A very well-balanced guardian

July 30, 2004

As the Children Bill continues through Parliament, Terry Philpot looks at the problem of private fostering and speaks to two champions of child wellbeing

The first thing Kathleen Marshall did when she became Scotland's Children's Commissioner earlier this year was to ask 60 children and young people whether they thought she should use the title professor. They said "no", and so she doesn't.

"Some adults like the title because of the status it gives to the post, but then you have to ask what kind of status," she explains. "But I don't want to be so informal that I undermine the authority of the post, given some of the people with whom I am working."

She wants to strike a balance between authority and the informality that allows children to feel comfortable with her. One way that symbolises this is the attempt to find shop-front premises near the Scottish Parliament for the commission's 15 staff, a move that would combine openness about what the commission does with being close to the seat of political power.

Taking on the post is the culmination of years of campaigning and working in childcare. Marshall qualified as a solicitor in 1975 and practised in local government. From 1989 to 1994, she was director of the Scottish Child Law Centre. In 1995, she became visiting professor at Glasgow University's Centre for the Child and Society. The university became a base for research and writing. Her book Children's Rights in the Balance looked at the relationship between children's participation and the child's best interests as enshrined in Articles 3 and 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. She also carried out work on children with HIV and consent to treatment and research on education and children's rights.

Marshall has three first degrees - in law, philosophy and theology. She has never taken a research degree, but her part-time theology degree evolved into her new book, Honouring Children: The Human Rights of the Child in Christian Perspective , co-written with American theologian Paul Parvis.

The decision not to allow the commissioner to take up individual cases (although she can do so if a case illustrates a wider issue for children) was, she suggests, deliberate so that her job would focus on policy development and practice.

In safeguarding children's rights and welfare, she can investigate public, voluntary and commercial providers. She could, say, take up the appropriateness of television advertising aimed at children. Even though some matters "reserved" as the province of the UK Government do not fall within her purview, that doesn't stop her from saying that "there may be reserved matters, but there are no reserved children".

The detention of asylum-seeking children in the Dungaval Centre in South Lanarkshire is a case in point. "Whatever their immigration status, they are children first, they are human beings who have rights," Marshall says.

So while formal investigation would be precluded, looking at their situation might not be.

She says: "Governments have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and by doing so have made a promise to children. We commissioners are holding governments to keeping that promise."

With a £1.5 million budget in the first year (£1.25 million a year thereafter), Marshall is conscious that she will have to get her priorities right. She says that she will look at "three levels of engagement": long-term investigations for two years or so, issues that take a few months to examine, and responding to matters as they arise.

She will divide interests between children aged 12 and above and those aged under 12, and engage children (perhaps by focus groups and, she hopes, by some kind of voting) to help her set some of her priorities.

And a reference group of children and young people will be established. She is keen to work with anyone who shares her aims. "I'm not at all worried about anyone doing things in my field, all I need to make sure is that they do them properly."

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