Tag Archives: Children’s Commissioner

The silence of the Children’s Commissioners: Part II

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

In May 2021 I wrote about the strange silence of the Children’s Commissioners about the issues of child safeguarding and welfare, which attracted international attention in the wake of the High Court ruling in Bell v Tavistock.

I could find nothing on the websites of any of the four Commissioners to suggest that this was an issue they were even aware of, let alone discussing. I was contacted by a person who made a FOI request on 7th January 2021 to the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland for information held on the Keira Bell High Court judgment of 1st December 2020. This request was refused, went through an appeal process and the refusal was upheld.

I commented back in May that the reasons for refusal were concerning:

I have some sympathy with the need to exempt from disclosure material which represents the necessary ‘to and fro’ as people raise, discuss and refine issues of importance. I also understand the importance of maintaining confidentiality around legal advice. But it is very concerning that an organistion with the status of a Children’s Commissoner is clearly concerned that the nature of the discussion within its organisation and with the other offices may risk contributing to the ‘toxic nature’ of the debate. How could this be possible given that all who work there must be alive to the need ‘to keep the discussion focused on the issues and on the law rather than personalising them’?

I suspect there are two problems here. Given the nature and extent of institutional capture in the UK, individual staff members may have gone way beyond a focus on the law and engaged in moral castigation of those ‘hateful bigots’ who would seek to impede a child’s identification of their ‘authentic selves’. OR there is a realistion that simply commenting on the relevant law will be seen and seized upon by many as a ‘hateful’ ‘bigoted’ attack on the rights of an ‘exceptionally vulnerable’ minority. 

I have now had the benefit of reading more fully the reasons for upholding the refusal in ‘Decision Notice 171/2021’

The analysis notes that the withheld information comprises an email chain that originated from a member of staff of one UK Children’s Commissioner to their Commissioner, which was forwarded on. The Scottish Children’s Commissioner refused to disclose that email under sections 30(c) and 36(2) of The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act [FOISA]. There was also an email from its in-house legal officer which it refused to disclose, citing section 36(1) of FOISA, which exempts disclosure of information which is confidential due to legal privilege.

The applicant argued that the public interest favoured disclosure as it pertained to a significant issue of child safeguarding and the views of the office charged with safeguarding those interests.

The Commissioner recognised the tension between two competing interests; public interest in such a significant area of child safeguarding, but also the interest of the Scottish Children’s Commissioner to receive full and unhindered legal advice to enable it to come to fully formed decisions. It decided that legal privilege outweighed the public interest in this regard.

With regard to the emails, 36(2) of FOISA provides that information is exempt from disclosure if it obtained from another person and disclosure would constitute a breach of confidence. However, it is generally accepted in common law that an obligation of confidence will not be enforced to restrain disclosure of information which is necessary in the public interest.

There are three main requirements to establish if information is given in confidence

  • the information must have the necessary quality of confidence
  • the public authority must have received the information in circumstances which imposed on it an obligation to maintain confidentiality
  • unauthorised disclosure must not be to the detriment of the person who communicated the information.

The Commissioner found that the first two requirements were met as the Children’s Commissioners were sharing information with each other ‘in confidence’ to promote their working relations.

But what about the third? The test of detriment does not require substantial damage, and could follow from mere fact of unauthorised disclosure. And this is where, in my view, it gets very interesting. The Scottish Children’s Commissioner stated that it did not have consent for wider disclosure from the individual who shared the information.

It explained that the issue under discussion was and remained highly contentious, with public opinion being very polarised. In its view, disclosure would cause significant emotional distress to this individual, with a real risk of them being exposed to online harassment and abuse for the opinions they expressed

The Commissioner accepted that the risk of online harassment is credible (but no where do I see any discussion of how it would be possible to disclose the contents of the email and keep the emailer’s identity private) and went on to consider the public interest in disclosing in any event. The Commissioner agreed with the reasons put forward by the Commissioner:

  • there was no attempt here to cover up any wrongdoing
  • there was a significant amount of information and commentary already in the public domain
  • at the time the information was withheld this was a live case still before the Court of Appeal
  • sharing information between Commissioners was to be encouraged

So what next?

The applicant has a right to appeal, I do not know if she will exercise that right but she has 42 days from the date of the decision. As an analysis of the relevant law it seems unremarkable – but what it throws up about the nature and the quality of discussion around medical transition is very remarkable indeed.

I can only speculate as to the contents of the relevant email and the language used which led to a credible fear of ‘on line harassment’ if it were revealed. The continuing silence of the Children’s Commissioners in expressing any kind of view about the advisability or efficacy of medical transition makes me ponder that the email was supportive of those who claim that any challenge to or discussion of these issues is ‘transphobia’ or other unacceptable bigotry.

