rose to consider the current protection of children and young people in the United Kingdom; and to move for Papers.
My Lords, it is my privilege to introduce this debate on the protection of children and young people in the United Kingdom. Hardly a day passes without detailed media coverage of suffering children in some form: neglected or unprotected children; children from broken homes; children living or, should I say, existing in areas of poverty or social neglect; abused children, and especially children abused by those supposedly caring for them; and unwanted children, to say nothing of those young people who find themselves before our courts on serious charges. The television constantly reminds us of the crying faces of children in refugee camps, the child soldiers of war, the orphaned children of the Middle East and the matchstick children of famine.
The children of the world are this generation's global face of tragedy. But quite apart from those pictures from abroad, the situation in our own country challenges all to ask: when we talk of the just society, are we also as ready to talk about the compassionate society? There are many areas of concern which no doubt will emerge in our debate, but let all we say this evening stem from the fact that any condition, any policy and any action which denies a child the God-given gift of the freedom of a happy childhood must be confronted, addressed and removed.
"Child poverty is a scar on the soul of Britain".
Today, almost one-third of our children, some 3.9 million, live in relative poverty. In 1979, the child poverty rate was 14 per cent, while today it is 31 per cent. We have one of the highest child poverty rates in the industrialised world. Along with many others such as the Save the Children Fund and the Children's Society, I welcome the Government's commitment to halve the level of child poverty by 2010 and to eradicate it completely by 2020. In that respect, the recent Budget contained measures that I am certain will boost the incomes of families with children and thus remove more children from the poverty trap.
For example, from October 2002, child allowances in income support and jobseeker's allowance are to increase by £3.50 a week. Child tax credit will integrate all the existing income-related elements of support for children. Families with incomes of under £13,000 per annum are to receive the maximum child tax credit. From June, working families' tax credit is to increase by £2.50 a week, while income support is to be extended to low-paid fathers on paternity leave, who are not entitled to statutory maternity pay from April 2003. I welcome those provisions.
However, a year ago the Government stated that, as a result of tax and benefit reforms announced in the last Parliament, over 1 million children would be lifted out of poverty. Yet on 11th April, the Department for Work and Pensions released figures which showed that between 1996-97 and 2000-01, the number of children living in poverty fell by only 500,000. I am convinced that eventually child poverty in the United Kingdom can be eliminated. It will require, among other measures, that the new child tax credit is set sufficiently high. As a recent statement from Save the Children emphasised, the increased child tax credit levels will prevent only the poorest children from falling further behind unless the initial rate is set high enough to lift all children out of poverty. Nevertheless, it must encourage noble Lords that some 300,000 fewer children are now living in workless homes.
The protection and well-being of children is a question for the conscience of our nation. We must recognise that there is more to child poverty than income. It is about the denial of self-esteem, the denial of facilities which children see available for other children, and the absence of those benefits to growing up which make for genuine happiness and freedom. It is about measures that recognise what is a reasonable or adequate standard of living and whether families can afford things for their children that are considered by the majority of people to be necessities.
Across in the Republic of Ireland, the measure of poverty combines a relative income measure with a socially perceived necessity measure. Should not the United Kingdom target more resources on children living in chronic poverty; namely, those children which research indicates are likely to suffer the worst poverty outcomes?
Secondly, I want to address the attitude of our society to children and young people. What are the conditions which make children the most vulnerable in our communities? Much publicity attends cases of child abuse or attacks on children. The conscience of our country is awakened when the media highlight such devastating evidence of evil. We are rightly outraged and the clamour for detection and prevention is understandable. Sadly, the Churches both here and elsewhere have not been immune to this process. It is important that we in the Churches acknowledge it and seek to put our own homes and houses in order.
But there is another side to the question—those children who go on suffering from abuse or neglect, often in their own homes. I call them the "silent ones". Child helplines have achieved remarkable results, but the question remains: how can society face up to the needs of the silent ones? Surely we need a new awareness in every part of our society that we all have a responsibility.
It is not only for Parliament, the courts or the church agencies. It is not only for the great work of the Children's Society, the NSPCC, Barnardo's or the Mothers' Union. It is not only for the Save the Children Fund or for any other agency to find ways of eradicating such evil. Surely, it is for society to reach such a level of conscience—attitude—which says, "We will no longer tolerate in any form the abuse of little children".
There are times when society can rise to meet a need and form collective attitudes which make certain conditions or practices unacceptable. Surely no issue demands a greater call for collective social attitude than this. We must be careful to recognise the whole picture in a debate such as today's.
As a nation, let us take pride in the vast numbers of our young people who not only lead decent and productive lives, but also set examples of social awareness which would shame many in the older age groups. Let us pay tribute to uniformed and non-uniformed youth organisations and to those who give so much of their time and interest to lead them. That is the other side of the coin. It is too easy to overuse the word "problem" when we talk about young people in Britain. Perhaps we all share with the media the guilt of over-emphasising the "problem child" while ignoring the wonderful quality of the majority of young people who are a credit to our society.
The responsibilities of parents must be underlined yet again in any discussion of this kind. The vast majority of parents take their relationships with young people seriously and wisely, but for those who do not, surely something more is needed. In Scotland, Section 1 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 sets out parental responsibilities and places a positive duty of care on parents to,
"safeguard and promote the child's health, development and welfare".
Parents' rights are also outlined, but only in order to enable parents to fulfil those responsibilities. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is no such statement of parental duties. I ask the Government to consider that the Children Act 1989 and the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 be amended to include a setting-out of parental responsibilities in relation to children along the lines of Section 1 of the Children Act (Scotland) 1995.
It is now accepted by authoritative opinion that young people most heavily exposed to family, school and community risk factors are the most likely to become involved in crime and other problem social behaviour. In this instance, the breakdown in traditional family structures has played a key role. Equally, young people who are strongly exposed to protective factors, such as stable parental relationships, good relations between parents and children or teachers which produce positive behaviour patterns, are less likely to be involved in anti-social actions.
I hear it said, "Let the schools, let the youth clubs, let the Churches solve these problems", but I have to ask whether it is fair to expect such agencies to solve problems that society in general has been either unable or unwilling to solve itself, let alone define.
My Motion refers to the protection of children and young people. Of one thing I am certain: Parliament will fail this nation, we will fail those who trust us, if we ever lose sight of the privilege—not only the obligation—of providing the best possible environment, the best possible encouragement and the highest possible vision for our young people.
Do we give sufficient attention and thought to the importance of a commissioner for children, already established in Wales and expected in Northern Ireland? Do we allocate as much financial support as we should to youth work and youth organisations? In that privilege we must always provide the best protection possible for that vulnerable entity that we call our children and our young people. Sadly, compared with other voices to which we listen in this society, we do not always listen to the voices of children. Nor have we the processes in place in which adequate advocacy for children can take place.
Issues about children are often addressed from the crisis management perspective. Do the Government pay sufficient attention to the basic principles contained in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, which this country ratified in 1991—principles such as the right to a cultural and physical environment which promotes a full sense of security, and the right to a social context which is affirming and supportive?
Next month, the United Nations General Assembly will hold a Special Session on Children in New York. In 1990 the World Summit for Children produced a set of goals for the nations to work towards in the following decade. Reports on that decade will be presented next month, including one from the United Kingdom. I am delighted to see that among the British delegation will be a young person from Glenavy in County Antrim.
Each day in my own work I see the consequences for young people of the years of violence and division in Northern Ireland—in some cases they are devastating consequences—but also I am proud to refer to the countless numbers of young people who have risen above those problems and set an example for their elders in Northern Ireland. I am proud to pay tribute today to the teaching profession, the leaders of youth organisations and the vast majority of young people in the Province.
We await the outcome of that special assembly in New York, but let none of us in the House doubt that the protection of children in its widest sense must remain a high—if not the highest—priority for our country. Perhaps I may introduce the debate by quoting the words of Gabriela Mistral, the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet:
"Many things we need can wait,
The child cannot . . . To him we cannot say tomorrow. His name is today".
My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, for raising this important topic and for speaking with such passion about the protection of children. I declare an interest as the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children. Many of its members are in their places today. I am particularly pleased to welcome back the noble Baroness, Lady Young, who is also in her place.
The group is concerned about the welfare of all children, and "welfare" includes the right to grow up without fear in the home, at school or in society at large. I am aware that the many excellent children's charities are also concerned about the protection of children and young people and are working to safeguard them against neglect, inappropriate punishment, violence and abuse.
I wish to speak today about bullying in relation to children and young people. Children need systems to protect them from bullying and also the skills and confidence to deal with it. Bullies, as well as the bullied, need to learn to address the issue.
"Bullying" is defined in a recent police report as,
"hurting, persecuting or intimidating someone that you perceive to be weaker than yourself".
It can involve teasing, taunting, excluding, stealing possessions or physical assault. Some children now report nasty messages on their mobile phones. Those who are bullied may be considered to be different in some way, be it by ethnic origin, being clever, being homosexual, having some disability or even a distinguishing feature such as red hair.
