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England 'one of the most child-unfriendly places in the world'

Sarah Cassidy,Social Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 02 February 2010 19:17 GMT

England is one of the most child unfriendly countries in the world, the nation's first-ever children's commissioner has warned as he prepares to step down from the post.

Sir Al Aynsley Green, who leaves at the end of the month after five years in the job, said that the British public's hostility to young people had made his job as children's champion very difficult.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent Sir Al said: "One of the greatest challenges we have had is public attitudes to children. This country is one of the most child unfriendly countries in the world. Just in terms of how we value children one of the most powerful examples is the Mosquito device - an ultrasonic weapon designed to stop kids gathering.

"When I have been to Norway, Canada and Australia people say to me "What's wrong with your country why do you hate children so much? You are employing an ultrasonic weapon against them. And why has your government been so spineless in not trying to stop it."

"This is a very powerful symbol of what I see as a deep malaise in our society and our views towards children and especially young people. We care about kids in our own families but do we care about the kids of other people - especially those who might be disadvantaged or who might be causing trouble?"

He condemned those who had caricatured him as a "barmy do-gooder" arguing that it was vital to have an independent commissioner to champion the rights of the most vulnerable youngsters. He said that it would be dissappointing if the Tories chose to abolish the children's commissioner if elected noting that they had fully supported the post's creation in 2005.

Sir Al said: "I think that through misunderstanding or misrepresentation some people think that the children's commissioner is somehow setting out to undermine the family or undermine parents. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am the first to take my hat off to the incredible parents we have in this country.

"It is the most difficult job anyone can ever do and the vast majority of parents are trying very hard. But we need to recognise that there are some children who do not have these advantages. We need to make sure they are especially taken notice of and their views listened to."

In his last three weeks in the job he hopes to make a difference to a group of vulnerable young people close to his heart - bereaved children. Sir Al knows first hand what it feels like to be bereaved as a child. When he was ten-years-old his father died unexpectedly after complications following a routine operation.

"My life was totally secure until that time surrounded by love and music and a wonderful father. All that that suddenly went. It had an enormous effect on me. For most of my life I have been waiting for the next disaster to strike me.

"He died after surgery for what was supposed to be a routine operation. My mother was called in to the hospital to say my father was seriously ill

He asked to see me but I was not allowed to because in those days children were not allowed into the adult surgical wards so I did not see him before he died and he did not see me.

"I was not allowed to see my father's body and adults tried to protect me from grief by hiding theirs from me. I had never had the chance to say goodbye to my father and repressed my grief for a long time."

Sir Al believes that bereaved children need better support and that too many of the current services only think of bereavement from an adult perspective. He will make his last public appearance as commissioner at the UK's first ever national conference on child bereavement which he hopes will highlight the issue.

There are no official statistics for the number of young people who are bereaved each year. But it is estimated that a child in this country loses a parent every 30 minutes. Around 1 in 29 children in school today have been bereaved of a parent or sibling, while around 1 in 16 are grieving a close friend.

Sir Al said: "There can be both acute and prolonged affects of bereavement. Prolonged grief is a well recognised state in adults but not much is known about it in children

In adults serious grief may be come an illness with disassociations, flash backs and feelings of anxiety that can be seriously debilitating in adults. But not much is known about affects on children.

"I am not preaching a one approach fits all but we should be aware of the impact of bereavement on children."

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