Children's Rights Commissioner Bill

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6 April 2001.

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Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre 9:33, 6 April 2001

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is a privilege to support the Bill. It is not mine—I did not write it—so I can say that I regard it as a great Bill. It is about the protection of children, which is vital in itself, but it is also about our democracy and how we use a great international agreement—the United Nations convention on the rights of the child—and bring it alive in this country.

The Bill invites us to change the way in which we consider children and calls on us to stop viewing them as the passive object of our concern, to invite their participation, to value their point of view, to promote their human rights and to recognise our duties towards them. If anyone should doubt the importance of that, let them contemplate the shocking fact that one or two children are murdered every fortnight in this country, almost always by a close family member.

We need to counter that shocking statistic in all sorts of ways, not least by paying child protection workers a lot more, but the debate is about more than that: it is about whether we need to think about children differently and give them far more prominence. By definition, children are powerless, because they have no vote. Usually, that means that they also have no voice—but the Bill can allow them to be heard and give them a presence where it matters.

The Bill is widely supported. Last year, every Member of Parliament must have felt the power of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children campaign, with thousands of constituents supporting the measure when it was a ten-minute Bill.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am always curious when an hon. Member claims that a Bill has "wide support". How much support does the hon. Gentleman estimate that the Bill has here today?

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I will come to that in a minute.

Any serious observer of the progress of work on children's rights over the four years of this Government, and anyone who participated in the debates on the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill, will be aware of the support for these measures. We regularly see in our post that many people are concerned about this issue.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

The Bill has well over 100 Back-Bench supporters in the House, who regularly sign early-day motions.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

We all know how easily the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill passed through the House only a few weeks ago.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman, who is so rudely setting a poor example by his barracking, would like to note the presence in the Gallery of young people from Article 12, the British Youth Council[Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) must stop making sedentary interventions—he has made his point, I think—and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) should be aware that we do not refer to people in the Gallery.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Anyone who wants to join me later to meet some fine young people will be extremely welcome—including the right hon. Gentleman.

Many Members are not here today—let us deal with this point before it is laboured any further—because of unbreakable commitments made when they perhaps thought that the county council elections were going to be high on the agenda. I have had many apologies, in particular from my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), who has supported the concept of a children's rights commissioner for many years. My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley), who came to see the importance of this measure through her private Member's Bill, which became the Protection of Children Act 1999, has also been a good supporter of this measure.

Everyone—with perhaps one solitary exception—knows that this is a good, important, worthy and timely Bill. It is time for children's voices to be heard and their rights recognised. I would like to thank Peter Newell—who wrote the Bill—Unicef, the NSPCC, Save the Children Fund, all the children's organisations that support the Bill, Article 12 and the young people who are here today. There is one young people's organisation that glories in the name Young and Powerful. Who in this House would not want to be young and powerful?

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

The hon. Gentleman said a moment ago that, with one exception, everybody supported the Bill. I am not sure whether that is entirely correct. Will the Government facilitate the passage of the Bill by proposing short speeches to ensure that it gets a Second Reading and rushes through Committee as quickly as possible?

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

That is a matter for the Government, rather than me.

Above all, I wish to thank young people from the Lancashire In Care group—lots of whom will be parents themselves now—who, 14 years ago, said to me that a children's rights commissioner was needed to make sure that the UN convention on the rights of the child really worked. That is the whole thing in a nutshell. I could stop speaking now, but I will not. Some young and powerful people have got a lot older waiting for the Bill and it is time we started to put that right.

We should acknowledge that the Government have been good for children. The pledge to end child poverty in a generation is inspiring. The working families tax credit, the children's tax credit, the children's fund and economic and employment policies to help families lift themselves out of poverty will improve the lives of millions. On a smaller scale—but one where needs are perhaps most acute with regard to children in care—there has been major investment, a commitment to children's rights and quality services, new legislation for those leaving care and better fostering and adoption services. The work of the Government is transforming what was a shoddy and sometimes horrific disgrace of a system into a decent and proper system for children living away from home.

So much more could be described, but one other initiative should be emphasised. Last July, the Government announced their decision to establish a Cabinet Committee on children and young people's services and a children and young people's unit, as well as the appointment of a Minister for young people. In November, we had the launch of the children and young person's unit, whose remit includes developing, refining and communicating the Government's overarching strategy for children and young people. That is first class; it is joined-up policy for all the 11.3 million children under 18 in England. Good joined-up policy for those children is exactly what the children's rights commissioner will be setting out to promote.

I am sorry to say this because it will appear rude, and I certainly do not wish to be rude to the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton). I am second to no one in my admiration of my hon. Friend's work; he has ably and determinedly piloted fine legislation to establish a children's rights director for 58,000 children in care and many others living away from home. However, he is not the Minister with responsibility for 11.3 million children living in England; he is not the Minister with responsibility for young people; and he is definitely not the Minister of State, Home Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng). The absence of the Minister with responsibility for young people from a debate that is essentially about assessing the impact of policy on all young people, and about involving all young people in developing the overarching framework for all young people, points to the real problem in what I anticipate will be the response to today's debate.

The fact that the reply will come from the Department of Health, rather than from the children and young people's unit, points to a crucial misunderstanding of something that we need to get right. The independent office of children's rights commissioner is a service for all children, not just those especially needy children who are looked after by the state.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Does the hon. Gentleman think that the absence of the Minister of State, Home Office might give us a clue as to the enthusiasm or otherwise of the Government for the Bill? What does he propose to do to try to persuade the Government to support his Bill? Has he had any contact with the Government to establish their attitude to the Bill?

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I am well aware of the right hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for children's rights, democracy and citizenship. If he bears his impatience for a little longer, he will hear my answer to his questions.

No one will ever convince me that the Government, who are so good on so many things, are good at presentation. One of the more bonkers assertions of the Conservative party is that new Labour is all spin and no substance. In the Children's Commissioner for Wales, we see a post that even this week is beginning more and more to resemble the one set out in this Bill. Even in the wake of the Waterhouse report, the Government initially set themselves against the key recommendations to establish a children's commissioner arguing that it was enough to have a children's rights director for children living away from home.

Subsequently, we had the most welcome proposals for the Children's Commissioner for Wales. However, all through every stay of the legislation in the Commons, the Government resisted calls to ensure that the Welsh commissioner should have a remit that included all services for children and which brought in all children receiving services. Last Tuesday, in Committee in another place, the Government agreed to table amendments to extend the role of the commissioner in ways advocated by others for months. Wales now has a substantial post, but we are left with the feeling that this has been dragged from the Government little by little, when they could have done it properly in the first place and, with some justification, milked the applause for the last 12 months. That is a substantial achievement but, frankly, it is hopeless public relations.

We should take a careful look at the Bill, which appears to make Ministers and their civil servants so timid. The independent children's rights commissioner for England would be known, at least by face, name and contact details, to every child in England. The commissioner would be the backstop, sweeper or guarantor when systems designed to protect children went wrong. He would not replace child protection procedures, but could be approached if they were not working. He would not remove the responsibility of local education authorities and schools to have effective anti-bullying policies, but could be involved if problems arose. He would not take work from the or ombudsman—or any ombudsman—but would probably it crease that work because he would make that person work better for children.

The commissioner certainly would not take away the need for organisations such as Childline; he would probably have to link effectively with Childline to provide a good telephone service and, no doubt, to develop a good e-mail service. He would not provide some bureaucratic, centralised complaints service, but would pass problems efficiently to someone who could help. Who could deny the importance of that role? The gaps between existing services and the places where no one is listening to children are where they can literally die.

The independent commissioner would promote the participation of children in the issues that affect their lives—in school councils, young people's forums, advocacy groups, community groups, and groups at a regional and national level. There is a requirement on the recently established children's fund to support projects that originate from young people.

This proposal is a basic matter of citizenship. Listening to young people and enabling them to take action for themselves should be a key requirement on anyone who works with children. That is part of our international commitment under article 12 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Some people may deny the importance of listening to children and young people, but surely not the Department of Health, which has pioneered the involvement of young people in working parties and in the work of Whitehall and surely not anyone in the House who has met young people at the all-party group for children in cane, who has been involved in the establishment of a United Kingdom Youth Parliament, who supports the Government's investment in a national voice for looked-after children, or who has taken part in Unicef's annual "Put it to your MP" day. They will have learned what I was well taught by young people 14 years ago: that children and young people know what they are talking about. They have knowledge of issues that Members of Parliament do not have, because they are closer to the problems or on the receiving end. They have a fresh perspective and insights that are to be valued and used.

The roof of the House has not yet fallen in, despite the fact that I have often echoed those sentiments, and nor will it if I contend that the real problem for Governments, of any persuasion, and their civil servants is that a children's rights commissioner for England would be an independent and challenging post. As the commissioner would have contact with the new voices of children and young people, and would give a voice to the powerless, they might just be radical, independent, challenging and at the heart of government and Whitehall. The walls are still not collapsing around us, and I do not think that they will.

The powerful post of commissioner would be at the heart of policy making, in regular contact with children and young people, working to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, producing an annual report on the state of England's children, preparing statements on the possible impact of new legislation on children, investigating matters of serious concern, reporting on the impact of policy on children, linking with other commissioners in the UK and abroad, and reporting to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. The person would challenge even a good Government over some policies, such as those that give children less legal protection from physical assault than adults, or deny looked-after children the benefits of new leaving care legislation because they happen to be unaccompanied asylum seekers and their position is not yet resolved.

This has been a good Government for children, but they will be an even greater one if they dare to embrace the establishment of an independent children's rights commissioner, linking with the Children's Commissioner for Wales and with the commissioners who are on their way in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Devolution is fine, but if we are not careful we will get left behind as those countries develop their own children's rights provision.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I agree with every word that the hon. Gentleman has said. Can he see any logical reason why England is intrinsically different from the other nations of the United Kingdom in this respect? What is the logic behind the Government's position?

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I am afraid that I cannot see any logic in the Government's position, and that is the whole gist of my speech. I sincerely hope that the Government will come to the logical conclusion that the Bill must be supported.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

I do not want to introduce a tone of dissent, but does my hon. Friend accept that the complex and varied legal differences between Scotland and England on the age of consent is a clear distinction that may explain a different approach?

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

No, I am sorry, but I do not. It is essential to have commissioners for children in those countries, and I applaud what is happening in Wales and what is on the way in Northern Ireland and down the road in Scotland. We plainly need linked offices so that people work together on issues that arise in those countries. As a patriotic person—I am sure there are a few patriots present—I do not think that England should be left behind.

I am mystified by the Government's approach, given that they are profoundly conscious of human rights. They have established the Disability Rights Commission, and have done great work on equal opportunities and race relations. I cannot understand why they are not keener to promote the independent advocacy of children's rights.

I suspect that some Members are worried about the impact of a children's rights commissioner, both on parents and family life. During the debate on the Welsh commissioner here and in the other place, Opposition Members tried to justify support for a children's commissioner who has nothing to do with ordinary families. That is plain daft. We should face that issue and deal with it properly.

Ordinary, decent parents have nothing to fear from a UN convention on the rights of the child that is compatible with the Children Act 1989 and emphasises that all decisions taken in respect of a child should be in the best interests of that child. The convention respects the rights, responsibilities and duties of parents. It expects, as far as possible, children to be cared for by their parents, recognises a right to family relationships, the right not to be separated from parents except by judicial determination and the right to family reunification.

What decent, ordinary parent would wish to deny their child the right to education, to play, or to freedom of expression, thought and religion? What decent, ordinary parent cannot bear to be challenged by the bright, new clamour of their young people who are finding their voice and trying it out? Decent, ordinary parents or a good Government who aim to do their best for children have nothing to fear from, and everything to support in the Bill.

It would be good, proper, fair and just to support the Bill. It would be the finest thing to give it resounding support in double quick time to get it through all its stages in whatever time we have left in this Parliament. Whether or not the Bill goes much further, support today would send a signal. It would flag up a proposal for the manifesto and would give a clear message not only to 11.3 million children, but to their parents, relatives, friends, carers, teachers, social workers and children's campaigners—all those people with all those lovely votes—that the war of attrition, which is winning the day and will not go away, is at an end. I hope that the Government will establish a profoundly important, exciting, popular and challengingly independent office in the first few months of what the Bill could help to make a great second term. If they do not, we shall carry on fighting. Our cause is right, and it will eventually win the day. I hope that every Member present will support the Bill on Second Reading.

10 am

Photo of Mr Martin Bell Mr Martin Bell Independent, Tatton

I shall speak briefly in support of the Bill and of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson). I regret that so many of the Bill's supporters are not here. In my view, they should have been.

Photo of Mr Martin Bell Mr Martin Bell Independent, Tatton

The Bill's opponents, of course, have every right to be here.

I cannot see that electioneering is much of an alibi for the Bill's supporters. We are here to make a difference. Politics is conducted not for its own sake, but for reasons. One such reason should be the effort to make less worse, where we can, the lives of those whom we represent. That includes children. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre and I have seen the conditions in which children live and suffer in many parts of the world, including Burundi. At home, too, however, there is neglect and deprivation. Here, too, children's childhoods are stolen. I see a real need for a children's ombudsman.

Should I decide to seek another term of office in this House, I shall, unfortunately, be opposed by a candidate from the hon. Gentleman's party, but I wish the hon. Gentleman well and hope that he is returned here. I see no possibility of the Bill reaching the statute book at present, but it is a good and worthy cause and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be in the next Parliament to carry it forward.

Photo of Mrs Llin Golding Mrs Llin Golding Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme 10:01, 6 April 2001

I must first declare several interests. I am a trustee of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, of a children's charity called Safe and of a children's fishing charity called Second Chance. Indeed, I had very much hoped to be fishing today: the delay in the election has kept me in the House to speak on this important Bill.

All our children deserve support and help, but some need it more than others, and some need it desperately. Usually, it does not seem nearly 15 years since I came to this House, but when I think of how attitudes towards children have changed, it seems more like a lifetime. Almost my first vote in Parliament was to ban the caning of children in schools. We won it by one vote, and I have often thought that if my by-election had been held a couple of weeks later than it was, children would still be caned in our schools. That was a barbaric practice.

When I came to Parliament, I knew nothing about the law. My Whips, as is their way, naturally put me on the Committee for a criminal justice Bill. It was there that my campaign for justice for children began. I discovered that children had virtually no right to be heard in our courts. In every criminal justice Bill thereafter, we took another step forward—on video links, the use of screens, evidence of absent children, competency, the swearing of the oath, corroboration of evidence and committal hearings. There was so much to change, and so much was changed.

The rights of children to be heard in our courts were hard fought for by many stubbornly determined Members of both Houses of Parliament. As I look back across the years, it seems incredible that we had to fight so hard for things that are accepted these days as only right and just. When we look back in a few years time, might we not think the same about a children's commissioner?

The United Nations convention on the rights of the child, ratified by the United Kingdom in 1991, and the Children Act 1989 are two of the most important statements that affect attitudes towards children. Having made those statements, and highlighted our responsibilities, Parliament has maintained its commitment to improving children's lives. There has been legislation, including the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, the Carers and Disabled Children Act 2000 and the Protection of Children Act 1999. There have been projects such as health action zones and sure start programmes, and money for our schools to improve the education of many neglected children.

There has also been much more cross-departmental co-ordination, and no one can deny the hard work put in by Ministers on the rights of children and on doing something more positive for children than any previous Government have done. The commitment of the Labour party to eliminate child poverty must be welcomed by all, for we all pay the cost of child poverty—the greatest single threat to the health and future well-being of our children.

There is, however, one commitment that we have not yet had from this, or any, Government—a commitment to a children's commissioner. We need a person whose sole duties are to speak out for children and influence legislation that affects them. Some years ago, when I spoke for children on the Opposition Front Bench, I raised many subjects that cut across Departments—children's play in safety, provision for children in hospital, bullying, residential care, child prostitution, runaways, adoption, accidents in the home, diet, food safety, punishment for children and child abuse. There was so much to consider and to report on, but no individual was in charge.

The Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) fills that wide gap. There are many kinds of children's commissioner, and the recently published "Review of Effective Government Structures for Children 2001", by those long-time fighters for children, Peter Newell and Rachel Hodgkin, should be required reading for us all. They recommend that a children's rights commissioner for England should be established with legal powers and duties appropriate to enable the office to monitor, promote and protect children's human rights. I could not put the case any better than that.

Among the many useful jobs that a commissioner could do, one of the most important would be to reach out to children through television, to let children know that he or she was there for them and that their voice, their fears and their hopes were being listened to not ignored. I like the idea of a warm, friendly, Father Christmas-type commissioner—though we must have him or her all the year round.

The Government—our Government and our children's Government—can make a real and lasting difference to the way in which legislation affects the lives of all our people, now and in future. The Bill shows the way. It deserves our most urgent and total support. I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing it before us.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough 10:08, 6 April 2001

It is a convention of the House that one should congratulate an hon. Member on coming high in the ballot, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) not only on that but on his commitment to his Bill and on his Second Reading speech.

I am afraid, however, that I cannot support the Bill. I hope that hon. Members will accept that, as a father, I am totally committed to looking after children properly. They should be loved and cared for. I hold in profound contempt, those who abuse and mistreat children and I strongly believe that they should be subject to the full rigour of the law. I served for a year on the child care commission convened by the right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). I listened to the arguments—with, I hope, an open mind—and tried to move the debate forward so that we could help children in a consensual way.

None the less, I have grave doubts about the Bill, which I shall share with the House. It is too blunt an instrument, which is why, I suspect, the Government are worried about it. The House should be aware of four aspects in particular. First, contrary to what the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre said when he attempted to address the point, there is a possibility that the Bill will infringe the rights of parents. Those rights were discussed in the other place on 3 April, during consideration in Committee of the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill. Lady Young and many others made passing reference to such issues. I know that if the present Bill goes into Standing Committee, the details can be considered and amended, but I am worried that, as drafted, it does not state that particular regard should be given to the rights or responsibilities of any parent or guardian who is affected by the actions of the commissioner. That is an important matter.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby

Would the hon. Gentleman be kind enough to state in which clause the rights of parents are specifically ignored?