Bullying is a vicious form of torment to children which may occur between child and adult, but also, distressingly, between children and children. I wish to explore the effects of bullying, the causes of bullying and what might be done to counter it.
An NSPCC study found that bullying and discrimination are among the most common forms of aggression experienced by children and young people in the UK today. Forty-three per cent of children have suffered bullying at some point during childhood. A quarter of young people reported that they have suffered long-term harmful effects from being bullied.
The organisation Young Voices produced a study, Bullying in Britain, which reported the long-term effects of bullying. It was found that boys who have been bullied have much higher levels of depression and a more negative view of themselves at the age of 23. Bullying may also be associated with later alcohol problems and domestic violence.
The Department for Education and Employment, as it then was, reported that the emotional distress caused by bullying can prejudice school achievement, lead to lateness or truancy and, in extreme cases, end with suicide. Your Lordships may remember tragic cases of suicide among young people due to bullying. Darren Steele committed suicide aged 15, taunted by bullies who burnt him with cigarettes. Neither the school nor his parents or grandparents were aware that he was suffering.
Young gay people have reported immense trauma from the effects of taunts and violence about their sexual orientation. Black and Asian young people report more name calling—although not necessarily physical violence—than white children. The highest victimisation rates for rape are in the 10 to 15 age group. Children with special needs are two to three times more likely to be bullied.
Who are the bullies? The Young Voice report states that this is a complex issue. Their violence may be learned behaviour from family patterns; they may bully to get revenge or to reduce powerlessness and frustration. A bullied child may begin to bully, with attack seeming to be the best form of defence if no alternative skills are taught. A threatening social situation, such as death or divorce in the family, may make a young person take out feelings of anger by bullying others.
Guidelines on citizenship and personal education recognise that the school culture and environment is important for the welfare and healthy development of young people; that giving pupils a voice helps them to take responsibility for what happens in school; that teaching styles such as debating, researching and group work are important in giving young people the chance to discuss issues of importance. Also important is personal and social education which may help young people with self-empowerment, assertion and negotiation skills such as the ability to say no to unwanted behaviour and to seek help.
The Checkpoints for Young People produced by the National Children's Bureau and the Forum on Children and Violence sets out a youth charter for non-violence, including the right to feel safe, not to be physically or mentally hurt, to respect, to equality and to know that there are people there to help and to be involved in decisions.
What can we do to combat bullying? The Gulbenkian report Children and Violence called for a whole population approach rather than targeting high risk children or developing punitive approaches. The Forum on Children and Violence has conducted research and held conferences to debate this issue. Again, the view is that children's participation in solving the problem is likely to be more effective than draconian measures. The primary school where I am a governor has a school council which discusses problems in the school such as bullying and, with staff, attempts to find solutions. The school has an anti-bullying policy so that staff, pupils and parents know that bullying will not be tolerated.
The protection of children and young people is their right. The Children Act states that the welfare of children is "paramount". We must ensure that systems are in place which do not permit the oppression of children and violence towards them. We must also teach young people the skills to avoid or deal with violence, and to protect themselves as best they can. If we neglect these two things then we run the risk of violence in society increasing to the detriment of children and young people and communities. Does the Minister agree?
My Lords, I am deeply grateful to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, for initiating this debate. I wish to record the sufferings of the children of Northern Ireland at the hands of the paramilitaries, which cry out for remedy but are deliberately muffled and ignored by both governments and by the political representatives of the men of violence in the name of the famous peace process, and because there is apparently an "acceptable level of violence".
A report to the Northern Ireland Committee in the other place over a year ago from a reputable academic source said unequivocally that paramilitary child abuse had actually increased in the past few years since the Belfast agreement, and that the Provisional IRA has targeted children to a greater extent even than the loyalists. The youngest victim of a punishment beating seen by the surgeons in the Royal Victoria Hospital was just 14. The beatings are usually carried out with an iron bar, breaking both legs and arms, or with a nail-studded plank. There were many other such victims very little older. One 15-year old with special needs was hit across the face with an iron bar and beaten in his home for 20 minutes about the head and body, fracturing his jaw. His mother could do nothing.
I do not propose to give statistics, though they tell a grim story of extensive, brutal and persistent violence against children and the young, but to quote examples given by the Maranatha Community, a highly respected charity which has worked in Northern Ireland and among exiles in the United Kingdom for more than 30 years, and is in touch on behalf of victims with both loyalist and republican paramilitaries. It knows all about the terrible and traumatic long-term effects of paramilitary violence on the people and especially the republican practice of exiling whole families overnight, requiring them to leave their homes for the mainland at 12 hours' notice and never to return on pain of death. If they return they are shot.
Two children, whose father was ordered out of the country during the day, returned from school to find that he had fled. They asked urgently, "Are they going to kill my Daddy?" They had nightmares and wet the bed. They saw the anguish of their mother and could not understand why they could not speak to their father who telephoned them. Two children fled to England with their parents at a few hours' notice. The father was under threat of death. They were all terrified; in a strange country and initially without a home. They developed signs of extreme insecurity and anguish. They could not settle at their new school. They fretted for their grandparents and believed that they would never see them again. They constantly wet their beds and needed sedatives.
Last year, a paramiltiary gang ordered a 15-year old boy out of the country, saying that he would be shot dead if he returned. He ended up homeless on the streets of an English city with no friends, no help and no money. His parents were told that he would not survive if he returned and that they, too, would suffer. A couple were ordered out of Northern Ireland last year and one of their sons aged nine was dragged out of bed to witness his parents being threatened. They had to leave their children with grandparents and slept in their car for four nights ending up in great distress in an English city. I should tell the House that there are no arrangements, other than those devised by the Maranatha Community, to take care of these families at this traumatic moment in their lives. Refugees are cared for, but for these people, our own citizens, there is no provision in their hour of need. The children of that family were, and still are, very emotionally disturbed and disorientated.
A three-year old girl saw her father beaten with a baseball bat studded with nine-inch nails. She was taken into hiding with him as they fled to England. She was extremely traumatised. The paramilitary gang was well aware of this and expressed no remorse.
Children are regularly required to witness brutality and murder. A father was shot dead in his own home, in front of children, while holding his baby. Children are also made to join junior paramilitary organisations or be ostracised and bullied. They are told that their parents or siblings will be hurt if they do not work with the paramilitaries.
In the United Kingdom today children are daily seeing their parents and neighbours physically attacked, often in their own homes, by paramilitaries who are given the status of heroes. Children are being taught by them how to make and throw petrol bombs and other missiles, which can blind, maim and even kill. Children and young people are being trained in the use of firearms, baseball bats and lumps of concrete for so-called punishment beatings. They have themselves been victims of such beatings. They are brought up in an atmosphere of endemic fear and danger and, not surprisingly, for many years they suffer extreme mental and emotional disorder. They become embittered and hardened and often find it extremely difficult to make relationships later in life.
These children are offered violent, cruel men as role models. They regularly see houses burned by mobs of both persuasions and, by no means least, they are taught distorted versions both of history and of what is happening today. I freely concede what the noble and right reverend Lord said that teachers do their very best, but they are up against a most difficult situation. These children are taught to mistrust and hate those of a different tradition. It must be nearly impossible for even the most loving parent to counter this daily diet of violence and hate. This is happening to children in our country today. It is a matter of national shame. Instead of conducting a long and useless campaign to get the IRA to give up old weapons, which they have quietly replaced with new, both governments should, I suggest, be demanding and forcing the end of paramilitary violence, which is designed to flout the rule of law and demonstrate that they, and not the government, are in charge.
Sinn Fein/IRA is even demanding now that paramilitaries and ex-prisoners should be senior officers in the police, speaking for the community. What hope have they then? They have demonstrated that they run the place. Their power is so complete that no one dares to go to the real police and the police themselves can do little to help because they are turned away by the victim who begs them not to go further. So long as nothing is done, children suffer and will grow up as flawed and traumatised human beings.
I deeply regret that in so vital an issue we should have been constrained to such a short debate. I bow to the noble Baroness who also made an extremely important point: we should not have so little time. I believe that the Government are in breach of the human rights legislation and the human rights of these children. I want to see what real powers the commissioner for children will have. I am afraid that I do not have much faith, but I intended today at least to ensure that something is known of what is happening on the streets of Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, for introducing a most important debate, the first, I suspect, of many similar debates in the coming months. I wish to focus on one particular aspect, the child protection system.
The horrifying torture of Victoria Climbié at the hands of her demented aunt has put child abuse back on the political agenda. It has led to a profusion of media articles searching for the answer to one question. How, almost 30 years after the death of Maria Caldwell, can children still be subject to horrifying abuse and their suffering to go unnoticed until they die?
Away from the headlines and the outrage, a number of social care professionals and researchers have been quietly analysing the current system of child protection. The inquiry headed by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, will, I am sure, bring forward valuable proposals for change. Similarly, the investigation by my noble friend Lord Carlile of Berriew into the safety of children in the NHS in Wales has provided a comprehensive analysis of the strengths and failings of existing childcare practice in that country. In October 2001 the Department of Health produced its own evaluation of children's services from a study carried out by Diana Robbins. In December 2001 the Thomas Coram Foundation published its research into variations in local childcare practices. I want to pick up some of the key themes which have emerged.
