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Children Bill [HL]

– in the House of Lords at 11:21 am on 6th May 2004.

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On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES in the Chair.]

Clause 2 [General function of Commissioner]:

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench

moved Amendment No. 25:

Page 2, line 6, at end insert "including the need for a nutritious diet"

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench

The purpose of Amendment No. 25 is to have on the face of the Bill recognition that an important part of children's well-being is a need for a balanced and nutritious diet. My amendment is supported by a number of children's and other organisations concerned at the growing impact of poor diet on children's health. It was suggested to me by Which? and is supported by the National Union of Teachers.

In 2002 the Chief Medical Officer for England described childhood obesity as a public health time bomb. Since then public concern has grown. Already, as Which? magazine has pointed out, 8.5 per cent of 6 year-olds and 15 per cent of 15 year-olds are obese and that trend is undoubtedly upwards. Earlier this year your Lordships held a useful debate on the dangers of marketing goods on TV, particularly those aimed at young children. I know that another debate took place in this House only last night, although, unfortunately, I have not yet had time to read it. Articles continue to appear in the press, which also testify to the growing concern.

Children are certainly bombarded with images of foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt. Huge sums of money are spent on promoting goods to children and that is clearly having an effect on children's food preferences, purchase behaviour and consumption. Indeed, research by Which? tells us that food advertisements aimed at children can be even higher in fat, sugar and salt than the adult versions. In general a far more responsible approach when marketing food to children is needed, along with improved information and education to enable children to learn what is healthy and unhealthy and to encourage them to eat a balanced and nutritious diet.

The Children's Commissioner for England will be in a key position to influence policy and, therefore, should play a role across government in ensuring that all children, especially those from less affluent backgrounds, have access to a nutritious diet. There needs to be a strong voice for children at the heart of the continuing debate on how to tackle the obesity crisis. I hope that the Minister will reassure the Committee that this strong voice will be that of the Children's Commissioner for England. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative

I shall speak to my Amendments Nos. 26 and 91, which concerns housing. There are two sections of amendments within my groupings.

At Second Reading the Minister said, with reference to arts, music and sport,

"We believe we capture those in the language of social well-being, but, again, we are happy to discuss this and make it as clear as possible".—[Official Report, 30/3/04; col. 1302.]

The Minister will not be surprised that I have tabled my amendment. I think that we all agree that children need to play. They need especially in early years to be able to play in as unconstructed a way as possible. Adults should obviously protect them from public danger, traffic, fire, sharp instruments and so on, but should allow them free rein to use their imaginations. I was struck at Second Reading by the excellent contribution by the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, who is in his place and will probably speak to the amendment. I smiled when he referred to the empty cardboard box, because I recalled my children's youth. While they had other bought toys to play with, the big cornflakes packet was always a favourite with them. Later in his contribution the noble Lord rightly said,

"Through play, children learn their strengths and weaknesses, establish and develop their identity and learn to work with others. Play allows children to explore their imagination; it teaches them empathy, how to interact and make friendships; it teaches them what is socially acceptable and what is not".—[Official Report, 30/3/04, col. 1235.]

I emphasise that because I would have liked to have enlarged on it when I responded at Second Reading. I shall not repeat the rest of what the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, said, because I do not wish to steal his thunder. But that quote highlighted the reason why play was so important.

During my years of teaching tennis to children of all ages and from different backgrounds, the joy of achieving co-ordination between ball and racquet was exciting to behold. Whether a child went on to become an accomplished player at school, club or county level was up to them. But, rather like learning to ride a bike, confidence is established when balance and speed are achieved.

Sport or play gives children a chance to explore, to learn new skills and, once achieved, gives that child confidence to tackle other opportunities. Sport and play encourage children to interact with each other. Training is an essential part of life, but the role of the Children's Commissioner must encompass the fullness of a child's needs. We agree that it must cover education, but feel that, in the context of the child, play and recreation is to education as training is to the personal development of an adult.

My amendment has been supported by many organisations including the Children's Society, Mencap, the Disability Rights Commission, Church Lads and Church Girls Brigade and the National Children's Bureau—the last of which said:

"Education and training lacks the more creative aspects implicit in enjoying and achieving, including the opportunity to participate in play and recreation".

I know that Amendment No. 27 would leave in "training" and add "play and recreation". Although our amendment would not do that, I have no difficulty with that alternative.

My other amendment refers to housing. There has been a tradition in this country that a career in journalism should begin on a local paper, down among the wedding pages, the amateur dramatic reports and three paragraphs of prose on the local church fete. We perhaps scoff at that, but local papers report on matters of concern to local people—I nearly said "real people". Pick up any local paper and study one month's editions. I would be amazed if you did not find at least one reference to a sorrowing, often single, mother condemned to living in council accommodation that leaks, smells and was left in a disgusting state by the previous tenant. Ask in the Library for figures of council houses that are still empty after more than six, 12 or 20 weeks and then ask why in a Parliamentary Question. I have done it and continue to do so. Often the Answer has something to do with waiting to renovate, repair or refurbish, but I believe that more action could be taken in that regard.

There is a large stock of houses that are empty, mainly due to lack of funds to maintain them or to go to court to instigate their reuse. Many children would welcome the opportunity to live in those houses. When new housing is designed, particularly in the public sector, what guidelines are there to ensure that children's needs are even considered, let alone met? In our many debates on housing—we shall have one in a week on Wednesday—the link between poor housing and poor health is well understood. I am sure that no Member of the Committee is unaware of his home: four walls, a roof and a stout door. It is crucial to one's security, well-being and mental health. I hear constantly that many of those unfortunate enough to live on the streets survived divorce, redundancy or imprisonment but when their home went so did their spirit. Housing is central to the role of children's services and authorities and should be included in the Bill.