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

The rights of parents are not specifically ignored by the Bill. As the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre made clear, no one would introduce a Bill that stated specifically that the rights of parents would be ignored. I fully accept that a commissioner would not, on day one, invade the rights of good parents—that point is well taken. However, the fact is that there are infinite grey areas and in the unlikely event of the Bill becoming law, I fear that cases would arise that caused a commissioner, for any one of several reasons, to start to interfere in family life. I believe that if the Bill becomes law, an amendment must be made that is similar to the one that was proposed in the House of Lords to the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill, which would specifically ensure that particular regard was accorded to the rights and responsibilities of parents.

Photo of Mark Todd Mark Todd Labour, South Derbyshire

Will the hon. Gentleman give an example of what he means by interference in the rights of parents and families?

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

There is a good example. Let us say that a parent believes that he has the right to chastise his child, which is a controversial matter—many Members of Parliament believe that parents should not be able to slap their children—and that it becomes a more pressing issue. If the Bill were passed, the commissioner would be able to intervene in the case of a parent who chastised his child. I agree that the issue is controversial and I accept that there might come a time when Parliament, on a free vote, decides to prevent children from being slapped by their parents. I would not vote for it, but I recognise that there are some who might promote such a Bill, and if Parliament in its wisdom so decides—as it decided, against my wishes and despite my voting against it, to end corporal punishment in schools—I would accept that decision as one that had been freely taken by a free Parliament. However, I would not accept the creation of the post of a commissioner who could try to advance that process, which I believe will become a real possibility if the Bill is passed as drafted.

The hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) asked for an example and I have given one of the first of four areas that cause me and many others concern. If a serious proposal is made to get the Bill or one like it on the statute book, we have to get it right. The Minister must give an assurance that his support for the Bill, either now or in future, is conditional on our having a serious debate on the rights of parents.

My second concern is that the taxpayer might be asked to fund the children's rights movement through the provision of a commissioner. The Bill is supported by a long list of organisations, including Epoch—End Physical Punishment of Children—the National Children's Bureau, Antidote, the Campaign for Emotional Literacy, the Council for Education in World Citizenship, the International Association for the Child's Rights to Play, Barnardos, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Stonewall. The Bill makes provision in clause 9(1)(d) for the commissioner to hand out taxpayers' money to give financial or other assistance to any organisation for the purpose of encouraging the promotion by children of the interests of children. It is common for children's rights groups to promote their agenda by setting up groups that are said to be run by children for children. Some such groups may be worth while and others may promote views that I would not support—but I am not persuaded that we should pass a Bill that would open the door to a considerable increase in public funding of those lobbying groups.

My third concern is about the power to litigate. The House should be aware that the Bill is wide-ranging and has the potential to make a considerable impact. It is not just some little Friday-morning Bill of the sort that often wends its way gradually through the legislative process, which most people think is fairly harmless, and which is opposed by few—perhaps only by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). It is a serious and important Bill that provides a power to litigate. Clause 10 gives the commissioner an extraordinarily wide power to interfere Where the Commissioner considers it necessary or expedient … in any legal proceedings". Clause 9(1)(b) empowers the commissioner to arrange legal representation on behalf of a child. Together, those powers raise the prospect of wide-scale legal interference, potentially with parental rights. Other bodies concerned with children, especially schools, might also find themselves on the receiving end of litigation that is conducted or financed by the commissioner at taxpayers' expense.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that in the Children Act 1989, the Government of whom he was a member abolished the concept of parental rights and replaced it with that of parental responsibility?

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

To be honest, I was not aware of that, but I cannot believe that anything done by the Conservative Government whom I supported would have seriously compromised the rights and responsibilities of parents.

A series of Acts dating back more than 100 years has ensured—naturally enough—that parents do not have complete authority over their children. If a parent burns his child, inflicts cruelty on him, sexually abuses him, or treats him badly in other ways, that parent will be brought to court. Governments in civilised societies have rightly established a legal framework that ensures that there are no such things as absolute rights of parents. However, a balance has to be struck.

No one is suggesting that there is anything profoundly wrong or evil in the Bill—everybody accepts that the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre has produced his Bill with the best of motives. Our point is that such Bills gradually extend the boundaries. One moment one lives in a society in which every sensible person accepts that parents hold ultimate responsibility and are in charge; then, almost without realising that a change has occurred, one suddenly finds that the emphasis has shifted from parental rights and responsibilities to the rights of the child, and that the latter have become superior to the former. That might not be what the hon. Gentleman intends, but the Bill has that potential, and that causes us concern.

My fourth area of concern is the power of legislative scrutiny. The Bill requires Ministers to have regard to the views of the commissioner on any legislation that affects children. That would give extraordinary power to an unelected official—the commissioner would be unelected—and provide vast opportunities for children's rights advocates to meddle, via the commissioner, in the drafting of family law and education law, among other things. The Government would have to have regard to the commissioner's views on any legislation concerning children. That is an extremely wide provision.

I shall paraphrase some of the points made by Lady Young and others in the other place on 3 April. The matter was summed up sensibly in the observation that, in the past, we lived in a society where the main justification for protecting children was that they were different from adults—they were obviously immature and vulnerable and therefore needed parental protection. Parents had to educate their children, supervise them and correct them if necessary, so that when the children grew up and became adults they, too, would be able to continue that tradition of looking after the most vulnerable people in society. That was the traditional point of view and I suppose everybody accepted it.

One cannot deny that there has been a switch—it can be seen in conventions, in Bills such as this and in points of view expressed in Parliament—from the traditional point of view to a theory based on the assumption that children are individuals and have a right to exercise their own choice and to have self-determination in all aspects of their life. That view is put forward by a number of people. I shall not get into that debate, but I note those conflicting points of view.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I hope that my hon. Friend will not leave that point too quickly. Has he considered that, in this country, we require children to remain in education until they are 16, which suggests that we have made a judgment that they need education until they reach that age, so as to mature their judgment? Furthermore, we choose not to give them the vote until they are aged 18. Again, that suggests that they are not able to make a judgment—certainly as voters—until they are 18. Is my hon. Friend prepared to accept that those two long-established provisions suggest that, so far, we have made a collective judgment that children, aged under 16 or under 18, are not yet able to mat e full and mature decisions on a wide variety of matters?

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

My right hon. Friend is right. There is an element either of hypocrisy or of pick and choose in the movement for children's rights. No one seriously suggests that a child aged 12 should have the right to demand not to go to school or to be educated. As my right hon. Friend points out, no child has the right to vote before they reach the age of 18, so society severely circumscribes the freedom of children.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

Does the hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that the work of the children's rights commissioner would be based on the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which—as I have already said—give; children the right to be educated and the right to family life but which certainly gives them no right to opt out of either?

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

I shall refer to such conventions in a moment to describe how they constantly broaden the parameters. It is important that when we discuss Bills such as this, we have a grown-up argument about those matters and that we do not claim that one side is entirely right and the other side is entirely wrong; there are grey areas and I shall try to explore them. However, of course the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I accept it.

After my description of the two arguments, it will be obvious—if it was not obvious before—where my views lie, for what they are worth. It is unfortunate that, under the Bill, parents are left out of the commissioner's remit. After all, there have been cases where children have been removed from parents for the wrong reasons. In the Orkney children's scandal in 1991, nine children aged 8 to 15 were taken from their beds by police and social workers.

Before that, there was the Cleveland fiasco, which arose from an excess of zeal on the part of the local authority. Sir William Utting said of that case that the rights of children and the rights and responsibilities of parents prove mutually supportive. He hoped that view would prevail in future.

There have been cases in which an over-zealous bureaucracy, even equipped with the existing law, which the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre considers inadequate, has over-intervened.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

I am following the hon. Gentleman's point with interest. Perhaps the Cleveland case is a rather poor example of over-zealousness. Does the hon. Gentleman not think that, with hindsight, the number of children involved in that inquiry who were subsequently re-admitted to care suggests that it nay have been the media attention on Cleveland that was wrong rather than over-zealousness on the part of the key agencies? I do not object to the general thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument, but does he think that Cleveland offers the best example?

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Perhaps some of the decisions taken at Cleveland were right, although the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), who is held in high regard in the House, may hold a different point of view from that expressed by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe). I do not claim to be an expert on that case; it might have been right for the local authority to intervene in some instances. However, my point is that there have been desperately sad examples when it was wrong to interfere with the rights of Parents.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that children's rights also involve the right of a child to have contact with a parent and that, on occasion, that right is denied? Does he acknowledge that one of the functions of a children's rights commissioner might be to assert that right on behalf of a child, considering the matter solely from the point of view of the parent's rights?

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

No one in this place has tried harder than me to promote the concept of the desirability of children retaining contact with both their parents—especially after marital breakdown. It is a sad fact of our society that, with the increase of marital breakdown and fathers leaving home, a high proportion of children lose contact with their parents. Of course, I accept that it is entirely desirable that society tries to promote the view that "families need fathers"—to cite the name of that organisation. The debate is on the right way to achieve that. Should it be by consent and by ensuring that it is encouraged by the practices of the Child Support Agency and the law? Should it be by creating a new post so that a commissioner can intervene—possibly in a heavy-handed way—in a difficult emotional situation, when, for example, the mother believes that the father has an extremely damaging influence on the children? Would the matter be satisfactorily resolved by giving over-arching powers to the commissioner to interfere in those difficult family situations, instead of leaving it to the family courts, which have great experience of such cases? I am a banister. I have sat in family courts. We sit around a table—there is no question of a courtroom; the magistrate and the judge, even the justice at the High Court, all take those matters extremely seriously. One should not assume that society is not already experienced in dealing with such issues.

For all those reasons, and contrary to the disingenuous reply of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre to my intervention, the Government—as I understand it—do not support the Bill. However, if I am wrong, I shall be happy to give way to the Minister if he wants to assure me of the Government's support for the measure. I think that the Government do not support the Bill—not least because during debates on a similar Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre last year, the Minister said: The Government are not convinced that it would be desirable to create a new national mechanism additional to the courts, the police and the prosecuting authorities, the various existing commissioners, including the Parliamentary Commissioner and the health and local government ombudsmen, the responsibilities of local and health authorities to deal with complaints, and the various inspection and regulatory arrangements for ensuring that safeguards for children are properly implemented and that their voices are heard."—[Official Report, 15 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 930.] If the Minister has changed his view, I shall happily give way to him. However, I suspect that he has not. He expressed the sensible view that the existing arrangements are satisfactory.

There was an interesting debate, which I have looked up, in the Welsh Assembly. I know that not many hon. Members take the trouble to look up the debates in the Welsh Assembly, but it was a perfectly serious debate, in which Mr. David Melding, on behalf of the Conservative Opposition, expressed concern that parents' rights would not be taken into account sufficiently.

I shall briefly quote the amendment that Baroness Young tabled to the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill: Clause 2, page 2, line 14 at end insert—(2) In exercising his functions, the Commissioner shall have particular regard to the rights and responsibilities of any parents or guardians of children to whom this Part applies. I should be very happy to give way to the Bill's promoter if he would now like to intervene to tell me that he would be prepared to propose that such an amendment should be inserted in his Bill. Sadly, he does not seem to be willing to do so.

We shall see how the Bill progresses, but if it is debated on Report, I will want to move such an amendment. I am afraid that I have to tell the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre that, in all honesty, if on Report he were not prepared to accept such an amendment, I would certainly not be prepared to support the Bill, or to facilitate its passage through Parliament, for the reasons that I have given. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but that happens to be my view.

We are told that the commissioner's role would be to promote the welfare of children, so it seems entirely logical to require the commissioner to work with parents and families. After all, surely the family environment is vital to the child's well-being, and all I urge the commissioner to do, if he becomes a statutory being, is to support parents and encourage them to be responsible for their children.

A series of international conventions and treaties has been mentioned. In 1948, for example, article 26 of the universal declaration of human rights established the "prior right" of parents in relation to educating children. The declaration has been widely cited in the House as the benchmark, the model on which we have created subsequent human rights legislation. In 1959, the declaration of the rights of the child made numerous references to parent-child relationships, including in principles 6 and 7, which state that the child should where ever possible grow up in the care and under the responsibility of his parents". For all those reasons, I hope that we can always promote any such legislation in the context of the 1948 universal declaration of human rights, which—this is a very important point—established the prior right of parents.

If hon. Members think that what I suggest will not happen, I remind them that I made numerous interventions and speeches in debates on the Human Rights Act 1998, saying that it might affect the rights of Church schools, for example, but the Government told me not to worry because that would not happen. Yesterday, I picked up the Glasgow Herald, and saw a huge front-page article headlined, "Catholic school system taken to court" and "Parents challenge right to deny a place". It said: Nathan's father, Iain Mackay, a business analyst with Scottish Widows, has taken the case to Cameron Fyfe, a Glasgow solicitor, in a bid to have the council's decision overturned. Mr. Mackay is arguing that his son has been discriminated against because he is not a baptised Catholic. Nathan has been prevented from entering a Catholic school. When we gave all those warnings, we were told, "Don't worry. This is a human rights Bill. It will only affect bad people." I am talking about the heart of the Scottish education system, built up over a century—the right of Catholic schools to insist that Catholics have the prior right to join them—but now the school is taken to court. That is what we worry about.

Worthy Bills are introduced and legislation is enacted, and people use it. These things do not exist in a vacuum, and often people with very limited resources are taken to court. I have mentioned a Catholic school, but it could easily have been an Anglican school or a Jewish school. We live in a society where there are all sorts of different views and people, and we regard some views as completely zany. There was an obituary in The Daily Telegraph this morning of the man who was the chairman of the Flat Earth Society. All his life, he believed that the earth is flat.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

He had the right to his view. If religious parents or other people have a particular point of view, we should not use this place to hammer their views into the ground and say that they do not have a right to live their lives in the way that they choose.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems is that commissioners, of whom we now have far too many in any case, feel it necessary to justify their existence, their salaries, their staff and their budgets? The great danger with this commissioner—and, in this respect, he will be no different from any other—is that he will inevitably set about justifying all those things and, therefore, will probably extend the remit and activities way beyond anything envisaged even by the enthusiasts for the Bill and the commissioner.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

My right hon. Friend is right. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre claims that the commissioner and the Bill are harmless, but that is not clear to me, and he did not really explain that to us. There were some fine words and a great peroration about looking after children, which we all accept, but he did not explain what is wrong with the existing system, where it is going wrong or what the commissioner will do. The fear is, of course, as my right hon. Friend says, that the commissioner will naturally want to extend his remit. That is how people in such organisations operate.

There is a very well-developed children's rights movement, and its aim is nothing less than the legal imposition of an entire philosophy that would affect the way in which we order our families. That may not be the hon. Gentleman's view, or that of any hon. Member in the Chamber—we are all very moderate and sensible people—but that is the view of some people in the so-called children's rights movement. Let me quote some of the things that they believe in: Parental responsibility should be defined in legislation so that children can call their parents to account if they do not deliver on their duties;Every family should be ordered on democratic lines with parental authority requiring the consent of the children;Parents should be required in law to take their children's views seriously and children should be able to challenge breaches of this principle in court;Schools should encourage a children's right ethos, and education on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child should be introduced into the curriculum;All children should receive sex education in schools and parents should no longer have the right to withdraw their children from classes for any reason;'Gender stereotypes' should be eliminated from schools and feminist thinking should be reflected across the curriculum;The validity and legitimacy of homosexual relationships should be promoted in schools;A Commissioner for Children's Rights should be established on similar lines to the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission to promote children's rights and to ensure that children have effective means of redress.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that unattributed remarks quoted at length, leading on from discussions about the Flat Earth Society, hardly do justice to the importance of the Bill, the aim of which is to protect children, to assist their participation in our society and to ensure that the Government pay due regard to the needs of children? He asked me directly why the post is needed. I can tell him from my direct experience of working with children for 17 or 18 years that the post is needed because the views of children in this country are routinely disregarded, which does great harm to them and to families.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

I happen to have footnotes for all those points of view—I did not make them up—and I can go through the footnotes, one by one. They include Martin Rosenbaum, writing in an article entitled, "Taking Children Seriously". The previous statement was from "UK Agenda for Children", produced by the Children's Rights Development Unit. The one before that was a recommendation produced by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The one before that was, again, front "UK Agenda for Children", and the one before that from "Children's Rights & Childhood" by David Archard. I did not make any of those up—they were all written by someone, and I will send them to any hon. Member who would like them. There are people who are making those arguments, and there is no point in denying it. We may think that they are flat-earthers, but they believe profoundly in their point of view. They believe that the rights of children come before the rights of parents, and we should be very worried about that.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

If I wanted entirely to discredit the movement to curb the EU's power or get Britain to leave it, I could quote some very unpleasant people with policies that have racist and fascist undertones.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Of course there are extremists in every organisation. I am trying to explain to the House that there are several people who support the views that I have quoted. At the beginning of my speech, I listed the groups that support the Bill. They do not think that their views are extreme. They do not think that it is extreme to ban parents from smacking their children. They do not believe that it is extreme to place homosexuality on an equal footing with heterosexuality in schools. They do not believe that schools should encourage a children's ethos. As far as they are concerned, they are not fascists, nasty people or anti-democrats.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Yes. They will use the commissioner to promote their agenda. He or she may be a person of sufficient stature and strong will to resist that agenda, but if not, in 15 or 20 years we will have a very different ethos, and that worries me.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Does my hon. Friend agree that his argument demonstrates the wider point that, although almost any hon. Member can come to the House with a Bill and quote in its support any number of organisations, not even well-established and respected organisations have a right to legislate, and our job is to judge wider interests? Quoting supporters or even opponents of a Bill is only part of the story, and our judgment must have a much wider range.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Yes, we must use our judgment and common sense. In this matter, our common sense should tell us that existing legislation, which has been extended considerably in the past 10 years, is adequate to deal with abuse of children. Contrary to what the supporting organisations argue, we do not need the Bill.