The first point which stands out clearly is that the current system of child protection has been developed in response to a series of high profile scandals. Cases of maltreatment of individual children or larger scale abuse in residential settings such as North Wales and Merseyside have led to new recommendations. As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, said, it is crisis management. Although the policies and guidelines have been proposed and adopted as improvements in practice, they have all been reactions to failure. Child protection practice is based on child abuse and is frequently developed outwith the rest of the childcare system. Almost inevitably, the child protection system kicks in only after the incidence of serious abuse. Area child protection committees are reactive, underfunded and focused on cases which go wrong. Little of the work undertaken is preventive and promotion of good practice is rarely a priority. After 30 years it is time to develop a system based on factors of child development rather than child abuse. In that way, the absence of child development indicators could be used as an early warning and avoidance system.
That leads me to my next theme: the training of staff. A post-qualifying childcare award has been available for social workers for the past three years. It is a one-year part-time course incorporating much of the content of Quality Protects. However, it has not yet been evaluated nationally, nor is it fully available nationwide. Few social services departments have resource libraries to which staff can refer. That is not good when training budgets have been cut. All the evidence from every inquiry shows that provision of good quality training is vital if staff are to be aware of child protection issues, recognise symptoms of abuse and know what to do when it presents.
The report of my noble friend Lord Carlile demonstrates that there is widespread ignorance of child protection on the part of senior managers and clinicians in the NHS. Many GP practices have no child protection policy; and A&E departments are hostile environments for children.
Social workers are not the only staff with training needs. Studies of area child protection committees have shown that people from other professions such as teachers and police have a vital role to play in the detection and resolution of child abuse. Yet they are rarely allowed to attend training. In a recent report, the ADSS made the good suggestion that other professionals such as housing staff and staff of the National Asylum Support Service and the Immigration Service need child protection training if vulnerable children are not to slip through the net. What do the Government propose to do about that?
Quality and consistency of staff are the key issue. Yet evidence from the social services recruitment and healthcare workforce group in 2001 cited an average vacancy rate of 20 per cent in social services departments and an average 22 per cent turnover rate. In some areas of the country, in services such as children and families services the rates are much higher. When there is no consistency of staff professionals to talk to, the system begins to break down and children are failed.
All the evidence accumulated during the past 30 years supports the view that multi-disciplinary teams are the best way to organise child protection services. Child abuse is detected by many people in different work settings. However, at the heart of that multi-disciplinary system is a major flaw. A key finding of my noble friend's report is that information is not shared. There is widespread misunderstanding of the Caldicott principles and the use of different databases blocks the flow of information which is necessary for the protection of children. It is now clearly evident that all medical staff need access to child protection registers and social workers need access to medical histories. At the same time there need to be rigorous protocols governing the use of that information; and there needs to be an effective system of advocacy for the children and protection for adults and professionals who are wrongly accused. What will the Government do in the light of my noble friend's report and its implementation in Wales?
The Climbié inquiry made clear the need for a thorough overhaul of the practice of private fostering and adoption. When the adoption and fostering Bill emerges from another place I hope that that will be done and that there will be a requirement for training in parenting skills in private fostering and adoption.
I wish to mention one loophole. The registration of small private children's homes was to have been concluded by February 2002. Although the majority have been registered, some have not. What will be done to follow up on those which have not registered?
Finally, uniquely of all the people who work with children, nannies are not regulated. What plans do the Government have to bring nannies within the auspices of the current regulatory framework such as Ofsted?
I hope that the Government's reactions to the Laming inquiry will not be another reorganisation. I urge them instead to consider all the research and good practice which is around but which has not been disseminated and to spend resources to ensure that professionals use that information to protect children.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, for raising such important issues and for his most helpful speech.
I should like to reflect on two matters he raised from the point of view of a multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic environment such as the city and district of Bradford. He said that the nurturing of children and young people is the responsibility of us all. He also said that we must listen to their voices. That is right and very wise, if I may say so. The responsibility of us all points to the examples which adults set. Perhaps I may take as an example young Muslims in Bradford. Their parents may well have come from Kashmir or Mirpur. They bring with them a culture which is very different from any form of culture in this country; and a faith which is tied up intimately with culture. Part of their problem is to say, "Here I am in this western culture. Who am I? What is faith and what is culture? How do I become a good Muslim in the western world where I am surrounded by influences that one never even hears about in Kashmir".
We need to be sensitive to that problem and supportive of the young people in that position. If they are brought up in homes where parents adopt an isolationist form of life, having no contact with anyone except people like themselves, how on earth will they ever have the self-confidence to make relationships with other young people form other cultures? They will find that enormously difficult. If they are in the same area as young white children whose parents adopt a superior, dismissive, even aggressive attitude to ethnic minorities, the young white children will never be in a position to relate to young children of different backgrounds.
The responsibility on parents and adults is enormous. We need to emphasise that. We need to take it on board because we have that overriding influence over whether the children turn out to be isolationist or are capable of living happily and in a fulfilling manner in this western environment. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, said that we need to listen to their voices. That is absolutely true.
In areas such as that in which I live the stereotype of hordes of youngsters going around the streets bent on violence and nothing else is a most appalling caricature and far from the truth if one takes the trouble to listen to ordinary young Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians. If you come in with the media after violence has taken place and you talk to the young people who have been hurling bricks and petrol bombs, you will receive the response that you are perhaps looking for, and it will make the headlines. Those are a tiny minority. They are totally unrepresentative of the young people in an area such as mine. If you sit down with the sensible, sane young people, you will hear wise words and a commitment to a future full of respect, toleration and working together.
In a world which delights in disaster, perhaps I may flag up the good side. A week or so ago, I was invited to be present at what is called the shadow SACRE, the SACRE which looks after religious education in the Interfaith Education Centre in Bradford, where people have produced a syllabus approved by Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists and Christians. They have got together a group of youngsters who are mainly in the sixth form: Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. They meet together regularly, encouraged by responsible adults, and talk about what it means to have a religious faith in Bradford, and how they can use their faith for the good of Bradford. Those people are far more typical of the young people in the area than those who hurl bricks at the police and throw petrol bombs.
I echo the plea of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, that we should listen to the youngsters. Many come from cultures where the elderly do not listen to the youth, where the elders are held to be the source of all wisdom and the youth are expected to obey. Would that it were true. The revolution for which the noble and right reverend Lord has asked—namely, that older people listen to the youngsters—is urgently needed.
We should seek to create a secure environment in which youngsters can develop relationships. In a city such as Bradford, the scapegoat is the faith school. I can assure your Lordships that, whomsoever you talk to in Bradford, whether or not the person has a faith, will tell you that the faith schools have nothing to do with the matter. It is a question of where people live. They live in enclaves with like people and they attend the local school. The result is one-faith, one-culture, one-race schools.
How do we address that problem? We cannot go in for busing. We must create space, and encourage schools to help youngsters to get together and meet each other. I pray that, when schools are assessed and when Ofsted inspections take place, one day someone will consider a sense of citizenship and the provision of space to get to know other people as the marks of a good school, and not just its A-level results.
I plead and urge that we show sensitivity to the youngsters who are being persuaded by some political parties to adopt the attitude: "We should like you to go away, please, because you are a problem". We live in an environment where parents say, "We want to live in our own little back yard and have nothing to do with them". I pray that we can be sensitive to the problems that these young people have in growing up, and that as adults we accept our responsibility for setting an example which they can follow and from which they will benefit.
My Lords, I begin by congratulating the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, on securing this most important of debates. As I listened to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford, I empathised with his thoughts about Bradford. What he was saying about that city could well be mirrored in my city of Belfast. If indeed we get behind the headlines relating to both cities, there is hope.
The advent of devolution across the United Kingdom has not diminished the need to take steps to protect children throughout our nation. Indeed, I believe that the new administrative arrangements should be regarded as an opportunity to develop even greater co-operation across each of the jurisdictions—including on the issue of child protection. In that, the role of Parliament will be of prime importance.
I want briefly to highlight the necessity of a co-ordinated strategy by referring to a small number of issues that affect children across the United Kingdom. The introduction of the Protection of Children Act 1999 and the establishment of the Criminal Records Bureau in England and Wales were important steps in preventing unsuitable people from working with children. In the implementation of the legislation, however, it would appear that the Home Office did not fully consider arrangements in the remaining jurisdictions and, in particular, the need for an implementation plan to allow for transition between the old and the new administrative arrangements.
The Northern Ireland Assembly will soon debate the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults Bill, and the Scottish Executive is due to bring forward legislation to establish a consultancy index similar to the Protection of Children Act list and the Pre-Employment Consultancy Service in Northern Ireland. What we are left with at the moment, however, are inconsistent standards of vetting across the United Kingdom which are dependent on where an applicant lives or has worked.
