Listen to children and young people, says Tam Baillie

Written by Alan Robertson on 28 October 2014 in Opinion
Opinion

Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People wants to speed things up

Tam Baillie is, by his own admission, the “grumpy commissioner”. If you have encountered Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People (SCCYP) on one of his many public appearances, or indeed seen his cartoon version on the SCCYP website, this self-assessment is unlikely to mirror your view of him. Yet, with almost 200,000 Scottish children in relative poverty – equivalent to one in five – Baillie can be excused for not cracking a smile every second of the day, especially, when that figure is up 30,000 in the last year.

On the morning that we meet, Baillie is expecting the arrival in Edinburgh of more than 100 colleagues from across Europe. The European Network of Ombudspersons for Children (ENOC) is to hold its annual conference and general assembly at Dynamic Earth the following week where Baillie will be sworn in as chair. He’s had quite a career to this point, particularly since he first started working with children and young people by “accident”.

Baillie had been working on a building site upon finishing university in the mid-70s when he was offered a chance through the Job Creation Programme to work in a community library in Ibrox. “It turned out that that was actually a front, they got the money for the old people’s library but the passion of the people working was actually running youth clubs,” he says. With four clubs running a week, it didn’t take long for the then “complete rookie” to think about training as a youth and community worker. However, even after more than a decade of working with youngsters going in and out of care, as well as those plagued by homelessness, that experience could not prepare Baillie for what he would witness in Glasgow at the start of the 1990s

“By this time, I was quite an experienced worker, and I spent four years doing street work in Glasgow city centre, totally and utterly shocked at the situation that youngsters were experiencing. These were young people who had serious substance misuse problems, who had alcohol problems, who would experience rape, who would overdose, and some of those youngsters never made it into adulthood. Those are some of the most acute memories or severe memories or shocking memories, whatever way you want to put it, that I carry around with me, because one of my motivations is I don’t want any youngster in Scotland to have to go through some of the circumstances that those young people I witnessed seeing.”

Two decades on, while the context of working with young people has changed, the big risk factors – a disruptive home life exacerbated by domestic abuse, substance misuse and the like – still exist for today’s generation. “When I say I was shocked, it was about the extent and the extremity of some of the circumstances of those young people and I’m saying that because I think I was a relatively experienced worker at that time,” adds Baillie. 

“I think some of these things are coming home right now, so we’re living in a time where I have never experienced the intensity of media attention that has focused on child abuse, particularly child sexual exploitation, and so the number and the frequency and the regularity of some of the exposure of historical abuse that has come up, we’ve not really lived through anything like this before. If this doesn’t herald a change because of the increased awareness of this phenomena then I think it will have been a really significant missed opportunity. And so one of the things that I think should come from this, the messages that should come from the inquiries, it’s already obvious about young people not being listened to, about not being believed, about being sidelined. We should enter a period where we are much more prepared and attuned to listen to the messages that children and young people bring to us.”

It’s an approach that Baillie has tried to instil throughout his work (he has a personal target to engage with 5,000 youngsters a year while in post). It has not been without its difficulties, though. ‘A Right Blether’, the national consultation undertaken in 2010, stemmed from Baillie’s desire to have the biggest consultation ever with children and young people Scotland-wide as a basis for the future work of his office. “It wasn’t popular, it wasn’t without its critics,” he admits. “But I don’t hear many people criticising ‘A Right Blether’ now, especially when they can see the work of the office.” Indeed, the level of response surpassed the largest ever at that time – relating to a ban on smoking in public places – by some 20,000. So unprepared was the commissioner’s office for this that a portacabin in Linlithgow had to be hired to store ballot papers. For Baillie, its legacy is that “something quite significant [is] happening in Scottish schools” in terms of staff and pupils being more aware of children’s rights. There is, however, much further to go. 