My thoughts are strongly supported by Shelter, which raised the issue in its recent magazine. Adam Sampson, director of Shelter, says:

"There is a hidden housing crisis in Britain, and over a million children are suffering the devastating consequences on health, their education and their chances in life. It is time for housing to be put back on the political agenda along with education and health where it belongs".

I could raise many other issues relating to that article but I think that I have said enough. I urge the Minister to respond favourably.

Photo of Lord Pendry Lord Pendry Labour 11:30 am, 6th May 2004

I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 27 and 88, standing in my name, which follow my Second Reading speech. They would establish legal recognition that play and recreation are essential to the development of happy, healthy, balanced children, and oblige local authorities to work with partners to do all they can to stimulate and safeguard opportunities for all children to play. My amendments would not change the current wording of the Bill; they would merely add to its content, leaving in the word "training". It is for others to argue to the contrary. I believe that the words "education and training" should remain but I strongly advocate the inclusion alongside them of the words "play and recreation", for reasons that I shall explain later.

The amendments are supported by the Children's Play Council, SkillsActive and a vast section of the children's sector. At Second Reading the Minister expressed sympathy with the aims of the amendment. In subsequent correspondence with interested parties it is plain that the Government are seized of the importance to children of play and recreation. However, correspondence and dialogue with interested parties are two different things—I shall refer to that later. It is to the Government's credit, however, that they have taken important steps in the right direction for children's play, with the Children's Fund, Positive Activities for Young People and the recent Play Review carried out by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, to name but a few. Nevertheless it is time for the Government to consolidate that action and bring together their somewhat piecemeal approach in a more solid, legislative contribution to children and play.

Will the Minister look again at the wording of the Bill in relation to the outcomes outlined in the Green Paper and in the light of the recent representations that I have received? As she knows, during the consultation, children and young people told the Department for Education and Skills that, of the five proposed outcomes, enjoyment and achievement were overwhelmingly the most important to them. Although that related partly to education, it referred primarily to free-time activities. Although that is reflected in the Green Paper Every Child Matters, it is not fully included in the Bill. At Second Reading the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, suggested that the outcomes of enjoyment and achievement were encompassed in social and economic well-being and education and training. Neither I nor the organisations from which I have received representations believe that to be an adequate or accurate reflection of the qualitative meaning of the outcomes. I shall explain why.

First, services to promote children's social well-being are currently seen as those provided by social services departments and tend to focus on early development, family support and improving living circumstances. They do not encompass provision for children's enjoyment of their free time through play and recreational activities. Secondly, although education and training might contribute to children's enjoyment and achievement, they are not enough. School-age children and young people spend only 25 per cent of their working hours in compulsory education. For much of the rest of the time they should be enjoying themselves, learning and developing through play and recreational activities. During the Children's Play Council consultation, one child said:

"We want something good and fun. We do not want people telling us what to do all the time. That is what happens all day at school. You need it to be different".

Children are clear about the different roles that school and recreational activities have in their lives. The Bill is not clear on that. Research shows how in the modern world many opportunities to play, which Members of the Committee perhaps took for granted in their youth, are being lost to the children of today. I do not have time today to go into the details of many of the ways in which those opportunities are being lost. Nor do I have time to outline the ways in which play is intrinsic to the healthy development of children, or the ways in which it contributes to every other outcome in the Green Paper. However, unless play and recreation are included in the Bill, we are at risk of missing the wood for the trees, as it were, letting children down by missing yet another opportunity to enhance significantly yet simply the quality of life for children of this country.

In her winding-up speech at Second Reading, the Minister said that she would be "happy to discuss" the concerns raised at that time in order to make it "as clear as possible". Clearly, she has been unable to satisfy a number of the organisations that made representations to others and me. To what extent did she discuss the matter with the Children's Council, SkillsActive, the National Children's Bureau, 4Children, Groundwork UK, Learning Through Landscapes, the National Playing Fields Association, Mencap, the National Youth Agency, PLAYLINK and the Children's Society? Had she had meaningful discussions with those organisations I believe that she would have reconsidered her stance on including "play and recreation" in the Bill. I and, I am sure, others would be interested to hear the Minister's comments on that.

Photo of Lord Rix Lord Rix Crossbench

My Lords, I apologise for being a little late and missing the beginning of my noble friend Lady Howe's Amendment No. 25. Unfortunately, it seemed to me that Starred Questions were cut rather short. Mind you, the first time I was ever off in the theatre when I was a junior actor, the Theatre Royal Nottingham cut the interval because it was a very poor house, and I was busy ogling the girls at the Empire Theatre opposite—Chu-Chin-Chow was then playing—and I was reprimanded very severely by Donald Wolfit and have never forgiven myself for being late for any occasion since.

I rise to support Amendments Nos. 27 and 88 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, which I regret to say I prefer to Amendments Nos. 26 and 87, because the words "and training" are still included. Play and recreation are vital to the well-being of all children, but especially to children with learning disabilities. Yet in a recent study it was found that eight out of 10 parents of such children reported that they could not go to local clubs or enjoy play facilities, because of access or awareness issues. Furthermore, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, I can assure the House that a number of major organisations, including Mencap, of which I have the honour to be president, felt that the Government's current phrase "education training" does not do sufficient justice to the Every Child Matters outcome, "enjoying and achieving". I am therefore very happy to support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, and I trust that it will be accepted.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Shadow Minister, Education & Skills

My Lords, I speak to Amendments Nos. 27, 88 and 188, all of which seek to add "play and recreation" to the duties of the commissioner under Clause 2, and the children's services authority under Clause 6. I also speak to Amendments Nos. 29 and 92, which seek to remind those same people of the vulnerability of young minds to advertising and mass marketing.

The noble Lord, Lord Pendry, the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, have eloquently set out reasons why we should include "play and recreation". It is very timely, when exercise as well as diet are being advocated for us all, both to combat the problems of obesity among the population, and to promote health.

