Anne Longfield has spent four decades helping disadvantaged young people in one way or another. As she prepares to step down as children’s commissioner for England, she tells Colin Marrs about progress made and the need for better funding to meet current challenges
During the 1980s, Anne Longfield worked as a community projects manager helping children, young people and families in deprived areas of London. Longfield, who steps down as children’s commissioner for England next year, says the experience played a huge part in shaping her approach to her current role. “What I learned then is that families with big challenges – often with a lone parent and not much money – can, with a bit of help, work wonders,” she says. “That has stuck with me.”
Between these two roles, Longfield ran the charity 4Children, delivering services and support to 100,000 children and families across the UK. She also spent a short stint in the early 2000s as a strategic policy adviser in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. As she prepares to move on again, Longfield remains convinced of the importance of the state in improving the life chances of the youngest generation. “The mechanisms are largely there,” she says, “but it needs government to work together and want to do it.”
The germination of the children’s commissioner role – Longfield is the third incumbent – can be pinpointed to precisely 3.15pm on 25 February 2000. At that moment, eight-year-old Victoria Climbié was declared dead at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, following a cardiac arrest. The pathologist who examined the child’s body found 128 separate injuries from a range of sharp and blunt instruments. Victoria’s guardians, her great-aunt Marie-Thérèse Kouao and Kouao’s boyfriend Carl Manning, were both convicted of murder and child cruelty in 2001 and sentenced to life imprisonment.
In 2003, a public inquiry led by Lord Laming found that Climbié had been known to four social services departments, three housing departments, two child protection police teams, two hospitals, an NSPCC centre, and a number of local churches. The review recommended “a fundamental change in the way that services to support children and families are organised and managed”, including the appointment of a commissioner. The following year, the 2004 Children Act cemented the post’s creation.
Referring to the Climbié case, Longfield says she takes very seriously her duty to ensure “no child should go unseen again”. “There’s a huge responsibility to focus on not only the biggest issues for kids, but the big issues for the most vulnerable kids who are more reliant on the state, sometimes for every aspect of their life when they’re in some kind of care,” she says.
The task is challenging, not least due to the size of England’s population compared to the size of her team of just 30 staff. “This country’s got 12 million kids. Other countries have children’s commissioners but there aren’t many that have this scale of population,” Longfield says. She points to figures showing that for 2019-20, her £2.7m budget stretches to just 23p per child, compared to £2.50 in Wales, £1.42 in Scotland and £36.39 in Jersey.
However, Longfield points to a “really good set of powers in the kit bag” that enable her to advocate for policy change. The commissioner has statutory powers to request data from local and national government agencies. “That allows you to investigate what is really going on,” she says.
“From the first day I was in this job, children told me about their stresses and anxieties around mental health,” she says. “They felt that you couldn’t get help until you’re absolutely at crisis point. I was able to then send out a data request to clinical commissioning groups, GPs and others to see and ask them how many kids were coming through their doors, how many they were able to refer on for help, how many of them actually got help and how long they had to wait to get there.”
“There’s a huge responsibility to focus on not only the biggest issues for kids, but the big issues for the most vulnerable kids who are more reliant on the state"
Longfield is optimistic that her continuous requests for information on child welfare are helping government departments and agencies to improve the quality of data they hold. “Often there are huge holes in the data and it is frequently presented in a way which needs a lot of deciphering. But by flagging that up, I can shine a light on it and ask for it to be collected better in the future.”
Longfield cites the example of the commissioner’s “stability index”, now in its third year, which requests and compiles data on changes in the circumstances of children in care, including movements between accommodation and of social workers. “I’m working with the Department for Education asking them to take this work on and my hope is that, in years to come, it just becomes part and parcel of what they do,” she says.
Longfield also highlights her powers of entry, which allow access to any facility where children are living away from home – in mental health hospitals, children’s homes or custody. “I can walk up to the door unannounced and go and talk to those kids and see with my own eyes what’s going on,” she says. “They are the ones who are most reliant on the state because, you know, they have no ability to walk away from where they are.”
She cites a visit to one children’s home which “felt like a prison”. “There was so much security and it was boiling hot like prisons always are, and there were clanging doors,” she says. “It didn’t feel like a place that was therapeutic. We are going into these places and looking at what it feels like, as a child, to be part of this – that experience is often what is missed out in policymaking.”
Identifying problems is one thing. Getting Whitehall policymakers to respond is another matter. Here, Longfield illustrates how far-reaching and effective her powers to secure the answers she wants can be. She regularly summons senior officials from relevant departments to broker solutions on high-priority issues. “This week, I’ve had three senior-level roundtables where I’ve asked people: ‘What are you doing about protecting kids from gangs? What are you doing about getting better therapeutic help for kids?’”
This process of information-seeking plays an important role in focusing the minds of senior policymakers in the civil service, Longfield believes. “As with any communication, you never get 100% what you want, but I think the requests are taken seriously,” she says. “And, because you are asking very direct questions about issues where you can see there are gaps, you not only prompt some work, but also get answers that allow you to continue to press. This embeds itself into the thinking of a department or agency, so they know that at some point they will be asked questions about what they are doing on an issue.”
“I don’t think most parents want the state to take over their lives, but they do want a bit of help"
As an example, Longfield points to emerging government policy on reducing online harms – including the Online Harms Bill announced in December’s Queen’s Speech, which is set to impose greater responsibilities on tech companies, along with the Information Commissioner’s Office Age Appropriate Design Code, also intended to keep children safe online. “I’ve been pressing government to introduce online protections for kids,” she says. “And there are some good things now going through government, about getting the digital world back to the place it needs to be to make it a decent place for kids.”
Partly because of the uniqueness of her position within government, and perhaps partly because the end of her tenure is approaching, Longfield expresses views on government policy with a freedom some civil servants would envy.
Referring to the rise in knife crime and the recent report into child grooming in Manchester, she is clear about the role of funding cuts to public services. “There are so many points where there is a chance to intervene – when children are born into families with problems, when teenagers are excluded from school. But often there is no clear understanding of who should be intervening,” she says. “Is it the school? Is it social services? Is it the police? Actually, it is all of them, and that is the kind of glue that has disappeared through austerity and that needs to be put back, and with purpose.”
Longfield expresses cautious optimism about some “green shoots” following the general election and the UK’s departure from the European Union. “Certainly you’ve now got a government who feels empowered and wants to tackle some big issues,” Longfield says. “The prime minister recently announced he was going to head up the work on serious violence and county lines to protect kids. I have been calling for that for a couple of years and welcome that. I want this government to see that tackling some of these more difficult issues is not only possible but that the benefits for kids, families and communities is part of the kind of future people want to see.”
But Longfield is no advocate for an unchecked nanny state. “I don’t think most parents want the state to take over their lives, but they do want a bit of help,” she says. Revealing her own struggles with dyslexia as a schoolgirl in Yorkshire,
Longfield says: “I hated school because of it. But it didn’t have to be like that. It just needs someone to make a difference. Sometimes it is just a change of mindset and then the determination to drive through change.”
Her description neatly sums up the value she feels the children’s commissioner has brought to government.