The whole children's rights argument is built on the assumption that children are born innocent and good—I agree with that to a certain extent—so it follows that children do not need direction from their parents; they do not need correction, physical or otherwise, and it is scandalous that anyone should dream of making decisions for them once they can speak and act for themselves. I believe that the children's rights movement is wrong.

I agree with Charles Colson, writing in The Advocate, who said that we should be very cautious of recommendations decreasing the role of parents and increasing the role of the state in family life. God created the family as the basic unit of society and planned that truth would be passed from parents to children, from generation to generation. That makes my point. In the same article, Brian Edwards says: "Long before a child thinks about murder, contemplates the passing pleasure of adultery, understands the apparent advantage of stealing, learns to lie or yearns for the possessions of others, it struggles to break free from parental discipline. That is always the first relationship to be trampled upon, and therefore the first one that a child must learn to value. From this commandment"— the fifth commandment— flows an attitude to a thousand people. I happen to agree with that point of view, although not every hon. Member would agree.

Children need direction, and parents are in the best position to look after their children. The Bill is another attempt to chip away at the rights and responsibilities of parents. We must hold bureaucracy and social institutions accountable. Once they are passed, laws tend to achieve an awesome power in the hands of bureaucrats that Parliament never intended. For all those reasons, I oppose the Bill.

Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Labour, Rother Valley 10:45, 6 April 2001

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) on introducing the Bill. He has done the House a service by giving us the opportunity to debate the children's rights commissioner.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) said that deciding whether to create a commissioner is important for our treatment of children and that existing law on the subject is adequate. However, the wonderful gift of retrospection tells us that 30 years ago, a great deal of child abuse took place in schools and other institutions. That was accepted at the time and the law was considered adequate. Society has since judged that such abuse is unacceptable, and the House has, on occasion, voted to end practices that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre mentioned, such as caning in schools. Humankind is constantly changing. The very point of the convention behind the Bill is to protect children throughout the world from all sorts of exploitation, and some such practices, such as sending children down coal mines or up chimneys, were banned in this country almost 200 years ago. We should never close our minds to the possibility of the need for legislation.

Unlike my hon. Friend, I have not worked with children, except in bringing up my own three. He said in an intervention that children's views are often disregarded, and I agree. I think of the children in my constituency, where leisure facilities and life chances, within the family and outside it, have not moved on much since I was a young person there in the '50s. I sometimes despair of how our society treats young people. Going to villages and questioning young people is not a scientific way to do a survey; nevertheless, I have asked many young people what facilities they would like in their village. Of course, they say that they would like an ice rink or a bowling alley. We could not have those in every village, or indeed in any village in my constituency, but some nearby towns have such facilities in abundance, and children in village communities want the means to get to them. Even if there is transport, they may not be able to afford to use it. I know that we have thought about transport to and from schools, but we must consider giving children access to it for wider purposes.

Many children have nowhere to go at night. I despair because taxpayers spend billions of pounds, and have done for centuries, on public buildings that close at 4 o'clock in the afternoon when they are no longer needed for the use for which they were built. Agencies could intervene to make schools and other public buildings available to children for recreation.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am familiar with the phenomenon that the hon. Gentleman is describing, but surely he agrees that we already have mechanisms for dealing with such matters. I think of school governing bodies, which have parental representatives, and local authorities, which we elect and which are accountable to us. Community by community, they are capable of making the decisions that he rightly highlights. Where does the commissioner come into all that?

Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Labour, Rother Valley

People would be able to take their grievances and put their case to the commissioner. The right hon. Gentleman is right to mention the role of local authorities and school governing bodies. In my constituency, activities outside the usual school role of educating children take place in only a minority of schools. Access to schools is made difficult by the costs and the fact that they are cordoned off. Rotherham metropolitan borough council has just agreed a massive project under the private finance initiative to rebuild a large number of schools. It is in its second phase and I hope that the architects will design them so that those parts of the school that are used for educational purposes can be secured and locked up at 4 pm while other parts are available for use.

Young people need functional buildings to be available to them. Most, if not all, purpose-built youth and community buildings in my constituency are not open for young people to use on Saturday and Sunday nights. People write about young people hanging around on the streets and so on. I would not want to encourage them to be up at 10 pm if they have school the next morning, but Saturday night is different, and taxpayers' money has been used on buildings that are locked up. That makes no sense. Young people would love to use those buildings on a Saturday night when they have nothing else to do. Their views are often disregarded. I know that such arrangements would mean that people might have to work weekends, but people in industry have done that for years.

We need to consider the attitude to children in our society and their enfranchisement. They need to get a good start in life, because they are not getting it now. Child poverty is a major issue throughout the world. I am pleased to be on the Labour Benches supporting a Government who are doing so much more than the previous Government to aid and develop children's rights and to attack child poverty in different parts of the world. I am also pleased that I can support a Government who do that at home. An announcement was made yesterday about the children's tax credit, and how it will apply from 1 April. Families who do not have people in work will not benefit from that, but more than 11,000 families in my constituency will. The Government are doing a great deal. The major problems with child development relate to child poverty.

We have also done well on child benefit, which received its single biggest increase two years ago. That has had a positive impact on families suffering from child poverty. We could do no better than to keep thinking about the issue. The other side of the coin is the link between poverty and health. The South Yorkshire Coalfields health action zone covers the boroughs of Doncaster and Barnsley as well as my borough.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I am hesitant to stop the hon. Gentleman, but he is straying wide of the subject.

Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Labour, Rother Valley

I accept that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. All I am trying to do is put the commissioner in the context of how we treat children in society. A commissioner would be there when things broke down. Anyone who has been a Member of Parliament for two years will know about the problems that people who are responsible for children in their families encounter in doing that job well. In particular, children in care are not getting the assistance that they should.

The commissioner would be the voice for children and would ensure that Governments respond to vulnerable people in society. That is what commissioners throughout the world are doing. Children are very vulnerable—sometimes within the family, and we have heard examples of that. They are also vulnerable as a group in society, which is why I mentioned the way in which they interact with us and society as a whole. They are disadvantaged. The commissioner would not necessarily take direct action. There are some aspects of the Bill that I need convincing about, but the commissioner would ensure that legislators or those who deal with public expenditure for health action zones, for example, always bear it in mind that children have rights. We need to ensure that legislation takes that into account.

I am concerned about clause 10, which gives effective legal powers to the commissioner. That seems to conflict with other legal powers for protecting children. Giving him that power rather than just a voice might clash with the role of other law enforcement organisations. No doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre will consider that.

No matter what people say about the rights of parents, the history of child abuse shows that it has usually been committed by a close associate of the family. We cannot continue to satisfy ourselves that the family or society always look after the interests of children, because often they do not. We can all cite examples of how children are getting more of a voice, but we could give many more that show that they are still disadvantaged.

By introducing the Bill, my hon. Friend is furthering the debate on the development of our democracy and how it can be more inclusive for children. Although the Government might not be entirely in favour of it, as the debate progresses in the next few weeks they might find that we are laying the grounds for ensuring that children get the protection and enhanced rights that they deserve. I am pleased to be here this morning to support the Bill.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst 10:58, 6 April 2001

And I am very pleased to be here this morning to oppose the Bill most vigorously. It is an unfortunate example of the modern phenomenon of motherhood and apple-pie legislation in which high-minded and good thoughts, aspirations and wishes are brought before the House in a spirit of good will. I always carry with me a quote from Sir Winston Churchill. I have shared it with the House before, and it is relevant to this debate. In addressing the Select Committee on Procedure in the House in 1931, Sir Winston said: I am not very anxious to help private Members' Bills. I have seen a great many of them brought forward, and in most cases it was a very good thing that they did not pass. I think there ought to be a very effective procedure for making it difficult for all sorts of happy thoughts to be carried on to the Statute Book. I am guided by those words by no less a figure than Sir Winston in my approach to private Members' Bills, of which this is a very good example.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby

Will the right hon. Gentleman be kind enough to advise me which particular child-oriented legislation he has supported during his time here as a Member?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I have probably inadvertently supported quite a lot if it were introduced by my Government, of whom I was a modest member for about nine years. Certainly, as a Minister for five yeas in what is now the Department for Education and Employment, I probably did not introduce any legislation in the sense that the hon. Lady means. I was largely responsible for the special educational needs code of practice, and that would have had a bearing on children and their welfare. Therefore, I am not ignorant of the matter. However, I certainly would not have supported such a Bill, and I am about to explain why.

The first problem with the Bill is that it seems to rely heavily on a United Nations convention. I believe that United Nations conventions are largely irrelevant to this country, to our society and to our legal structure. I spent five years as Member of the European Parliament—not something that I often admit to in public—and I cannot deny that. As a Member of the European Parliament, operating mainly in Strasbourg—which I enjoyed very much—and in Brussels, I became used to the rather foreign concept of aspirational legislation. The United Nations is a past master at that. At strange international forums, such as the European Parliament and the United Nations, many well-meaning and usually rather highly paid people get together in a rather congenial atmosphere, have good meals and wind one another up to pass declarations on this, that or something else. Those declarations usually take the form of conventions that express very high-flown views indeed.

The problem with the European context and the global international context of the United Nations is that the declarations are rarely carried forward into reality, because they rely inevitably on each individual member state, each sovereign country and each nation state—something in which I believe with great passion—carrying through the aspirations into reality. Something like a United Nations convention—which is obviously much favoured by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) and the Bill's supporters—has no relevance to this country unless we decide that it should have. Simply to argue that we signed the United Nations convention is not sufficient; of course, we signed it because we did not want to look like the bad guys. Successive Governments sign up to all sorts of conventions without any thought as to their relevance to our society and our way of life.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I am following the right hon. Gentleman's argument, but does he not accept that successive Governments have put considerable resources into making reports to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child on their success in implementing the UN convention? Does he not accept that the point behind having the post that would be created by the Bill is to ensure that the UN convention holds sway and works across this country?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

No—of course not. Everybody loves to make reports; that is all part of the mutual self-congratulatory process. We all go to these meetings, we all sign the conventions, we have a good meal, we collect our expenses, we come home and we feel good about ourselves. Governments sign up to conventions so that they can say that they have signed up to them, but none of that is relevant.

We are talking about making real law that affects real people in their homes, communities and schools. That is the sort of thing that the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) mentioned a moment ago. What really matters to children is whether their school building is available to them in the evening. What is really important to parents is the extent to which they, in their daily struggle over the breakfast table and in the evening, have to make endless judgments about whether their child has the sufficient maturity and judgment to go out in the evening unsupervised or to go to school on his own. That is the reality—not a United Nations convention.

For goodness sake, what do people in the United Nations know about the problems that parents in Chislehurst, Rother Valley or any other constituency face? Absolutely nothing whatever. Most of the people in the United Nations are not only foreigners but diplomats. If there is one combination that is utterly irrelevant to our daily lives, it is the combination of foreigners and diplomats. Let us put aside United Nations and European Council conventions right from the outset. Let us accept that they have no relevance whatever to parents and children in the United Kingdom.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre referred to the next driving force behind the Bill in his opening remarks. It is the modern search for a risk-free society. In our strugglings here, we now seem to want to eliminate risk from every element of our daily lives. The difficulty that I have with that is that it does not recognise the daily judgments that we have to make about balancing risk against reality and against what must inevitably arise in our daily existences. That can take many different forms.

This is only a brief digression, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am often amused by, for example, the argument against boxing as a sport, because of the harm that it may cause to its participants. That ignores the fact that more people die from horse riding, playing rugby or climbing mountains than ever die in the boxing ring. Yet people want to reach immediately for what is easy and visible and say that we should ban something that creates harm or risk.

I could offer to hon. Members a risk-free option, and I ask them to contemplate it. One of the ways of eliminating the risk of someone committing a murder for a second time is to hang or execute him after he has committed the first murder. There is a risk-free option for you. I bet very few Labour Members would sign up to it, because, in their balanced judgment, they would probably say, "I am prepared to accept the risk that someone already convicted of murder might do it again inside prison or if he escapes or is wrongly released rather than take his life." That is a judgment and I respect it even though I do not agree with it.

Most hon. Members here would probably want to sign up to the Bill because the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre said that it might help to reduce or eliminate the risks to children. If one puts the words "risk" and "children" together these days, one gets an apparently almost irresistible force. Well, I am going to resist it, because I do not think that it makes any sense. Of course, we must strike a reasonable balance in society—we always have done for as long as there has been civilised society—between the freedoms that we try to give to people as individuals, parents, family members and as members of groups and societies and the element of risk that may exist. The problem that I have with such a Bill is that it would tip the balance completely the wrong way for a well-motivated, but wrong-headed reason.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre touched on the whole business of listening to and respecting the views of children. I doubt that somehow; I do not that think that we should. Certainly we should listen as parents, as teachers and as people who have direct dealings with children and young people and are responsible for helping to mature, develop and educate them, but we should not listen in the sense that the hon. Gentleman suggested.

We are talking about children and that seems to mean anyone under the age of 18. The Bill does not make clear whether it is talking about three-year-olds, seven-year-olds, 11-year-olds or 17-year-olds, and I would have thought that a sensible distinction should have been made in that regard. However, the Bill does not do that; it talks about children as a generic blob.

Nevertheless, the question that we must ask ourselves is, what value should we place on the views that children express about important issues? Although this is bound to be misconstrued, I shall say it anyway because I am a risk-taking sort of chap. When asked what value should be placed on the views of children, my answer would be very little. By definition, young people are forming, maturing, developing, being educated and being influenced as they grow up. To that extent, their views are of relatively little value. That is why we set the voting age at 18; that is way we have set an age of sexual consent; that is why we have set an age for compulsory education. Society decides that children up to certain ages are, almost by definition, incapable of making judgments to which we should give any weight whatever.

I do not accept the Bill's basic premise that children should have a voice. That is the type of soundbite and spin that have apparently become the main drivers of our legislative activity.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I am slightly amazed, but could the right hon. Gentleman tell me how, when the general elections comes, he will justify to 18-year-olds in his constituency that he may be interested in their views now, but that he could not have cared less about them six or 12 months ago?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I would probably make the judgment on the basis of any individual discussion that I had with such a person, or on the basis of any representation that such a person cared to make. I certainly would not make it on a "mass" basis.

I concede, however, that life is full of arbitrary limits, and hurdles that must be leapt. We set the voting age at 18—I am not sure that I entirely agreed with that; I rather liked 21 when it was around—and thus made a judgment: we decided that when people reached the age of 18, regardless of their intelligence, maturity, education or anything else, they should have the vote. A long time ago, we made another judgment: that children should remain in education until they were 16, because until that age they needed to be educated. Those are reasonable judgments, made according to arbitrary limits, which I accept.

My answer to the hon. Gentleman's question about the mythical 18-year-old is that I would have that discussion and make those points. The person concerned would either accept or not accept what I said, and would then decide whether or not to vote for me. I have no problem with that.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

I have been thinking about that wonderful image of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), in his younger days, addressing the Conservative party conference. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that that was a totally worthless event, which we should utterly disregard?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I do not remember being swayed much by what he said, that is for sure. In that sense, I would not differentiate between that and any other political event—but the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I rather agree with him.

Let me now deal with the role of commissioners. That is a concept of which we as a body politic seem to have become rather fond. It is odd, when we think back: do those of us who received their political education back in the 1960s and 1970s remember the commissars in the Soviet Union, or some of the more dictatorial states, of whom we were so critical—figures of power and influence who were able to intrude on people's daily lives? Whether a commissioner is very different from a commissar is an interesting question for debate and consideration, but we are now rushing headlong down a route towards having a commissioner for everything. We have one in this very building, although I shall not digress into what people think about that. Now we are being asked to appoint yet another commissioner.

I shall not delay my analysis of the Bill much further—for these are just my preliminary observations: I shall come on to the Bill in a moment, and then I shall really get stuck in. This is just my softening-up process. I want, however, to make a general common about the concept of commissioners, which has bothered me considerably for some time.

Despite the wording of the Bill, with which I shall deal shortly, commissioners are largely unaccountable. They have enormous powers—the Bill seeks to give this commissioner substantial powers—and very large budgets. I shall dilate on the budget when I discuss the Bill itself.

I am worried about these people I am not comforted by the fact that we are allowing commissioners to proliferate in our society, and in our legal and statutory framework; I worry about it. I will resist the introduction of more and more commissioners, however well-meaning and well-motivated they may be and however much they appear to be constrained by the statutory framework that seeks to establish them. I remain co be convinced that commissioners add to the sum of human joy and benefit, rather than doing the opposite.

My final preliminary point was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, whose knowledge of the law is vastly superior to mine. In this country we have, and are proud of having, an enormous body of statute law, common law, precedent, conventions and traditions that—the recorded versions, certainly—stretch back for the best part of 1,000 years. They serve us very well, and have been the envy of large parts of the world. Hon. Members familiar with Commonwealth countries, in particular, will know that the countries that have the honour and pleasure of being part of the Commonwealth—and have largely chosen to continue the tradition that we handed on to them, in a benign way—consider that combination of statute, common law and precedent to be beneficial and, in most cases, worth retaining.

The hon. Member for Rother Valley said that we must develop the arrangements and review them. That, indeed, is what parliamentarians are here to do, and—as Members know—I participate in the process as much as I can. I do not think that the position should be static; I merely say that as well as moving forward, I would like occasionally to move back. I would like to turn back the clock occasionally. I would like us to enact more repeals, rather than adding more and more to our body of law. I would like that to happen, in its place and where it is justified.

Rather than adding constantly to what is there, I should like us to take away from what is there. Perhaps we could get rid of some of these commissioners, instead of having more and more of them. There is a thought. Perhaps more private Members' Bills should be n peal Bills, rather than continually increasing the burdens of regulation and intervention. I live in hope.

That is why I approach the Bill with some trepidation. The long title, for instance, includes words such as "commissioner". I read phrases such as the rights and interests of children and the powers and duties of the commissioner", and I blanch. I ask myself whether this is something with which I shall feel comfortable, and immediately suspect that it is not.

