Is Tam Baillie the right man to be Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner?

From the Daily Telegraph Jan 4 2011 - by Jackie Kemp

Despite budget cuts of almost £1 billion next year, Holyrood is about to pick a Children's Commissioner, and give them a multi-million-pound budget, for six years. Tam Baillie, the incumbent, is the clear front-runner, but Jackie Kemp asks whether he is the right man for the £70,000-a-year post and if MSPs are bothering to find out.

SIGN on the pub opposite the Scottish Parliament boasts that it is a place “where everyone knows your name”.
In a small country, this cosiness can sometimes extend to the establishment across the road – perhaps to an inappropriate degree.

At a pre-Christmas meeting of Holyrood’s education committee, there was a very friendly atmosphere indeed – so much so that Christina McKelvie, the Nationalist MSP for Central Scotland, greeted Tam Baillie, the Commissioner for Children and Young People in Scotland (CCYP), with a kiss before sitting down to scrutinise his strategic plan for the next five years.Mr Baillie was appointed to the post in April 2009 by a panel which included several of the MSPs who currently sit on the education committee. The job was advertised as a temporary two-year post with a possible third year.

However, Holyrood later decided to make it an eightyear post. The parliament’s Corporate Body will decide this month whether or not to offer Mr Baillie six more years.
The meeting to look at Mr Baillie’s five-year plan seemed more like a nice chat than scrutiny. The former director of policy for Barnardo’s Scotland was invited to list his achievements and talked about “a RIGHT blether”, the consultation through which he has asked Scots children to set the CCYP’s priorities.

Mr Baillie spent six months on “Tam’s Tour” of hundreds of schools, urging upwards of 50,000 children to take part in this “important” ballot.
On the voting slip, children were asked to choose between various rights. For instance, they could select either: “I think TAM should help us all have a loving, caring home” or “I think TAM should help us be safe and secure in our homes”.

It is a little like adults being asked to choose between the rights to vote and free speech – most would be reluctant to sacrifice either.
It is the major piece of work undertaken by the CCYP’s 14-member, £1.4 million-a-year office since he took over in May 2009. The education committee did not, however, ask Mr Baillie to justify this costly exercise.

Instead, he told the panel how on a recent visit to a school, he noticed children in the playground nudging each other and saying “that’s Tam Baillie” – illustrating, he said, the high profile he was giving the commissioner’s role.

His profile is also raised by the cartoons of himself, below, which adorn both the windows of his office and the literature it produces. Six images of Mr Baillie appear in his 20-page annual report and his name appears in every question on the “a RIGHT blether” paper.

For Mr Baillie, it seems, awareness of children’s rights is closely allied to awareness of Tam Baillie.
The single challenging question he was asked by the education committee came from Elizabeth Smith, the Conservative MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, who wanted to know how Mr Baillie could submit a draft strategic five-year plan before the results of the consultation were even in.

He answered that enough flexibility had been built in to take account of whatever the children decided.
Later, Ms Smith said she was “not impressed” with the answer and was concerned that the CCYP had become “the Tam Baillie show”.

Mr Baillie took over an impressive team which, under his predecessor Kathleen Marshall, had produced a series of well written reports.
One of these attempted to restore the freedom of children in care, who were being forbidden to play outside without adults standing over them.

These reports did not draw, in the main, on the experience of Scotland’s majority of fortunate children who live in relative comfort with loving families, but on the issues facing children in difficult situations. Their guidance on moving and handling disabled children, for instance, came out of a conversation with one disabled girl.

Most notably, Ms Marshall’s team was among the first in Britain to defend the rights of the children of asylum seekers, a challenge which was seen as embarrassing the Scottish Executive at the time and which led to calls for Ms Marshall’s resignation.

Her team is no longer intact and the office does not appear a happy one. Since Mr Baillie’s arrival, about half the staff have left. His chief policy officer works out of a different office and in his submission to the education committee, Mr Baillie said he felt he no longer needed a chief officer.

Holyrood’s Corporate Body will hear from Mr Baillie – but from no one else in the field – when deciding whether or not he gets six more years in post. The snug at the bar across the road would be the right place for another friendly chat – it is to be hoped that MSPs will offer the more challenging scrutiny appropriate for a parliamentary committee considering the rights and freedoms of Scotland’s children.

Jackie Kemp