MPs deny undermining Atkinson's reputation

MPs today rejected claims that they undermined the reputation of Maggie Atkinson by objecting to her appointment as Children's Commissioner for England.

But they did raise concerns about the point of select committee confirmation hearings if their recommendations are simply ignored by Government.

The Schools Select Committee refused to endorse Dr Atkinson, Schools Secretary Ed Balls' choice to take over from current Commissioner Sir Al Aynsley-Green, early this week after being unconvinced by her suitability at a pre-appointment hearing.

In the first negative result from the recently introduced hearings, the influential committee called on Mr Balls to restart the selection process.

Mr Balls rejected their calls announcing he was pressing ahead with the appointment.

At a Select Committee hearing this morning Committee chairman Barry Sheerman told Mr Balls: "I want to put it on record that there has been some discussion that this committee and the chairman in particular undermined her reputation.

"In all the deliberations we have had to date I have gone out of my way to say she is highly qualified and highly competent for many jobs."

He added that it was only for this particular role that he had reservations.

Mr Sheerman also questioned why Mr Balls had moved so quickly to reject the committee's recommendation.

Mr Balls told the cross-party group of MPs he had not wanted to allow time for Dr Atkinson and the post of Children's Commissioner to be subject to "partisan politics".

He said: "The judgment I had to make was did I wait some hours or days to respond and allow as we saw in the House of Commons those who are badly motivated play partisan politics."

In heated exchanges in the Commons on Monday Shadow Children's Secretary Michael Gove said Mr Balls had already appointed Dr Atkinson "to do his bidding" in three previous "patronage roles".

Mr Balls in turn accused Mr Gove of impugning Dr Atkinson's integrity, insisting she was the best candidate for the post.

Mr Balls again told MPs today that there were some people who wished to scrap the post of Children's Commissioner if elected.

Acknowledging that it was an acceptable role of the committee to raise their concerns about Dr Atkinson's appointment, he agreed they had recognised she had a great deal of professional experience.

But he said the select committee had not been given the powers to veto an appointment.

"What we don't have is a system where there's a veto," he said.

"It is my responsibility under the 2004 Act to make an appointment."

He again insisted that Dr Atkinson was the best person for the post and had been unanimously approved by a selection process.

Paul Holmes, Lib Dem member for Chesterfield, said: "What is the point of pre-appointment hearings if a candidate has already been selected and already handed in their notice as it is only in very, very exceptional circumstances for anything a select committee says to be listened to."

Mr Balls said that the pre-appointment hearings conducted by select committees were important and are taken into consideration when making appointments.

Dr Atkinson, currently director of children's services in Gateshead and a former president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, was picked from 40 applicants for the role by a "rigorous" selection process.

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