I then think that I may find some comfort in the text—that perhaps when I get into the Bill, it will not be as bad as I expected. When I start reading it, however, I realise that it is worse than my worst nightmare—for the Bill is a nightmare: it is the worst that one could expect.

The starting point is, I suppose, fairly logical: the appointment of the commissioner by the Secretary of State. Bills such as this always have to start with the Secretary of State, and usually finish with the Secretary of State as well. Perhaps that is inevitable; certainly it was the case when I was in government. I worked for a number of Secretaries of State, who were, of course, giants of infinite patience and infinite judgment.

Clause 1(2), however, states—I accept that this is designed to comfort us—that before recommending someone as a commissioner the Secretary of State shall consult such persons as appear to him to be appropriate. We are already in interesting territory. Who would be the appropriate people? Would those on the list read out by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough be on the Secretary of State's list of people to consult? Are those the sort of people and organisations to guide the Secretary of State in his appointment of a children's commissioner? I hope not, but I fear the worst: I suspect that a lot of them would be, and no doubt there are more.

But the position is worse than that. Anyone who has had the privilege of being in government for any time at all knows that the word "consult" and the process of "consultation", which have entered our political vocabulary relatively recently, are in a sense rather false. How often were the Conservatives, when in government, accused by those who are now in government of engaging in a sham consultation process? Had we asked anyone at all? Who did we ask? When we asked them, did we listen? Did we pay any attention? Did the consultation process make any difference to what we were going to do anyway?

Apart from any other consideration, the number of people who would qualify to do a job such as this is probably fairly limited. In that sense, the consultation process is in itself almost predetermined. The Minister will know, and others will probably be aware, that nowadays anyone setting out to identify an appropriate commissioner or public sector body must immediately be concerned with gender, ethnicity, regionality, experience, relevance and so on.

Moreover, I suspect—we will come to this later—that the appropriate person would have to have legal qualifications. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough suggested, it is difficult to see how the commissioner could fulfil the requirements of clause 10(a) without being legally qualified.

We can already see, then, that there will be severe constraints on the nature of a person who could come anywhere near qualifying for the job. It is in that context that I ask how relevant consultation would be, given that the matter would be severely constrained from the start.

The commissioner will be appointed for five years. He can resign, which I suppose is some small comfort. An even bigger comfort is that he can be removed by Her Majesty in consequence of addresses from both Houses of Parliament, so there is at least an escape clause, for which I suppose we should be grateful, although the following provision states that, at the end of the term, the commissioner is eligible for reappointment, which is a bit of a disappointment.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Has a commissioner ever been removed by Her Majesty after an address from both Houses of Parliament?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I cannot recall any such occurrence. It might be interesting to speculate, although, again, I will not dwell on the matter, about the circumstances behind the resignation of Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools recently. He was not a commissioner, but he was a sort of equivalent person and eventually decided that he could no longer live with the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, if I may put it that way. Such things can happen, although I cannot recall such a removal. I suspect that the provision would be redundant or otiose from the start, although it must be put in the Bill to give us a bit of reassurance.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

The answer, I think, is that no one has been removed. It is a uniquely powerful position. It is equivalent to being a canon of Lincoln cathedral, who cannot be removed and who is in office for five years. Therefore, Parliament has no control over those people.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I do not know where firearms come into this, but I shall leave that to my hon. Friend.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

Is not an alternative interpretation that Parliament has done rather well in appointing commissioners because it has not removed any so far?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I wish that I thought that that were so. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I am not as reassured by what he says as he would hope.

The Bill states: The Commissioner may appoint such staff as he thinks fit to assist with the discharge of his functions; and any function of the Commissioner may be performed by any member of his staff authorised for that purpose". We run into a difficulty. I shall return to this theme as I go through my analysis of the Bill, but straight away we run into the budgetary element, which has not been mentioned much so far; I think that it has been touched on, but it has not been mentioned much. We must pause. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough referred to it in passing. The Commissioner may appoint such staff as he thinks fit". There are no constraints. Apparently, there will be no limit. Straight away, therefore, we have the possibility of a burgeoning bureaucracy appointed by the commissioner without limit.

Of course, it would not work that way because the Secretary of State would inevitably have to set some sort of budget, but one can imagine the commissioner corning to the Secretary of State and saying, "In order properly to discharge my duties, these onerous and important duties that are laid on me by the statute, I need more staff." One can imagine that happening year upon year upon year. I can think of very few shrinking quangos, but I know of an awful lot of ever-expanding ones, not least the ghastly commissions and commissioners whom we already have, who seek endlessly to expand their remit, to expand their staff and to increase their role. Therefore, I am pessimistic about the implications for the taxpayer of clause 1(4).

Then, intriguingly, the Bill says: The Commissioner and the Commissioner's staff shall not be regarded as agents or sere ants of the Crown. What status that gives them, I am not sure. Perhaps the Minister can advise us about where that provision would position the commissioner and his staff. He can be removed by Her Majesty in consequence of addresses from both Houses of Parliament, but a commissioner is not a servant of the Crown. Whether there is any conflict I shall leave for the Minister to ponder and perhaps to deal with when he replies to the debate. All that is not at all satisfactory.

When we get to clause 2, which seeks to set out the remit and terms of reference, we get into considerable difficulties. The Bill states that the commissioner shall seek to ensure that the rights and interests of children are properly taken into account by Ministers of the Crown". That is an interesting one. How does the commissioner ensure that their rights and interests are properly taken into account by Ministers of the Crown? Can the commissioner demand to meet Ministers? Can he demand to see the advice given to Ministers? Can he second-guess Ministers? If he cannot do any of those things, how does that part of clause 2 work?

The provision states that the commissioner shall seek to ensure that children's rights and interests are properly taken into account by not only Ministers but government departments local authorities, other public bodies and voluntary and private organisations when decisions on policies affecting children are taken". I see: so now the commissioner will have statutory involvement in private organisations and their decision making. Have we thought about the ramifications? Do we know how that would work in practice? Can we begin to imagine or envisage how the commissioner would set about seeking to ensure that the rights and interests of children are properly taken into account by … voluntary and private organisations when decisions on policies affecting children are taken"? One can argue that almost any decision that anyone, be he in the public, private or voluntary sector, takes is bound to have some effect on children. It would be challenging to try to imagine a decision that did not have an effect on children one way or another. Therefore, that apparently innocuous clause carries within it interesting and worrying implications. Again, perhaps when he winds up the debate, the promoter of the Bill might want to give us his further thoughts on how he thinks clause 2(1)(b) would work in practice and what the relationship between the commissioner and private organisations would be, given the apparent breadth of the remit.

The clause then stares that the commissioner shall promote compliance with the United Nations Convention". I shall not bother too much about that. I do not think that we should comply will any such convention in any way as they are aspirational nonsense by and large. I suspect that most countries do not comply with most UN conventions. They float about in galactic air and we all pay lip service to them but I suspect that, in most regards, we do not implement them, so I shall not dwell on that.

Clause 2(1)(d) states that the commissioner shall seek to ensure that children have effective means of redress if their rights are disregarded by any body referred to in paragraph (b). That "any body" includes Ministers of the Crown, so the commissioner will have the statutory obligation to ensure somehow that children have effective means of redress against a Minister. I want to hear the Minister's view on that matter. I suspect that, because he is a competent Minister and is very relaxed about the Bill, he will not be too worried, but speaking on behalf of those with whom he has collective responsibility, I wonder whether he has thought about or been advised on the implications of clause 2(1)(d) and how it would operate. If a Minister failed to take into account the rights and interests of children, how would the commissioner seek to discharge the responsibility to ensure that children had effective means of redress against that Minister?

Then we come to clause 2(2). Again, I will not waste time on the United Nations convention, but subsection (2)(b) says that the commissioner will maintain direct contact with children". There are 11.5 million of them, so that is a pretty challenging part of his responsibilities. I do not know how that individual, however talented, busy or active, or whatever the size of his staff, will maintain direct contact with children in any meaningful sense.

The commissioner will also maintain direct contact with children's organisations. Perhaps we are back to the ones that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough listed. The commissioner will also pay particular regard to the views of children and … promote respect for the views of children throughout society". I touched on that matter in my introductory remarks and I am not sure that I am impressed with that part of his responsibility, so I shall put that to t oat one side and come to subsection (2)(c), which says that the commissioner shall have regard to the need to ensure co-ordination between different bodies (including government departments)". We are back to the Minister again. I would want to hear his views on that. How does the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre expect the commissioner to ensure co-ordination between different bodies, including Government Departments?

What role would the commissioner play? Would he sit on Cabinet Committees? Would he be party to the inner workings of government? If not, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I cannot think how he could possibly ensure co-ordination between Departments. Goodness knows the Prime Minister has enough difficulty doing that, as does the Deputy Prime Minister. It is one of the most notoriously difficult aspects of government. In the context of foot and mouth, for example, how is co-ordination ensured between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Ministry of Defence? The provision is verbiage. It is meaningless nonsense because it cannot be delivered.

One problem that I have with such Bills, which I regret now proliferate, is that they contain aspirational wording. They are a bit like UN conventions and conventions of the Council of Europe. People say, "We certainly want co-ordination between Departments. We'll have some of that. Let's put it in the Bill and it will improve the lives of children." Unless the Prime Minister is to start taking personal responsibility for those matters as well as for foot and mouth, I do not see how that could be achieved. I hope to hear more from the Minister or the promoter about it.

Then we come to the difficult provisions. I shall not dwell on annual reports, because they represent the usual spin, nonsense and soundbites to which we have become accustomed. A lot of money would be wasted and the reports would probably take the form of a glossy publication carrying an attractive picture of the commissioner, probably with children. It might also carry pictures of Ministers, with children.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

Would the right hon. Gentleman confer the same description—irrelevant and glossy nonsense—on a report from the chief inspector of prisons?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Not necessarily. Some reports have substance and value, but the less glossy, the more important and substantial they are. The fewer pretty pictures, the more relevant they are, but I fear the worst here. I hope that we do not reach the stage at which we would be able to amend the Bill, but if we do we could table an amendment containing a codicil saying, "No pictures and no glossy covers." Then I might be slightly reassured, but I suspect that that will not happen.

Clause 4(3) takes us into the whole business of compliance notices, which is where the role of the commissioner becomes worrying. It would be one thing for the commissioner to be a symbol or a comforter, but he would be able to make recommendations in the form of a compliance notice in which he shall state his opinion as to the way in which the provisions of the United Nations Convention"— that ghastly UN convention again— are not being complied with and what action should be taken to comply. Now we are getting into much more intrusive territory and the commissioner could intervene much more directly, perhaps in families or with parents—who knows?—but certainly in institutions and bodies.

The Bill would oblige anyone at whom a recommendation is directed by a Commissioner to consider it and reply. Clause 5(3) states: The Commissioner may require a person at whom a recommendation is directed to furnish him with such information as may be reasonably be required". The Bill begins to bite—the commissioner would have serious powers to require any person at whom a compliance notice was directed to furnish him with information. That is an intrusive requirement. It is not trivial; it is very important and I would want to resist it. At the very least, I would want some safeguard or an appeal mechanism to be set up to provide a balance of protection for the citizen against the commissioner.

That takes us back to my general point that, if we are not careful, we shall lose sight of the crucial balance between the well-meaning, well-intentioned commissioner with those ever-increasing powers, and individuals and private or public organisations. That balance is going seriously awry, and it gets worse. Clause 5(5) states: If the Commissioner has reasonable cause for believing that a person will not comply with subsection (4) he may … recover from that person any reasonable expenses incurred. The commissioner would not only have power to require information, but would be able to charge or surcharge individuals with the costs of the process that he had initiated.

The Bill gets worse by the minute and I am very worried about it. Clause 6(1) states: The Commissioner may conduct a formal investigation for any purpose connected with the carrying out of his duties. That would be bad enough, but subsection (2) says: For the purposes of that formal investigation the Commissioner may require any person who possesses documents or information relevant to … produce the documents … furnish the information in writing … attend at a specified time and place and give oral information. The commissioner would have powers equivalent to those of a Select Committee of the House of Commons relating to persons and papers. If I may say so as a Member of the House, it is one thing for elected, accountable Members of Parliament, gathered together in the form of an all-party Select Committee and conducting their affairs in a proper way, to produce documents … furnish the information in writing … attend at a specified time and place but another for the commissioner, unrestrained and unaccountable, to be able to do that. I find it worrying.

Those are the lengths to which we are being asked to go to underpin the UN convention in the United Kingdom. That is where the Bill is leading us. Make no mistake about it: however well intentioned, we would end up with the commissioner summoning our citizens to attend and provide information. He would already have surcharged them and had their money and he would have had the information. Then he would summon them.

What is going on? What have we descended to? We start with well-intentioned ideas, but end up with such a provision. Let us make no bones about the fact that we would be right back with the commissar. This is Soviet Union stuff, or worse. Nothing in the Bill would make the commissioner any more or less constrained than a commissar in the old Soviet Union. Mr. Putin would be proud of us.

I am becoming less and less happy with the Bill as I go through it, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as you may be able to tell. I shall move swiftly past clause 7—what on earth child impact statements have to do with anything I do not know. Then we come to complaints procedures. One might have thought that complaints against the commissioner would have been allowed. If they had, I would have been slightly more reassured, but no. There is no appeal mechanism, no protection—nothing that would allow us to complain against the commissar and his activities.

Again, the commissioner would be allowed to make requirements of people. He would be given another power to be used in pursuit of his duties and he would be under a statutory duty to establish, operate or supervise any procedure for the consideration of representations or complaints". That would not provide anything like a balance.

Against that background, we come to the great unspoken part of the Bill, which is blandly entitled "Other powers and functions". This is the money bit, which I want to discuss for a moment. Clause 9 refers to: Where the Commissioner considers it necessary or expedient for the carrying out of his duties". That would give him total discretion as to the interpretation of his duties under the terms of the statute. He could "publish and disseminate information". We are back to glossies and pictures. The provision would give an apparently blank cheque to the commissioner to spray around the place the sort of misinformation that we have become used to from the Government. If the constraints on the commissioner are as ineffective as those on the Government, we will be inundated. We shall have from the commissioner endless glossy, substantial, thick documents with pretty pictures telling us all sorts of things, most of which we probably do not want to know.

It gets worse. The commissioner can undertake or assist (financially or otherwise)"— the provision is quite explicit about that— the undertaking by other persons of any research". So the commissioner is now a huge vat of taxpayers' money into which people who do research can dip.

I have some know ledge of that because, among my modest responsibilities at the then Department for Education, now the Department for Education and Employment, I had a research budget, and I know how they work. Officials have friends in the research community and, between them, they dream up projects that are put before the Minister. If the Minister is not very careful, those projects will be approved—because they are always well constructed, well conceived and sound good—and lead to large volumes of research. Usually, when that research is finally produced, it goes into someone's drawer and is never heard of again. Although such research involves a lot of money, potentially millions, the Bill explicitly states that the commissioner can commission it.

As the Bill goes on, we get into even deeper water. Clause 9(1)(c) states that the commissioner can give assistance to a child or a person acting on behalf of a child, which may include giving advice (including legal advice) or arranging for legal advice or for legal representation". My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough could tell me—although he is probably too modest to do so—that that rather bland provision could become very expensive very quickly. What would happen if the commissioner frequently decided to take counsel's advice? The bill for that could add up at al alarming rate. Although I have no doubt that that would all be very well justified, the bill for it would be huge.

It gets even worse The final kicker in all of this is clause 9(1)(d), which states that the commissioner may give financial or other assistance to any organisation for the purpose of encouraging the promotion by children of the interests of children. So now the commissioner has an open cheque book to give any sum that he chooses to any organisation that manages to persuade him that it is doing a rather good job on behalf of children.

Given that the commissioner's whole remit is as stated in the Bill—to act on behalf of children—how often will he say no to those organisations? What would happen if one of the peculiar organisations that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough described earlier or some of the more respectable ones presented an idea for a project—always, of course, in the interests of children—and said, "We need this money, and if you refuse us we will be out there telling people that you are letting children down." Will the commissioner say no? I doubt it very much indeed.

The implications of clause 9 are absolutely enormous and the sums involved are potentially gigantic. The provision encompasses publications, legal advice, assistance, money, hand-outs, donations and subsidies—but I did not hear very much about that from the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Has my right hon. Friend given any thought to the other side of the equation, and the fact that another party will be involved when all that expensive legal advice is taken and legal proceedings are initiated? The other party may be a parent, but it may also be a private charitable organisation that is not so lavishly funded and has to foot its own bill when it is so unfortunate as to be the opposing party in such a dispute.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making that very important point.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

The other party could be a school.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Yes. Potentially, the Bill will set one taxpayer against another, or all of us as taxpayers against each other. It is a very familiar and distressing phenomenon. As the Minister will know, that phenomenon is becoming distressingly frequent in the health service. If the matter involves a public body, taxpayers may end up having to find both sets of legal representation. That possibility arises under the terms of clause 9.

The Bill's attempt at a saving provision does not succeed at all, although in fairness—I want to be fair, as hon. Members would expect—clause 9(2) states: In deciding whether to give assistance under subsection (1)(c)"— on legal advice— the Commissioner shall have regard to—(a) the availability of such assistance elsewhere". The assistance could come from elsewhere, such as from lawyers acting pro bono or a public body such as citizens advice bureaux.

Subsection (2)(b) states that, in deciding whether to give assistance, the commissioner shall have regard to Whether in the Commissioner's opinion an important question of principle is involved"— that is an interesting one, but I am not sure that it is that reassuring—or to what is in the Commissioner's opinion the most efficient and effective means for the discharge of his duties". I do not think that that helps us very much either. Of course the commissioner is going to say, "It was the most effective and efficient way of doing it, honest, when I gave out all that dosh to all those people who came along and asked for taxpayers' money. Of course I thought that it was the most effective and efficient way. I am not going to say otherwise, am I?" Therefore, even the Bill's attempt to provide some reassurance to the taxpayer or the House does not succeed very well.

