Children to get an ombudsman

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The Independent Online

By Sonia Purnell

By Sonia Purnell

26 December 1999

BRITAIN'S 11 million children are to be given their own official champion, a high-powered commissioner who will have unprecedented powers to investigate their claims of sexual abuse and mistreatment.

The commissioner is also likely to be given powers to investigate complaints by youngsters into school punishments. And he, or she, will be given responsibility for ensuring teenagers get a fair deal in court.

But the first task will be to ensure that paedophiles never again get a grip on children's homes. The commissioner will oversee a vetting system to ensure that anyone who applies for a post, at any level, in a home, is thoroughly checked out.

Ministers will announce the high-profile appointment early next year in response to the damning Waterhouse report into allegations of abuse in children's homes in North Wales dating back to the 1970s, which is to be published shortly. The report, written by Sir Ronald Waterhouse QC after a long-running inquiry, is being kept tightly under wraps after the leaks fiasco with the Macpherson report into the Stephen Lawrence murder.

The sole copy available in Whitehall is being kept in a strong room at the Cabinet Office, with only a handful of officials from the Department of Health, Home Office and Welsh Office being allowed access. Security is so tight that even they are not permitted to take copies but have to rely on handwritten notes for drafting the government response.

But senior government sources have confirmed that one of the chief recommendations of the 800-page report is the creation of the new post of children's commissioner - with a salary in excess of £100,000.

Work has already begun on formulating the new commissioner's range of powers, with particular attention being paid to the Norwegian children's ombudsman, who can be contacted directly by youngsters. One source said: "We want a real big hitter for the job. Someone who networks at the highest political level, who is high-profile and will grab the headlines, rather than someone who merely talks to other policemen or social workers."

Whitehall's initial favourite for the post was Cherie Blair, the Prime Minister's wife, who, as a QC, is considered sufficiently heavyweight and who is also renowned for her interest in children's issues. But she has been ruled out of the running to avoid charges of cronyism.

Others under consideration include Helena Kennedy QC and Denise Platt, the head of the social services inspectorate. Another candidate could be the top female judge, Lord Justice Butler-Sloss. "We do not need a celebrity chairman such as Esther Rantzen or perhaps Claire Rayner, however well-intentioned," said the source.

The Commissionerwill be responsible for the vetting of all workers in children's homes. One of the many weaknesses exposed by the eight-month Waterhouse hearings is how paedophiles can slip undetected into children's homes. This has prompted 24 police investigations and at least 50 arrests.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children said: "The post is long overdue. We have been campaign- ing for this for a long time and are delighted it is going to happen. The person must be able to challenge all our institutions to ensure they put children first."