For example, the Criminal Records Bureau in England is not checking the Pre-Employment Consultancy Service Register or the Department of Education list in Northern Ireland. Also, Disclosure Scotland—which was set up to carry out police checks in that part of the United Kingdom—does not assess the Pre-Employment Consultancy Service Register. Thus, someone from Scotland working with children in Northern Ireland will not be vetted to the same standards as someone who comes from the Province of Ulster. We clearly need vetting to be taken forward on a three-jurisdictional basis and not a piecemeal approach to reform of the system.
The United Kingdom has an unenviable record on child deaths as a result of child abuse. But it is too simple to say that child deaths across the United Kingdom can be reduced solely from London, when clearly many aspects of the complex reasons for children dying at the hands of abusers lie with devolved parliaments, both in Northern Ireland and in Scotland. There is a complex relationship between this issue, Parliament and devolution.
Much of the funding for children's services comes from direct taxation and there are important inter-relationships with the coroners' process, the police and the Northern Ireland Office. If the Government wish to reduce child deaths as a result of abuse in the United Kingdom, that must be on the back of a co-ordinated strategy that involves devolved government departments in Northern Ireland alongside central government departments in London.
The issue of sex offenders is very serious in this country and in the European Union as a whole. The Sex Offenders Act 1997 applies across the United Kingdom, but Northern Ireland is the only part of our nation that has a land frontier with another EU state. The implementation of the Irish Sex Offenders Act is to be welcomed; but legislation that is slightly different and which introduces loopholes will undoubtedly be exploited by those who seek to harm children. For example, there will be no registration requirement for sex offenders who move from the Republic of Ireland across the Border into Northern Ireland. The Government need to consider that point when bringing forward much-needed amendments to the United Kingdom legislation.
The Treasury needs to recognise the issue of funding in relation to the block grant to Northern Ireland. However, it must be acknowledged that we have a major problem in Northern Ireland with regard to investment in children's services. Such services historically receive much lower levels of funding than those in England and Wales.
Naturally, there are numerous competing demands on finance in Northern Ireland, many of them due to the need to invest in our infrastructure. However, it is a sad fact that it is often the children's services that lose out as a result of this. Children in Belfast have the same right to protection from abuse as those in Brighton or Blairgowrie. The Government in London have identical responsibilities to all of them. The Chancellor has outlined bold targets to reduce child poverty in the United Kingdom. However, he has not outlined how he intends to deliver those in Northern Ireland. The sooner he does so, the better it will be for the children of the Province.
Child protection systems cannot operate in isolation within the United Kingdom. The onset of devolution has made necessary better and more imaginative co-operation across each of our jurisdictions. We need an imaginative debate and leadership in establishing systems and processes that cross our internal boundaries. Only when we make progress on that will we be able to look forward to a better standard of protection for all our children living in these islands.
My Lords, I was delighted when I read that the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, had tabled this Motion for debate today. Nobody could be more compassionate in his approach to this sensitive subject. His long and distinguished record of pastoral care and his understanding of the misery and horror of troubled times in Northern Ireland have given him a depth of experience. Over the years, many people of different faiths and none have had good reason to be grateful to the noble and right reverend Lord.
In most cases, children are protected through the care of loving parents, where children grow up in an atmosphere that is happy, natural and devoid of any hatred and cruelty. Sadly, life for some children is not like that. What goes on behind closed doors is hidden and can be hideous. Young children may not realise that this sort of behaviour is not the norm, and so do not complain. It is therefore essential that there are people who take careful note of anything unusual and share that information with colleagues. Some would say that that would lead to a snooper's charter. I refute that charge and believe it is our duty to report if we fear that a child is at risk.
I appreciate that cruelty exists in many forms, both mental and physical. It also varies in its power and intensity. Sometimes unkindness and thoughtlessness may be seen as cruelty. I know from my experience as a magistrate that some children are subjected to incidents so horrific that they are almost too appalling to contemplate. In a short debate of this kind, it is not possible to cover the whole range, so I shall speak about just two examples of physical cruelty.
Because of my strong beliefs, I have had a long-standing connection with the NSPCC. I was drawn to the society because of its work on behalf of children, covering all types of minor and major acts of callousness. I well remember one initiative resulting from the building of high-rise tower blocks. It was decided to try and help mothers who were struggling to raise children in flats up to 20 or more floors above ground. The society ran a centre for those mothers who had children of different ages and no garden outside the kitchen door for them to play in and who, as a consequence kept them indoors all day. I shall never forget the sight of those children as they careered round and round, enjoying the sheer thrill of the freedom of movement denied in a small flat. Until that time, I, like many others, had not realised the evil effect of high-rise flats on those families with small children condemned to live in them. The main thrust was to get people out of slum city areas into decent accommodation. I am sure that no one then understood the result that such housing conditions would have, but today, in hindsight, I consider that it was a modest form of cruelty to keep children caged up like that for hours on end.
I shall highlight horrendous acts of brutality on little children, which come before the courts with what appears to be increasing regularity. One such case that has haunted me is that of Lauren Wright. My right honourable friend Mrs Gillian Shephard and her Norfolk parliamentary colleagues have been deeply involved in highlighting the case. I pay tribute to their determination to try to get procedures changed. They have insisted that lessons be learnt. As a result, we are tabling amendments to the Education Bill presently before your Lordships' House.
The tragic story of six year-old Lauren Wright is too ghastly to be believed. She went to live with her father and stepmother after their marriage and underwent what can only be called torture. She attended her local school, where her stepmother was a dinner lady. It was a two-teacher school, so she must have been observed on a regular basis. During that time she often appeared with bruises, which were explained away, but surely someone should have noticed in addition that she was losing weight and should have wondered why. Sixteen months later, when she died, she had lost four stone and weighed only two stone—a six year-old who weighed only 28 pounds. Her father and stepmother were imprisoned after conviction. This poor child was let down not only by the system, but by society—all of us.
Of course I know that where evil exists, one cannot guarantee that it will never happen again, but surely a structure could be put in place to minimise such terrible events. Teachers and social workers must play a major part in any new arrangements and there must be a clear line of responsibility. The law at present states that in each school there must be a designated teacher with specific responsibilities. That policy must be strengthened. It is unbelievable that, in spite of the frequency of terrible tragedies, we have not made greater effort to change and reinforce our procedures. I sometimes wonder whether those who should be involved in such matters are too occupied with political correctness and watching their backs and as a consequence take their eye off the ball. We must not let go this chance to give force to the statutory powers. If we do, I consider that we should have it on our consciences and be equally guilty with all those who failed little Lauren Wright.
My Lords, on 17th October last year, I spoke in the debate initiated by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, on false accusations of abuse. I thank my noble and right reverend friend Lord Eames for bringing this question to your Lordships' attention this evening, because it enables me to say a little more on that subject.
I am the first to acknowledge that child protection social workers have an extremely difficult job and most of them deserve our respect and admiration. Unfortunately, the rotten apple spoils the barrel. When child protection social workers justifiably intervene and investigate a child's situation, yet fail to recognise abuse and fail to protect the child, the public demand for an investigation and for the prevention of a recurrence is undivided. Hidden from the public eye are an alarming number of families where child protection officers have set in motion child protection procedures without justification. These cases invariably involve sick children and a difference of medical opinion. Parents are accused of abusing their children. Family confidentiality and their right to privacy and family life under the Human Rights Act are unjustly breached. Social workers abuse their Children Act powers. When professionals whose role is to promote the health and welfare of children and to prevent abuse make gross errors of judgment, the damage they cause to innocent families is doubly abusive. The same errors of judgment, poor quality of work and failure to adhere to guidance and the law can lead to failure to prevent abuse and to false accusations of abuse.
The Children Act lacks the appropriate checks and balances to ensure accountability. As the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, made very clear, where responsibility is left almost entirely to caseworkers, the quality, integrity, training and supervision of child protection social workers is paramount.
For parents suspected of child abuse there is no presumption of innocence; they are thrust into a nightmare scenario. Feeling that they are judged guilty from the outset, they are effectively denied any opportunity to prove their innocence. Professionals meet and arrive at decisions without the family knowing. At the point where Section 47 of the Children Act is invoked and the parents are informed, they are not only accused of abuse, they are effectively considered guilty of abuse.
I have had conversations and correspondence with parents that demonstrate that the investigative process, the purpose of which is to establish the facts behind a child's situation, has often been abused. Evidence to support a pre-determined decision is fabricated; some social workers' reports manipulate and distort what is said in interviews; and the opinion of a child's GP or consultant is misrepresented or excluded when it does not accord with the view of the social worker or the designated doctor. Important facts and evidence are omitted from key reports. Uninformed opinion is presented as fact and remains on the record even if challenged.
Legal assistance for the parents seems to be locked into a closed circuit. Social services advise the parent of the names of solicitors who practise in the child protection field. It is apparent that some solicitors are dependent upon social services for work and therefore will not want to rock the boat. Parents are often told, against their better judgment, to go along with social services. If the case gets to court, the judge can be swamped with paper. I know from my experience as a member of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal what it is like to be swamped with paper. Much of it is irrelevant, and the judge must rely upon flawed evidence to reach his conclusions. Parents whose children are taken into care or made wards of court are faced with draconian gagging orders. To innocent parents, the lack of natural justice in the way the case is constructed against them is both sinister and terrifying.
