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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 David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 3:30 pm, 19th October 2009

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?

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