Street Children

Orders of the Day — Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 9:59 pm on 10th March 1997.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ottaway]

10 pm

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody , Crewe and Nantwich

Those hon. Members who have left the Chamber are, almost without exception, on their way to a warm house and—usually—to their own beds. Those of us who have that privilege do not always understand the completely different lives led by the street children of the world.

Those children have been abandoned or have run away, and are at risk of suffering the most appalling individual disasters. They are always at risk of theft or exploitation, both sexual and commercial, and many of them live in conditions that we in this so-called compassionate country would not accept for animals. It is therefore important that countries such as our own, which have access to large sums of money and influence in international organisations, should use both to affect the lives of children.

It is a sad fact that it took a long time, even in the House, for people to accept that women are an important focus for overseas development aid. It is even more depressing that we are in the same situation with regard to children. Children are not at the forefront of our decision-making processes. We sit here and talk in detail about legislation that affects our constituents, but we sometimes forget that we have an impact on the lives of children across the world.

I am privileged to represent a constituency in which the railway was an important industry. A railway town was created from a green-field site, and the men and women who work in the railway industry have some important traits. They care desperately about the railway system, and they are committed to providing a service. They also understand the need to care for others. It is therefore not an accident that my constituency is home to a charity called the Railway Children.

The project grew from the response from various railwaymen and women—particularly a remarkable man called David Maidment, who spent his working life with British Rail working on safety. In his capacity as a qualified engineer, he travelled the world and saw to his considerable dismay children living on railway stations. Some were sleeping on luggage carts or in corners, while some were begging, stealing and doing anything they could to stay alive. Some of these children were as young as five.

It is only when one translates that into one's own life that one understands. I am a happy, if poor, grandmother of 10—some of whom are quite tiny. I have only to think of those children being abandoned by their parents and being left to the vagaries of this bitterly cruel world to realise the circumstances in which those railway children live. David Maidment came to the House of Commons to talk to me about helping to create a charity to provide support for those children. He was particularly concerned with the children of India, as he had seen large numbers of them in Calcutta and elsewhere.

As soon as Mr. Maidment began to talk to other railwaymen and women, he realised that they too were concerned about the problem. They brought to the matter not only a strong commitment to human rights, but compassion and a desire to change those intolerable circumstances. So the Railway Children was born as a useful and important charity. We are still aiming to have an exhibition in the House of Commons, showing some of the more poignant pictures taken by a photographer who had travelled throughout India to see those children. We have not yet come up in the ballot, but I am hopeful that we shall in the future. The Railway Children then grew and became part of a greater consortium of charities concerned with the children of the streets.

One reads case histories of children on Mexican or Indian stations, or children abducted in time of war in Africa and incorporated into an army they neither understand nor wish to be a part of and forced to follow a large number of armed men and women to survive. No matter what kind of circumstances those children live in, every one of them needs help urgently—they need it today and tonight. Therefore, why do the Government tell us that there are a number of important measures, but never give us the specifics?

I feel that it would be useful for the House to know some of the statistics. Obviously, some are the result of informed guesswork because, after all, no one knows how many children are in these situations. In Lima, the capital of Peru, there are 850 children living on stations, and possibly 2,000 nationwide. In Mexico City, the figure is 11,000 children. In Guatemala, it is 5,200. In Romania, Albania and Bulgaria, it is 12,000. In Manila, there are 50,000 children living in stations and perhaps 75,000 living on the streets, often working in slave conditions. There are 20,000 such children in Bombay, 10,000 in Dhaka and more than 5,000 in Khartoum. These are appalling figures, demonstrating world misery and unhappiness that we should be doing something about.

I want to ask the Government a simple set of questions. First, can they tell me how many special projects they can identify within their vote are targeted towards children? I would like to call such a programme "Children First". Any number of marvellous social service terms could be used, but what projects can the Minister tell us about that are directed specifically at children and make sure that children receive the money?

How many NGOs, when they approach the FCO or the ODA, are given special help? How much support do bodies that help children receive? How much of our money, outside the direct support that we give via the European Community, goes into child-based subjects? How often does this country demand transparent child-based priorities in these forums? We want action this year, not next year or the year after. We want to tell those carrying out the good work with tiny amounts of support that we share their sense of urgency and want to do something about the problem.

