon. Gentlemen in this House, and even some of my hon. Friends, say about me-that is politics. But I do mind the integrity and standing of an independent and highly respected person-Dr. Maggie Atkinson-being impugned in this way, especially when she cannot be here to answer for herself.

I have at no time sought to play party politics with this decision. Nor have I at any time used this process to try to undermine the standing of the Children's Commissioner in the way that is happening today in this House. I have accepted the unanimous recommendation from an independent selection process, which said that Dr. Atkinson would be the best champion for children and young people in our country-that is why I made my decision. I have to say that Dr. Atkinson will be no patsy at all.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

As the Secretary of State knows very well, there is no one in this place-and there was no one on the Select Committee-who sought to doubt that Maggie Atkinson was a highly qualified, highly competent public servant. The question was whether she had the skills, the independence and the championing abilities to act in this particular role. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the advert for this job asked for someone who would be a "campaigner for children"? Will he also confirm that, when Mrs. Atkinson was asked by the Select Committee whether that was how she saw the job, she said, "I am not sure that the Children's Commissioner is a campaigning role. It is a drawing to attention role".

Speaking as a member of a party that accepts the role of Children's Commissioner and wants someone to act in that capacity, may I ask whether the Secretary of State accepts that there are already concerns that the English children's spokesman is already one of the weakest in the whole of the United Kingdom, and probably in the whole of the European Union? Does he also agree that there is a concern about whether this individual is already able to do their job effectively? Concerns have now been raised about the Secretary of State appointing a person who is a very effective public servant but who does not even see herself doing the job that was set down in the advertisement for the role.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the other departmental bodies that require these pre-confirmation hearings are also those that are expected to have a large element of independence from his Department, including Ofqual and the schools inspectorate, as well as the Children's Commissioner's post itself? Does he accept that what those jobs have in common is that they need people in the top posts who will be ferocious watchdogs with no fear and with some inclination to be willing to bite, including those in his Department? Are we not in danger of getting instead a series of tame poodles to do the Secretary of State's bidding, rather than the independent job that they are supposed to be doing? In future, is not the only answer for the Secretary of State and his colleagues either to accept the reservations of the Select Committees, or to withdraw from the role of choosing these individuals who have a key job in scrutinising the Department's policies?

Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

No, it is my job to consider very carefully the Select Committee's view-and I did-and to make the right decision in the public interest. That is what I have done. The hon. Gentleman raises legitimate questions about the powers for the Children's Commissioner in the 2004 Act, and the nature of the standing of that person and whether they should be appointed by Parliament or by the Government. However, those are issues for the Act; they were not issues for this particular selection process.

In terms of the selection process itself, it was done independently and rigorously, and any question about who was suitable for the job was addressed by the independent process. The conclusion was that Maggie Atkinson was by far the best person for the job, out of all the people who applied. It is true that the Committee Chair asked Dr. Atkinson whether she had had direct public relations experience. She said that she had never been a PR executive, but she had been heavily engaged in advocacy and in making a case, not only in leading a children's service in Gateshead but in representing them all across the country during the Haringey period. To be honest, any of us who know her know that that is why she has been appointed to this post. That is why Barnardo's said that it was "astonished" by the Select Committee report, the Children's Society said that it was "disappointed", and Anne Longfield said that it was "unfortunate". The Association of Directors of Children's Services also said that it was "astonished". That was the reaction.

On campaigning, Maggie Atkinson told the Committee that this was "an influencing role, and a drawing to attention role, but to me the word 'campaigning' smacks of active politics. This is not a political appointment. Rather, this is not a political post." She went on to say, "This role is not an inspector nor a political drum-beater. It is the holder of a very sharp light which is illuminated by the words and the wishes of children and young people and is shone on policy makers. It will seek out areas on which that light needs to shine. That is really important. It is not campaigning in a political sense, but the office of the Children's Commissioner has the right and duty to say to those making policies"-this, that and the other. I will not go through the long quote. The important point is that she absolutely accepts the independent, strong advocacy role. To say that she is a tame poodle is unworthy of the hon. Gentleman, and unworthy of those who make those comments.

Everyone who knows Maggie Atkinson knows that she is the strongest, most fearless, most independent advocate. That is why she has been appointed, unanimously and independently. Those who do not want to abolish the Children's Commissioner should start to support this post, rather than seeking to undermine it.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee, Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Select Committee conducted due process in this case in the best possible way? We were, across the parties, reluctant to make the decision and recommendation that we did, because we were impressed by many of the qualities of the lady who was being interviewed for us, but we did not know her and had no in-depth knowledge of her, as the Secretary of State obviously has. We nevertheless made our judgment on the basis of the interview of more than hour in front of the Select Committee. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the letter he sent to me today suggests that there will never be a case where a Select Committee can make any recommendation that any Secretary of State would accept?

Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

I do not understand that final comment at all, as the guidance is very clear and it is my duty to take account of the Committee's views, which I have done with great care and consideration. I have to say to my hon. Friend that the idea that he or other members of the Select Committee did not know of the director of children's services in Gateshead, who had represented directors of children's services over the previous 12 months, including during the baby Peter case in Haringey-and did not know of her capabilities, her strength and her independence-is baffling to me. I read the paragraphs in the report that referred to the Committee's concerns, and I considered them very carefully indeed. I found no relevant considerations that would lead me to reverse the independent Nolan process, and the choice that I made is widely supported across the country. On that basis, while I took the process very seriously indeed, I did not agree with the Select Committee. I am the one accountable for the post. I made the right decision in the public interest and I stand by it absolutely.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Chair, Treasury Sub-Committee

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that he has form here, as he was the chief adviser to the then Chancellor when they both brushed aside the Treasury Committee's rejection of the appointment of Christopher Allsopp to the Monetary Policy Committee within hours of the recommendation being made? What is the point of having pre-appointment hearings if Government Ministers are going to ignore them completely?

Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

It is very important that these things are considered very carefully by the Government in a non-political, non-partisan and non-personal way. It is also very important to approach these issues in a non-partisan and non-political way. My experience of the Treasury Committee suggests that that was always how it approached these matters, so we took its recommendations very seriously. I have to say, however, that Mr. Allsopp turned out to be an excellent member of the Monetary Policy Committee and a great advocate for growth and jobs in our country. I suspect that, in retrospect, the hon. Gentleman probably agrees with me that we were right not to go with the Treasury Committee's recommendation on that day. As I have said, Mr. Allsopp turned out to be an excellent member of the MPC, but we took the hon. Gentleman's views very seriously indeed.

Photo of Lynda Waltho Lynda Waltho Labour, Stourbridge

I must correct Michael Gove, who speaks for the Opposition on this particular policy. On Wednesday, there was no working majority of Labour Committee members able to participate and neither was there a vote, so how the hon. Gentleman can say that this was the unanimous decision of the Committee fails me. However, will my right hon. Friend reassure me that he can rise above the macho posturing, albeit that it comes from the unlikely source of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, and concentrate on what is important-what we who champion the rights of children are concerned about, which is to appoint an effective Children's Commissioner who will do the right thing for our children? That person is Maggie Atkinson.

Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

The transcript shows very clearly that my hon. Friend's judgment about the suitability of Maggie Atkinson for this post is the right one. I do not know the details of the proceedings and subsequent votes of the Select Committee, and it would be wrong for me to reveal conversations that took place in corridors. I looked in detail at the report, and I have no idea who on the Committee supported or did not support this appointment. As my hon. Friend has said, the matter was never put to the vote. I have considered the matter very carefully, and I have to put the public interest first. I decided that this was not about personality and politics, which is why I made the decision that I did.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Will the Secretary of State remind the House how many members of the so-called independent panel came from other Government Departments and quangos? Why does he think that it was more independent than a Select Committee of this House?

Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

The point is that we have the Nolan process, which was set up on the recommendation of Lord Nolan before 1997 and which operates in the normal way. There were 40 candidates, and they went through that normal process. There was one independent member of the panel, Sir Paul Ennals, who said that Maggie Atkinson was the most fiercely independent of all the candidates. I understand that there was also-as is completely normal-a civil servant from my Department and a civil servant from another Department in Whitehall. [Interruption.] If the Conservatives do not support the Nolan process as well as not supporting the Children's Commissioner, they ought to come clean rather than playing these games.

The fact is that we supported the Nolan process, and Maggie Atkinson was unanimously judged to be the best candidate for the job. Did I reject her? Did I go for person No. 2 or No. 3 on the list? Did I decide not to go for the most fiercely independent person? No, I did not; I did the right thing, which was to choose the strongest advocate for children and young people. That is what the Children's Commissioner is all about, and that is why the Conservative party is so fearful of the role.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Labour, Erewash

As a former teacher and, indeed, a former parliamentary private secretary at the Department, I can tell my right hon. Friend that in my opinion his Department has placed the most relentless focus on raising standards for children and young people that I have ever observed. Along the way, he has made tough decisions without flinching. This is one of them; it is the correct one, and it will hugely benefit children in this country.

Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I have to tell her that the evidence for the rightness of the decision is not my words or even the words of those involved in the independent selection process. It is the words of Barnardo's, 4Children, the National Children's Bureau, the Association of Directors of Children's Services and all the other organisations-including the children's and young people's panel itself-which concluded, independently of me, that Maggie Atkinson was the best person to do the job. That is why, whatever the politics, the right thing to do is the right thing, and that is what I am doing.