It is important that "training" should be left on the face of the Bill. I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, has agreed that we should not eliminate it. We shall be debating precisely what definition we give in age terms to the word "children" later, but it is quite clear that those who are aged 14 to 17 are included, and it is important that we think not just about their education, but about their training, particularly of some of those whose training has been forgotten—the looked-after children. There is a sad history of failure on the part of the state to fulfil its responsibilities of training vulnerable and looked-after children. I certainly do not wish to give priority to "training" over "play and recreation", however. My preference was, therefore, that we kept "education and training" and added the words "play and recreation" to the face of the Bill.

It is also important because we are increasingly conscious of the importance of the early years in a child's development, and the need in those years for children to indulge in the creative, imaginative play that the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, spoke about. The teaching, not just of children in how to play, but of parents in how to teach children how to play, is a very important part of the Sure Start agenda that we all support. Given this importance to the later development of children, it is vital that these words are on the face of the Bill. In Scandinavian countries, formal education—the teaching of reading and writing—does not begin until the age of six. A growing number of people in this country argue that we should adopt the same position in Britain. If we look at OECD studies of achievement, we see that countries like Finland and Denmark top the list of achievement in later years. It is vital for children to get over those early stages of learning, which come from imaginative play, before they move on to number and literacy work.

We on these Benches have put forward Amendments Nos. 29 and 92 on behalf of the NUT, because we share its concerns about the effects of mass marketing on children's health and well-being, and their ability to learn and develop as young adults. Other speakers, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, have already spoken about the need for a nutritious diet. Our concern in these amendments is with the vulnerability of young minds to advertising and mass marketing. This is true both in terms of their pressurising parents for particular foods, chocolate bars and toys, and in terms of pressurising schools to participate in marketing campaigns. Schools are being targeted with increasingly sophisticated materials, presented as educational resources. Over £300 million a year is now being spent by large companies in targeting classroom sales. Many children's food products include fundraising offers for school books, equipment and sports clothing. The National Audit Office has expressed concern that the product involved in the Walkers "Free Books for Schools" scheme detracts from healthy eating messages. In its report Tackling Obesity in England, it refers to the risk that some schemes may encourage children and their families to buy more snack foods with a high fat, salt and sugar content.

The link between food promotion and children's eating patterns is confirmed in the Food Standards Agency's report Does Food Promotion Influence Children?, a systematic review of the evidence. Published in September 2003 by the University of Strathclyde, the report concluded that advertising to children does have an effect on their preferences, purchasing behaviour and consumption. These effects are apparent not just for different brands, but for different types of food. They affect whether children buy a chocolate bar or a piece of fruit.

The purpose of these two amendments is to probe the role of the Children's Commissioner in Clause 2 and the role of the children's services authority in Clause 6 in regulating the promotion of products for children. How far will the work of the commissioner influence that carried out by bodies such as the Advertising Standards Authority and Ofcom? Will such bodies be required formally to consult with the commissioner and the children's services authority on a regular basis? Will the commissioner and the children's services authority have places on the Advertising Standards Council and the Ofcom consumer panel?

Photo of Lord Chan Lord Chan Crossbench 11:45 am, 6th May 2004

I support Amendment No. 25 in the name of my noble friend Lady Howe. I regret that I was not able to speak at Second Reading, although I had my name on the list of speakers. I had to return to Merseyside for an early morning meeting the next day, where we discussed issues of our deprived and underprivileged families in those areas where we are still trying to tackle health inequalities. It is clear that the physical and mental health issues do not cover the well-being of children, because they tend to be seen as areas where one has to use clinical skills to assist.

The preventive aspects of public healthcare, with particular regard to the health of children, begin before birth and certainly exist at birth and onwards. That is not covered unless one highlights the need for a nutritious diet. Mothers should be aware that they ought to eat well and wisely during pregnancy. We should take the opportunity to go across the work of various departments. We have mentioned Sure Start many times, and I shall mention it again: it does wonderful work, particularly among people who do not get access to our services and suffer in silence. Their children, in particular, suffer long-term disadvantage.

The reference to the need for a nutritious diet would remind not only industry, advertisers, schools and local government but individuals. That way, all aspects of living will be taken into consideration. I support the amendment also because it would mean that we would take steps to assist people in their choice of food and in how to live well on a low income. That skill will not be covered, if we think only in terms of physical well-being and health.

There are other measures that I wish to support. I would welcome the addition, through Amendment No. 27, of a reference to "play and recreation". Training is part of education and is extra to education, but play and recreation are essential parts of our interest in the well-being of the young baby, the infant and the very young child. For all those reasons, they are important amendments, and we should support their inclusion in the Bill.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Shadow Minister, Home Affairs, Shadow Minister, Welsh Affairs

I urge the Government to accept Amendments Nos. 27 and 88, in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, and my noble friend Lady Sharp of Guildford. It is, perhaps, appropriate that the amendments should have been tabled by a combination of Labour and Liberal Democrat Peers. The National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Assembly government, when in coalition, produced a Welsh play policy, which I commend for the Committee's consideration. That policy was based on the principle that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child should be followed in recognising the importance of play.

The policy set out the means by which the principles should be achieved. The Assembly government said that the policy statement on play and recreation was,

"predicated upon the principles that: every child is entitled to respect for their own unique combination of qualities and capabilities; the perceptions of the child, their views and opinions should always be respected for each child is connected to, and a bearer of, a wider culture; the child's free choice of their own play is a critical factor in enriching their learning and contributing to their well-being and development".

Having produced that policy, they formed the Welsh Assembly government play policy implementation group, which carries forward the policy in important practical respects. The group includes the Sports Council for Wales, Play Wales, an organisation called Funky Dragon, which sounds interesting and entertaining, and many other organisations concerned with recreation and sport.

I mention that to the Committee for two reasons: because we will propose that similar wording be added to Clause 20 and to illustrate how, in this respect, the Welsh Assembly government are ahead of what is going on in England. If the Government do not accept the principles, we may see different results on the playing fields in a few years' time.