The Minister may say, of course, that the Department has been involved. There seems to have been an unfortunate incident when one of his colleagues gave the House the impression that the Government had come to the conclusion that there should be special child-based projects and that they were already working on them. I will not go into detail, save to say that a letter from the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) offered a long explanation, as follows: You asked whether the Oral answer, as recorded in Hansard of 27 February 1995, reproduced the advice of officials or whether it was a freelance offer by the then Minister… It was neither. The Minister made a mistake when he said that ODA was providing financial support over a five year period to the Consortium. In answering a question on ODA help to street children in Kenya, the Minister inadvertently confused support to the Consortium with support of a Joint Funding Scheme project which had been approved for a five year cycle. I agree entirely that this was a most unfortunate error. It most certainly was—most unfortunate for the children who could immediately gain from the support of the child consortium if the Minister were prepared to accept that that should be one of his priorities.

The Minister could do several things this evening. He could come to the Box and say that he will designate within the FCO and the ODA certain desk officers with responsibility, in particular regions, for child-based projects. That might include Africa and Asia, where the enormous growth in numbers of these children is taking place. It could also include other parts of the world that desperately need help. The Minister could say that he has set priorities and targets for those officers, and that he will ask them at the end of the year to report to him.

Norway decided that it was not doing enough; the Government initiated an assessment; after five years they looked at what had been done and at what needed changing. Why cannot we do the same? We are quite capable of it, and we should be prepared to do it.

Above all, the Minister knows how easy it is for us all to go away to a warm and comfortable room and close the door, forgetting what is happening on the streets—and not just in the third world, either. Part of the consortium's money goes to the Suzy Lamplugh trust to support a telephone service in one of the mainline stations of our capital city. Let us not therefore think that it is only other countries that have the problem. Every time we close the door and forget these children, saying that tomorrow will do, we contribute almost as much to their doom as do those who are abusing them. This very night children will be getting off trains at our larger stations, and they will need support and help.

We must understand that, unless such help comes from the British Government, there will he very few people to care about what happens to these unfortunate young ones.

Photo of Mr Ian Bruce Mr Ian Bruce , South Dorset 10:13 pm, 10th March 1997

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) for allowing me a couple of moments of her well won time to discuss this important subject and to say a few words on behalf of the all-party street children group.

I have been amazed by the influence that a small number of Members of the British Parliament can have in trying to prick the conscience of countries throughout the world and to encourage them to solve the problems. Our friendship and advice are valued, and the small number of people working on the issue in the various countries are extremely grateful for our support.

I know that the Government have been very active in many issues of this nature, and I believe that, the more they can use their enormous influence in international bodies, the better it will be. I do not want in any way to detract from the appeals that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich has made, and I am sure that the Minister will respond to those, but I know that many people are keen for a special place to be created in the United Nations for dealing with the problems of street children. I appreciate that that is often a wide definition of the types of children who need help, and I would not want to understate the needs and difficulties of children living in poverty within families.

I urge the Minister to consider the possibility of appointing a rapporteur in the UN specifically for street children, or finding another way to reinforce the voice of street children within the UN and all its agencies.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 10:15 pm, 10th March 1997

First, I thank the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) for bringing this subject to the notice of the House. It is a distressing and upsetting subject that too many people, sadly, would rather not know about.

I know from my own recent visits to some of the places that the hon. Lady mentioned, especially India, how distressing it can be. I do not know how many hon. Members read the article in the Observer recently about street children in Madagascar, which painted a distressing picture of some of the horrors that may await tourists in some parts of the world.

I had an unfortunate experience that will have been shared by many hon. Members. I was confronted with children who had had limbs amputated, and I wondered whether to give money to the parents; having given them money, I wondered for the rest of the day whether they might have another limb amputated simply to increase their ability to get money. It is a most distressing subject.

The needs of children have always been at the heart of the United Kingdom's development assistance programme. As the hon. Lady correctly said, street children face particular problems, finding difficulties in gaining access to health and education, and suffering sexual abuse and a lack of human rights. Even so, for some, the sad reality is that life on the streets may be more attractive than life elsewhere.

The hon. Lady asked at the outset the total number of programmes targeted at children. We adopt an integrated approach to children's needs in our development assistance programme, so we cannot specify the number of projects of benefit to poor children, but I should like to answer some of the specific points about some of the projects that can be identified.