Photo of Rob Wilson Rob Wilson Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Secretary of State said that he had read the views of the Labour-dominated Select Committee on this matter. Has he also read the excellent Select Committee report on bullying? If so, can he tell the House what he has learned from it?

Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

As I have said, I am not going to go into the details of who was and was not on the Committee, who had the majority, and who led what charge. I think that that would be unworthy of the House and unworthy of the Committee, and I am not going to descend to those levels.

As for the question that the hon. Gentleman has raised, we have been very strong advocates of the stamping out of that kind of behaviour in all our schools in the country. However, this is not about personality, it is not about politics, and it is not about Labour-dominated Committees. I think that the hon. Gentleman should raise his sights, raise his game and understand the public interest in these matters.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham

My right hon. Friend is right to reject the synthetic anger on the Opposition Benches, particularly after last week's statement of policy about putting politicians in charge of a whole range of appointments to stuff public bodies with political placemen. May I gently say to him, however, that while everyone respects his probity and sincerity in this matter, we are trying to bring Parliament back to life? If every time a parliamentary Committee makes a recommendation it is simply brushed aside, I am afraid that the idea that Parliament exists to work for the public will lessen in people's minds rather than increasing.

Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

I completely understand the point that my right hon. Friend has made. That is why we must all be responsible in the way in which we approach the issue of pre-appointment hearings. This is not the first time that there has been such a hearing-there have been many before, all of which have asked tough questions-but this is the first time that a Select Committee has failed to endorse a candidate and has published its report at midnight.

The question for me was whether I should respond in a thorough way at that time, or whether I should stand back and allow an independent, highly respected figure to be impugned. I decided that the right thing to do was study the details of the report, then make my response, and that is what I did. Unfortunately, the impugning has continued from the Conservative party. That, I am afraid, is what happens when issues of public interest are reduced to party politics.

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

I regret very much the way in which, in his opening comments, the Secretary of State tried to suggest that this was all about the Opposition having a go at the Government, and the way in which Michael Gove tried to suggest that it was all about a Labour Government possibly appointing someone who might or might not be a Labour sympathiser. The Committee that sat on Wednesday morning consisted of four Labour members, two Liberal Democrat members and two Conservatives. There was no vote, because it was quite clear what the majority of the Committee felt, and that is in the recommendations. What is the point of pre-appointment hearings if the candidate is told that he or she has got the job before the hearing, and the Secretary of State simply ignores everything that the Select Committee says?

Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

As I have said, I am not going to go into the details of conversations in corridors or of how the Committee operated on that day-that is a matter for the Committee rather than for me. The hon. Gentleman raises a wider issue of importance, however. I was operating in accordance with the guidance, which had been discussed with Select Committee Chairs. I had to make a decision, and I did so on the basis of the Nolan process. I nominated my candidate, who was then to appear before the Select Committee for questioning. It is made very clear in the guidance that only in the most exceptional cases would the Committee not endorse the candidate, but it is also right to have proper scrutiny. It will be for others to judge, on the basis of the Committee report, the transcript and my report, whether this was an exceptional case. I have to say that that was not the view that I reached on the basis of my reading, and the fact that Maggie Atkinson is so widely supported by children's organisations around the country for her independence, strength and integrity leads me to believe that for me to have rejected the Nolan independent process, and the unanimous proposal from that process in respect of this job, would have been the wrong thing to do, but-

Photo of David Clelland David Clelland Labour, Tyne Bridge

Gateshead council has a proud history of appointing good officers. Indeed, over the years many of its officers have advised Governments. In fact, it was a Gateshead housing officer who advised a previous Conservative Government on the sale of council houses, so the idea that Gateshead officers are tied to a particular political party is nonsense. I know Maggie Atkinson-of course, I know a lot of people but that does not necessarily mean they are good candidates for the position we are discussing. I know about the work that she has done in Gateshead, and I know about the educational achievements and health improvements among children that we have had in Gateshead under her leadership. I know of her firm interest in the interests and rights of children, and I know that she is a strong character who believes in what she is doing. The idea that she would be bullied by anyone, let alone the Secretary of State, is nonsense.

Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

I am trying to make progress today, Mr. Speaker, for children and young people. I fully accept the points about the lady's track record in Gateshead. In answer to the question from the Opposition Benches about her party political affiliation or past post or roles, I must say that the whole point of the Nolan process is to take the politics out of this and to have an independent process. Therefore, it is not for me to start making political judgments at the end of the process. I accepted the unanimous recommendation at the end of this process. That was the right thing to do, and I would have thought that it would be a good idea to keep to Nolan processes rather than to believe that, or to brief newspapers that, the point of being in power is to put our place-people into positions. That is not the right way to go, even if that is what the Opposition want to do.