Genuinely sick children are refused medical attention. The whole family is disturbed, and mothers are known to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Children lose all trust in childcare professionals, and a child's education is disrupted. The whole family may not seek medical attention out of fear of being further misunderstood or misrepresented. Social services help for other family members may be refused for fear that they may be coerced into making further false accusations. Families are given the cold shoulder in their communities and are excluded from social groups. Mothers involved in children's activities, even in some church groups, are suddenly no longer needed. The horror is endless.
When social services closes the file on innocent parents, even when there is an acknowledgement that a mistake has been made, there is no apology and the false "diagnosis" remains on the file. "You are what you are accused of", one innocent mother was told when she asked why the diagnosis remained on the file. That this can happen and there is nothing that effectively can be done about it was confirmed to me in a Written Answer in yesterday's Hansard.
We must bear in mind that these records are open to anyone in the childcare field who has been asked to employ a member of this family. I ask the Minister how—when there is a culture of, "You are what you are accused of"—innocent parents and their sick children can obtain justice? How can innocent parents clear their names? Unfortunately, time does not allow me to draw attention to many more iniquities. I sincerely believe that if Ministers were to listen to some of the aggrieved parents, rather than to hide behind the customary, "We cannot look at individual cases", they would be as horrified as I am and would want to do something about the problem.
I have an example of a young man who, at the age of 15, had had ME for about two years. His case had been drawn to the attention of the local community paediatrician and the child psychiatrist. Those two people, with the social workers, decided that the child should be admitted to a psychiatric hospital and that his parents were responsible for causing his problems. Eventually, he was made a ward of court, with a gagging order in which the mother and father were allowed to speak only to their solicitor and their MP. The father was Dutch, and he took his child to Holland, to the grandparents. Interpol was called out and they were brought back to this country.
I am sorry, but my time is up and I must stop.
My Lords, I should have been very happy to forgo a minute of my time to enable the noble Countess, Lady Mar, to tell us the end of the story.
I welcome this opportunity offered by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, to discuss these vital issues. I should also like to say how much, as a native of Bradford, I agree with the remarks of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford. I shall address the specific issue of the protection of children and young people in relation to new technology, the Internet and the use of mobile telephones.
Today we have learned about the biggest ever operation against Internet paedophiles in the UK. The operation was carried out by more than 34 police forces; 75 addresses were raided simultaneously; and large quantities of computer equipment were seized. We know from the work on the "Wonderland" case, several years ago, that those police officers will now find not hundreds or thousands, but hundreds of thousands, of images of the most horrific abuse of youngsters, children and even babies. We shall learn more about the case as it unfolds in the newspapers tomorrow, but I should like to draw noble Lords' attention to two specific points.
First, we need to recognise and pay tribute to the role played by British police not only on the national stage but internationally in dealing with this problem. I have had the privilege of meeting and talking to some of the police officers leading that work. The National Crime Squad, Manchester police and their colleagues are totally committed to catching those people and stopping their vile trade. They deserve not only our thanks and support but access to the government resources they need to pursue and stop the trade.
Secondly, among those arrested today were doctors, teachers and people working in the caring professions—professions which bring people into contact with children. That underlines the importance of ensuring that children and everyone else realises that paedophiles are very often not "dirty old men in raincoats". The grim truth is that the police are going after paedophiles trading images in chatrooms who they believe are also involved in ongoing abuse against their own children and other children in their neighbourhoods. That leaves us with a dilemma.
There is no doubt that advances in new technology have produced great gains for children, not only by giving them unparalleled access to educational and cultural resources and by enabling new and imaginative games, but also by facilitating a huge boom in interactive and communications technologies that enable youngsters to maintain long, complicated and occasionally interesting and useful, I am sure, conversations with each other. If anyone ever doubted human beings' basic instinct to communicate with each other and to live in extended groups, they need only look at the uses to which children put many of the new technologies without any prompting at all. Indeed, many researchers say that if we want to know how adults will use new technology tomorrow, we should look at how children are using it today.
The fact is that 75 per cent of the United Kingdom's seven to 16 year-olds now have Internet access. However, only a fool would attempt to argue that every technological advance has been an unqualified success. The motorcar has been a great liberator, but it has also eaten into our natural resources and made living in cities unhealthy. We are only now beginning to devise policies and technologies to deal with its destructive tendencies. It is already evident that we shall have to do something similar to deal with the unintended consequences of the Internet, aspects of mobile telephone use and perhaps other interactive communication devices as well.
The Internet is a product of the Cold War—a revolutionary technology developed in the essentially closed, small and trusting environment of academia. The same rules which governed its use in that environment simply do not work when the same system is exported to the ruder, rougher climes of the mass market. I have no complaint about the Internet broadening its reach; on the contrary, I welcome it. All I am saying is that in the long run I cannot see civilised society standing by and allowing it to become a major conduit for criminal and other grossly undesirable conduct, particularly when so much of it seems directly to threaten children; indeed, this Government are not.
Happily, most of Britain's larger Internet companies are doing tremendous work helping to make the Internet a safer place for our children. There is still a long way to go, and probably a time will never come when we can say with absolute certainty that the Internet is 100 per cent safe for children 100 per cent of the time, but then nothing in life is ever 100 per cent of anything 100 per cent of the time—and the Internet will not be any different. But it is important to recognise that the issue of safety must stay high on the agenda. Apart from anything else, as a result of government policy the whole education system is being restructured around the Internet. So sooner rather than later 100 per cent of our children will have Internet access.
Our largest ISPs are playing a full part in the Home Office's Internet Task Force—a task force that has become an important focal point for activity in this area. The Government, and in particular Home Office Minister Beverley Hughes, are to be congratulated on the work they are doing. I am kept fully informed of the work of the task force partly because my husband serves on it. Like me he has a close association with the children's charity NCH which recently commissioned pioneering research into children's use of mobile phones. Over 50 per cent of children have access to mobile phones. Children are being bullied through the use of text messaging on their mobile phones. With bullying by text messages children's phones are becoming places where vile and horrible messages can be received. So not only is bullying taking place by e-mail and sometimes in chatrooms, but also by mobile phone.
The national survey that NCH carried out found that one in four children had experienced or were experiencing bullying by electronic media. Text messaging over the mobile phone was the largest culprit. The survey also showed that children suffer that bullying in silence. The fact that someone is being bullied in the virtual world is no reason to ignore it in the real one or, indeed, in school in particular. I call on the mobile phone companies to look again at how they handle complaints of bullying by text messaging. They have it within their power to help to deal with this problem and I ask them to address it.
My Lords, we have heard today that child protection is a complex interrelationship between parental care, listening to children, community programmes and good local authority child protection procedures. It is always easy to look at how some of these have gone wrong when a child is harmed or tragically dies, but to hold the complex package together requires the skills of well trained workers, multi-disciplinary working and partnerships between the voluntary and statutory agencies. No one group can do that task alone. I should like to take this opportunity to highlight the work of a few of the agencies in the field and to raise one or two questions in advance of the discussions we shall have when the Adoption and Children Bill comes to your Lordships' House later in the Session when we shall again have opportunities to raise some of these issues.
In thanking the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, for initiating the debate I agree with him that this matter is a collective social responsibility. In the report, Child Protection, Everybody's Business, ChildLine attempted to respond to the many questions put to its workers by those who came across child abuse and felt totally unable to deal with it. This included relatives, friends, teachers, neighbours and parents themselves. In discussion with groups of social work staff and community groups it was apparent that faced with even the most blatant abuse some very well meaning and trained people found it difficult to decide what to do.
The phenomenon is not always easy to see and as the consequences of telling are so serious people think twice about raising issues, during which time children can be seriously damaged. Physical signs may not trigger appropriate responses, as we saw in the case of Victoria Climbie, and sexual abuse is even more difficult to diagnose. I speak as someone who has been involved in three child abuse inquiries and knows of the pain that is caused when things go wrong. That is why the Stop it Now campaign which I chair is developing a network of local projects across the UK. As well as raising awareness of sexual abuse, the campaign aims to target key groups. These will include adults who have abused, or are thinking of abusing, a child—because they do seek help—family and friends of abusers and parents of children and young people who sexually abuse other children—a large category which we often ignore.
Stop it Now is a multi-disciplinary partnership that helps adults to take responsibility for protecting children and gives them some help and understanding in how to do it. We are grateful for the support of the Home Office and the Department of Health. We are grateful not only for their financial support but also for their active interest in what we are doing.