Photo of Lord Northbourne Lord Northbourne Crossbench

I support Amendments Nos. 27 and 29. With great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, in whose name Amendment No. 27 stands, I suggest that play and recreation are education. They are a fundamental and essential part of education. I refer to play and recreation for children not only before they go to school but during the whole time that they are growing up. It would be helpful if the noble Baroness could confirm that that is the view of the Department for Education and Skills. None the less, I support the amendment because many people do not understand that, and it is important that we should have it in the Bill.

With regard to Amendment No. 29, I endorse the importance of the advertising issue. I draw to the Committee's attention the excellent debate introduced by my noble friend Lady Howe of Idlicote on 14 January. The arguments were well set out in that debate.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

I support what the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has just said. My principal interest in the Bill is to minimise the number of children drawn into crime. The route into crime starts early in life and often relates to frustration at failure to achieve anything satisfactory in any area of activity.

Play is an area in which people learn to achieve and to socialise, which are two essential ingredients of a healthy and integrated life as a member of society. It would be good to have the amendment in the Bill. That is all that I will say at this stage, but I impress on the Committee that it is of fundamental importance that the commissioner and the legislators should understand that free play is a most important part of building up the character of a good citizen. The same goes for sport, as the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, ably said.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Crossbench

I was in the Select Committee on Science and Technology, and the times on the monitor and on my watch did not quite coincide. I apologise to the Committee for being late for the start of the debate on these important amendments.

I shall speak in support, in particular, of Amendments Nos. 25, 27 and 88, and I shall ask the Minister a question on Amendment No. 92. With regard to Amendment No. 25, I remind the Committee of our debate on the threat that obesity poses to the health of the nation and the importance of establishing good nutritional patterns early on. Incredible damage is done to children who become obese, not only to their health but to all aspects of their well-being.

Amendments Nos. 27 and 88 are extremely important. We have been concerned about play opportunities for children in Wales and about the gradual, inexorable erosion of free play facilities. It is apparent that children's play needs are not being provided for. There is an opportunity here for the Government to take the lead through legislation that recognises children's play for its own worth and as being as important as formal education, hence the requirement to have the wording differentiate between play and the educational aspects of a child's life.

It is the nature of our society that children's needs are subsumed in those of adults. In past years, provision for children's play has become more and more depleted. In our outcome-oriented world, play appears to be an aimless activity engendering fun, rather than producing tangible results. Nothing is further from the truth. Play is critically important to all children in the development of their physical, social, mental, emotional and creative skills. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said, that has been articulated in the Welsh Assembly government's play policy.

Among a number of recommendations from that policy implementation group, the first and most important one is,

"that the Welsh Assembly Government place a statutory duty upon local authorities to provide for children's play needs to meet national minimum standards".

It is therefore very important that an English/UK commissioner has that embodied as a core function.

This proposal will contribute to what might be regarded by some as a paradigm shift in the way that children's play needs are perceived by society, becoming an issue of entitlement rather than discretion.

Perhaps I may turn briefly to training. Children need to be trained to live independently. Those who are in care or custody or those without family role models need to be trained in all aspects of personal welfare. They need to be trained in financial management. I suggest that this should also extend to training in parenting skills, which they have not experienced.

There are an alarming number of teenage and under-age pregnancies, which are often a desperate need for love. But, of course, a baby is not a compliant dolly. A baby in a household increases stress enormously. There is good evidence to indicate that those children who have been trained with responsive dolls learn the reality of having a baby versus the reality of receiving love, for which they are desperate.

I now turn briefly to Amendment No. 92. The Minister generously accepted Amendment No. 39 when we were previously in Committee, which means that due regard to the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is now a core function of the England/UK commissioner. I wonder whether the amendments concerning the commissioner's role and function may, in some way, prove to be superfluous. I hope that I will not receive that answer, although play and recreation are covered in Article 31 of the UN convention. To be free of exploitation is contained within various other articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Perhaps the Minister could also confirm that exploitation of children for the advertising promotion of products would be an infringement of those rights and would therefore be against the law when the Bill is passed. There is a very important intention behind Amendment No. 92, which reflects the pressures in our economically-driven, profit-motivated, consumer society to enlist children in that profit creation process when they are too young and without adequate experience, role models or training to differentiate between being exploited with temptation and being offered something from which they can choose.

Photo of Baroness Strange Baroness Strange Crossbench 12:00 pm, 6th May 2004

I shall speak briefly and I declare an interest as a mother and a grandmother. In particular, I support Amendment No. 25. Play is very important to children. It is the outward, physical expression of what they feel and think inside and enables them to relate to the world as they begin to grow. I think that all children start with imagining things: for example, yesterday, I was eating imaginary grapes with my grandson. I said that they were delicious. He said that he was glad I liked them. Children do that. It comes from inside them; it is what is going outside. It is very important that they should have the opportunity to play and to stretch their imagination and spirit as they grow.

Photo of Lord Adebowale Lord Adebowale Crossbench

Amendment No. 90 would apply to Clause 6(3). I declare an interest. My organisation, Turning Point, works with about 20,000 children and young people every year. I also express my gratitude to the End Child Poverty Campaign and the Local Government Association, which support the amendment. We discuss this issue in the context of about 3.6 million children in the UK who are living below the poverty line. The eradication of child poverty is one of the Government's most significant pledges.

In my experience, child poverty impacts significantly on other aspects of a child's life. We know that children living in poverty today are far more likely to be substance misusers, are far more likely to be affected by the criminal justice system and are more likely to live in poor housing conditions. While we know that no child's destiny is set in stone, we also know that children who grow up in poor households are more likely to leave school at 16 with lower than average educational attainment, have poor health, come into contact with the police, be unemployed as young adults, have very low expectations for the future and end up earning relatively low wages. We are told that poor children are 15 times more likely to die in a house fire than better-off children, and three times more likely to be hit by a car.

