When Maggie Atkinson was appointed Children’s Commissioner in 2009 it almost caused an insurrection in Parliament. MPs in the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee attempted to veto her nomination, saying the former head of Gateshead children’s services lacked the campaigning instincts and “independence of mind” to stand up to Ed Balls, the then secretary of state. Mr Balls ignored their protests and appointed her anyway.
How times have changed. The woman sitting across the table in her central London office appears so eager to hold the Government to account that it makes you wonder if she is risking her job. She has fierce things to say on, among other things, the Coalition’s welfare reforms; smacking laws; cuts to legal aid; health spending and the treatment of asylum-seeking children.
Her rhetoric does not appear to have been toned down by how precarious the future of her office has seemed over the past few years. The Coalition considered getting rid of it altogether in the so-called Bonfire of the Quangos, but she has clung on. Now she is working with a tinier budget than ever (she says it is around 20p per child). This will be even more stretched in the new year, when her organisation is merged with Ofsted’s Office of the Children’s Rights Director.
Perhaps Dr Atkinson’s most pointed criticisms of Government relate to welfare reform.
“For an awful lot of children who were in poverty before the reforms happened, things have got worse,” she says.
“We said clearly that we considered they had not thought of the rights of the child in creating the new systems. And I don’t think we’ve had a satisfying response to our urgings that the rights of the child are not being properly considered.”
Heads of quangos are not renowned for their plain speaking, but Dr Atkinson is careful to keep conversations grounded in the everyday. A former English and drama teacher before she went into children’s services, she uses vivid description to get across the injustices facing young people in poverty today.
“Children tell us – especially disabled children – that the basics of human dignity are denied to children who are at the extreme edge of living and unable to make ends meet,” she says.
“There are families this Christmas who have to choose between feeding their children and feeding themselves and keeping the house warm. The fact that there is continued denial of that does not make it any less real.”
Her position is at direct odds with the Government’s, with Dr Atkinson insisting to The Independent that its reforms “will improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities… lifting hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty.”
Her position on welfare can also irritate people in the Treasury, as she champions spending on children, even when that might mean taking money from pensioners.
Speaking on government spending on benefits, she says: “What’s forgotten from the argument is that a great deal of its spending is on pensions and two-thirds of children living on or close to the poverty line are those with two parents who are working.
“And the argument becomes hollow if that is not acknowledged. Most benefit spending in the welfare state is actually on the older population, on benefits given to those aged 65 or older.”
Similarly, on health spending, she is fighting for children to claw money back from a budget overwhelmingly spent on adults. “When they are a quarter of the population you probably ought to spend more than an eighth of the money on them,” she says. “We have a higher infant and early child death rate than anyone else in Western Europe, we have children who are obese or on the edge of obesity, whose activity levels are low, who have poor dental health, and mental health. It costs money to address those things.”
For someone who has come to politics at the end of her career, Dr Atkinson has proved to be an astute political operator. She chooses her battles carefully – putting to one side those that she knows she might lose, even when she feels passionately about them.
When asked about the law on smacking, she separates her personal feelings on the issue from her office, because she says to pursue it in the current climate would be “running up a blind alley”. Despite this, she is prepared to express her own view vociferously.
“Personally, having been a teacher, and never having had an issue where I’d need to use physical punishment, I believe we should move to ban it,” she says. “Because in law you are forbidden from striking another adult, and from physically chastising your pets, but somehow there is a loophole or a wall around the fact that you can physically chastise your child. It’s counter-evidential really.”
Explaining why she will not be making the issue a priority in 2014, she says: “I don’t know if we’d speak out on smacking because there’s a lot of other things in the queue. If it’s clear that on the basis of our budget we’d be running up a blind alley, it’s a poor use of resource.
The behind-the-scenes conversations don’t stop, we do a huge amount under the radar in rooms where I wouldn’t disclose who else was present.”
Although a ban on smacking will not be on her to-do list for next year, she is not at a loss for things to campaign on. “In 2014 we want to continue with the things we’ve been working on so hard this year – so we’ll continue the threads of what happens to young people when they’re not protected from sexual abuse and violence; we are continuing to work with schools and others on what successful schooling looks like; we’re working very hard on children in the care system – some of whom will have been put there because of extremes of abuse and violence – and that they’re properly served and properly listened to.”
With her job intact and a lengthy list of fights to start and ramp up in the new year, Dr Atkinson seems finally to have shed her image as the timid Children’s Commissioner.
Smacking laws: The global view
● Smacking is legal in the UK, although the 2004 Children’s Act removed the defence of “reasonable chastisement” if the punishment led to visible bruising, cuts or scratches.
● 23 countries in Europe have completely outlawed smacking. Sweden was the first nation to ban corporal punishment in the home, outlawing it in 1979.
● Smacking is legal in all 50 states of America but in Canada, Australia and South Africa it is only allowed if it is “reasonable”.
● The Israeli Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that corporal punishment violated the right to dignity and bodily integrity.
● In October a French father who smacked his nine-year-old son was fined for violence against a child. Until then France had a clear legal distinction between punishment and violence, with the former seen as a parent’s right.