Children's Commissioner

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

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families 3:30 pm, 19th October 2009

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.

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