But it doesn’t really matter which ‘side’ of the polarised debate the author fell. What is truly shocking is that we have reached a position in 2021, in a secular democracy, where particular views must be shielded from public gaze lest they attract abuse, intimidation and other threats. This is particularly worrying when the organisations who feel they have no choice but to be silent are those charged with statutory obligations to safeguard our children.

I am not aware that any of the Children’s Commissioners have since expressed any public view at all about medical transition. Perhaps they are awaiting the Cass Review? But at some point, and soon, they are going to have to fulfil their statutory obligations and the silence must end.


Thanks to a Twitter user who reminded me that it was Anne Longfield as England Children’s Commissioner who remained completely silent (despite many parents and whistleblowers contacting her) right up until the judicial review proceedings.

However, she then she ordered the Care Quality Commission inspection which reported in January 2021 and found the Tavistock to be ‘inadequate’. Longfield was then replaced by Dame Rachel de Souza as Commissioner. I wonder if there is anything interesting in that timing. I guess we will never be allowed to know.

So useful to be reminded that the Children’s Commissioners do have some role to play. But makes it more worrying that we do not know now what they think of it all. To say ‘but there is lots of information in the public domain!’ is no answer at all. Many of us want to know what those with particular statutory obligations, funded by public money, have to say about one of the most serious medical scandals involving treatment of children in recent decades.

A little less conversation – a little more action.

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

‘A patient is the  most important person in our hospital. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our hospital, he is part of it. We are doing a favour by serving him, he is doing us a favour by giving us an opportunity to do so’

Mahatma Gandhi

I would like to consider a variety of reports that have come to my attention recently. These are


The Needs and Challenges of  Adoptive and Special Guardianship Families is a report produced by a group of parents who are either Special Guardians or who have adopted children. Their chair comments:

I can see deep systemic problems that affect adopters, and special guardians, which is why we have joined forces. These same problems seem to impact on families where a child has disabilities and special needs where services are required. Austerity has made support harder to achieve, and whether it is from health, education or social care, it so much more difficult to obtain from cash strapped local authorities looking to save wherever they can. We, who rely on services, bear the brunt of austerity, and at the same time can find ourselves victimised by a blame culture that makes us, and our children, extremely vulnerable when our children have behavioural problems and anxiety issues.

Key points from the report

In summary, the report considers the families needs and challenges and their experiences of working together with professionals.

  • Over 500 parents and carers were involved in providing information. Two surveys were conducted and four cases were chosen from group members where children had re-entered care to look at children and lives in context.
  • Over 700 children were  part of these families, many facing very difficult challenges; a high level of disability, numerous complex trauma related mental health problems and life-long conditions such as autism and FASD.
  • Parenting children with such serious needs can make family life difficult and respite was identified as ‘vital’ but often not available or hard to come by.
  • Parents had mixed experiences of working with professionals. Bad experiences deterred adopters and special guardians from help seeking and made them feel frightened of social services.
  • Parents felt that injustices are not adequately scrutinised by the Family Courts as their limited remit is insufficient for such complex cases. The adversarial court system cannot easily ‘problem solve’ and is unable to compel local authorities who do not allocate professionals with adoption or special guardianship expertise to the support of children and families.

The report identified no models, or good practice guidance to assist the safe rehabilitation and reunification of adopted and special guardianship and concluded that this does not seem to be a priority for local authorities.

The report recommends that

  • more ethical policies can be developed through the proper involvement of those with‘lived experience’ at a decision-making level in future.
  • setting up a Task Force to develop practice guidance for when a child re-enters care to enable relationships between family members to be better supported and develop models for reunification for children where family members are part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

The fundamental point, it appears to me is this:

it is certainly time to have dialogue with those who lives are affected by legislation when the courts cannot be ‘problem solving’ as they should be, when problems are very complex.

Report of the Children’s Commissioner

I do not think there is much, if anything, in this report from the Special Guardians and Adopters with which I disagree. I have been commenting for some time now on the particular pressures that come to bear upon the whole system of child protection which render it arguable ‘not fit for purpose’. See for example this post on ‘Forced Adoption’. 

Its broader concerns that the current system does not work well to support vulnerable children and families, are supported by the recent report of the Children’s Commissioner which sets out in stark terms what is being faced by the child protection system. This report found:

The 2.1 million children growing up in families with these complex needs includes:

  • 890,000 children with parents suffering serious mental health problems
  • 825,000 children living in homes with domestic violence
  • 470,000 children whose parents use substances problematically
  • 100,000 children who are living in a family with a “toxic trio” (mental health problems, domestic violence and alcohol and/or substance abuse)
  • 470,000 children living in material deprivation
  • 170,000 children who care for their parents or siblings

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner said

Over a million of the most vulnerable children in England cannot meet their own ambitions because they are being let down by a system that doesn’t recognise or support them – a system that too often leaves them and their families to fend for themselves until crisis point is reached.