The programme will raise awareness, but even so child sexual abuse remains a secret crime and many children find it hard to describe what they are enduring. Every year ChildLine talks to over 10,000 children calling about sexual abuse in addition to the 14,000 who call about physical abuse. ChildLine does not manage to answer all the calls so there are many more cases. ChildLine has demonstrated that listening to children is vitally important in all aspects of child protection but it is difficult to do well. We could do more to help children talk about their experiences and what they want for the future by ensuring that when the picture of what is happening to them is unclear they receive independent representation from schemes such as the national young people's advocacy scheme. One example of that is in the difficult area of contact orders.
On 13th March the Government issued a briefing to MPs in response to concern in the other place about the risk of abuse to children in contact arrangements. In addition to the welcome range of work the Government are planning in this area, I hope that we will be able to consider amendments that would substantially resolve some of the outstanding difficulties to specific concerns in relation to Schedule 1 offenders and which would also provide a framework for an effective interface between private and public proceedings.
The point has been made that there are practical difficulties in treating all Schedule 1 offenders as a potential risk to children, although my long experience tells me that we should err on the side of caution and certainly listen to the children. I know the end of the story mentioned by the noble Countess, Lady Mar. As a professional I take a different view of that issue. These issues are extraordinarily complex. While there are difficulties in screening all applicants for contact—I accept that it may be highly offensive to most parents who have the interests of their children at heart—there is a problem in relation to those children the court considers to be at risk. The present system does not either allow the court to identify these children or provide objective and independent evidence on their behalf.
Those tasked with the greatest burdens in these complex decisions are social workers. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the thousands of childcare workers working in residential care situations, supporting families and supervising children. They work in difficult circumstances. Unless we cherish them and give them the support they need, it will become virtually impossible to find people of calibre to take on these difficult tasks. We have heard much this afternoon about education. I hope that when the social services budgets are looked at, social worker training will be high on the agenda. I make a plea for the future. If they are to develop the kind of expertise that the work of child protection demands, I, like the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, ask that we should please stop reorganising them and give them the opportunity to consolidate their skills and experience, to develop good relationships, to understand research and to work with colleagues in other professions. Constant change at the rate that has been experienced over the past two decades distracts attention from the development of sound child protection practice and places our vulnerable children at even greater risk.
It is clear that the present Government have done much to improve services for children but sound child protection remains elusive. That is probably because there is a belief that it is all down to common sense and that anyone can get these decisions right when the truth is that they require training, experience, objectivity and a capacity to work with others. Child protection is a highly complex professional skill and we forget that to the peril of the lives of the many vulnerable children who depend on government to get the policy decisions right so that the practitioners have the space and ability to protect children.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, for initiating this important debate. We have had an excellent debate. Through it there has been a common thread—that of the need to listen to children. That was eloquently expressed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford, the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, and others.
We have heard significant contributions about many aspects of the protection of children. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, made an eloquent plea for the elimination of child poverty and for society to listen to the silent ones. The Government are making inroads into child poverty but we on these Benches urge them to make every effort to increase the uptake of the complex raft of benefits and tax credits. Too many families do not receive the cash to which they are entitled.
I was very moved by the account given by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, of the children of Northern Ireland. She described a horrifying—and little publicised—side of the effects of the troubles. I wholeheartedly endorse the perceptive comments of my noble friend Lady Barker on the child protection system.
However, I want to focus on a subject that has not been covered—the physical punishment of children and the need for a legal ban. In December last year, the Government announced:
"We do not believe that any further change to the law at this time would command widespread public support or that it would be capable of consistent enforcement. However, we will keep the reasonable chastisement defence under review".
I wish to put the case for that review and to ask for a change of heart, based on the evidence.
Why do we need a change in the law? We need it in order to give children the same protection under the law on assault as adults. It is as simple as that. We need it to encourage those who are at risk of harming children to seek advice and support to prevent their doing so. We need it to provide a clear legal framework in which we can promote positive relationships between children and their parents and other carers, including non-violent and effective discipline. And we need it to enable those working in child protection to deliver clear messages, supported by clear legislation.
As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, mentioned, in 1991 the UK ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 19 of the convention protects children from all forms of physical violence and Article 37 protects them from inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Sadly, physical violence against children is all too common in our society. Researchers have found that 80 per cent of UK parents have smacked or hit their children at some time and that 25 per cent hit them weekly or more often.
We need to ask two questions. Do parents have a right to hit their children? And is physical punishment an effective way of instilling discipline? My answer to the first of those questions is, "No, they do not". We do not own our children. They are not our property to do with as we wish. If we accept that we do not have a right to indulge in physical violence against other adults, how much less of a right do we have to inflict it on younger, smaller and more vulnerable individuals, especially those who look to us for love and protection and for an example of how to live? Indeed, one might say that we have a duty not to treat children in that way, especially in view of the mass of evidence that there is in answer to my second question, which is: does it work? The answer to that is a resounding, "No, it does not". In fact, there is much evidence showing that it has the opposite of the intended effect.
Research on short and long-term effects of physical punishment has found that although it may secure children's immediate compliance, it is also associated with negative behaviour, including childhood aggression and lower levels of understanding why certain actions are unacceptable. A report published by the NSPCC, with which I have a non-pecuniary association, showed a "very clear association" between physical punishment at 11 years of age and delinquency, with more than one-quarter of children who are smacked or beaten once a week being rated as troublesome at the age of 16. There is much anecdotal evidence to show that violence begets violence—including bullying, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey—and that physically abused children become physically abusing parents.
Clearly, not all smacking leads to child abuse. However, there is evidence that the behaviour can escalate, which is why it needs to be stopped early. Researchers found that many people who had hit their babies were hitting their four year-olds weekly and severely. By the age of seven almost one-quarter of those children were being hit with implements. That sort of behaviour is getting very close to what most people would regard as child abuse and it demonstrates a lack of self-control on the part of the parents, which easily leads beyond the line that most people would draw.
The Government have claimed that there is no public support for a change in the law. An opinion poll carried out by MORI this year contradicts that view. It shows an overwhelming consensus that physical punishment is wrong in certain circumstances. The questions were based on the current proposals going through the Scottish Parliament as part of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill, introduced by the Liberal Democrat Justice Minister, Jim Wallace. Ninety-seven per cent of those questioned said that parents should not be allowed to punish physically babies up to 18 months; 78 per cent said that parents should not be allowed to punish physically toddlers under three; 96 per cent said that parents should not be allowed to use implements to punish children; and 98 per cent said that parents should not be allowed to hit children around the head.
There is growing support for a ban on all physical punishment. Fifty-eight per cent were in favour of legal reform provided that parents were not to be prosecuted for so-called "trivial" smacks. I emphasise that that survey was based on a statistically significant random sample of the population, using best-practice survey techniques and not the self-selecting group who responded to the Government's 2001 consultations or the recent Scottish Daily Record reader survey. So it can be relied on as being an accurate reflection of public opinion.
Those who oppose a ban on hitting children claim that caring parents would be criminalised for a trivial smack in the heat of the moment. In order to see if that would really be so, it is worth looking at the experience of other countries that already have a ban. Ten countries have taken the lead and given children the same legal protection from assault as adults.
Sweden was the first to change its law, back in 1979. At the time of the reform, a booklet, Can you bring up children successfully without smacking and spanking?, was distributed to every household with children. Information about the new law was printed on milk cartons for two months in the hope that families would discuss it around the kitchen table. Public education is ongoing. There was resistance to the new law at the time in Sweden but now there is enormous support for it. The result has been that action taken by the social services has become increasingly voluntary and the number of children receiving out-of-home care has decreased by one-quarter.
Other countries with a ban are Austria, Germany, Croatia, Israel, Cyprus, Latvia, Denmark, Norway and Finland. The evidence from those countries shows that prosecution is exceptional. Legal reform in the UK could be enforced in the same way as assaults against another adult; that is, "trivial assaults" would not be prosecuted. Reform in those countries has been written into civil or family law, not criminal law. Breaking the law on physical punishment does not carry an automatic penalty. It means that a criminal assault on a child is treated in the same way as an assault on an adult: prosecution has to be in the public interest as well as in the child's. Trivial assaults on adults do not get to the courts. Evidence from other countries shows that prosecutors act with equal restraint when considering cases involving physical punishment of children.
One of the aims of reform has been to encourage a more preventive approach in child protection work by giving professionals and the public alike a surer basis on which to identify risk situations and to provide early support to parents. The Children are unbeatable! Alliance—an alliance of children's charities—has taken an important lead with its parent education initiative. The evidence from Europe and beyond shows that physical punishment legislation has played an important role in changing attitudes and encouraging parents to use non-violent and more effective methods of discipline. There is no evidence to show that it has any negative effects on society. On the contrary, a change in the law, in conjunction with public education, has contributed to an important shift in the way children are perceived and a reduction in the physical abuse of children. While the Minister is considering the many important points that have been raised in this excellent debate, I hope that he will reconsider the opinion of the Government expressed last year.
My Lords, all children and young people are vulnerable and all need material and emotional support. The tragic fact that many face hardship and exploitation makes this an emotive debate, and I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, for introducing it today.
I commend to your Lordships the tremendous work carried out by the numerous children's charities, many of which contributed to today's debate through their excellent briefing.