Street children's needs vary. Some live entirely on the streets, while others work on the streets but go home to their families. In responding to their needs, we must ensure that children are given a voice in decisions that affect them. that is why we support several relevant non-governmental organisations through our joint funding scheme in Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru, Kenya, India and the Philippines.

While some of the projects provide safe havens for the children, the main common thread throughout is access to health care and education. Skills training to give the children the opportunity for a better future is particularly important.

Some of the larger NGOs that receive block grant support from the Overseas Development Administration, including Save the Children Fund, also respond to the needs of street children in their country programmes: for example, in Brazil, Angola, India, Bangladesh and the Philippines. We have also supported various initiatives of the Consortium for Street Children UK.

We gave £30,000 in 1994–95 and 1995–96 for the production of a resource directory; £16,000 for a pilot project on girl street children; and £12,000 for a legal handbook. At the international level, the United Kingdom has taken a prominent role in promoting the rights of street children.

In 1992, we produced a resolution on the plight of street children to the United Nations General Assembly. We followed that up at the UN Commission on Human Rights in March 1993, and we continue to take every opportunity to ensure that children's rights are at the forefront of the international agenda. In particular, we have encouraged all countries to ratify the UN convention on the rights of the child.

I regard this issue as very important, and I raise it at every meeting that I can in the countries I visit. As the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) said, the issues must be raised by western politicians to keep them up the agenda of developing countries, and to make it clear that we have not forgotten about them.

Perhaps I can clarify the situation relating to the inadvertent mistake of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry). My officials have discussed the matter at length with the director of the consortium, and she accepted that it was a genuine mistake. The consortium knows that we do not provide core support. As a general principle, the ODA does not provide funds for core activities such as staff salaries and overheads for non-governmental organisations in the UK. We consider the funding of specific projects with time-bound activities that complement the ODA's policy and programmes. We believe that that is a more appropriate and worthwhile use of development assistance.

On future support to the consortium, the ODA remains happy to consider project proposals from it. The outline proposals for 1997–98 are already being seriously considered by my officials. Individual members of the consortium can make proposals for consideration under the ODA's joint funding scheme.

We have already provided comments on the consortium's briefing paper to its director. I have read the paper in depth, and have much sympathy with the issues raised. Many of its proposals cover areas in which the ODA is already active; others involve actors and organisations outside the scope of the ODA's day-to-day work. We agree that the needs of children, including street children, must be addressed in an integrated way in our aid activities. The ODA's policy on children in development is evolving in the light of growing experience in the field, and it will continue to do so.

The ODA already has a strong commitment to a strategic, integrated policy on children, which regards them as positive actors in development and not only as passive recipients of aid. We support several NGO initiatives through our joint funding scheme. They include two ChildHope projects in Brazil. The one at Casa de Passagem aims to strengthen and develop various educational mechanisms to improve local NGO activities that provide information on health, reproductive health, gender and human rights to young girls on the streets.

In Salvador province, ChildHope is working with the Ibeji management committee to provide street children with a safe haven, where they receive shelter, medical attention and skills training. The aim is to provide children with income-earning opportunities for the future.

We are also tackling the problems of street children through our main bilateral programmes. Our urban poverty project in Kenya involves specific support to street children. Another urban poverty project in Kingston, Jamaica, will help street children more generally by improving livelihoods and living conditions in deprived, inner-city areas. Young people are encouraged to become involved in discussions on community planning, reducing conflict and violence, and the provision of better access to leisure and informal education services. In our poverty reduction project in Cochin, India, the provision of safe havens for street children in poor areas is a priority for this identified vulnerable group.

Several specific recommendations were made in the consortium's briefing paper. I should like to deal with them, because both the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset raised them. First, there is the question of a special rapporteur for street children. The idea of creating one has been raised in the past. It is important to consider existing mechanisms to avoid duplication. Sadly, in too many aid programmes, there is still too much international duplication.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child monitors the progress of states parties in implementing their obligations under the convention on the rights of the child. The convention has near-universal ratification, so the committee's monitoring role has wide application. In considering states party reports, it can examine problems such as street children and make recommendations. The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, is also active in that area. The UN special rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography addresses issues of direct relevance to street children. The most recent report makes recommendations at local, national and international level.

Countries seeking practical help can approach the UN Centre for Human Rights in Geneva, which runs a technical assistance programme. In addition, since 1992, the European Union has sponsored resolutions in the General Assembly and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights that call on all countries to seek comprehensive ways to address the root causes of street children and to bring to justice those responsible for acts of abuse. Sadly, as the hon. Lady said, we are not even aware of scale of such abuses. The more information we can get on that, the better. I am grateful to her for bringing the matter to the attention of the House.

