Lemn Sissay accuses children’s commissioner for England of failing children in care

Lemn Sissay, the poet and broadcaster, has launched a bruising attack on the children’s commissioner for England, accusing her of failing to champion children in care at a crucial time and “smothering the voice of her own office”.

Sissay, whose bestselling memoir My Name is Why was a reflection on his own childhood in care, tweeted that Rachel de Souza, a former headteacher and advocate of academy schools appointed to the role by Boris Johnson in 2020, was producing “so much fudge I could set up a stall”.

He said: “I can’t be the only one who has noticed the curated muffle from the commissioner’s office when it comes to children in care.”

This week charities and councils said the government’s strategy for overhauling children’s social care, launched on Thursday, did not go far enough in tackling a system that is too often failing vulnerable children and families, and whose costs are spiralling out of control.

Sissay told the Guardian that the children’s commissioner should be “championing children in care in the corridors of power” but was falling far short. He is adamant that the MacAlister review of children’s social care and the public inquiry into child sexual abuse, both published last year, represent a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really change things for the children who are the most vulnerable”, and that De Souza should be pushing ministers to do much more.

De Souza’s predecessor, Anne Longfield, became increasingly vociferous towards the end of her tenure about the need for urgent reform of a children’s social care system “on the edge of a precipice”, warning that thousands of vulnerable children were falling through the gaps into the hands of criminals. In an unflinching speech in 2020, she challenged ministers to do more than just apply sticking plasters.

Sissay fears De Souza is undermining Longfield’s campaign.

A spokesperson for her office insisted this week that she was “wholly focused on continuing to advocate for vulnerable children”, and especially those in care.

In a broadly supportive statement about the new social care strategy this week, De Souza called for more “focus and ambition” from ministers and warned that the government’s plans did not tackle the needs of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, often left to fend for themselves in hotels, “about which I have made multiple representations to the Home Office”.

The spokesperson added: “We have made more than 100 visits to settings accommodating children, often at weekends and unannounced so that we hear from the children that no one else is listening to.”

But some experts and charities working with children in care backed up Sissay’s concerns. Zenna Hopson, a former chair of Ofsted who now consults on education, tweeted: “You are not alone in noticing this.”

Jane Collins, the director of the not-for-profit Foster Support and a member of the Children’s Social Care Watch Alliance campaign group, welcomed Sissay’s comments, saying she had been disappointed with De Souza, whom she described as a clearly “political choice”.

“She should have been more vocal about children staying in care until 18,” she said. “She should have been vocal about unaccompanied asylum seekers when concerns were raised last year, but she wasn’t and now thousands are missing.”

Delma Hughes, the founder of Siblings Together, a charity that has reunited more than 1,000 groups of brothers and sisters split up when they were placed in care, said: “Last week she launched a report on siblings who are forced to live apart. It’s such a big issue for kids in care, and we are the only UK charity doing this, but shockingly she hasn’t even talked to us.”

Ivor Frank, a member of the child sexual abuse inquiry panel, said the office of children’s commissioner had never had enough power, and children in care needed to be represented by a special minister in government.

He pointed out that the number of children in care was roughly equivalent to the prison population. “Prisons have their own minister and if someone goes missing there is a national scandal,” he said. “If a child in care goes missing, we hear nothing about it.”

Frank, who is a barrister, predicted that the government would “probably prioritise that which they perceive to be easiest to do” when ministers publish a response to the child abuse inquiry this spring. “This isn’t a government which has appeared to put social welfare as its highest priority,” he said.