Scotland’s new commissioner for children and young people, Tam Baillie, on championing children’s rights
In a now famous episode of ‘Parky’, Billy Connolly is midway through a long and involved narrative when Michael Parkinson, shoulders heaving with laughter, turns to the audience in despair and jokes, ‘I’ve only asked one question.’ Tam Baillie, Scotland’s new commissioner for children and young people could give Connolly a run for his money, so eager is he to tell me about his plans for the role that my Dictaphone reads 31 minutes before I’ve even asked my first question. But Baillie is thoroughly entertaining company and speaks with such enthusiasm about children and young people and the work ahead of him that I’m more than happy to sit back and listen.
The choice of Baillie, a well kent face around Holyrood, as Scotland’s second commissioner for children and young people has been warmly received, with MSPs calling him a “true champion of children’s rights” during the parliamentary debate on his appointment. Baillie – who looks like he hasn’t stopped smiling since he learned he had been awarded the role – says he has been “heartened, flattered and humbled” by people’s responses to his appointment.
“I’m absolutely delighted to be in post,” he says. “I wouldn’t have said it at the interview but I’d have done it for half the money! Of all of the jobs I’ve ever done or wanted to do, this is the job that I want to do.” It is a job he is well prepared for as Baillie has more than 30 years’ experience of working with children and young people.
Having started his career in Bellshill in 1979, providing support for children who were going into or leaving care, he spent a period working with young offenders in Nottingham and Liverpool before returning to Glasgow to help set up the first direct access homeless hostel for 16-21 year olds. He then spent four years doing street work in Glasgow city centre which, he says, is an experience that remains with him to this day.
“I was an experienced worker at that time and even I was shocked at the conditions and the experiences of those young people who were on Glasgow’s city streets – at the level of violence, substance misuse, the exploitation of young women that actually did occur – and that sticks with me. Youngsters who are right at the edge. Youngsters who are on the margins. That and every other of my experiences, but that one in particular is still with me, because that was a time when some of those youngsters didn’t make it into adulthood. So that had a real impact on me.” It was these young people’s experiences and a strong desire to change them that sparked his interest in policy development, he says, and led him to go on to spells managing the social inclusion partnership the Big Step, as director of policy and influence at Barnardo’s Scotland and latterly, his chairmanship of the Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights.
Baillie is a passionate advocate of children’s rights and has identified “popularising” the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which marks its 20th anniversary in November, and “bringing it to life” as one of his early priorities in office.
He says it was only during the last five years of his career that he himself realised all the work he had been doing up until that point was actually about the realisation of children’s rights.
“If that is me, a worker of, at that time, 25 years’ experience, then that is what makes me keen and passionate about making sure that the army of workers who are working with children, day in day out, can locate their work within UNCRC. That is one of the things that drives me,” he says.
The convention, he says, is relevant to all children in Scotland.
“Most of the children and young people, most of the time do fairly well, and it is important that people realise that so that every family that is providing a loving, stable environment for their child, every teacher that is providing high quality education, every care worker that is providing good quality care, they are all satisfying children’s rights as embodied by the convention. But often people don’t realise that they are doing that or perceive what they are doing as relevant to the convention.
“One of the jobs that I have is to get a better understanding, a better awareness of the convention, so it is seen as a friend instead of a foe. So that people are not on the backfoot when they hear the phrase ‘children’s rights’.
So they have a better understanding that actually, it is very positive to engage with the convention.” Another early priority he has identified is widening engagement with children and young people. There is, he says, a lot more the Parliament could do to make it more user friendly, particularly in terms of evidence taking which, he says, is “quite intimidating for anyone, never mind children and young people.” However, he praises the Parliament for throwing open its doors to people of all ages.
“I experienced difficulty getting in the other day and was late for a meeting because of the number of primary children who were in it!
So I think the Parliament is genuinely trying to be open and engaging but in terms of its formal processes, it could do a lot more.” But the Parliament is not the only place where we could make improvements in terms of engaging with children and young people, he says.
For his own part, he says he plans to hold a national consultation for children and young people by March next year, and is currently holding discussions about how to use the Glow network, the national schools intranet, to give him the opportunity to ask questions of thousands of children at once on an ongoing basis. Talks are also under way, he says, about how best to extend their reach out to residential schools, special education, secure accommodation, and out-of-school groups so that more marginalised groups do not miss out on the opportunity to be heard.
These plans, he says, will “lay the foundation for sustainable contact with these groups of children and young people” and enable him to speak as “a voice of authority about issues that are relevant to children and young people.” Other areas of interest, he says, will include a focus on discrimination, in particular continuing the work of his predecessor Professor Kathleen Marshall on the issue of children of prisoners.
He pays tribute to Marshall and her “tireless and very tenacious work on behalf of children’s rights” which, he says, has provided him with a strong platform on which to take his work forward. And he does so, he says, “with a sense of optimism that we can make improvements.” “I hope that I fulfil the expectations that we can actually make some inroads in terms of awareness. I want to leave a legacy in terms of our involvement with young people and that it becomes routine for children and young people to become involved in giving their opinions and being involved in decision making and their voices to be heard and respected. I want to be able to measure some kind of changes in regards to discriminating groups, particularly the image presented of young people and in what regard they are held in society.” Where things could and should be done better for children and young people, he says he will be prepared to speak out, but equally, when he thinks things have been well done and should be replicated elsewhere in the country, he will also say so.
“I will use judgement about those things where I exert criticism, and equally, where there is stuff that is worthy of praise,” he says.
“That might make people feel uncomfortable.
But so be it.”