It is worth pointing out that such resolutions were originally a United Kingdom initiative. We continue to take a prominent role among our partners on the issue. Therefore, the plight of street children will be more effectively addressed using a combination of the mechanisms, rather than concentrating functions in a single individual. That is our current belief.

The hon. Lady also alluded to the proportion of aid allocated specifically to children's issues. As I said earlier, most ODA projects cover the wider population, and it is not possible to isolate expenditure on specific target groups within it. Although the data may be readily available for those projects that are designed specifically for children, given the expenditure on all areas that impinge on children, and given what I said about different projects, such a number is involved that they cannot be separated from the more general expenditure. I shall look at the figures to see whether I can provide the hon. Lady with better and more particular information.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset also mentioned the possibility of a children's desk officer in the ODA. The ODA now has about 30 social development advisers based overseas and in London with specific responsibility for carrying out social appraisal in project design, monitoring and evaluation to ensure that the needs of people, including children, are taken into account in aid activities. All countries where we have a development assistance programme are covered from a social development angle. I believe that, in that broad sense, we are covering the need for such a desk officer.

I should like to touch on two issues which the hon. Lady mentioned briefly—child labour and sexual exploitation of children.

A recent International Labour Organisation conference in Amsterdam on child labour has played a significant part in furthering international consensus on the issue of combating the most intolerable forms of child labour. Those are seen as comprising slavery and slave-like practices; forced or compulsory labour, including debt bondage and serfdom; the use of children in prostitution, pornography and the drugs trade; and their employment in an type of work that is dangerous, harmful, or hazardous, or which interferes with their education. When I read the briefing provided by the Department, frankly, I found it hard, as does everyone in this country, to imagine that children are subject to child labour anywhere in the world in 1997.

It is also important that we differentiate between the abuse of children in child labour and the child labour that occurs in many poorer parts of a country, which acts as a supplement to low-income families and does not fall into the category of child labour. I am pleased that that definition has been understood more widely in the world debate on the matter.

The conference was hosted by the Dutch Government as a contribution to the ILO's programme to develop a new convention to deal with combating the most intolerable forms of child labour. It is hoped that that will be ready for submission to the ILO's annual conference in 1999. The United Kingdom supports the intention to develop such a convention, and we will be a full and willing partner in the preparatory discussions.

It is worth stating that poverty is a root cause of child commercial sexual exploitation in developing countries. Income from child sex work is often seen as a way out of poverty for many families. Therefore, it is extremely important to tackle poverty. Children, particularly girls, are often completely powerless in such situations.

The ODA funds a number of projects, including support through NGOs, which help to provide alternative income opportunities, education and improved health care for children who have been forced into prostitution. I was involved in discussions on child prostitution in Thailand just a few weeks ago. We also provide funding to UNAIDS and to UNICEF. Support is also given to programmes that address the sexual needs of commercial sex workers—for example, in India, where I also had recent discussions.

In the follow-up to the World Congress Against Commercial Exploitation, which was held in Stockholm in August 1996, the ODA organised a meeting with NGOs working in the United Kingdom and developing countries. We have invited the Coalition on Child Prostitution and Tourism to let us have a proposal for data collection and information gathering.

There are many factors which force children on to the streets throughout the developing world—for example, poverty caused by population growth and increased numbers of people seeking a new life in urban centres. The hon. Lady mentioned Calcutta and Dhaka. I recently visited those cities, and saw children on the streets, which is a distressing sight.

Other causes that force children on to the streets include conflicts and war, which cause loss of family or separation. Poor education and health provision are also factors, as well as the need for children to make money to support themselves and their families. Another simple fact could be that home life may be so difficult and terrible that street life is preferable.

In many developing countries, the issue of street children can be very sensitive. We need to support ways in which to promote changes in public attitudes towards children to show that they have rights and the ability to play an active role in their communities. Health education programmes are also important for street children, especially in relation to HIV-AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and drug abuse. The ODA addresses all those issues in our development assistance programme. We have a strong commitment to a strategic and integrated policy on children, which sees them as positive actors in development, and not just passive recipients of aid.

This is an extremely important subject, and I am sorry that more hon. Members were not present to hear such an important debate. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.