Ending child poverty will require more than using income transfers to lift those families living in poverty just above an arbitrary poverty line. It requires that public services ensure that poor people living in poor areas are not condemned to poor public services. It is too often the case that those in the greatest need of help and support are the least likely to receive it. That is called the inverse care law.

Local authorities have a crucial role in tackling child poverty through the commissioning and delivery of services. Poverty has a debilitating impact on children's lives. It affects their mental and physical health, their educational prospects, their social relationships and their perception of the opportunities and choices that are open to them. Each authority must have specified focus on children living in poverty.

I am pleased to say that such a focus would be welcomed by the local authorities. In addition to its support for this amendment, the Local Government Association has signed up to the Government's pledge to end child poverty by,

"Improving the quality of life for children, young people and families at risk, by tackling child poverty, maximising the life chances of children in care or in need and strengthening protection for children at risk of abuse".

The amendment seeks to ensure that such a commitment is specifically reflected in the work of local authorities and their relevant partners across the country. By supporting the amendment, the Government would confirm their 1999 pledge to end child poverty in a generation. It is a small but significant change. It would have significant impact on denying the impact of the inverse care law.

Photo of Lord Wright of Richmond Lord Wright of Richmond Crossbench

I hope that it is not out of order for me to intervene briefly to refer to the tragic death last week of Lady Brigstocke. She was chairman of a charity of which I am a trustee, which was set up five years ago to promote the principles of Home-Start UK. I am sure that many of your Lordships know that the charity is designed to help families in trouble of any sort. It helps both children and parents, but particularly parents of children under the age of five. A large core of volunteers helps to run this charity. We set up Home-Start International to promote the principles of Home-Start UK. I pay tribute to the extraordinary achievement of Lady Brigstocke in this regard.

Noble Lords:

Hear, hear.

Photo of The Bishop of Oxford The Bishop of Oxford Bishop

I reciprocate those comments about the late Lady Brigstocke and her brilliant headship, as well as her voluntary activities. In this group of amendments, there are many worthwhile points. I should like to speak briefly about the emphasis on play and recreation. A number of Members of the Committee have rightly emphasised the social benefits of incorporating an amendment about play and recreation. That is perfectly proper for a legislative body. Social benefits, developing imagination, developing social skills, and developing the capacity for learning in later life are all very proper.

However, there is a paradox because play and recreation are worthwhile in themselves. From these Benches, we want to emphasise that in the culture and civilisation that we share, certain things are regarded as fundamentally worthwhile in themselves for themselves. While as legislators we stress quite properly social benefits and social consequences in a utilitarian way, it is still important to stress that certain things in life are fundamentally worthwhile for their own sake. Among those are play and recreation.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Education and Science), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions) 12:15 pm, 6th May 2004

I begin by echoing the words of the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, paying tribute to Lady Brigstocke. Her work within HomeStart was exceptionally important. Indeed, I plan to refer to her again later today when we talk about that organisation. I know that the House will join me in sending condolences to her family and to Brian Waller, the chief executive of HomeStart, who was in Greece when the tragedy occurred. It has been a terrible trauma and shock to all. The exceptional work undertaken by Lady Brigstocke means that a significant hole has been created in the organisation.

The debate on this group of amendments has been particularly important as it goes to the heart of something in the Bill of which I am especially proud; that is, our attempt—I use the word advisedly—to place legislative provisions within a context that has been given to us directly by children and young people. To my knowledge, although I stand corrected if noble Lords know otherwise, this is the first time that that has been done in legislation and it is very important. It also recognises that the work we do for children should be about outcomes for children rather than processes. I am sure that all noble Lords would support that.

In Clauses 2 and 6 we have proposed an explanation of well-being that reflects the outcomes that children and young people have told us are important to them. As I have said, this is a key concept that defines the breadth of ambition that we have for children and young people. The outcomes were developed as part of a wide-ranging consultation undertaken in 2002 by the Children and Young People's Unit. Over 2,500 children contributed to that consultation. We asked them to comment on key aspects of their lives, ones that were important to them. We talked to children aged as young as four and up through the age range.

The term "well-being" is designed to frame what I describe as a new partnership culture in children's services which we want to see reflected in our targets and standards, including those under the National Service Framework for Children, and through the new inspection regime to the important long-term programme for reforming the children's workforce.

So I understand absolutely the wish of noble Lords to ensure that a range of important issues is covered. I am very sympathetic to the various concerns that underlie this group of amendments. However, I want to say up front that I want to avoid restricting the scope of what is covered by the definition of "well-being". It intentionally sets a broad framework in Clause 2 within which the commissioner can focus his or her efforts in the light of priorities expressed by children and young people. In Clause 6 the same framework allows local partnerships to focus on the priorities identified in local areas in consultation, of course, with children, young people and families for the provision of services and opportunities. I shall respond to the individual amendments in that context.

Amendment No. 25, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, rightly underlines the importance of a nutritious diet in the lives of children, especially in the context of our concerns about rising levels of obesity among children. I should add to that our worries about the incidence of diabetes in children and young people, an issue which has been brought to my attention. The Government could not agree more on nutritional issues. As the noble Lord, Lord Chan, observed, ensuring that the commissioner can look at dietary issues is an important part of physical health. They will also form an important consideration for partners in the co-operation duty when deciding how best to secure better health outcomes.

I shall cite three basic examples. The first is the work of breakfast clubs in schools. They play an important role in providing a nutritious start to the day for children who might not otherwise have breakfast, thus enhancing the ability of children to enjoy their day and to learn, which is critical. Secondly, the school meals service is also an important player, ensuring that children have the opportunity to access a nutritious meal at lunchtime. Indeed, that meal is often the only hot meal provided in the course of the day. Whenever I visit schools I am interested to learn how many children have sat down to a meal because I would argue that part of a nutritious diet is being given the opportunity for social interaction. Many of our children are not able to eat a meal while talking with friends. Our schools are very effective in ensuring that our children are offered such opportunities.