Then we come to clause 10, which I touched on earlier. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough may have a view on this provision. It states: Where the Commissioner considers it necessary or expedient for the promotion or protection of the interests or rights of children, he may—(a) prosecute or defend or appear in any legal proceedings". I am not sure what "any legal proceedings" means; I will need advice on it. Does that mean that the commissioner can barge into a courtroom, uninvited, and say, "I am here on behalf of the interests of children and I am going to prosecute or defend"? Does the provision mean that? That is what it says to me. I can read only what the Bill states.

That provision strikes me as being absurd. It also carries the implication—unless I am told that, nowadays, laymen can appear in a courtroom at will and perform the role of prosecutor or defender—that the commissioner will have to be a legally qualified person.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

I am afraid that clause 10(a) does mean that the commissioner can appear in any legal proceedings although he is not a principal party in those proceedings.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

That is what I rather feared. I can only begin to imagine what implications such a provision has for our judicial system. I should have thought—unless I am otherwise advised—that it also suggests, as a matter of practicality if not law, that the commissioner would have to be legally qualified. That would be another constraint that I could add to the ones that I gave earlier, on gender, ethnicity, regionality, expertise, experience, probity and all the other ones. The commissioner will have to be legally qualified. I would bet that the Bill's promoter did not have that in mind when he drew up the Bill.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

The commissioner will not have to be legally qualified because he will be able to obtain extremely good and expensive advice from Queen's counsel who will appear for him in the proceedings.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am grateful for that advice, but I am not sure that that is what clause 10(a) says. It states that the commissioner may prosecute or defend or appear in any legal proceedings". Perhaps my hon. Friend is telling me—of course I defer to him in the matter—that that could be interpreted as someone who may appear on his behalf. That would get round the need for legal qualification. Perhaps I misunderstood that provision. However, as my hon. Friend said, there is a cost element to the provision. Then again, as the budget is unlimited, that does not matter.

The Bill goes on to say that the commissioner may in his own name make representations in the interests of children at any public inquiry". Again, we have the image of the commissioner barging into a public inquiry and saying, "Oi, I have something here to say on behalf of children." He may be invited. He may have nothing to do with the matter. The inquiry may be taken by surprise, as the commissioner may or may not appear by appointment. Nevertheless, the Bill says that he will have statutory authority to make representations in the interests of children at any public inquiry held". It does not say "to" any public inquiry, but "at" any public inquiry. Therefore, at his discretion, the commissioner has an absolute right of appearance at a public inquiry.

How far are we being expected to go in the Bill to give the commissioner those types of powers? Are we really suggesting that, starting as we did with the interests of children in the United Nations convention, we should end up with clause 10 with all its implications for powers, budget, money, intrusion, demands, requirements and compliance? Is that really where we want to take ourselves? I think not. The whole Bill is entirely misconceived.

Clause 11 says: If a Minister of the Crown proposes—(a) to present a Bill which … significantly affects children; or(b) to make a statutory instrument under any provision of an enactment where that provision significantly affects children he shall first consult the Commissioner. That might not seem too unreasonable, but I suspect that there will be relatively few pieces of legislation that could have no effect on children. One way or another, most legislation will affect children, so the commissioner's diary will be very full of consultations with Ministers about the proposed contents of legislation.

Can a Minister say to the commissioner, "Well, I've heard what you've said, old boy, but I'm not going to act on it"? The commissioner will then be out there spinning furiously about how he advised the Minister that this or that measure was inadvisable in the interests of children but was ignored. That puts Ministers in a difficult position—deliberately. I am not sure that it sits comfortably with our constitutional arrangements or the accountability of Ministers to Parliament—not to a commissioner. If clause 11 were interpreted in the wrong way, it would be a novel and alarming development.

Clause 12(1) says: The Secretary of State shall with the agreement of the Commissioner produce a code of consultation". Does that mean that the commissioner has a veto? I think so. If the Secretary of State cannot get that agreement, we cannot have the code. That is a powerful provision. Rather than saying that the commissioner shall have a reasonable input, it seems to suggest that he will tell the Secretary of State what to do. Are Secretaries of State, accountable as they are to the House, to be even more accountable to the commissioner? Incidentally, the Secretary of State will have appointed the commissioner, which implies a rather incestuous relationship. We know that such relationships can go rather wrong.

All in all, I am not sure that I am persuaded that the Bill is a very good idea. I think that I have detected the odd flaw. Fortunately, we have plenty of time, so I am hoping that, as the day winds on, my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), the Minister and, ultimately, the Bill's promoter, will be able to answer some of my questions. I see the promoter nodding. He is obviously confident, and perhaps he will be able to persuade me, but he will have a bit of a job on his hands because I do not think that the aims of the Bill are well founded or relevant—and even if they were, it goes completely the wrong way about achieving them.

Photo of Mark Todd Mark Todd Labour, South Derbyshire 11:53, 6 April 2001

I do not intend to detain the House for quite as long as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who certainly presented some telling points on amendments that might be made to the Bill. As a supporter of the Bill, I should be interested to hear his thoughts on it in Committee, where we might improve some of the clauses that he is worried about. I do not seek to defend the Bill line by line.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) on promoting the Bill. In his four years in Parliament, he has established a tremendous record as a supporter of children's interests. The Bill is merely a further step in that. I also commend the Government on the many measures that they have taken to assist children: the children's tax credit; the working families tax credit; the child care credit; the substantial increase in child benefit; sure start; record increases in spending on schools; initiatives in pre-school and after-school care; and initiatives to protect children in care.

Probably the most consistent direction of change in the tax and benefit system over the past four years has been towards helping children, and especially children in poverty and those with working parents. That deserves commendation.

It is possible to argue that many of the changes are functional, improving the efficiency of our work force and parents' income, rather than focusing specifically on the well-being of children. They are likely to affect children's well-being, but are not entirely child centred. We need a child-centred strategy focused on an objective analysis of children's needs and on strengthening support for families while recognising the increasingly fractured and fluid nature of our society. We need objective monitoring and advocacy for children, which is what the Bill proposes.

Opposition Members have said that the right guardians for children are either existing public representatives or parents. That goes to the heart of whether we need a commissioner. We must recognise that strategies based largely on the work needs and income of parents neglect the needs of a minority of children—sadly, a minority about whom we hear all too often—who are not their parents' priority.

There was a tragic case in my county—not in my constituency—only recently, of a child murdered by one of her parents. It appalled people locally that that had happened, and that the family were known to social services. It seemed that an error by those concerned with the care of the child had led in part—we must always say that; the people responsible were those who perpetrated the awful crime—to the child's death. We read frequently of such shocking experiences.

Those who talk constantly about the rights of parents—I am a parent myself—must recognise that some parents do not have the well-being of the child at the heart of their relationship or at the centre of their life. We must recognise the need to protect against the extremes and the exceptions as a key facet of public policy.

It is clear that our social services are not always sufficiently resourced or trained to identify abuse and to protect the child. Our historical tolerance, as a society, of assault on the child under the protection of parental discipline makes child protection harder in this country. Distinguishing clearly between the action of a parent in correcting a child and assault on a child is a difficult task and one that is often hard to explain. The matter is clear to me, because I do not believe in assaulting a child in any circumstances. It is harder for our public authorities to carry out their duties when the law in this area is unclear.

The Bill proposes several key steps, including the publication of an annual report. I listened with amusement to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst it is always worth listening to his thoughts—on the subject of annual reports; to be honest, I recognised the picture he drew of them. However, some critical analysis of the views of the children of our country about the services that they enjoy—their well-being, hew services work and how effective they are—would be of value to us. Assembling the various items of information relating to children's services into one publication that we could all understand and read, and which we could monitor over a period of time, would be of assistance. I recognise that it could be said that we could collect all that information from a variety of other publications. but we would not then get the comparative picture or the total strategic vision that we require to consider how services for children operate.

I do not take the dismissive view of the UN convention—or, indeed, of all UN conventions—held by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. I heard his remarks about foreigners I presume that there are no foreigners in Bromley and Chislehurst. If there are, we can assume only that the right hon. Gentleman does not feel the need to listen too hard to their opinions. Clearly, they do not have votes; except in local elections, obviously, if they are citizens of the EU or of Ireland. We note his thoughts on that.

I believe that if Her Majesty's Government sign up to a convention, they do not do so because they would look like the bad guys of the world if they did not. I believe that they are demonstrating some degree of commitment to those goals. We have an obligation to try to live up to the commitments that we have made—and, dare I say it, the commitments that we have encouraged others to make.

I take the view that other countries look carefully at the record of this country and of its Ministers and attempt to listen to what we have to say. If we make commitments, they look to us to keep them—just as we would expect others to keep to commitments that we had encouraged them to make. It is reasonable for us to take those responsibilities seriously.

The commissioner is to be given investigatory powers. Some valid points were made by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst about how those should be exercised, with what brief and with what limits. It may surprise the right hon. Gentleman, but I listened with interest and agreement to some of his thoughts about risk, for example. I would also take a cautious view on allowing any public official a free rein to do precisely as they felt inclined—however worthy they might be and however thoughtfully they might have been appointed by the Secretary of State. There should be a limit, but there is a place for investigatory powers, however they are circumscribed.

The last issue is the joining-up of the arms of government. We have not heard my hon. Friend the Minister yet, and I am sure that he will give a thoughtful response. However, one of the defences offered in this matter is to say that all these activities are currently carried out by various arms of government; why do we need another agency to seek to force others to do what they are supposed to be doing themselves? There are already people who are supposed to be doing that work, including councillors or Members of Parliament, through their influence on Government. Why do we need a commissioner—an unelected individual—to do that task?

My answer is based on four years of experience here, but perhaps just as significantly, on my years of experience as an ordinary citizen, a councillor and a business man. Our civil service structure and the mechanism of government in our country is not focused on the needs of individual citizens of groups of citizens, in this case, children. Instead, it tends to be internally focused and driven by the agenda of a particular Department and its strategies. That produces lacunae—areas that we miss and do not explore, or weak areas where two or three public agencies consistently fail to produce a joint response.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst made a legitimate remark about the handling of the foot and mouth crisis, which could also apply to this area. It is difficult to get various public agencies to join together to defeat a common enemy. We should think carefully about strategies to deal with that inadequacy, and not merely dismiss the problem and say that nothing can be done and that we will have to live with the fact of departmental silos into which matters of public policy conveniently fit. We should not say that if citizens have to deal with an issue that crosses several Departments that is their hard luck, and that we must live with the gaps. That lack of interest in the delivery of modern government services serves us ill.

I have been asked where I think we are failing. I shall pick three examples where it strikes me that services to children are imperfect, and which require joined-up thinking and the actions of an individual to prompt that process. The first example is the children of travellers. I have two legal sites for travellers in my constituency, although other, less welcome individuals sometimes use them. The difficulty of ensuring that the children have access to appropriate health care, education and social services support is a challenge for any agency, especially as they may move on to another part of the country in pursuit of their legal activities. I believe that we currently carry out that task imperfectly.

The second example is the children of asylum seekers. It is unfashionable to be sympathetic towards that group. In rare cases, children are themselves asylum seekers. Do we respond adequately by providing them with timely advice and support, placing them in circumstances in which we would expect our own children to be placed if they were in desperate need and required the comfort and company of other children and the services that other children would expect?

The third example is children who are forced to leave the parental home at the age of 15 or 16, and have to live off their wits. They have to find accommodation and deal with the benefits system, which discriminates against young people in delivering their housing needs, in order to bias their choice in favour of staying at home with their parents. I would want that always to be the choice of any child, especially my own child, but we must face the fact that in extreme circumstances children leave the family home out of fear and out of a need to find a comfortable and safe place to go. We are currently failing those young people, and have not yet worked out the appropriate benefits system and housing obligations to respond to their needs.

I thought of those three examples while I was listening with care to the right hon. Gentleman's speech. I did not spend a great deal of time researching them, but they struck me when I considered what I would ask the commissioner to address at an early stage in his task.

I do not think that our public services act with a unity of purpose focused on a particular citizen or group. They tend to neglect those who are powerless, including children, who are unrepresented and have no vote. It is part of our culture that children's interests should be reflected through the interests of their parents, but we must recognise that that sometimes fails children.

We have an opportunity to take a step that would help children to have their voices heard. I have listened carefully to the points made about children not being entitled to vote or undertake various forms of activity. It is suggested that society therefore regards children as unable freely to exercise choice, and that is an understandable argument. Any opinion offered by a child must be taken in the context in which it is given; I listen carefully to the views of my eight-year-old, but I do not expect him to be able to advise me on complicated technical subjects.

I expect the commissioner to edge society's attitudes to children towards a willingness to listen, when appropriate, to what children have to say. He or she should link the arms of our Government more efficiently so that we can better deliver support. Our experience could lead us to emulate the other nations of the United Kingdom in taking that step. I shall listen with interest to the Minister's response to the legitimate view that what appears to be right for the other nations appears to be wrong for England. The logic of that argument loses me entirely, although the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst would doubtless tell me that the other nations have simply taken the wrong decision. Those actions have been taken elsewhere, by my party in Scotland and by the Government themselves in Wales. I should be interested to hear how that apparent inconsistency is addressed.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but the Government's position on the commissioner is peculiarly consistent with their view that it is justifiable to have a Parliament in Scotland, an Assembly in Wales and an Assembly in Northern Ireland when there is nothing to represent the views of the people of England. I rather resent that, as I support an English Parliament, but not having a commissioner in England is absolutely consistent with the constitutional arrangements made elsewhere.

Photo of Mark Todd Mark Todd Labour, South Derbyshire

I take that point, although I vigorously defend the argument that the individual nations must make their own legislative arrangements. I should like to hear an intellectual exchange comparing best practice, so that we could decide whether the actions of one nation should be replicated elsewhere. If the Minister makes a persuasive argument that circumstances in England are clearly different from those in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, I shall accept it. It may be so. I do not necessarily take the view that arrangements should be the same in all countries, but I want to test the arguments so that I may work out whether those arrangements should be replicated in England.

I am a realist, so I know that we will have no opportunity to pass the Bill into law during the current Parliament. We can, however, set an important pointer regarding the direction that public policy towards children should take. I hope that we shall take that step today, and that the Government will include a commitment of this kind when, in due course, they construct a manifesto for the people of this country.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby 12:14, 6 April 2001

It gives me great pleasure to speak in the support of the Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson). As many of us know, he has diligently fought the case for children since his election to Parliament, and I speak for many parents and children who are grateful for his continuing commitment. I shall focus on clauses 9, 10 and 12, even though clause 9 has already been discussed at length by Opposition Members and some reference has been made to clauses 10 and 12.

I bitterly regret that we have not yet been able to establish a commissioner for England. I warmly applaud our action to establish a commissioner for Wales, although I recognise that that was a manifesto commitment of our party in Wales. The establishment of a commissioner for England would be a suitable manifesto commitment with which to go to the country.

Clause 9(1)(a) empowers the commissioner to publish and disseminate Information about children". Like many hon. Members—perhaps not so many—I am keen on statistics, especially those that are valid, relevant and objective. We receive many documents, brochures, pamphlets, notes and letters from all and sundry quoting a plethora of statistics, but I am always concerned to discover the source from which the statistics arise and the research activity than underpins them. Often, if the research structure is a valid one that can bear scrutiny, the statistics carry considerable weight.

Like many hon. Members, I recently received an excellent document from Mencap—its manifesto for the next election. It mentions equal rights and a series of other issues that affect people with learning disabilities. Mencap cites the fact that nine out of 10 people with learning difficulties have experienced bullying and harassment in the past year. I declare an interest as the mother of a daughter with severe learning difficulty, the sister of a person with learning difficulties, and the daughter of a mother who suffered quadriplegia.

I find information of the sort that Mencap quotes extremely interesting. However, there is no reference to, nor was Mencap able to draw my attention easily to, the source of that information, with the result that many would dismiss it because it appears to be anecdotal. I feel that there is significant merit in the assertion, but insufficient substance to enable me to argue on Mencap's behalf for better regulation.

It is, therefore, with great pleasure that I welcome clause 9(1)(a), together with clause 9(1)(b), which further empowers the commissioner to undertake or assist (financially or otherwise) the undertaking by other persons of any research". It is vital that we have available at a single source a repository of information and research about children, their welfare and activities in the United Kingdom. For many of us pursuing community eases that have direct relevance to children, having to approach myriad organisations in the attempt to obtain justice for those individuals is highly problematic. Most of us know that, even after an initial experience that gives cause for optimism, a positive outcome or positive redress are extremely difficult to secure.

There is in my community a child for whom I have sought justice for many years. That person has now passed into adulthood, which presents a series of different problems because when a child turns 18, different legislation starts to apply, but let us ignore that for now. To obtain justice for that child, who has been abused, I have had to hold discussions with the health authority, several police authorities, several social services departments in more than one county, several councillors, several other Members of Parliament and the parliamentary ombudsman—the list is infinite.

I despair of the fact that, after so many years, we have made no significant progress. In such cases, people who cannot defend themselves and will never be able to do so have to rely exclusively on the interest of an individual who is neither related, nor paid to advocate on their behalf. Even with the incredible commitment shown over the years by the person I described we have been unable to ensure that justice was done. That is because although a plethora of bodies are involved with children, they are accountable to no central organisation.

I have supported my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre in his crusade for the establishment of a children's commissioner because of that case. A children's commissioner would help enormously. I do not think that the clauses would provide individuals with a great liberty that they would abuse or misuse—rather they would offer children who cannot speak for themselves an opportunity to obtain justice that is currently not available to them.

As an aside, I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend welcomes the appointment of a Minister with responsibility for children. I was delighted about that, and have invited the Minister of State, Home Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), to visit my constituency in a couple of weeks.

A commissioner for children would be useful in youth disturbance cases. There cannot be a constituency that is not troubled by young people—if there is, I should certainly like to talk to the hon. Member who represents it. However, perhaps young people become troublesome only when we cease to be young ourselves. When I was a child I certainly used to go out and about in the streets, laughing. However, many of my constituents are extremely concerned about young people who are merely going about their business—exercising the right to meet in their community—and want those young people taken away immediately. Some people even want such young people to serve periods of incarceration.