It is clear that, while most children are brought up in a loving and safe environment, a small minority can be at risk from abuse and cruelty at home, in care and in schools, not least from bullying, from unknown sex offenders and as a result of contacts made over the Internet. My noble friend Lady Park gave the House a chilling insight into the violence towards children by paramilitaries.
Protecting children and young people from poverty should be the starting point. Poverty can cause feelings of having been let down by "society"—society often being interpreted as the most visible manifestation of inequality. Too often children find themselves in hardship, which can lead to low aspirations, failure at school, and vulnerability to the social problems so evident in their wider community. Ensuring that every child gets the best possible start in life means ensuring that those in need of assistance receive their entitlement. That means a benefits system that is as simple as possible to understand and to benefit from.
I want to touch briefly on the subject of sexual abuse and exploitation of children and young people. Last month was the closing date for public consultation on Setting the Boundaries. This sets out recommendations to Ministers for a new system of offences designed to protect children from abuse and exploitation and to enable abusers to be appropriately punished. We on these Benches agree with the principles underlying that review. We welcome moves to improve the protection of children by the criminal justice system, and we hope that the Government will bring forward legislation in the next Session.
Sexual activity between adults and children is not acceptable. It seems clear that in order to protect young people from sexual exploitation, more services are required to help to prevent it and to help young people to escape if they are drawn in. Those most vulnerable are the youngsters who run away from home. Providing accommodation for those vulnerable children must become a priority if such exploitation is to stop. With young children of my own, I found the Barnardo's report, Whose Daughter Next?—Children abused through prostitution, pretty chilling reading.
Last year the Home Secretary made a speech in which he stated his intention to make,
"Britain the safest country in the world for children to access the internet".
To that end, can the Minister confirm that the Government will bring forward legislation on grooming via the Internet with intent to abuse children?
The role of local authorities in the protection of children has been on everyone's mind recently with the tragic cases of Lauren Wright and Victoria Climbié. The report into Lauren Wright's death, about which my noble friend Lady Seccombe spoke so movingly, has made several recommendations concerning the future child-protection training of health professionals.
The Care Standards Act 2000 introduced the General Social Care Council, which will regulate the training of social workers. The Children's Rights Director for England will work from the National Care Standards Commission and will have a national overview of the rights of children receiving services regulated by the commission, such as children's homes, independent hospitals and fostering agencies.
We are in yet another period of change. There will be more upheaval. Therefore, perhaps I may urge the Minister to look carefully at the systems which the Government intend to put in place. We need to ensure that an effective mechanism is introduced to provide a seamless and comprehensive system of training for both health and social services professionals so that they are able to deal with child protection matters in the most efficient way possible. After all, they are in the "front line" when signs of abuse become apparent. Do the Government intend care trusts to be the forum for managing such training, or will the new commissions announced in the plan oversee training matters? What will become of the General Social Care Council?
It is easy to look at the reports from the two appalling cases that I mentioned and identify the problems in the system that led to the terrible deaths of those young people. But, as the NSPCC points out,
"the management of child protection cases is the most complex and demanding task in the field of social care. It requires the collaboration of many disciplines, each bringing with them differing values, priorities, skills & resources".
Therefore, I was dismayed at the shocking statistics that were revealed in a survey of 120 local authority branches by UNISON. Sixty per cent said that, even if all the vacant posts in social services were filled, there would still not be enough social workers to manage current workloads. Ninety-six per cent reported caseloads being too high, and 88 per cent of staff were "thrown in at the deep end".
Clearly the bad press that social workers have received is having an effect on staff numbers. Not enough people are joining the workforce, and too many of those who do join leave after two or three years, exhausted and disillusioned. Can the Minister tell the House whether that is likely to continue? What is the take-up on new social services courses? Social services workers need support, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, said; they do not need to be threatened with a big stick.
However, a brief from the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services draws attention to the other side of the coin. That organisation has become alarmed at the damage caused by malicious complaints in childcare referrals and by the unquestioning attitude and incompetence of many of the professionals involved. It points to,
"the devastating and long-lasting impact of such intervention on families", as was touched on by the noble Countess, Lady Mar. It also mentions the lack of adequate evidence base for social work interventions and the lack of respect shown to clients by many social workers.
While many children are protected by the current system, children continue to die each week as a result of abuse or neglect. That is horrifying—even more so when one considers that most child abuse goes unreported. This should not be the case in a supposedly civilised society such as ours and we must not accept it as an unchangeable fact. Furthermore, the current cost of child abuse to statutory and voluntary organisations is £1 billion a year. Most of that is spent dealing with the aftermath of abuse rather than its prevention.
So, what can be done? When any decision is made that affects the most vulnerable people in society, we should not lose sight of the guidance provided by children's organisations. In this field above all others, direct experience cannot be valued highly enough.
The NSPCC suggests "putting children centre stage" by amending the Children Act 1989 to incorporate a "positive duty of care", similar to that in the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, mentioned by the noble and right reverend Lord, on parents in England and Wales to promote the welfare of their children.
The introduction of a new central register of all children who are at risk strikes me as a vital step in ensuring that vulnerable children do not "slip through the net". That is so important, as most child abuse goes unreported. Most children and young people do not have a trusted individual to help them. Only a small percentage disclose abuse when it is happening. Many vulnerable parents, who are responsible for the welfare of babies and small children, also have no one to turn to. Adequately funded helplines are one option and have been successful, particularly for those children who are living in their own homes. For children in care, the NSPCC suggests a statutory requirement for local authorities to provide advocacy services. Certainly, all children in care should have access to a trained adult to whom they can turn in times of need.
My Lords, I join others in paying tribute to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, for initiating the debate, which I believe is necessary and gives us an opportunity to reflect. He started, rightly, by pointing out that one of the measures of a just society must be how it cares for its children and the extent to which it eradicates or seeks to eradicate child poverty and child abuse and maximises opportunities for a happy childhood for children, laying the foundations, one hopes, for a fulfilling life.
We are clearly not there yet. Abuse is still a very real problem for many children in England today. I do not apologise for one second for stressing—as has been said by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe—that we have to see this as a shared responsibility across society and not simply for the caring professions.
We know that tens of thousands of children each year are referred to social services because of concerns about their welfare. Home Office research in 1993 showed that 110,000 adults in the UK had convictions for child offences against children at that time. The latest Home Office statistics show that 78 children were killed by their parents in 2001.
Each year, about 160,000 children are referred to the child protection process and of those about 40,000 each year are the subject of child protection inquiries under Section 47 of the Children Act. Of those, 27,000 in the past year had their names added to the child protection register. Ninety-six per cent of those children remain at home and the majority of those separated from their families are swiftly reunited.
The number of children on the child protection register has reduced in recent years and now stands at 26,800. An increasing proportion—now over three-quarters—of initial child protection conferences result in registration. Those are not just boring figures; they indicate the scale of the issues and, pace the challenges of the noble Countess, Lady Mar, the difficulties of always getting it right. I shall return to that point in a few moments.
The statistics perhaps suggest that children who are the subject of child protection conferences are those who have considerable needs. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, referred to the importance of that. However, it is also the case that fewer children remain on the child protection register for longer periods of time than was the case in the past because the problems that lead to registration being necessary are being addressed in many cases through more intensive early intervention following registration. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, mentioned policy driven by crisis intervention. While, clearly, there was a sequence of significant inquiries, more than 400,000 children in need each year who are not placed on the register are being cared for by social services departments or receiving services from them. Social services are doing much more than simply addressing those who are on the register.
Several noble Lords addressed the importance of a positive and preventive agenda, not simply a crisis intervention one. I strongly support that. It is fundamental to the Government's broader strategy to improve the life chances of children and to give strong support to families. Action to tackle social exclusion lies at the heart of the Government's policy commitment to end child poverty within 20 years. We need services for children that no longer act simply as a safety net against failure, but as a springboard or success.
There are four major cross-government programmes to achieve that: Sure Start, the Children's Fund, Connexions and Quality Protects. However, time does not allow me to go into detail. Quality Protects will provide £885 million over five years to transform the management and delivery of children's services and could not be more important. The programme sets out clear objectives for children's services. In addition, the House will be well aware that we have for the first time a Minister for young people, that we have established the national rights director for children, that we have a children and young people unit and that the Department of Health is promoting and developing a national service framework for children.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, stressed the importance of eliminating child poverty by 2010. The Government remain committed to that objective. The Government have brought forward a raft of measures and initiatives to deal not just with the crisis end but to try to increase the potential for parents to succeed at parenting. That must be a better option than our intervention when they have failed to do so.
However, as a number of noble Lords stressed, the improvement of the performance of social services is, as always, a fundamental component of that. The Government are striving to improve the quality and performance of social services. I shall not go into detail on funding, but the House will share with me the pleasure at seeing the 6 per cent real terms increase in funding—that is 9 per cent in cash terms—that will follow on from 2003-04, not just for one year but for three years. So there is the prospect of a significant year-on-year expansion of funding. No doubt, it will never be enough, but one could not criticise the direction of travel.
