News and Comment

Changing Times with Dr Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England

Friday 30 August 2013

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This week’s Changing Times’ guest is the Children’s Commissioner for England, Dr Maggie Atkinson.

If you compare today’s society and the society into which you were born: what’s most strikingly different, and what’s most surprisingly similar?

Just as when I was a child in the late fifties, children today need support, boundaries, nurture, understanding, a listening ear, and people who’re interested in them for them.

The biggest and most striking difference is the 24/7 nature of communication and the availability of technology today, which is a cause of both equality and inequality. This technology has served to shrink the world, but also to reiterate the same sorts of inequalities which existed when the elite could read Latin and had access to books and the poor didn’t.

Modern media-driven and technologically enabled communications mean these inequalities are made starker and are constantly in your face in ways they might not have been in previous generations.

Given difficult choices have to be made, what one public service or source of support do you think we should prioritise most highly, and why?

Age discrimination affects children and young people very significantly. Transport is a good example of this: if you’re under sixteen in this country you travel for free whoever you are wherever you are, and however much money you have in your pocket. But if you’re over sixteen, in most places, you pay an adult fare despite the fact that at 16 you are not an adult, you don’t vote, and you probably don’t earn enough money to make travelling an option for you, unless you have some sort of support. I’m with Nelson Mandela here: a nation should be judged by how well it treats its children. We put great importance on the provision of services, especially health-related ones, for the elderly, and so we should, but it should not be at the expense of the young and in some instances it is. Because children are both voiceless and vote-less there are times when their views are not properly considered.

If you could choose one person to be the Prime Minister’s adviser, who would that person be, and why?

I would say to the Prime Minister let yourself be shadowed by a member of the executive of the United Kingdom Youth Parliament, not just for a day, but for an entire parliamentary session and listen to what they have to say to you.

The UK Youth Parliament is quite an amazing organisation. Its critics would say that it takes kids who are already articulate and who are already leaders and just lets them be articulate and lead, but I’ve met young people who’ve been voted onto the United Kingdom Youth Parliament who were very far from those stereotypes when they were first elected. Since then they’ve been trained and shown how to present themselves, present an argument, listen to somebody else’s argument, lead a debate, second a debate, pose questions and offer answers.

Public services rely on voluntary support more than ever: is this to be welcomed?

I think we’ve sometimes undervalued the strength and depth of communities’ voluntary endeavour and expertise. But I also think it’s asking rather too much to expect people who’re doing what they do in their spare time, to carry out what are often wholly statutory functions like caring for the elderly, ensuring they’re fed, checking up on vulnerable neighbours, and driving community transport. If there isn’t a statutory safety net then you are asking an awful lot of people who’re doing what they do in order to give something back to their communities. I genuinely don’t think that the voluntary sector could step into every aspect of public responsibility were statutory bodies to fall away entirely, I think that would be a step too far.

In the best case scenario, what will public services be like by 2023? What about the worst case scenario?

In the best case scenario there will have been the blurring of some unnecessary professional boundaries. I’m not saying that a reasonably qualified person could leap between being a teacher one day, a social worker the next, and a nurse every third Wednesday. What I am saying is that there remains a good deal of professional boundary guarding and for the families and children experiencing the services some unnecessary duplication of effort, which hopefully by 2023 won’t be the case.

I would hope that by 2023 Mr and Mrs Bloggs and their children would only have to tell their story once when they hit crisis, or preferably before they hit crisis, not over and over to agency after agency after agency. I’d hope that the agencies in their locality know the Bloggs’ because they’re known to health, they’re known to education, they’re known to social care and everybody is working around them to make things better for that family, not to safeguard old hierarchies and old boundaries.

Nobody should run away with the notion that simply making the public sector into a market is going to solve its problems, because if you make it into a market who are you paying if it’s not your shareholders? If you are in the business of making a profit for a FTSE 100 listed company, then you maybe shouldn’t be involved in the running of a public service, unless you’re also pumping profits back into that service, for its users’ benefits.

Previous Changing Times contributors

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA.

Professor Kate Pickett, epidemiologist and author

Carolyn Downs, Chief Executive of the LGA

Professor Chris Drinkwater, President of the NHS Alliance

Lord Victor Adebowale, Chief Executive of the social enterprise Turning Point

Professor Richard Wilkinson, researcher into social inequalities and author

Professor Ted Cantle CBE, expert on interculturalism and community cohesion

Jonty Olliff-Cooper, expert on independent sector involvement in public services

Dame Clare Tickell, Chief Executive of Action for Children

Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of NCVO