Thirdly, the noble Lord, Lord Chan, referred to the Sure Start programme. Issues of nutrition are addressed at minus nine months, if I may so describe it. The Sure Start programme works from the time of conception through to the age of around five. Much of that work centres on supporting families to ensure they provide a proper and appropriate diet.

I agree completely with the sentiments underlying the amendment. Nutrition forms an integral part of the work that we will be doing. I hope that I have been able to give some reassurance on this area.

I turn to Amendments Nos. 29 and 32, which are designed to ensure that we think about how to protect children from being exploited by advertising. Again, the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, talked about the advertising of food and the high salt and sugar content in some children's food products. We fully acknowledge the importance of ensuring that advertising for children is appropriate. Noble Lords know that the Broadcast Advertising Code already regulates the content and timing of adverts aimed at children and Ofcom is now undertaking a major programme of work to examine the advertising regulations. We will continue to encourage industry initiatives such as Media Smart, which helps children deal with the complex messages of advertising in a critical way.

It is important that children receive educational support in order to understand the whole world of advertising so that they can deal with it rather than being unable to reflect on its messages. We cannot hide those messages away from children. As noble Lords are aware, they reach our children from a wide variety of sources.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked whether the commissioner could become involved in some of the issues around advertising. The commissioner can be a consultee on anything; it is entirely for him or her to establish relationships. However, we are aware that this is an extremely important area and we are sure that the commissioner will want to address it. So we think that these issues are covered in the broad definition.

The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, asked specifically about the vulnerability of children to exploitation. We are clear that such vulnerability is implicit in the current list of outcomes that the duty to co-operate encompasses. We do not need to make it explicit on the face of the Bill. It is part of the work that will need to be done. However, we think that the broad definition of well-being embraces both of these areas: ensuring that children are healthy and safe, and that their financial well-being is protected. Noble Lords know that I will resist a list, and we believe that these areas are covered.

The noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, spoke to Amendment No. 90 which would place a particular focus under the definition of well-being on children living in poverty. I pay tribute to the work of Turning Point and the other organisations involved in this area. It is crucial to recognise the impact of poverty. As the noble Lord pointed out, we must focus not only on the issues surrounding financial poverty, but also on the other aspects that emanate from that such as poverty of aspiration in some of our families and children, poverty of physical and mental health, educational achievement and outcome, and so forth. The noble Lord is absolutely right to bring those issues to our attention.

That is why I return to the Sure Start programme. Its work was launched first in our poorest areas, helping to support families living in poverty and enabling their children to have the best possible start in life by addressing many of the issues that have been raised. I am very proud of this Government's pledge to eradicate child poverty. We understand that it is a broader issue than that of finance, but nevertheless financial considerations play a huge part in poverty. However, I shall not accept the amendment because the outcomes as we have described them are designed to apply to all children, although I am aware that the work of those co-operating and collaborating through the children's service authorities, along with the work of the commissioner, should focus on children living in poverty so that those with the deepest problems are the first priority.

Amendments Nos. 91 and 189 highlight the important issue of housing, outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. However, the same question arises as to whether housing should be specified as an outcome. The approach we have taken is to view housing as a function that agencies need to consider in carrying out their duties to co-operate. I can confirm that, under the co-operation arrangements, we expect housing decisions to be looked at in the context of well-being. Indeed, we have included district councils in subsection (3) of Clause 6 partly for that reason.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, will not be surprised to hear that the Welsh Assembly also recognises the importance of housing in a child's life. The need to ensure that housing matters are included as a priority in the consideration of children's needs will be recognised in the preparation of guidance in Wales. I hope that noble Lords will accept that it is not necessary to specify housing on the face of the Bill, with the reassurance that this is part of the reason why district councils are there and, as I have described, a critical part of the issue of well-being.

Amendment Nos. 26, 27, 87, 88, 187, 188 and 189 all relate to the issue of play and recreation. As before, there is no issue of substance between us here. Noble Lords have spoken with passion about the importance of play. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford talked about play as being important in itself, with which I wholeheartedly agree. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, talked about the link between play and education. We have coined the phrase "learning through play" and there is a recognition of its importance. We know from the work of Sure Start that parents sometimes need help in understanding what is going on when children are playing and its importance and value to them. You cannot get it wrong when you play and that is something which children know only too well. Adults know it too, because sometimes we also play. You can try out, practise and, as a consequence, learn; very importantly, you can also have a good time—which is critical.

We therefore agree that play is very important and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said, it is critical in other areas of development. There has been a great deal of research—and this relates to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Elton—about the value and importance of play and sport in enabling children to have a good time, to learn, to get more from their education, and all of the physical and physiological aspects involved. Also, its importance as a method of supporting some of our young people who might be in danger—partly through boredom and partly through lifestyle—of drifting into criminal activity. I know personally, from the work I did long before I entered your Lordships' House, that one can very effectively use activities to support children in that way.

Every Child Matters: Next Steps restates the Government's commitment to embedding the five outcomes. The report states,

"young people . . . need opportunities for personal development, learning and recreation outside school hours, including access to sport, art and cultural activities".

There is a substantial amount of work under way in relation to play. We have a number of programmes in place, some of which I have mentioned, through the Children's Fund, and the Youth Service; I also refer to the work of Neighbourhood Renewal, the New Opportunities Fund Green Spaces and Sustainable Communities Programme and point out that the voluntary sector makes a very important contribution to our work in this area.

The Welsh Assembly, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said, is very committed to ensuring that, in each local area, young people can access opportunities for personal development, learning and recreation. The Assembly will be able to specify the play and recreation needs of children and young people in the guidance issued in Wales.

