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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 January 2006, 08:15 GMT
Child watchdog's rights warning
Interview
By Ollie Stone-Lee
BBC News website

Children skipping in a playground
The commissioner is acting as a "voice for children"
Naming and shaming child troublemakers abuses their human rights, England's children's watchdog has warned.

Al Aynsley-Green told BBC News other parts of Tony Blair's "respect" agenda may also be at odds with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It was right to talk about respect but punishing and controlling children was not necessarily the answer, he said.

He also voiced fears that new licensing laws added to "conflicting messages" to children about alcohol.

COMMISSIONER'S PRIORITIES
Make sure children and young people are valued
Tackle "demonisation" of children in the media
Campaign for total ban on smacking
Tackle bullying
Work to prevent children being "exploited" by advertisers
Support principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

Guidelines issued last year said adults and children as young as 10 handed anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) should be "named and shamed" in the media and leaflets as a matter of course.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke said many offenders thought they were "untouchable" and needed to be shown there would be no "news blackout" on their actions.

The government also says the action can reassure people that nuisance behaviour is being tackled.

The courts can also lift the usual ban on identifying youths where they are convicted of serious offences.

Promises

Professor Aynsley-Green, England's first children's commissioner, points to the UN convention which protects children's privacy.

"I'm concerned about the naming and shaming of people. I think this is an abuse of their rights to privacy," he said.

Discussion on the issue so far had been very one-sided, he argued.

A child protesting against smacking
Ministers are refusing to impose a full smacking ban

"I am asking for a mature debate in the light of what the government has signed up to - to give promises to children of protection, provision and participation by signing up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child."

Prof Aynsley-Green is echoing fears expressed by children's charity Barnado's and by the children's commissioner in Wales.

He said he did not totally oppose Asbos, which could help some people see the error of their ways.

But he was worried when they were given to children who could not understand them because of behavioural problems or learning difficulties.

He has urged magistrates to understand the background of each child before using an Asbo as a last resort.

The commissioner also appears worried about another weapon in the armoury against nuisance behaviour: dispersal orders, which can be used to stop groups of youths congregating.

"Is it right for children who are gathering on street corners, who are committing no crime, to be punished for that?," he asks.

'Bunker thinking'

The professor is disappointed there is no mention of the UN convention on children's rights in the government's "respect action plan", unveiled earlier this month.

Instead, the principles of the convention should "overlay" the action plan, he argued.

Prof Aynsley-Green said Tony Blair had been right to raise the issue of respect and he welcomed government promises to regenerate depressed areas.

I have despair from seeing the sheer awfulness of many children's lives
Al Aynsley-Green
Children's commissioner

But he worried the debate was becoming "a bit bunkered in its thinking".

"This issue of respect is an incredibly complicated agenda. There is no quick fix, there is no one-size-fits-all and I do not think punishment and control is necessarily the answer to this."

He highlighted the links between nuisance behaviour and drink and drugs.

And he warned: "We give children very conflicting messages about alcohol: on the one hand extending the licensing hours, on the other hand not seeing how targeted young people are by the alcohol industry."

'Despair'

The commissioner was appointed last July and is still camped out in a temporary office inside the Department for Education and Skills.

He was previously national clinical director for children and a child health professor at London's Great Ormond Street Hospital.

His first few months have seen him touring the country talking to young people in schools, prisons, detention centres and rough-sleeping beneath railway arches.

Vicky Pollard in Little Britain
The watchdog is trying to fight stereotypes of young people

He reportedly has also been watching the Dick and Dom show and listening to Franz Ferdinand CDs to help get a grip on youth culture.

He even donned a "hoodie" in one speech aimed at highlighting how the media too often perpetuate negative stereotypes of young people.

It has all filled him with a mixture of "exhilaration, despair and fright".

He is excited by the "wonderful children" he has met and determined that all his work will be embedded in what children tell him.

"I have got a fairly shrewd idea of what it's like to be a child and therein lies my despair... seeing the sheer awfulness of many children's lives and the way in which the majority of the population in this country appear to be oblivious to the difficulties they are facing."

His fear come from the expectation on his office to tackle the problems of 11.8m children.

Smacking plea

Among his concerns are the "relentless pressure" put on children by the advertising industry.

He wants the government seriously to consider giving lowering the voting age from 16 to 17.

And he joined with his counterparts in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to urge a total ban on smacking - as there is in 20 other countries.

He said he was not surprised the government rebuffed their demand but said there was "inexorable momentum towards support for this argument".

"Children are the only people in England at the moment who legally can be assaulted...," said Professor Aynsley-Green.

"We are not saying that children should not be disciplined, far from it, but we are anxious to promote positive approaches to disciplining children."

Top of children's concerns, however, is bullying and the commissioner has just published a booklet aimed at giving children advice on the subject.

He is also pushing an idea which came from children: for all school pupils to fill in questionnaires on bullying every term which can be assessed by school inspectors.

With a political storm brewing over school reform plans, the commissioner is keen to engage children in the debate.

And in his role as the official voice for children, he poses an "exam question" for everybody to ponder: "what is it actually like to be a child or young person today, particularly one that is at the margins?"




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