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Province relents in dispute with independent watchdog for children

Ted Hughes, B.C.'s former conflict-of-interest commissioner, in a 2006 file photo.

don denton The Globe and Mail

In the face of censure from the formidable Ted Hughes, B.C.'s former conflict of interest commissioner, the provincial government has backed down on its efforts to dilute the powers of the independent watchdog for children - at least temporarily.

The government said Tuesday it will accept Mr. Hughes's offer of mediation in its long-running dispute with the B.C. Representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

But Allan Seckel, the head of the civil service, said Mr. Hughes won't have long to find a solution. The government still intends to pass a law to curb the representative's authority if talks don't resolve the conflict before the end of the legislative session on June 3.

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"It is critical that we address this issue promptly," Mr. Seckel wrote to Mr. Hughes on Tuesday.

On Monday, Mr. Hughes offered to step in, but he also called on the government to abandon the proposed law that would restrict Ms. Turpel-Lafond's access to confidential cabinet documents.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond welcomed Mr. Seckel's decision to accept Mr. Hughes's mediation, saying the dispute has gone too far.

"The strategy that was being pursued , basically burn down the house to kill a mouse, was a pretty strong strategy and I'm glad they backed off that," she said Tuesday.

Last week, Ms. Turpel-Lafond won a ruling from the BC Supreme Court that forced the government to hand over documents she had requested to complete an audit of a government program that oversees 4,500 children in the care of a relative.

"For those children for whom the state is the parent, we need to look very carefully and make sure things are going well for them," she said. Her office, created at the recommendation of Mr. Hughes four years ago, was not intended to provide "toothless oversight," she added.

Mary Polak, the Minister for Children and Family Development, maintained that it was Ms. Turpel-Lafond's intransigence that resulted in the conflict. Despite the B.C. Supreme Court ruling to the contrary, the government has insisted that it is within its rights to impose limits on the representative's access to documents.

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"What Ted Hughes offered was a new opportunity to resolve this," Ms. Polak told reporters Tuesday. "Certainly previous to this our attempts to resolve this without legislation did not meet with success. Hopefully with Mr. Hughes' involvement that will have a different outcome."

New Democratic Party Leader Carole James said the government has been at fault by attempting to stymie the work of the watchdog.

"The representative is there to ensure there is a voice for the most vulnerable children and youth in our province," Ms. James said. "Every time this minister and this government take a step to fight the children's representative, they are getting in the way of improving services for kids."

In 2006, Mr. Hughes was asked by Premier Gordon Campbell to conduct an inquiry into the death of a child in government care amid a crisis of public confidence in B.C.'s child protection system.

Mr. Campbell had embraced Mr. Hughes's scathing report, promising to adopt all 62 recommendations for change and to ensure "that we live within both the spirit and intent of Mr. Hughes."

Ms. Turpel-Lafond is expected to report out later this year on just how many of those 62 recommendations have been implemented.

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