“For me, there are three overarching issues for children in Scotland,” he remarks. “The first of those is cutbacks and austerity, so that’s having a massive impact on our children, particularly our poorer children, and so we’re living through a time which, for me, is very reminiscent of the 1980s, which was a period of recession and when I really started my career. In the early 80s, the instances of youth homelessness was on a very steep incline, which was in fact one of the things I ended up getting involved in. At that time, the services to young people suffered and we have to guard against that happening just now. But you only need to hear the discourse in terms of families using food banks, etc, to know that austerity is having a real impact. And the second issue that’s allied to that…” Baillie pauses. “I’m getting a bit lecture-y now, I’m sorry about that, I didn’t mean it,” he says. But ‘passionate’ would be the word I would apply to the way he describes the key issues. 

“The second issue allied to that,” he continues, “is child poverty. As long as we have got one in five children in Scotland living in poverty, we will always have need for compensatory services and unless we get to a place where we genuinely do something about that, then we will continue to have children with mental health issues, with lower educational attainment, a propensity for those youngsters to be imprisoned because that’s the way that we deal with it, and in fact, even teenage pregnancy is affected by poverty. Children living in poverty is the single most corrosive impact on children’s lives and, in fact, that’s a children’s rights issue for me. And the third is one of hope and that is about early years. We’re educating ourselves about the research base, about the impact that the early years can have on social, emotional and cognitive development, and I am heartened by where Scotland is heading with regard to early years.”

Has it been moving fast enough, though? “No, it never moves fast enough. I’m paid to be a grumpy commissioner.” I start to laugh at this point. “It’s true,” says Baillie, now failing to keep a straight face himself. “It can always go more quickly and I think there’s a growing sense of urgency about developing early years because this is our generational opportunity to make children’s lives better by improving our approaches to early years, which is why I’ve been so vocal about health visitors because they’re absolutely key in terms of a universal service to children and families in the earliest years of life. Thankfully, the government has actually made announcements of additional money with regard to health visitors, so that is good. We’ve so much more to do and the challenge is to develop new services or new approaches, new ways of engaging with families, at the same time as providing for those children and families that still require some kind of compensatory services. That burden of responsibility right now falls on community planning partnerships. I think the government could actually be doing more in terms of reallocating money at a higher level. “I don’t think there are many people who will defend the prison levels that we have and a lessening [in the] prison population would actually help fund some of that preventative spend. Everybody accepts that that’s a smarter way for us to organise our resources in society and, in fact, there is a lot of talk about asset-based approaches to engage with families. I would say the rhetoric is way beyond the investment [and] is way beyond where the practices are and so there needs to be some catching up… What’s our biggest asset for children? The people who care for them. So that is where we should actually be building our resources around. I welcome developments in terms of parenting, in terms of a clearer focus in early years, but of course, it’s not moving fast enough. You stole my line as a grumpy commissioner.”

Much has been said about the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill, which received Royal Assent earlier this year; it promised an increase in free childcare and further support for looked-after children. Whether it is a big step forward or a tiny one depends on what angle one looks at the legislation from, admits Baillie. “The intention is quite ambitious, if I’ve read the intention properly,” he says, citing steps taken regarding care leavers as highly significant if implemented in a progressive way. “But if you read the detail in the Bill, there’s an awful lot that rests on future enactment and so that needs momentum behind it; it’s not just going to happen because it is sitting on the face of the Bill.” 

Baillie has been encouraged by the seriousness with which government seems to be taking new duties under the legislation to promote the rights of children and young people, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. His powers will also be extended from April 2016 to allow investigations in relation to individual children and young people, with Baillie, whose tenure will finish 12 months later, in the process of liaising with parliament on resources that will be released for it.

The Scottish Government’s ambition for early years is simple: to make Scotland the best place in the world for children and young people to grow up. “In my view, we’re miles away from Scotland being the best place in the world to grow up,” counters Baillie. “The aspiration is one which I agree with, but you only have to look at some of the international comparisons to realise that we’ve got a very long way to go. I’ll do everything I can to try and make that aspiration much more real, but we have to realise that we’ve got a very, very long way to go to improve the lives of all of our children, to such an extent that we can start to lay claim that it is the best place in the world to grow up, rather than it being an aspiration for us to be the best place in the world for children and young people to grow up. You just need to look at the UNICEF tables in terms of how Scotland is doing, in terms of the mental wellbeing of children and young people. We’re far down those tables.”