As my noble friend Lord Pendry said, the work of our right honourable friend Mr Dobson in developing the play review—which I was pleased to work on as a Minister within the Department for Education—resulted in a number of recommendations regarding the importance of play, not just for younger children but also for older children and teenagers, for whom it is critically important to provide opportunities which, frankly speaking, do not include the pub. There is also the important matter of integrated play for children with disabilities and giving them the opportunity to play alongside other children. I pay tribute to Frank Dobson for that extremely good work. We are currently considering those recommendations across government.

It will not surprise noble Lords that I will not accept the removal of the word "training" from the list of outcomes, for the reason that other noble Lords have stated. It is an important aspect of the opportunities for those young people who wish to have vocational skills—work-based opportunities which enable them to gain employment and financial security. I suspect that noble Lords did not intend that we should take that away from young people and I reassure my noble friend Lord Pendry that there is no intention to do so. We believe that we have covered it in the outcomes. It was never our intention not to cover it. It is part of well-being.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Shadow Minister, Education & Skills 12:30 pm, 6th May 2004

Does the Minister accept that what came through in the outcomes—which resulted from consultation with children—and was written into the Green Paper Every Child Matters involved "enjoying and achieving"? It is translated into "education and training". Would she accept that that is a good translation?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Education and Science), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

"Enjoying and achieving" is not translated into "education and training". "Achieving" is translated into "education and training"; "enjoying" was within "economic and social well-being".

I was wondering when noble Lords would raise that point, because it was quite understandably raised at Second Reading. The translation, in terms of the legislative programme, is "economic and social well-being" and that is specifically intended to cover play, recreation and leisure activities.

It is our intention not to take this away but to encompass it within that definition. In that context, I am very well aware of the number of noble Lords who have pressed this issue today.

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

Does the Minister agree that it is important that legislation is not obscure and that it is understandable to people? It has taken her several minutes to explain to noble Lords that translation of "enjoying" and where it appears in the Bill. How long would it take her to explain to the man, woman and child in the street?

I believe that adding "play and recreation" and not taking out "training", as the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, has suggested, would add to the clarity of the Bill and the understanding of the Government's intention. I am sure that, in advancing this Bill, the Government would want their intentions understood.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Education and Science), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

I do not believe that it took me several minutes. I thought that I answered the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, rather quickly. I am also not entirely sure that the way to involve people in our activities is to ask them to read legislation. I recognise that parliamentary language is important and legal certainty is absolutely critical, but I hope that we will find other and better means to send the message out to children and their families in order that they understand exactly what is our intent. I am with the noble Baroness on that to a degree, but not entirely.

I would say to my noble friend Lord Pendry that I came to your Lordships' House with the view that this was very much part of "economic and social well-being". As always, I have listened very carefully. Perhaps I may take this away once more and bring back on Report either more convincing and firmer considerations for not including it, or a recognition.

My noble friend Lord Pendry asked me which organisations we had met. The good news is that I have met all of the organisations he listed during my time as Minister. I have not had any request to meet them at this stage. If that is what they wish, I would be more than delighted to do so. Officials have been meeting with them, however, not only within the Department for Education but also within the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. There has therefore been a great deal of dialogue. If, on the basis of what I have said, noble Lords agree to withdraw this group of amendments, we will come back.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

Before my noble friend withdraws and while the Minister is reflecting further, may I ask her to include in the reflection a dimension which I do not think has been raised in this debate so far? I apologise for unavoidably missing three minutes of the debate. I refer to the growing and acute importance of tempting children away from the television screen, so that they learn to socialise with other human beings and to use their own imaginations. That is more important than we give it credit for, and the commissioner may have it in mind. That may involve a definition of "play".

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Education and Science), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

I would refer to computer screens as well as television screens in that regard, but I am also conscious of the interests of children and that the purpose of a good deal of the commissioner's work is to look at best interests and other interests; that goes back to a recent discussion in your Lordships' House.

I am very nervous of getting into lists of what we want to do. The opportunities that children and young people have are critical. This was alluded to by a number of noble Lords, who pointed out that the opportunities we may have had as children are not so available to this generation of children. It is important to ensure that they have safe and appropriate places to play. I would not rule out the value that computers, technology or, indeed, television programmes can have in children's lives. It is, as ever, a question of balance.

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench

I am sure we all thank the Minister for what she has said on this wide-ranging group of vital issues. I should have said at the beginning of the debate that I support all the amendments in this group. The word "play" dominated a great deal of the discussion as did the importance of play, whether it stands alone or is part of a learning process.

I was particularly struck by what the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said on the subject of teaching parents to teach children to play. We hope that it does not have to be that way for all parents; nevertheless, some guidance is crucial, particularly for those who perhaps did not play much when they were children. It comes back to the point that will come up again and again about the importance of parents; my noble friend Lord Northbourne will refer to it many times during the passage of the Bill.

I think that we can take considerable comfort from what the Minister has said and the fact that she has agreed to take away these issues and think again before Report. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative

moved Amendment No. 26:

Page 2, line 8, leave out "and training" and insert ", play and recreation"

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative

In moving Amendment No. 26, I should explain two things which I may not have made quite clear earlier. Other noble Lords have spoken, and I indicated before I spoke that I was quite happy to support the amendment that does not include the removal of training.

Amendment No. 26 seeks to remove training because play and recreation are in some cases very organised and part of a training scheme for children. I was thinking of the work that youth clubs do: my husband is very involved in the Church Lads' and Church Girls' Brigade, for example. They have organised training as well as play activities, which I might not have explained as clearly as I should have. Scout and guide groups are also very involved in that context. The amendment seeks to highlight the more informal and loose activities that fall within "play and recreation". So I am more than happy to support the other amendments, as I hope I made clear.

When the Minister considers these issues, could she have particular regard to disabled children, whose needs are that much more acute and difficult to include in the general way of things?