“Not every vulnerable child needs state intervention, but this research gives us – in stark detail – the scale of need and the challenges ahead. Meeting them will not be easy or cost-free. It will require additional resources, effectively targeted, so that we move from a system that marginalises vulnerable children to one which helps them.

“Supporting vulnerable children should be the biggest social justice challenge of our time. Every day we see the huge pressures on the family courts, schools and the care systems of failing to take long-term action. The cost to the state is ultimately greater than it should be, and the cost to those vulnerable children missing out on support can last a lifetime.

“We get the society we choose – and at the moment we are choosing to gamble with the futures of hundreds of thousands of children.”

About the same time as this report, the revised Working Together guidelines were published – this is a lengthy document of 112 pages. Small wonder its so dense, as it makes the clear point that there are a large number of different agencies/organisations who must be putting the child at the centre of their thinking and are under statutory obligations to do so. Under the heading  ‘Identifying children and families who would benefit from early help’ it says:

Local organisations and agencies should have in place effective ways to identify emerging problems and potential unmet needs of individual children and families. Local authorities should work with organisations and agencies to develop joined-up early help services based on a clear understanding of local needs. This requires all practitioners, including those in universal services and those providing services to adults with children, to understand their role in identifying emerging problems and to share information with other practitioners to support early identification and assessment.


We all know what we need to do. Children need to be at the centre of our thinking, while respecting the principle that children’s welfare must be seen in the context of their families and communities; families ought to be supported to look after their children rather than the first assumption being that they are places of sinister evil from which children must be ‘rescued’.  A stitch in time saves nine, for want of a nail the battle was lost etc etc so we ought to be doing what we can as early as we can because fire fighting is a lot more costly than dealing with problems prior to your house burning down.

But all of this requires time. Time for professionals to build relationships of trust with children and families so they don’t simply become troublesome units to be risk assessed and dealt with in a way that will save agencies from adverse comment down the line. And it requires money. To pay enough professionals to have enough time to be able to identify services and support that could actually help. To devise a coherent strategy of intervention that does not see children and family bounced from a variety of services and individuals.

It is really good that we are talking, and that more efforts are being made to cross professional boundaries. But I am still worried from what I read and hear about the debate around child protection that the compulsion to polarise, to find a ‘gang’ and be part of it remains very strong.  Social workers are either ‘corrupt liars’ or parents are ‘monsters’. I have written on many occasions about the dangers of naive or wilfully misinformed allegiance to a position at the expense of actual fact. See as just one example, Linda Arlig, her hammer and some nails.

But the mess we are currently in is not the product of just one profession or one political persuasion. its been building up over many, many years. It is becoming increasingly urgent to translate talk into action. It is particularly difficult when the court and legal system has become, since the Children and Families Act and the 26 week time limits, part of that framework of potential oppression.

Possibly hypocritically in light of the above, I hope that if you have read this far you will consider joining me and many others on September 15th at the Conway Hall in London to discuss the issue of ‘future emotional harm’ as a justification for removing children from parents. This has been for many years a particular bug bear of parents and not something I think is well understood, even by professionals. The focus of the day will be conversation between what I hope will be a large number of different groups – parents, lawyers, social workers, care leavers – with the aim to turn conversation into action.


Further reading

Abuse and neglect – how is it identified and what support is offered? Post from parent October 2017

Care Crisis Review 2018 Family Rights Group

The Adoption Enquiry BASW – their website is down! but you can read my post about it here. 

MP Tim Loughton, a former Tory children’s minister has blamed the government’s “woeful underfunding” of local authorities for a crisis in child protection that is putting the safety of vulnerable young people at risk. vThe Guardian, July 11th 2018.

Storing up Trouble – July 2nd 2018 report from All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children (APPGC) following September 2017  inquiry into the causes and consequences of varying thresholds for children’s social care. The inquiry found:

  • Vulnerable children face a postcode lottery in thresholds of support
  • 4 in 5 Directors of Children’s Services say that vulnerable children facing similar problems get different levels of help depending on where they live.
  • Children often have to reach crisis before social services step in.
  • Decisions over whether to help a child, even in acute cases, are influenced by budget constraints.
  • Children and young people in care and care leavers highlighted the difficulty they faced gaining insight into their personal histories. They called for better support in accessing and understanding information contained in official files.

Summary of the changes to the Working Together Guidance from the NSPCC