That may be a minor example, but young people represent a threat to many people in my community and we have tried to tackle the problem. Penalties are not necessary for such children—incarceration is certainly not necessary; we need constructive responses. A commissioner would be extremely helpful in that regard.

In our attempt to address the difficulties generated in my community by young people—some of whom are exercising the legitimate right to meet and to congregate, although others are intent on making mischief and, in many cases, cause substantial damage—we have involved a series of organisations: the local authorities; the local youth offender team; the youth team; the health service; the police; local councillors; Members of Parliament; the Department of Health; the Department for Education and Employment; social services departments; the Prison Service; and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. If I had more time, I could think of many others.

All those organisations have an explicit mandate to intervene and support the promotion of healthy practices and good communities and to encourage children to do well and realise their potential. However, there are serious communication difficulties between those organisations. It would have been of enormous help to my colleagues and me if we could have approached one individual to ask for help in the difficulties that we faced. I fear that, although we may arrive at a workable solution in my community that could be grafted on to other areas, there is no framework whereby we can disseminate that information and make it known. Clause 9(1)(a) and (b) are therefore very important to the establishment of a repository for information and the provision of research services.

I should like to refer to the important provision—clause 9(1)(c)—which states that the commissioner may give assistance to a child or to a person acting on behalf of a child, which may include giving advice (including legal advice) or arranging for legal advice or for legal representation". That is crucial. We are foolish to presume that all parents and relatives, or even the friends and carers of individuals who have suffered from some form of abuse are capable of organising suitable legal advice for those individuals. In fact, I know of some parents with learning difficulties who have children with learning difficulties, and they are not able to do that.

As a parent of a daughter with a learning difficulty, I do not know whether I could organise appropriate advice and services for her, because the amount of information available on specific organisations and individuals who work exclusively in that specialty is, again, very fragmented. So the establishment of a commissioner, who can oversee and provide guidance on legal advice and representation for children, is extremely important.

I am in favour of clauses 10 and 11. With specific reference to clause 11, I believe that, for too long, many measures that primarily affect children have been passed without the impact on children being specifically defined. My normal interests in the House lie in business, industry and technology, and I am delighted that legislation must be accompanied by a regulatory impact assessment. Such an assessment deals with the costs of compliance and the possible impact on business of the legislation, but it could be extended so that its impact on children could be considered.

Many hon. Members have worked in local authorities and they will be aware that the introduction of an environmental impact assessment was greeted with some joy, and trepidation, especially by those of us responsible for executing the assessments. Under that provision, all local authority policies must refer specifically to the likely impact on the environment. I regarded that as an onerous task when I worked in local authorities. Nevertheless, I understood why it was a useful exercise; it informed the individuals who drafted new local regulations and allowed them to be mindful of the wider picture when seeking to introduce measures to resolve what appeared to them to be a very small problem. The same is true for any legislation that can have an impact on children.

Furthermore, I believe that the commissioner would have an active role in relation to parents' rights and, importantly, children's rights. I was very saddened to hear that so many people still think that beating children is an effective means of promoting good behaviour. I suspect like many other hon. Members, my parents thought that physical punishment was very positive. In fact, physical punishment is not a positive way to treat children. I am still puzzled by the fact that we have so many laws to protect adults who are physically abused, but the same protection is not afforded to children. A commissioner would act as a focal point for organisations seeking to address the anomaly that provides people aged 18 and one day with significant protection and those aged 18 minus one day with very little.

I am particularly interested in clause 12, which deals with the code of consultation, because it relates to aspects of clause 9, which I have talked about at length, and the development of statistics and an information base. Consultation is imperative, and we have only recently begun to develop consultation in this country. I am involved in a constant round of consultation with my community. People welcome involvement. A meeting was held in my constituency recently to discuss the problems associated with young people, and more than 200 people attended. In the past, decisions about the management of young people in the community were made not by those who would be affected by them, but by the local authority and the police. I am delighted to be part of an Administration who have brought about a sea change in community relationships. I am disheartened to hear that some hon. Members would never consider consulting children.

I hold regular children's surgeries, and I often wish that the wisdom that children bring to those surgeries could be imparted to some of the adults who come to see me. Children seem to have a much kinder view of the world and some of their solutions seem to be eminently rational. That rationality seems to diminish with time.

I hope that hon. Members will indulge me while I share with them a discussion I had recently with an eight-year-old. She asked me whether we were going to do anything about smacking, and I said that I did not think that there would be a law against smacking in the near future. She said that she was smacked by her mum, who was into keep fit and therefore smacked her quite hard. I asked her whether she approved of smacking, and she said, "No, because it does not make me or my friends behave any better, and I won't do it when I get older." I had to contrast that conversation with a letter about youth offenders from another constituent, who said that the problem could be resolved only by beating them all regularly and if one passed his front door, he would rush out immediately and beat him because of course he was very interested in the welfare of his car. I tried to impart to him the wisdom of that eight-year-old, but he was not particularly interested.

A commissioner would be very interested in children's views and would give them the respect and dignity that they deserve. I have learned a great deal from the children whom I represent. I am conscious of the fact that they will shape my world. I want to make sure that they are treated with respect, that their human rights are acknowledged and that they are championed by individuals.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

My hon. Friend is correct to say that we could learn a great deal by listening to children, but if we are concentrating on rights and the commissioner's role in upholding them, we might consider the horrendous example of the Bulger case. Would the commissioner's role have been to uphold the rights of Jamie Bulger or those of the youngsters who perpetrated the crime?

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby

I thank my hon. Friend for posing that question, especially as Jamie Bulger was murdered in the constituency adjacent to mine. The ramifications of the incident have had a great impact on our communities. Opinion is divided. I remain committed to the view that no child is born evil and that we have a moral duty to all children, irrespective of whether they are the perpetrators of victims of a crime, to ensure that the environmental or biological factors that might cause them to become people who threaten and abuse society are addressed and that they are treated as humanely as possible.

Many in my community still believe that the people who murdered Jamie Bulger should be incarcerated for life. That is a sad reflection on our society. The commissioner would have a difficult role in such crimes, but he could make a positive contribution. Too many opinions do not have a channel through which they can be driven to form a collective view.

I reassert my commitment and enthusiasm for this important Bill. I hope that the Government see fit to introduce such a measure shortly. I have not discussed all the clauses that are worthy of consideration, but they require work to make them more robust so that they can operate within the existing legal framework and complement the work of child protection organisations.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 12:37, 6 April 2001

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis—Thomas), who is persuasive and measured, even though I might profoundly disagree with her. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) on the way in which he proposed the Bill. He always speaks passionately on the subject, to which he brings his long-standing professional experience. He has been assiduous in raising the issue in this Parliament, and I pay tribute to him for his work in that respect.

We support one theme that runs through the Bill, and we give credit to him for that. The Bill is part of a continuum, stretching back to 1989, when the Government of Baroness Thatcher signed up to the European convention on the rights of the child. Lady Thatcher was a good thing—as is the convention, which the Bill seeks to reflect. Article 5 of the convention states: States Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, the members of the extended family or community as provided for by local custom, legal guardians or other persons legally responsible for the child, to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognized in the present Convention. That is a powerful reinforcement of the proper rights and responsibilities of parents.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

Does the hon. Gentleman think that the convention has substance, or does he agree with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who said that the Government signed up to it only so that they would not be the bad guys and so that it could be safely disregarded?

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) gave us a characteristically robust view of the way in which many conventions are signed up to. I do not have his experience to say whether that is generally true. However, a Conservative Government signed up to this convention and they took it seriously. We introduced the Children Act 1989 and we want the provisions of the convention to be adhered to.

It is precisely because we take article 5 so seriously that, in the debate on the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill on 16 January—a debate to which my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) referred—we tabled an amendment that would have denied the Bill a Second Reading. We thought that the Bill was inconsistent with the convention, so our amendment said that this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill because it fails to assert the importance of the family in protecting and nurturing children; it fails to give families confidence that the Children's Commissioner will protect the interests of their children whilst not impinging on the rights and responsibilities of parents". I do not want to go over the argument that we had on 16 January, but I have drawn attention to the amendment because it sprang from our understanding of what we regard as an important convention.

Article 4 is specifically relevant to this Bill. It states: States Parties shall undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative, and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognized in the present Convention. Our adherence to that article provides the context against which we judge the Bill. The establishment of a commissioner for children's rights is consistent with that article.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

Do the Opposition support the principle of a commissioner for children's rights for all children or for particular groups of children?

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I will come to that point and will make our position abundantly clear. The question is one of emphasis, and I shall develop this point. We specifically regard the commissioner's direct function as looking after children, but he has an important role in co-ordinating public policy for all children's issues. However, I shall make that distinction rather clearer as I develop my argument.

I wish to place the Bill in its historical context. We signed up to the convention in 1989, and the Labour party joined that bandwagon—indeed, it may have been part of it from the convention's inception—and it supported that agenda. In its manifesto for the general election in 1992, it said: We will establish a children's minster within the Home Office to co-ordinate policies for children across departments. One independent children's commissioner will promote the interests of all children. Protecting children will be high on the agenda, as will the full implementation of the children act and the UN Convention to promote children rights. That was up front as part of the Labour party's agenda in 1992.

When the Labour party came to power, the emphasis changed slightly. In November 1997, in answer to a question tabled by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre, the then Under-Secretary of State for Health, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), said that the Government had no plans to introduce a commissioner for children's rights, although he clearly said that they would consider the advantages as they produced their second report to the United Nations as part of their obligations under the convention that we signed in 1989.

In July 1997, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre introduced his first ten-minute Bill on the subject. In February last year, Sir Ronald Waterhouse reported, having been commissioned to look into problems that occurred with children in care in Gwynedd and Clwyd since 1974. The original commission was established by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague).

On 17 March last year, the House debated the report. Although its recommendations were wide ranging, they were very clear in respect of what are now the provisions of the Bill. Sir Ronald recommended that there should be a Children's Commissioner for Wales with a wide-ranging remit, but that he should be a commissioner for all children. He should ensure that their rights were respected; that there was monitoring and oversight of complaints and, indeed, whistleblowing arrangements; and that there were arrangements for children's advocacy. The report also recommended that he should have power to examine the handling of individual cases, and to produce reports. Much of that agenda is now in the Bill.

May last year was a busy month in respect of the children's agenda. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre introduced his second ten-minute Bill on the subject, and the National Assembly for Wales adopted a report produced by its Health and Social Services Committee calling for the establishment of a commissioner for Wales—again, a commissioner for all children in Wales. Then there was the Second Reading of the Care Standards Bill, during which my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said: The Government are committed to providing a children's rights director only for looked-after children. We believe that the provision should go further. Almost all children's charities and professionals support the idea of a children's commissioner. The model that I suggest would allow protection and advocacy without interfering in the rights of parents."— [Official Report, 18 May 2000; Vol. 350, c. 496.] It is clear from the Second Reading debate that we were attempting to address the agenda to which the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention—the wider remit that goes beyond just children in care. True to our word, at the 18th sitting of the Standing Committee we moved three new clauses and a new schedule to give effect to the commitments that we had given on Second Reading.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I find what the hon. Gentleman is saying extremely helpful. He rightly says, as did I, that the United Nations convention on the rights of the child refers frequently to the importance of family relationships and the roles, rights and responsibilities of parents. What is there for the hon. Gentleman to worry about? Why does he feel that, in implementing the convention, the commissioner will infringe the rights of parents? That is what he has said, and that is what the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) said earlier.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I want to be absolutely sure that the commissioner does not infringe those rights, and I want any Bill to contain provisions that ensure that he does not. It is for parents to speak for their children, to look after them and to protect their rights. Many children, however, have no such parents to do that on their behalf. It strikes me that there is a proper role for a commissioner to do that for them, which must be distinct from the role performed for children who do have families. However, there seems to be a role for a commissioner to co-ordinate all the Government's policy with respect to children, as distinct from specifically looking after administrative arrangements for looked-after children.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, in what can be ostensibly well-ordered and thoroughly respectable families, the most horrific physical and sexual abuse can take place and that the distinction that he is trying to draw is impossible?

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

No, because there are already procedures and proper roles for the public authorities to deal with those tragic, undesirable occurrences. As a consequence, a child may properly move from being in a family to being a looked-after child in the care of the local authority. It would be proper for them to have recourse at some stage to the services of a commissioner, but it is a point that I hope to develop or to clarify as I move on.

Our intention in moving the new clauses and the new schedule at the 18th sitting of the Committee that considered the Care Standards Bill was twofold. Sir Ronald Waterhouse recommended an independent commissioner. In the Bill, the Government's children's rights director for England was an employee, a member of the National Care Standards Commission. The Government's amendments with respect to creating the Children's Commissioner for Wales made him very much an independent commissioner, in line with the report's findings and the desires of the National Assembly. We sought to amend the Bill to create the same independence for the commissioner in England as for the Welsh commissioner.

I honestly do not believe that, had Sir Ronald's investigation related to events taking place in England, it is likely that he would have recommended anything other than an independent commissioner for children. It is disingenuous to suggest that the recommendations relate specifically to particular events that took place in Wales and that we should not extrapolate to England. Therefore, our agenda was to create precisely the same form of independence for the commissioner in England as for the commissioner in Wales.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the decision to establish a Children's Commissioner for Wales must be seen in the context of the inquiry into abuse in north Wales? Had a similar inquiry occurred in England, the recommendation may have been the same. The reality is that we have not had such an inquiry in England. Undoubtedly, the demands for a commissioner in Wales were heavily influenced by the fact that there was an inquiry into abuse in children's homes and the statutory sector there.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

In one way, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, but in another I do. I agree that the events in Wales influenced the demand, but we had a Bill that dealt with the creation of a commissioner in Wales and a children's rights director in England. Given that we were examining in one piece of legislation those two positions, one could have extrapolated from the experience in Wales and said, "Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander." We have devolution and different administrative arrangements, but I would have thought that there would be no logic to different arrangements in this respect.

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

The hon. Gentleman said that the measures that his party moved during proceedings on the Care Standards Bill were designed to incorporate provision similar to that for Wales. However, he will be aware that a Bill to establish the Welsh commissioner had not been published at that time.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

New schedule 1, which the Government tabled for the 18th sitting, set out the arrangements for the Welsh commissioner. The Bill that we discussed in the House only last month develops that role, but the establishment of the Welsh commissioner was based on the measure introduced by the Government. Our new schedule 2 was identical in every respect to the Government's new schedule 1, save only that it would have created a commissioner for England rather than one for Wales.

All along, the Government's position was that the children's rights director would have sufficient independence as a consequence of the way in which the National Care Standards Commission was constituted. That argument had some force, although we disagreed with it. We would have preferred to have provided the same independence as appeared to have been afforded to the Welsh commissioner. That battle was fought in the Committee and, unfortunately, we lost.

Our next concern was that we wanted to go further than the Government in terms of the remit of the children's rights director. Here, I share part of the agenda of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre. Sir Ronald wanted a commissioner for all children, but the Government delivered a children's rights director for looked-after children. Let me make our position absolutely clear. Sir William Utting's report, "Taking Children Seriously", observed in its foreword: We lack an independent office mandated to protect the interests of children in general on all matters of public policy and administration that affect their lives. We take that seriously. We believe that there is a role for a children's commissioner with a function relating to children being looked after by the statutory services, but that he should also have a wider function relating to the work affecting children that the Government carry out across all Departments.

We take a two-pronged approach, and the primary role is undoubtedly with respect to looked-after children. Out of the failure of the state as a parent sprang the reports of Sir William and Sir Ronald. Last Friday, we debated the Adoption Bill. The previous Monday, we discussed the Government's Adoption and Children Bill. All the Members who spoke showed how comprehensively the state has failed, over many years, to protect looked-after children in its care.

Again and again, we heard that, at any one time, between 50,000 and 100,000 children are being looked after by the state. That figure represents less than 1 per cent. of the age group, but those children are hugely and disproportionately over-represented in every single measure of deprivation, be they among the homeless; those in prison; those with poor health, particularly poor mental health; or those with a poor education and no qualifications. Fully three quarters of children emerging from care have no educational qualification at all and they lack many of the most basic life skills. One in seven young women leaving care is either already a mother or pregnant. That is a shocking statistic. What sort of chance does the child of a young woman leaving care have, apart from perpetuating the cycle of deprivation?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) told the House of the case of a young woman who had had 60 local authority placements in care. Although I think that such cases are clearly the exception, there are very many children who, by their 10th birthday, have had 10 local authority placements in care since their fifth birthday.

We regard creating a primary role for a children's commissioner as part of an attempt to ginger up the services available to looked-after children. Just last Friday, when dealing with clause 2 of her Adoption Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) proposed a way of involving a children's rights director in an appeals process against local authorities' decisions and delays. I thought that she made that case particularly well. We may be able to give her Bill further consideration, perhaps when the Government's Adoption and Children Bill is in Committee. We see the case for establishing the role of a children's rights director, but we would go further.

We take seriously the fact that we signed up to the 1989 convention—it was, after all, Baroness Thatcher's Government who signed up to it—and we see the case for giving the commissioner a cross-departmental role to walk the corridors of power and ensure that children's interests are taken properly into account. The Children Act 1989 was a great step forward in that it changed the focus of legislation better to reflect the child's point of view. However, we believe that further progress can be made.

I accept hon. Members' point that children do not participate directly in the democratic process but are affected profoundly by regulations and legislation. It follows that there could quite properly be an independent person who has a remit to examine legislative proposals across Departments and represent the interests of children who will be affected by those proposals. In that way, children's interests will be taken properly into account in the working of Government and the legislative process. I therefore hope that I have demonstrated to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre that we support the theme that runs through his Bill.

I would have favoured the House with a full analysis of the Bill, but I have been spared from doing so by the forensic analysis provided by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. Although my analysis of the Bill is slightly more charitable than his, his arguments had great force and I found myself agreeing with most of what he said. I did, however, disagree on one or two specific points.