Post independence referendum, Baillie acknowledges that we are at a “very interesting juncture” before weighing up whether he wants to throw himself into the debate. “One of the encouraging things for me about the referendum was the level of discourse about equality,” he says, though he remains critical that it tended to be dominated by economic considerations. “Even when we were talking about children, it was in relation to childcare in terms of that economic framework, rather than the kind of quality of society that we want for our children to be growing up in.” As the Smith Commission prepared to meet for the first time to hammer out consensus on further devolution, Baillie is keen to underline that whatever powers come to Holyrood must be used to “genuinely reduce the gap between the haves and the have nots”

Equality legislation could come to Scotland and “not necessarily be having to be driven by the UK”, he adds. “I think that [in terms of] our equality bodies, we could actually have them within Scotland and have a Scotland focus to that,” he says. “The kind of debate that I want to have is one which makes it easier for us to consider the position of rights, not just children’s rights but rights right across the board, within Scotland, without having to [have] that always be made reference to through UK legislation. One of the reasons for that is because of the toxic discourse that’s taking place in Westminster right now with regard to the Human Rights Act and we could end up with its repeal. Even although Scotland can reject [that] through the Sewel motion, it would still weaken the human rights framework within Scotland because of the non-application of our legislation to UK bodies. These are quite complex matters, but whatever comes out of it, I would want to strengthen the capacity of Scotland to be able to do that within its own powers rather than [via] constant reference to the UK.”

The question over whether to give 16 and 17 year olds a vote in future elections is a much simpler one. However, Baillie seems somewhat startled when I mention comments made by his fellow commissioner in Wales, Keith Towler, who just a few weeks ago had backed lowering the voting age, albeit with the caveat that more needed to be done in terms of preparing young people before the change. “I’ll need to speak to Keith about that,” he jokes. For Baillie, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. It would be farcical to deprive 16 and 17 year olds of the right to vote in future, having allowed them to do so in the referendum. “I believe in the views of children and young people, I based my work on them, so it’s not really such a big step of faith to say that 16 and 17 year olds can have the vote.” 

Could it result in parties putting forward policies with young people more in mind, however, given votes would then be up for grabs? “I would hope so, but I would hope that they would do that anyway,” says Baillie. “But the fact that they have got a vote might mean that there’s more to lose by not paying attention to that age group. Do you think that would be an argument for bringing it down to 12?” he asks. The question is quickly directed the other way. “I’m only kidding, I’m not going there,” he laughs.

Baillie, at least to the casual observer, is not one to hold his counsel on many matters. That, of course, is a natural consequence of the workload and range of the job, which demands a broad-brush approach across a swathe of topics: children of prisoners, early years, looked-after children, poverty and educational attainment, juvenile justice, including the age of criminal responsibility and use of stop and search by Police Scotland. He has become something of the go-to guy on everything related to young people, I suggest. “Believe it or not, I actually decline to comment on some things,” he says. Yet, having sat in Baillie’s office twice before,  the repetitive ping of his phone signalling new emails has been the constant background refrain and seems indicative of a man much in demand.  

I ask him if, five-and-a-half years into post, he has any regrets. There follows a lengthy pause. “I do work very hard and sometimes you need to take a step back and not just go headlong into all of these areas,” he says. “So you were being very complimentary about being the person to get a view from. Some of the price of that to be paid is that sometimes, some of the bits of work don’t get the same attention that you would want. One of my disappointments has been that we initiated a piece of work on domestic abuse and I haven’t actually been able to see that through to fruition. I will do. By the end of this year, we’ll get that up and running again. So sometimes, bits of work take a bit longer because you’re trying to cover so many bases, particularly on that one which I feel really quite strongly about. I don’t want to have left this particular position and not [have] paid sufficient attention to how the voices of children and young people are heard in court, particularly where there are disputes. We’re having to take stock on that piece of work just now.”

SCCYP-commissioned research published last December looked at children’s views about contact with parents in domestic abuse cases, with 55 per cent of children not wanting any contact with their non-resident parent. It followed another study, nine months earlier, on child contact proceedings for children affected by domestic abuse. “I want to do a piece of work which researches how the views of children and young people are taken and how we can actually improve them,” he says. “For me, that’s unfinished business.”

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Alan Robertson
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