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09 MAR 2010

Maggie Atkinson takes up post as Children's Commissioner despite criticism

Dr Maggie Atkinson has taken up her post as the new Children's Commissioner for England, replacing Sir Al Aynsley-Green who retired at the end of his five-year term of office.

Dr Atkinson's selection was criticised by the Children, Schools and Families Committee who had advised against her appointment. However the Children's Secretary, Ed Balls, ignored the advice and in the process became the first cabinet minister to disregard a pre-appointment committee.

She was the Director of Children's Services in Gateshead from 2003 and was the President of the Association of Directors of Children's Services until March 2008.

However, in it's report the committee said: "While we are satisfied that Maggie Atkinson demonstrated a high degree of professional competence, we feel unable to endorse her appointment, as we would like to have seen more sign of determination to assert the independence of the role, to challenge the status quo on children's behalf, and to stretch the remit of the post, in particular by championing children's rights".

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, the committee's chair Barry Sheerman elaborated: "Maggie Atkinson is a very competent woman, but we just didn't think she had the independence of mind to stand up to a secretary of state who likes to get his own way. Time after time, we see the secretary of state wanting to have people who will do his bidding".

Dr Atkinson's 'independence of mind' and her ability to stand up to the government will be tested by her success in dealing with the issue of children being held at immigration removal centres. In February her predecessor, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, called for an end of the practice.

The issue would appear to be already on Dr Atkinson's priority list. Commenting about her appointment she said: "Children and young people's issues are never out of the media and over the coming months I will be talking to children across the country about the things that are important to them as well as the issues we are working on this year: education; health; the youth justice and asylum systems; how children can best be kept safe; and the way people treat them.

"I intend to build on the organisation's achievements over the first five years, including its work to encourage people to listen to children and young people when making decisions about them, to improve conditions for children in the asylum system and those with mental health conditions."

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