Clause 1(5) states: The Commissioner and the Commissioner's staff shall not be regarded as agents or servants of the Crown. My reaction when reading that was, "Good—he will be the independent commissioner for which the Waterhouse report called." That is a desirable provision, and I was pleased with it.

Clause 2(1) states: The Commissioner shall be under a duty— (a) to protect the rights and interests of children". That is another good provision.

Clause 2(1)(c) deals with the commissioner's duty to promote compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as ratified by Her Majesty's Government". That is an even better provision. The Bill is going very well.

Clause 2(1)(b) deals with the commissioner's duty to seek to ensure that the rights and interests of children are properly taken into account by Ministers of the Crown". When I saw that provision I thought, "Excellent!" My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst complained that people go off on junkets and, after an agreeable time and agreeable discussions, sign up to conventions that they have no intention of implementing when they return. Perhaps the requirement to abide by the conventions will provide a powerful incentive to think about what they are signing up to, in the way that my right hon. Friend says they never do.

I begin to have serious reservations about the clause, however, when subsection (1)(b) says that the commissioner shall seek to ensure that the rights and interests of children are properly taken into account by Ministers of the Crown, government departments, local authorities and other public bodies and voluntary and private organisations when decisions on policies affecting children are taken. After all, private and voluntary organisations did not sign up to the convention, so they should not be accountable in that way.

The subsection goes on, in paragraph (d), to say that the commissioner shall seek to ensure that children have effective means of redress if their rights are disregarded by any body referred to in paragraph (b). As I have said, I do not believe that all the bodies referred to in paragraph (b) should be subject to the commissioner's investigations.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I am completely confused. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the convention, the signing of which, in contrast to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, he has lauded, is not binding on anyone other than the agencies of Government?

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Precisely. The commissioner's role is in respect of statutory bodies. A wide-ranging commissioner should not have the power to interfere with individuals. We have the law to constrain the behaviour of individuals and we must not create some arbitrary power that gives rise to all sorts of expense and investigation and is accountable to no one—certainly not to us. That is where I see a huge danger in the Bill.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

This is not a view that I would take, but if the object of the commissioner is to guarantee children's rights, would it not be absurd to extend redress only to rights in respect of particular organisations while ignoring the abuse of rights that might occur within the family or in private organisations? Is that not the most partial availability of rights of which we could ever conceive?

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

No. It strikes me as a fundamental guarantee against arbitrary Government. It is the law that governs families and private individuals and organisations. We cannot have a free-roving administrative official calling them to account outside the provisions of the ordinary law.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

Let me have another go. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, if I have a fundamental right that is guaranteed by a commissioner, that right must be the same whether it is a public body or a private individual who seeks to deny it?

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

In some circumstances, if the law is framed in that way, that is true. If one has a right not to be discriminated against in employment on grounds of religion or colour, of course that right is enforceable in the courts in respect of anyone who would seek to deny it, but the Bill gives very wide powers—in addition to the judicial powers—to a roving official to call individuals to account outwith the provisions of the courts. That is where I see a grave danger. It is entirely appropriate for public bodies to be accountable in that way—although I am not sure that even the Government would go quite as far as the Bill does in respect of public authorities, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's views on that—but I would certainly not want private individuals to be swept in.

Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Labour, Rother Valley

Much of what is now deemed to be public life and representation is carried out in partnership between local authorities and many charitable and voluntary organisations within communities. Is the hon. Gentleman arguing that those organisations should not be brought to task in terms of their service delivery, but that those with statutory responsibilities should?

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

That is precisely the point I am making. It is quite appropriate that private organisations that work in association or partnership with local authorities should be accountable, but not to a commissioner with the wide-ranging powers specified in the Bill. That does not mean that they should not be accountable, or that they should not be subject to the ordinary provisions that already exist to ensure their accountability.

We are talking about a wide-ranging new power to hold all sorts of people to account. I would view with more equanimity the thought that the commissioner might hold Ministers of the Crown to account, and I would be interested to see what the Minister has to say on that. But I am sceptical about the provisions in so far as they affect private individuals. Clause 4(3) says: If it appears to the Commissioner that a person is not complying with the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as ratified by Her Majesty's Government he may make recommendations in the form of a compliance notice". The "person" might be a father or a mother—a private individual. It is quite outrageous that a new official that we might create under the Bill could act in this way. Those families have rights, and have not signed up to the UN convention. There are, after all, all sorts of things that could come out of the convention, which contains 54 articles. I have quoted from two. The last thing I want is the creation of a new commissioner with the ability to hold to account any person whom he deems fit with respect to their adherence to the 54 different articles.

I have huge reservations about the powers that we are proposing in the Bill, and much of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said was entirely accurate. Alter my right hon. Friend spoke, the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd)—who is most reasonable in these respects—said that he had to agree with much of my right hon. Friend's analysis.

Clause 5(5) states that there is a power to Recover from that person any reasonable expenses incurred. It strikes me that there is every potential here for creating a new self-financing public authority. The commissioner will be able to issue notices of non-compliance, demand reports and information and then charge private individuals, organisations, Government departments or local authorities for that service. That is unacceptable and any sensible Parliament would not pass such a measure.

Clause 6(3) states No person shall be compelled under subsection (2) to give information or produce documents which he could not be compelled to give or produce in civil proceedings before the High Court. In other words, we are effectively setting up a power so that an administrative official will enjoy, in effect, the legal status of a High Court judge. That is not acceptable.

I wonder what the Minister has to say about clause 7, which states: Whenever it appears necessary or expedient to the Commissioner, he may require a Minister of the Crown to provide a child impact statement relating to any decision or proposal on policy which the Minister has made and which affects or may affect children. Ministers are properly accountable to Parliament and not to a commissioner with a roving brief.

Clause 7(3) states that the Minister shall comply with that request. If the Minister shall comply with it, it is not a request: it is an order. Given the way in which the Bill is written, it seems to establish a children's rights inquisition. The fact that it seems that way to me may be because my reading of it is inadequate or inexperienced, but no self-respecting Parliament would give such enormous, unaccountable and potentially arbitrary powers to an official. I cannot ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the Bill unless the Standing Committee emasculates it.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre has put an enormous amount of work into this issue. In this Parliament, he has introduced two ten-minute Bills as well as this Bill. Why did he not introduce a Bill that we could all have supported?

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Well, that the majority of us could have supported. I have tried to show—The record of our performance in Standing Committees bears me out—that there is something in the Bill and in the hon. Gentleman's agenda that we could have supported. I do not know whether it is right to describe the Bill as left-wing claptrap, but I agree with my right hon. Friend when he characterised it as the children's rights commissar Bill. That is certainly my reading of it.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre may argue that he was not trying to gain the Opposition's support—that he has his own agenda, so it does not matter to him whether he has our support. However, the Opposition's support is more important than it might otherwise be, because we are coming to the wash-up end of the Parliament when negotiations take place on what Bills will get through in the remaining days. If there had been a Bill that we could all have supported, it could have been a testimony to the hon. Gentleman, but I am afraid that it is not the Bill before us today.

Given the way in which the Bill has been written, I cannot ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to support it. I fear that it may be a lost opportunity.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green 1:18, 6 April 2001

I do not think any hon. Member doubts the sincerity of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) in introducing the Bill. I agree with the sentiments and intentions of the variety of organisations that have supported the Bill. Having said that, I fear that I may be a lone, sceptical or dissenting voice on the Labour Benches. I shall explain my position.

I, too, have some experience of working with children, educating those who work with children and regulating the training of social workers—that may explain why they get such a bad press. I take the matter seriously, but I have some doubts about how the Bill has been constructed, and I wonder whether its intention would be reflected if it were enacted.

The more I listened to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the more I thought that, if his speech could have been stripped of the unique hyperbole and rich libertarian rhetoric that is increasingly the trademark of his contributions, he would have made some valuable criticisms of the Bill. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman's view was a lot more consistent and clear than that offered by the official Opposition Front-Bench spokesman. I do not know about left-wing claptrap, but he gave us right-wing muddle.

My first doubt about the Bill arises from the fact that I am no great fan of tsars, regulators and overlords. In approaching a problem, there may be a danger in thinking always that the solution is to create a new overlord. I am not sure that the evidence to date proves that to be true. Indeed, some evidence suggests that, whatever our intentions, previous travels down that route may, rather than tackling the problem, have created greater bureaucracy and regulation for its own sake.

We must strike a difficult balance when we extend the rights of some and curb the rights of others, as has been acknowledged in some of the remarks that we have heard today on the rights of parents. Whether or not we agree with all the arguments made about parents, it is clear that hon. Members are worried about the balance of rights.

The key issue, particularly for those who work with or represent children, is that we need to be clearer about communications structures and lines of command. Often, inquiries into events that have gone wrong identify communications or the line of command as a source of problems. We need to pay more attention to existing procedures, and to ensuring that they are followed. Supervision of those who work with children and inspection of the processes involved are crucial. I should like greater encouragement of whistleblowing where things are going wrong.

Many years ago, shortly after I left school, I worked briefly as a nursing auxiliary in a hospital. It would then have been described as a hospital for people with a mental handicap, or for mentally defective people—we use much better terminology these days. I cannot say that I witnessed abuse, but I saw a number of activities that struck me as not being entirely fair. I had no idea, however, how to raise those matters so that something could be done. I suspect that much of the historic abuse that is now coming to light can be partly explained by the fact that people did not then know how to complain. The environment did not encourage whistleblowing, and I should like to see more of that.

We must pay more attention to what children say, particularly about child abuse. We must take their comments seriously. If we approached abuse in that way, our existing structures might allow us to do more to emphasise the rights of children and ensure that they are respected. For that reason, I am anxious about setting up more committees, proformas and reports, which might simply create far more paperwork without necessarily attacking the problem. In addition, encouraging a defensive mentality among the professionals who work with children might prove a downside of the Bill.

The phenomenon known as defensive medicine is well recognised in the United States and to an increasing extent in this country. So concerned are professionals about the risk of litigation that they allow self-protection rather than the case in hand to govern their activities. There is some evidence of that attitude creeping into both social work and teaching. Setting up an all-powerful overlord to peer over people's shoulders, able at any time to wield immense powers of intervention, might encourage that defensive mentality.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

Does my hon. Friend accept that that defensiveness often works against the interests of children? It is promoted by powerful external interests— often the media or the relevant local authority procedures—and children's interests and rights go by the board.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

I accept that the sort of defensive mentality that I describe is a direct result of people's anxiety about their own position in the face of external pressures. My point is that the danger inherent in creating an all-powerful commissioner is that, rather than encouraging people to focus on children's real rights and the issues that genuinely affect them, it might encourage individual professionals to focus on self-preservation. My hon. Friend says that other agencies exert such pressure on hard-pressed individuals, but my major concern is about the possibility that the commissioner would have the same effect.

I am concerned about other aspects of the Bill, although I shall not go into the details, which have already been explored. It strikes me that the Bill is extremely wide-reaching. A Bill that focuses more narrowly on protecting existing rights, rather than one that gives the commissioner a roving brief, would be more desirable. There is a danger inherent in the Bill being so open ended: for example, we have no idea how many staff would be appointed, and so no idea of the costs.

Some of the aims set out in the Bill could be achieved without it. In the Bill, Ministers are asked to recognise and pay attention to the rights of children, but I assume that, to some extent, the children and young people's unit has been set up specifically to address such issues. Furthermore, an impact study can always be arranged—we do not need a children's commissioner to enable a Minister to decide to commission an impact study when new legislation is being considered.

I can see how clause 8(3) would make it easier for an individual to make a complaint. It states: Information provided to the Commissioner under subsection (1) or (2) shall not identify any person who has made a representation or complaint. However, when reading that provision—I might have misinterpreted it and if I have I shall be grateful for the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre—the recent, extremely sad case of David Jones came to my mind. He was the manager of Southampton football club; now, happily, he is back in the west midlands with Wolverhampton Wanderers. He lost his job, was subjected to enormous personal stress and put through a terrible experience, but it was finally found that he had not a single stain on his character. I do not want any more cases like that.

I want all children who are in danger or threatened with it to have proper avenues and institutions to enable them to express what is happening to them and ensure that those who abuse them are brought to book, but I do not want any more long, drawn-out cases in which an individual's reputation and career are savaged while that individual has no redress. Given the current wording of the provision, it would be possible for spurious allegations and information to be laid before the commissioner, which would trigger investigations that might have a serious bearing on an individual's reputation and, indeed, his life. At no stage would the individual know either the substance of those allegations or who had made them. The Bill is concerned about rights, but such provisions could be seen as a serious attack on the rights of individuals—I have some desperate concerns about that.

I have read of the German experience. In Germany, there is a position akin to that of a children's commissioner, but it is in a commission that deals more broadly with the rights of the family, the elderly and various groups. Should we appoint a commissioner only for children's rights? Does that not mean that, in years to come, we shall be making the same arguments in support of commissioners for the elderly, single parents, divorced men or menopausal women? There is no end to the groups who could claim that their rights are infringed. Perhaps we should concentrate more on the rights of the whole population rather than singling out children.

Another danger of the single approach is that we might not learn from previous experience. In this country, we have a welter of experience drawn from inquiries—sadly, mostly into cases of child abuse. We could trace a line from Maria Colwell, to Jasmine Beckford and to Anna Climbie to show what has gone wrong with our system. There are many examples of what is wrong with the system—where it falls down and children are not protected.

The examples of the lack of protection for children are writ large. I am nor sure that we need more people to tell us what is wrong. We need to ensure that the existing procedures are properly and rigorously pursued and effectively supervised. That might produce much greater dividends than setting up a whole new apparatus.

Similarly, we can draw on the inquiry into residential homes in north Wales or the Kincora investigation. We know about the nature of the abuse that occurred for a long time in residential institutions. We know about the practices that have caused children such distress. We do not need a commissioner to initiate a new body of research to teach us about that; the evidence already exists—it is writ large. We actually need to show that we are constantly learning from those experiences and that we are doing our best to minimise the chance of them recurring.

In that respect, we could take some practical steps. We could re-examine the training of certain key professionals who work with children. We could consider why there is not more joint training. As I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre will acknowledge, one of the commonest difficulties experienced in child abuse or child protection inquiries is dealing with the different cultures, procedures and training backgrounds of the professionals who have to work together on such cases. Often that inhibits the work and progress of the inquiry. We could practically address the existing system and try to make professions and institutions work more closely together—to bind them in a helpful way.

Instead of being obsessed with the idea that children's rights in our society are a form of regulation or an intrusion on civil life by the state, perhaps we should address the whole environment and our attitudes to children. Other societies are much more child centred and child friendly. That may account for the fact that they experience fewer cases of child abuse—or at least reported cases.

I shall give a simple example. When my daughter was six-weeks-old, I went on holiday to Ireland, where, of course, all the pubs, restaurants and similar establishments made it clear that it was perfectly acceptable for the customers to have their children with them. Shortly after that holiday, I strolled into a local pub in Birmingham on a nice summer's day and was confronted by a barmaid who said, "You can't come in here with a child." A society in which the attitude is that children must be kept apart, hidden away and separated from main events questions the existence of children's rights.

Similarly, if people went out for a stroll on a summer's evening in Italy, they would not be at all surprised to see whole families strolling along hand in hand, with the children very much part of what was happening, but such occurrences are increasingly rare in our society. Our society deliberately segments and separates children from a great deal of normal activity. In my judgment, the fact that we hide children away at times makes abuse possible in the first place. More could be done about that in a more open and child-friendly society.

In passing, it is probably worth saying that we could do some basic things in the House. It fair to say that it is strange that we put greater weight on the need for space for a gun club than we do for a creche, or that we have a family room that resembles a doctor's surgery, rather than being child friendly. If we are really concerned about children's rights, perhaps we need to make some basic changes to the culture and the environment in which children are forced to grow up. We need to encourage a change of attitude, so that it is much harder for individuals to abuse children's rights. I wonder whether that would be a more effective way to address some of the concerns rather than that proposed in the Bill.

The children's rights director will have powers to deal with those children in care and those who are at risk, and it is right that an overseeing body should exist. However, if we are to provide a further body, we are effectively saying that we do not have much confidence in the existing procedures, that there is no aspect of private life that cannot be subject to regulation and that the only way to guarantee and protect children's rights is to have a overlord, a policing figure, who will regulate every aspect of our dealings with children. That is not the right starting point.

I was struck by the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre spoke about the meetings that the United Nations sponsors held in schools—the "Put it to your MP" campaign. I took part in one of those meetings, and was struck by the ideas that young people can contribute and the number of issues about which they have very strong and definite opinions. Contrary to the views of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, listening to young people can be informative and helpful to those of us who tend to see the world through a narrower age perspective. It can be useful to consider the views of young people.

As I said, I was struck by the positive comments that young people can make and the strong and clear views that they have on many subjects, but those views will be nourished and encouraged only if we create the right atmosphere—the permissive atmosphere—to make that possible in this country. I am not convinced that the way to guarantee greater respect for children's rights is to create a new policing apparatus. That is the fundamental danger. The Bill's intentions are good—the desire to respect children's rights; to give children a much greater voice; and not to see them simply as passive objects—and should be welcomed.

The question is whether we should achieve that by creating a massive, over-arching regulatory framework with the power to intrude at will in all aspects of life in what would sometimes be a contradictory fashion. I seriously doubt that that is the best way forward. I am not suggesting that my hon. Friend's Bill should not proceed to a Committee for consideration, but we would make more progress if we could pare it down and focus on areas where there is clear evidence of abuse, rather than creating unnecessarily wide powers in the expectation of discovering other problems in future.

I am always worried when I find myself agreeing with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, but in this case he is right. The Bill is ambitious—it anticipates problems—and unnecessarily intrusive. I should prefer a shorter. sharper Bill that tackles specific problems. We should emphasise the need to create a permissive environment for children so that we do not need to be obsessed with policing society.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test 1:41, 6 April 2001

I do not want to dwell on the detail of the Bill because this is a Second Reading debate and we should consider the principles behind it. In any event, right hon. and hon. Members have pointed out that several of their concerns can be dealt with in Committee, where it will be possible to pare the Bill and make it more sharply focused, so we should do that instead of preventing the Bill from proceeding.