The Government have also established the National Care Standards Commission, as the noble Lord, Lord Astor, had the grace to recognise, the General Social Care Council, which will continue, and the Social Care Institute for Excellence, which will do exactly what the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and the noble Lord, Lord Astor, were hoping. It will be a repository to identify good practice. It will identify what works and will seek to promote that positively rather than have autopsies on failure.
Social services recruitment is fundamental. We have to increase the number of talented people going into social work. Is it surprising that after the sequence of massively publicised criticisms of the profession people are reluctant to go into it? There has to be a positive agenda to value and respect the importance of this work and to improve it for the future. The Government have promoted and funded a national recruitment campaign and have set the target to increase the number of applicants for social work training by 5,000 by 2004.
There is also a strategy to improve social work education and training. The House may be aware of the post-qualification childcare award which will be established so that there will be a high quality, post-professional qualification for people in this work. From 2003 the current social work qualification—the diploma in social work—will move to a three-year degree level course which one hopes will confirm the professionalism and seriousness of this work.
Improving children's safeguards also requires the ability to inspect that things are going well. Again, time does not allow me to report in detail on the quality of the work being done by the Social Services Inspectorate, building on the work that was done under previous governments in this respect. But there is a much more systematic and thorough system of inspection and monitoring of performance in social services departments than was possible in the past. That both allows people to see a benchmark of where they are good and where they are not so good and alerts them to the potential of how and where they can improve rather than just being critical of them.
I turn to some of the contributions made by noble Lords. The description given by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, of child abuse by paramilitaries was chilling. We have heard parts of that before, but to hear it put across in that way was sobering. Clearly, the Government condemn such actions by whomever they are perpetrated. Clearly, dreadful things have been done by both sides in Northern Ireland during the troubles. That can lead to a brutalisation of the people on whom they have been perpetrated. One fears for the brutalisation of a generation of children in that respect. That is why progress on sustaining the peace process in Northern Ireland is fundamental to moving away from those horrors.
The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, spoke powerfully about bullying and action to address it. The Government have taken a range of initiatives. Again time is tight, but there is Strategies on bullying: Don't suffer it in silence. It tries to encourage parents and children to shout out when they are being bullied rather than to think that in some way it is because of their own inadequacy. The Government have funded Parentline Plus which gives free help to the parents of bullied victims.
A number of noble Lords spoke about the importance of listening to children. That is not least important in this particular area of bullying. I think that the right reverend Prelate spoke of the importance in this respect of allowing children's participation and of having anti-bullying policies at schools which are effective strategies rather than just paper ones. We strongly agree that action, both in schools, by government and by teachers to address bullying is crucial.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford spoke challengingly about the problems of cultural isolation for immigrants. It is easy to be sobered and depressed by the scale of that challenge. For 2,000 years we have been assimilating immigrants with varying degrees of success. Therefore, this must not be seen as a sudden or new problem, yet it is a very serious one for society to face up to. Again, listening to young people, perhaps particularly young people from ethnic minority communities, at this time is crucially important.
The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked when will it all end. That is the challenge for us all. Clearly, for those of us who can remember Maria Colwell and Jasmine Beckford and the sequence of names, it is sobering 30 years later to be aware of these matters.
I shall write to the noble Baroness with regard to the registration of small children's homes and nannies not being regulated. I agree strongly with her comments about the assimilation of good practice and research. I referred previously to that important component of the Government's and social services and local authorities' strategies. It is a joint partnership, not simply the Government telling local government what to do and how important that way of addressing issues is.
We then had three very interesting contributions about how the systems work in a devolved context. We had speeches by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, about Wales, by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, about Scotland and by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, about Northern Ireland. In a sense, the nature of devolution will produce differences. Yet every time there is a difference one should not rush to get automatic conformity—as if there is something wrong if things are being done differently. That is not necessarily so. Rather it is an opportunity to recognise that we must do some learning and comparisons. I think that that was the central thrust of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. I endorse his remarks about better and more imaginative co-operation between administrations to identify what works, where and why, and how we can learn from each other. That seems to me to be good sense. He said that this cannot be run from London. That is good sense also.
The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, made a point about the Carlisle report. It was a report to the National Assembly of Wales. We shall of course read it with great interest and consider whether there are any lessons for England. We shall be in dialogue with our colleagues in Wales about that issue.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, spoke about Scotland. I do not think that the Government are likely to amend the Children Act 1989 in line with the Children (Scotland) Act, probably for two reasons. The central point is that in many ways the concept of parental responsibility is already set out in the Children Act, if not quite in the same terms as in the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. Nevertheless, it states that parents have central responsibility. Equally—if I recollect rightly—the 1963 Act had as its central thrust not simply to take children away from their parents but to support parents to be better parents of their children. That theme, as the House recognises, is still central to childcare practice. It is to support parents to be better rather than simply thinking that institutional removal practices are the widespread solution.
The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, spoke from her experience as a magistrate and with the NSPCC about the wider context. I very much endorse the importance of children having the opportunity to play outdoors in secure environments and to socialise through play rather than simply being trapped. I recollect that well from my wicked past as a director of housing, which I shall not go into. She is right that reports of cruelty are failures for us all if we have not reported it when we should have done.
I turn to the noble Countess, Lady Mar. She laid down some very serious challenges to both the Government and to the profession. I agree with her that there must have been cases when social workers have exceeded their responsibilities. There must be occasions when they have made wrong judgments. There must be cases when they have perhaps not explained to a parent adequately what they are doing or why they are doing it or had a proper ending to an investigation. Yet it came across—maybe I misheard it—as if that was the generality of practice.
My Lords, I am glad to be reminded of that. I think that while we must use worst practice as a goad to improve, it is crucial that we do not denigrate this profession any further. While being tough on criticisms of failure, we have to affirm—as I think was put across extremely well by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, based on her experience—that there must be ways to pick up this profession, to value and improve it for the future.
I shall not go into detail in responding to that matter. But a social services department cannot just take a child away and place it under a court order without going to court. Parents are represented in court in those circumstances. There will be times when parents will suffer from that process. But one cannot be hesitant about investigating potential areas of abuse against children. It is the fundamental responsibility of social services to try to see if things are going wrong. That is why records have to be retained on file—in case there are subsequent occasions which, when one sees the pattern, build up to something more serious than if the incidents were seen in isolation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, drew attention to the reports that will be in tomorrow's paper on Operation Magenta by Greater Manchester Police and the Hertfordshire Police. That operation was a proactive crack down on Internet paedophilia. While I do not know the details and cannot comment because no doubt they are sub judice, one commends the proactive action of the police in that it signals that they will not be passive but are going to be really active in trying to stamp this out. One hopes that that is driven through fairly, justly, but with great vigour.
I share the pleasure of the noble Baroness at the task force on child protection chaired by Beverley Hughes. The noble Lord, Lord Astor, raised the point. It is certainly seriously looking at whether legislation should be enacted to tackle paedophile grooming activities. That is one of the issues under active consideration.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, gave a powerful and eloquent advocacy of why she believed parents should not smack their children. Clearly, it is illegal for parents to cause damage to their children. We are talking about smacking or what is called "reasonable chastisement". I shall read what she has said. But I shall not announce today that there is about to be an immediate change of government policy. I know that she will not be surprised at that.
I shall not add to what I said earlier about the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth. This is not simple work, as I recollect from talking to colleagues. It is not a simple matter to identify what is going on. It needs extremely skilled judgment, particularly when also making judgments about whether it is better to keep a child at home or take him to a place of safety. I am glad that I have not had to make some of those judgments. We clearly must support professional staff in getting better at that. Part of doing so is undoubtedly data exchange and part relates to the care professions being better at working together. I think that they are getting better at that, but it is not yet perfect by any means. One should pay tribute not just to social workers but also to health visitors, GPs and the police for their work in this respect. It is a collective effort.
What still needs to be done? Sometimes quite clearly the child protection system breaks down, as in the tragic case of Victoria Climbié. We shall, I am sure, debate the report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, when he publishes it. I very much hope that we shall do so.
I am clearly out of time before time, which is the story of one's life. In short, we must work at reducing the propensity to fail as much as at crisis intervention. That requires society and government to get better at identifying the propensity of risk factors and at creating strategies which increase parents' ability to succeed, rather than simply intervening when they fail.
My Lords, when I chose the wording of the Motion, I realised the wide-ranging nature of the words that I chose. In that respect, none of us in the House has been disappointed. I should like to thank everyone who has taken part in the debate. I found it a moving experience to listen to some of the personal reflections that were offered.
I sometimes hear it said that we must safeguard children because they are the next generation. If anything has been underlined for me tonight, it is that they are equally a part of this generation. Some years ago, my Church, the Anglican Church in Ireland—the Church of Ireland—was deciding on a title for its good practice document for the protection of children. We had a wide-ranging debate—church committees are like that. Eventually, we ended up not with the title, "Safeguarding children" but the title, "Safeguarding trust". That has been the tenor, too, of our debate tonight. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.