The Office of the Children's Commissioner (OCC) is a quango ripe for abolition and should have been one of the first to be thrown on the so-called bonfire of the quangos. Yet the 2012 Children and Families Bill, included in last week's Queen's Speech, promises to strengthen and widen the OCC's remit, entrenching its role and giving the Commissioner a six year term of office. The history of this small but pointless non-departmental public body provides a vivid illustration of why the quango bonfire has persistently failed to ignite.
In the six years since the office was created, the OCC has cost taxpayers more than £16million, around half of which has been spent on salaries. Its declared purpose is to “promote awareness of the views and interests of all children in England.” Which is of course a ludicrous proposition: it can no more do this than a “Women's Commissioner” could represent all women. Rebranded “11million” (a reference to the number of children in England) by the first Commissioner to hold office, the OCC has since undergone a second rebranding – to revert to its original title. Modest in size, compared to many quangos, it nevertheless mimics the classic quango structure, having its own director of communications as well as directors of policy, of participation and of corporate services, each with their own department.
The OCC has a snazzy interactive website where children's games sit rather uneasily alongside questions for asylum seekers like “How would you feel if the Home Office didn't believe you about your age?” Not only is it firmly anti-authority, it also adopts the style of the adult who is trying too hard to be liked, wanting to get down among the kids. In fact the OCC is indistinguishable from a whole host of children's charities and campaign groups with a “rights-based” agenda; all of its work is already being accomplished – and rather more effectively – by the NSPCC and others.
Apart from providing a mouthpiece for its rather opinionated office holders, first Dr "Al" Aynsley Green and now Maggie Atkinson, it's hard to see what this quango has delivered in return for taxpayers' cash. Dr Aynsley Green's most memorable comments were in response to the brutal murder of Garry Newlove by three drunken teenagers, of whom he said “I don't know why they did it. What I can say is that many young people tell me they have nowhere to go, nothing to do.” His successor, Maggie Atkinson, hit the headlines just weeks after her appointment when she remarked that the young killers of James Bulger “did something exceptionally unpleasant” in which a child “ended up dead.” Ms Atkinson was later forced to apologise to James Bulger's mother for her tactless remarks.
With such a short but inglorious history, you might think that the political risks attached to abolishing this quango would be negligible. Surely one of the quickest decisions to be made by a coalition with a mandate to cut spending would be to close down the OCC and declare a £3million pa saving on the education budget? Alas, it was not to be. Instead, Michael Gove appointed John Dunford, former head of the teachers' union ASCL and a vocal opponent of Conservative plans for free schools, to conduct a £50,000 enquiry into the work of the OCC and provide a report. The OCC was safe, for Mr Dunford, who had spent his entire working life in the public sector, was clearly no axe-wielder.
In compliance with his remit to look at effectiveness and value for money, Mr Dunford reported that the OCC had so far been rather disappointing, with its low visibility and duplication of the work of other bodies. But instead of concluding that its role should be abolished or downgraded, Mr Dunford took the view that the OCC needed a wider remit and a greater focus on children's rights, and that the role of the Commissioner should be strengthened. Some of his recommendations are sound enough: that the Commissioner should rely on evidence rather than opinion when putting forward a viewpoint, and should be accountable to Parliament rather than a Minister. However, the overall impact of the review would be to embed the OCC and make it harder, rather than easier, for a future government to close it down.
Two years on and the Coalition has adopted Mr Dunford's recommendations in full in its new Bill. The OCC will “promote and protect children's rights” and will now have the power to carry out “impact assessments” of government legislation and policies, to see how they affect children's rights. Furthermore, both government and public services will be obliged to respond to the Commissioner's reports. The Commissioner will be appointed for a six year term (rather than five as at present).
Here, then, is an object lesson in how not to abolish a quango. Instead of disposing of a superfluous, largely powerless and discredited body, the government has given it a new lease of life, new powers and a stronger voice to criticise government. Not only has the coalition lost an opportunity to save the taxpayer £3million pa, it has – whilst almost certainly ensuring that the quango's budget will continue to grow – also generated additional, unquantified, cost to taxpayers by giving the OCC power to make new demands on the public sector in response to its findings.
Must we attribute this spectacular piece of wrong headedness to the strains of governing in coalition? Would Michael Gove, if acting alone, have appointed John Dunford, or succumbed so readily to the “children's rights” lobby? Wouldn't sheer common sense have informed him of the fallacy of assuming that one man (or woman) should have the power to speak for 11 million children? We must hope so. It is, after all, the Liberal Democrat Sarah Teather who has been handling much of the publicity around the new bill.
If this is indeed the explanation, then it is easy to see why the quango bonfire is unlikely to spark into life for as long as we have a coalition in Downing Street – and why, in turn, the twin monsters of wasteful public spending and increasing public debt are unlikely to be slain any time soon.