I listened carefully to the debate. Two Members, in particular, have root and branch objections not only to the Bill, but to the very idea of a commissioner. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), having occupied a position of great statesmanship in the previous Government, has adroitly repositioned himself as a small mosquito seeking to draw a little blood from the exposed parts of the body politic. Interestingly, the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) has moved in the other direction—from mosquito to statesman in one bound.

The position now occupied by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst means that he has given himself licence to use intemperate language and imagery that other Members would find difficult to get away with. However, his view that all foreigners are not to be trusted opens up a new discussion. He will not appreciate the fact that a children's commissioner or someone of similar status is pretty common in foreign countries, both in Europe and elsewhere. I think of Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Israel, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden. The role does not have exactly the same functions in every country, and each has a different way of doing things, but the principle enunciated by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson)—whom I congratulate on introducing the Bill—has been established in those countries.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst must ask himself whether all those people are wrong. Has their society collapsed? Are children running rampant in the streets, disobeying their parents and lacking respect for their elders? Is it that foreigners do not have children or, if they do, they have them in such a monstrously different way that we do not recognise their concerns as being the same as ours? I suggest, politely, that that is not the case. It is worth considering arrangements in other countries, which, in general, work well.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for listening to what I said, and he is doing me the courtesy of responding to it. However, for the sake of clarity, my experience of international and multinational bodies in which foreigners are represented has taught me that what they do need not be imported into this country. We should make law for ourselves and our circumstances through our elected representatives. We do not need to import foreign material.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

When we make laws we should, of course, have regard to what is right for the circumstances in our country. I am not saying that we should not do that. However, we should not shut our eyes to what is happening elsewhere. From my observation of the way in which many other countries do their duty by their children, it is clear that they have similar worries. It is at least worth having a look at countries where children's commissioners or similar arrangements are in place to see whether they have the dire effects that have been suggested.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said that the commissioner would be a commissar. I have been reading Robert Service's excellent biography of Lenin. He knew how to appoint commissars, and the commissioner would not be one. The person who had a considerable hand in influencing some of the ideas behind the Bill set out the commissioner's role as: Influencing policy-makers and practitioners to take greater account of the human rights of children … Promoting compliance with the minimum standards set out by the UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child … Promoting respect for the views of children throughout society … Promoting knowledge of the human rights of children among all children and adults … Seeking to ensure that children have effective means of redress when their rights are violated or disregarded". That does not describe a commissar who can go into every corner of society and demand access to what people are doing in the privacy of their own homes. It is a measured approach to draw together strands of public policy that seem to be fractured and separate and which sometimes fail our children when they have few advocates and few civil rights. We could do with establishing a body to consider how society works out its relationship with children, from a public and private perspective.

The other main concern about the principle behind the Bill is how it would affect private responsibilities, which was raised by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). The argument is that it would undermine parents' rights, but we cannot live in a black-and-white world in which each parent has complete rights over children or children have complete rights over parents. The real world is not like that. Parents do, and should, have a considerable say in how their children are brought up and what happens to them as they become adults. Children are not the property of parents who can do what they wish. Part of the essence of a civilised society is that we place boundaries on what people can do to their children and to those with whom they interact on a private basis.

It is part of the contract of being a member of society that one recognises the obligation to behave reasonably, decently and honourably towards people who are often helplessly in one's care. As a contracted member of society, one cannot divorce oneself from the norms and reasonable expectations of that society and say that, once the front door is shut, "I can do whatever I like, and no one has a right to tell me what to do." That would be an ill-advised definition of what it is to be a parent.

In circumstances in which parents' rights are circumscribed by their responsibilities towards society, it is right to consider how public policy develops. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) pointed out that one simply cannot apply the parenting model in some circumstances, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) provided several examples. In cases of child prostitution, child labour, runaway children, children committing crime and, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire mentioned, in cases where we try to ensure that the children of travelling families receive education, to what extent do we say that we should simply refer the matter back to the parents and that everything will be okay? In many cases, that is the last thing that one should do to protect the welfare of a child.

Notwithstanding the detail of the Bill, a matter of principle suggests that we should adopt the approach proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre and give the Bill its Second Reading. Even if it does not make it all the way to the statute book—I suspect that it might not—it gives us an opportunity to move forward our appreciation of the issues. We have moved beyond the idea that children should be placed in the background and be seen but not heard. I sympathise with the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe), who said that we are a society that still wishes to proceed with its daily business while keeping children at a distance for our own safety and convenience.

The issue is one of changing attitudes and changing the way we do things. If the debate has helped in that, and if the Government think carefully about how we proceed on the issue of children's welfare, this Bill will have performed a great service.

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health) 1:53, 6 April 2001

This has been a wide-ranging debate, in which right hon. and hon. Members have made their arguments very persuasively and with great skill. We have heard speeches for and against the Bill—and then there was the speech of the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne). I could not quite make out whether he was in favour of the Bill. However, I shall come to his remarks shortly.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) on bringing the issue of a children's rights commissioner to the attention of the House once again. I commend him for his committed and valuable work on children's issues and the tenacity with which he presented his arguments. The Bill is identical to those introduced by my hon. Friend and others on at least two previous occasions, and I should perhaps reassure him and all those in favour of the Bill that the Government are continuing to consider carefully the arguments that he and others are making. I agree that it is an important issue that we should keep under review.

On what my hon. Friends the Members for Lancaster and Wyre and for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) said, we have considered carefully, and continue to study, the different models of commission that exist around the world. We are taking a particular interest in the proposals emerging from Wales, and the consultation exercise planned for Northern Ireland later in the year. We are always willing to consider whether we need to make further improvements in the existing arrangements for safeguarding the well-being and protection of children in England.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre will know, we are currently implementing what I consider to be a substantial programme of new measures to improve safeguards for children. We are making those practical improvements the initial focus of our work. As I have said, we will continue to think about how the measures can be improved in future, but I think it right for our first priority always to be the safety of those at the greatest risk of harm. It is in that regard that the most immediate need for additional protection has been most apparent.

I shall go into more detail shortly, but first I want to comment on some of the speeches that have been made. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) is not present, because she spoke with a great deal of conviction, as she always does. Throughout her time in the House she has taken children's issues very seriously, and has also worked to secure positive changes in both legislation and practice. She has a great record on this subject, and many of us will miss her counsels in the future.

It was clear from the speech of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh)—who, unfortunately, is not present either—that he had intended to speak for a long time, and he succeeded in doing so. He read out a long list of quotations—one was from one of my speeches, and I am grateful to him for that—but, most important, he expressed his opposition to the Bill on philosophical grounds. He also expressed clear opposition to the very concept of children's rights.

The hon. Gentleman's speech probably generated more heat than light. His comments had a distinctive 19th century flavour. I see that he has now arrived. I am sorry that he missed what I said about his speech, but he will probably be flattered by my observation that it had a distinctive 19th century flavour.

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

I thought that the hon. Gentleman would be flattered. Fortunately for children, however, this is the 21st century, and I am glad to say that we have made a good deal of progress since the time to which the hon. Gentleman presumably harks back.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bother Valley (Mr. Barron) made sensible comments about the way in which policy needs to evolve over a period. As I have tried to make clear, we need to keep the issue under review. Like many others, he also asked about some of the practical details of the Bill. I tend to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) that now is not the time to go into those details—this is Second Reading, not Committee—but I think that we need to consider carefully, especially in relation to clause 10, before giving anyone apart from the proper authorities the right to instigate criminal proceedings. I must therefore tell my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre that I have reservations about aspects of his Bill, especially that clause.

Unfortunately, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is also absent. I shall not say that he lowered the tone of our proceedings, for I do not think that he did. We heard the familiar rant about foreigners, which many of us find deeply distasteful, regrettable and rather immature for a Member of Parliament—but I think that the right hon. Gentleman should find an agent, because he would go down a storm if he did a turn at Cemetery Cottages working men's club in my constituency, where such comic turns are always appreciated. However, I found his general attitude to the Bill and to children's issues as a whole rather regrettable. One aspect in particular stuck in my mind—oh, good: the right hon. Gentleman has arrived as well.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

He is being rude about you, Eric.

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

I am never rude about the right hon. Gentleman, although he and I probably agree on absolutely nothing. I am sure he is glad to hear that. I took strong objection to the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about the importance of listening to children. He is wrong. His remarks were made in the context of a wider objection to the Bill. I am sure that he does not personally take that view on listening to children, or trying to understand what they want to say to us.

One thing has always stuck in my mind as a Member of Parliament. Soon after I was elected in 1992, I went to a primary school in my constituency and met a group of 10 and 11-year-olds. I asked them a question that, in subsequent years, I have always asked: if we could make a new law in this place, what should it be? One little lad stuck up his hand and said, "Can I answer that question?" I said, "Of course. Tell me what you think we should do." He said, "We should pass a law that my dad can get a proper job. He lost his job in a shipyard 10 years ago and he has not worked since." When we listen to such children, they come up with a good deal of common sense. Perhaps we cannot pass a law to ensure that his dad works, but as a matter of public policy what the child said was important. Full employment is an important social and economic policy. The view that that young person expressed is, I think, the view of the vast majority of mainstream opinion. It would be a mistake if we ever thought that we could disregard their views.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire spoke well about the need to support the role of parents in bringing up children. That should be the main focus in all the work. We have certainly tried to make that the main priority for our programme of work. I agree that we need great clarity on how to improve the well-being of children in our society. I am sure that he would be the first to welcome some of the measures that we have put in place since 1997.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis—Thomas), who, I understand, cannot be with us, referred to the needs of children with learning difficulties. I am sure that she and others will be aware of the Government's White Paper "Valuing People", which we published only last week, and of our commitment to improve public services for children with learning disabilities and to improve research in that area.

I shall outline some of the structural changes that we are making to the way in which the Government seek to meet the needs of children and young people. There have been five strands to our work. First, from next April, under the Care Standards Act 2000—many hon. Members have referred to this—there will be a new children's rights director for England. Working within the new National Care Standards Commission, the director will, I hope, be able to act as a powerful champion for some of the most vulnerable children in our society.

Although the precise role and functions of the director are not set out in that Act—I am sure that the hon. Member for New Forest, West will remember this—provision is made in schedule 1 to the Act for the post's functions to be prescribed by regulation. The Government plan to publish draft regulations covering the work, key tasks and responsibilities of the director and put them out for public consultation in the near future.

I am pleased to say that the children's rights director will be in his or her post by the end of this year. Although we are still shaping the role, it is likely that the key responsibilities of the postholder will include setting and monitoring the registration and inspection arrangements for regulated services for children; monitoring and reviewing the operation of the national minimum standards for children's services and recommending possible changes; ensuring that the National Care Standards Commission gives full and effective coverage of children's rights in its statutory responsibilities for regulated children's services; ensuring that the views of children for whom regulated services are provided are given proper weight by the commission; and reviewing and monitoring the effectiveness of complaints and whistleblowing procedures operated by regulated providers. Those are some of the director's key functions, which address many of the issues and concerns that my hon. Friends have raised.

It might sound like a long list of tasks, but it signals real change for children who need the additional protection that a powerful children's rights director can offer. Our challenge is to rebuild the confidence and faith of vulnerable children in a system that has failed them for far too long.

In appointing an individual to that key post, we will look for someone with a proven track record in promoting child care practice and children's rights; experience in managing children's services at a senior level; and a strong professional background in child care social work. In short, we are looking for a powerful champion of children's rights—someone who can represent the interests of the most vulnerable children in our society; ensure that the commission uses its regulatory powers to protect vulnerable children; ensure that the commission's inspection programme serves to protect children; and ensure that children living away from home in a variety of settings are properly protected.

Secondly, hon. Members will be aware that in August last year we set out new arrangements for how the Government will improve the way in which they deal with issues concerning children and young people. Changes that we have made include establishing a new Minister for young people—that role will be fulfilled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng)— and a new Cabinet Committee on children and young people, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Of course, an extra £450 million of further funding through a new children's fund will focus on preventive programmes to reduce child poverty. Furthermore, we have established a new children and young persons unit, which will operate across government, to, among other things, co-ordinate policies supporting the Prime Minister's pledge to halve child poverty in 10 years.

Thirdly, we have established a children's taskforce to drive forward all aspects of the NHS plan that relate to children. Fourthly, we have just announced that there will be a new national service framework for children. We envisage that it will cover the broad spectrum of services that children need to ensure that they start and continue life well and grow into healthy adults ready to play a full part in society.

The national service framework will deal with some important cross-cutting themes such as tackling inequalities, supporting children with disabilities and special needs and Involving children and parents. It will revisit key NHS plan themes of modernisation, breaking down professional boundaries and partnership between key agencies.

On Government policies that affect the health, well-being and status of children, many hon. Members referred to the need to improve co-ordination across Departments. The Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre includes a provision designed to achieve just that. I take the view that those are the responsibilities of the Government. It is for the Government to take action to ensure that their policies are effective and well co-ordinated, and the changes that I have outlined will take us forward substantially in that direction.

The House will be aware that, last year, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office announced a consultation on the outcome of a review of the work of the public sector ombudsmen in England—the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the health service commissioner and the three local administration commissioners. However, no hon. Member referred to it in the debate. The review was initiated in response to proposals made by the ombudsmen themselves and was carried forward as part of the wide range of action that we put in hand to bring government and public services generally into the 21st century.

With that in mind, the review of the ombudsmen was intended to consider the current arrangements against the background of increasingly integrated public services. We wanted to find ways to improve access to the ombudsmen and ways to improve the efficiency of the ombudsmen and their ability to investigate complaints involving different services.

The review was published last year, and its main conclusion was that legislative provision for the ombudsmen needed to be overhauled in response to the reshaping of government and that a new collegiate structure should be put in place. Clearly, that will require new primary legislation. The new structure, with all ombudsmen able to cover the complete jurisdiction, would ensure that the ombudsmen could respond to developments in the way in which public sector services are delivered to the public, including children.

The review also recommended changes to the ombudsmen's working practices and the way in which they connect with the general public, including young people and children. The consultation on the review's conclusions and recommendations was completed towards the end of last year and an announcement on how we will take that work forward will be made soon.

As we are committed to the modernisation of government and public services generally, so we are committed to the modernisation of the ombudsmen system. We recognise that things can and do go wrong from time to time. We also recognise that it serves no good purpose for the public, whether adults or children, to find it difficult to raise concerns when they are not happy about the way with which their complaints about public services have been dealt. We acknowledge that a single complaint may identify much wider lessons that need to be learned and point to action that needs to be taken to improve the delivery of the services concerned.

The structural changes that I have described are part of our long-term agenda to achieve real change for the most vulnerable children—children who are fearful and abandoned and who rely on us to make their lives better. In addition to the practical and positive measures that we have already taken, we have set in train important changes to the machinery of government that relate to children's issues. Those changes have been made since my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre introduced a previous Bill on a children's commissioner.

The changes will lead to an improved recognition across government of the needs of children, as well as an increased ability to monitor the practical impact of a wide range of policies affecting children. It is fair to say that one of the motives for my hon. Friend's Bill is a desire to improve the way in which we formulate and implement policy on children's issues in England. I strongly agree with that. The Government have, however, made important progress on those issues singe we last debated them. Better public policy making on issues affecting children will contribute substantially to achieving the goals that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre and I share. I hope that he will welcome the changes that we have made in that sphere.

My hon. Friend and other hon. Members will be aware of some of the other changes in the statutory framework governing the protection of children. We have the Care Standards Act 2000, the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, the Protection of Children Act 1999 and the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000. All of those are substantial advances and will provide much better safeguards and protection for vulnerable children.

Hon. Members will also be aware that the Government are supporting major investment in new children's services, including £885 million in a new special grant for children's services run by local authorities. We are also investing substantially in the new sure start programme, which is promoting pre-school development. Our aim since taking office has been to introduce practical measures that will really help children. We want to encourage councillors to embrace the role of corporate parent and encourage all agencies to liven to children and to children's views.

The quality protects programme is be ginning to make a difference, but we recognise that it is a long-term project. Tackling problems that have been developing over many years will take time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) rightly said, problems will not be eradicated overnight by the appointment of a commissioner for children or by any other similar mechanism. What is needed is a coherent programme of structural, legislative and policy changes to produce long-term improvements in the quality of services for children, the standards of protection and the status of children in our society. The Government are taking positive action in all those important spheres.

In improving safeguards for children, we have concentrated on the most vulnerable children—the ones who need our help most urgently. As many hon. Members pointed out today, the Waterhouse report provides clear evidence that those children have not been properly protected in the past. It is right to make them the immediate priority, and we have done so. I believe that our programme of change will lead to a transformation in the availability of safeguards for the most vulnerable children.

It is against that background that we have to consider the case for a commissioner for all children in England. We have to be clear about how a commissioner would increase the safeguards against abuse and exploitation. Consequently, we have to examine carefully the case for and the potential role of a children's commissioner, including consideration of links with existing structures.

We have to think carefully about how my hon. Friend's proposals for a new commissioner—who, in the Bill, would have the power to pursue individual complaints—would fit in with the current continuing review of the role and work of the various ombudsmen. I believe that there is a strong case for considering, in a properly joined-up way, the issue of complaints about the delivery of public services. However, although we certainly accept the need to improve public services and for those services to be responsive to criticism—that applies as much to children's services as to any other services—I am not sure that legislation removed from the context of the review of ombudsmen is currently the best way forward.

Therefore, as my hon. Friend will know, because we have discussed the matter, I am not able today to lend Government support to his Bill. However, I assure him that we are keeping the issue of a commissioner for all children under very careful review. As both I and the Minister of State, Home Office, have made clear in the past, we need to consider carefully the Welsh experience to see whether there are any other lessons that we can learn in England that could help to provide better safeguards for children. We intend to do that, and we still believe that that is the best way to proceed.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I am grateful to all hon. Members who have participated in this very good debate. I am especially grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for his most helpful and constructive remarks. I anticipate that debate on this matter will continue most constructively and positively in the future. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.