Finally, I thank noble Lords who paid tribute to my noble friend Lady Brigstocke. She is indeed sorely missed. I was very thrilled that she launched Home-Start International, and very proud of Leicestershire, because Home-Start started in Leicestershire during my days working as a member of the county staff of the WRVS. Margaret Harrison was her inspiration; if she had realised that Home-Start would end up as an international organisation, she would have been quite surprised. I, too, should like to add my tribute.

I am grateful to the Minister for what she said about the previous amendment. I obviously cannot speak on behalf of other noble Lords who tabled amendments on play and recreation, but, for my own part, I am very disappointed that the noble Baroness was not able to accept the proposal. However, I am reassured that she will think about this; it is so essential and has been supported so strongly around the House that it would be foolish not to do so. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Education and Science), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

I want the Committee to be absolutely clear about what I am taking away: I shall reconsider the issues to do with play and recreation. I of course accept that all the other issues are important, and I am always sorry if my response disappoints anyone in your Lordships' House. Perhaps we can discuss these matters further in correspondence. However, I want to be absolutely clear that I am not even thinking of bringing back anything on the other issues.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 27 to 29 not moved.]

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench

moved Amendment No. 30:

Page 2, line 10, at end insert—

"( ) In exercising his function under this section, the Children's Commissioner must have due regard to—

(a) the need, where opportunities for disabled children are not as good as those for other children, to promote equality of opportunity between disabled children and other children by improving opportunities for disabled children; and

(b) the need to promote equality of opportunity between—

(i) children of different racial groups, religions or beliefs, family status or sexual orientation; and

(ii) between boys and girls generally."

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench

The purpose of these amendments, which have been suggested by the Disability Rights Commission and supported by the NUT, among many other organisations, is to place a positive statutory duty on the English Children's Commissioner to promote equality of opportunity and report in his or her annual report on steps taken to achieve this. Similar amendments are tabled to Clauses 6 and 7 and to Clauses 20 and 22, which will be debated later.

What is proposed is something very similar to the duties placed on the Learning and Skills Council at its inception. Without such a positive core duty to tackle the systemic barriers and ingrained discrimination encountered by disabled and other excluded children, the Children's Commissioner may make very little real impact.

A positive duty to have due regard to the promotion of equality in carrying out the commissioner's functions would have several implications. It would mean, of course, that the commissioner's staff would need to receive comprehensive training in equality and diversity issues. It would help to ensure that the interests of particularly marginalised groups of children receive due weight in the policy and advocacy work of the commissioner.

Work on child poverty—a vital group, as we have already heard from my noble friend Lord Adebowale—would need to emphasise early intervention and, in addition, address areas of disproportionate disadvantage—for example, the fact that 61 per cent of Bangladeshi and Pakistani children live in the most acute poverty or the fact that it costs three times as much to bring up a disabled child than a non-disabled child. Work on mental health services would need to address the disproportionate risk of mental health problems among looked-after children, and so on.

At present, the Bill certainly deals with the need to reach out effectively to groups of children who find it hard to make their voices heard, but it should also ensure that the commissioner then goes on to prioritise the barriers such children face when promoting children's interests to government and service providers. As the NUT stressed, there is a pressing need for teachers to have their skills developed to meet the diverse needs of children with SEN.

The English Children's Commissioner may of course be subject to duties to promote racial equality under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, and there are plans to legislate for a public sector duty to promote disability equality. However, my amendment proposes a broader equality duty which covers many more grounds of discrimination and exclusion, including religion, belief, family status and gender. Without such a broad and inclusive duty, it is hard to see how the commissioner can focus effectively on issues of multiple discrimination, and some children will inevitably become marginalised.

We have many positive examples of the benefit of such explicit duties on public bodies. The Learning and Skills Act 2000 imposed just such a duty on the Learning and Skills Council, and the Disability Rights Commission testifies that this has made a vast difference to the effectiveness of its work on equality. Similarly, research into the impact of the race equality duty on public authorities demonstrates major benefits in terms of cultural change. It has been found that such duties are highly valued by public authorities for the way that they have improved policy making and service delivery design. Even with gender equality, there is still much to be done. As the EOC's annual report 2002–03 pointed out, 83 per cent of employees under 25 in science, engineering and ICT are men and 91 per cent of under 25 year-olds working in healthcare, childcare and personal services are women. Unsurprisingly, there is a pay gap attached of some 19 per cent.

The Children's Commissioner could and should play an important part, again, as the NUT said, in seeing that gender analysis is mainstreamed and built into policies, planning and thinking at school and LEA level as well as elsewhere. I hope that the Minister will give these amendments a sympathetic response. They are very much in harmony with the positive equality duties set out in Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and with the Government's avowed commitment to an inclusive society. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative 12:45 pm, 6th May 2004

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, for introducing her amendment which I support in principle. I suspect that it may be too wordy for the Minister, but it is an important amendment. I look forward to hearing the amendments tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, which particularly relate to looked-after children and young people in custody. I will respond to those amendments after I have heard him speak.

I rise to speak to Amendment No. 33 in this group, which relates to the whole question of disabled children and young people, some of whom were at a meeting yesterday, at which they were adamant that they wished to be called young people as well, rather than just children. It is true that the Children's Commissioner will have regard to the needs of all children and that will include disabled children. However, this Bill will, one hopes, become the guide not only for all organisations and individuals who have regular contact with children, but for those whose contact is rather more tangential. In that group, I include people who design and maintain buildings, roads and other public places.

At Second Reading, the Minister opened proceedings with a well structured presentation, in the course of which she drew attention to the commissioner's role in influencing,

"at a strategic level the opportunities available to children and young people".—[Official Report, 30/3/04; col. 1209.]

In that context, we feel that specific reference should be made to disabled children in the Bill. The Disability Rights Commission and Mencap have raised this issue with us. The latter stated that it was concerned that the new aspects of wellbeing introduced in the Bill miss important elements contained in the original outcomes set out in Every Child Matters.

Both organisations are rightly concerned that disabled children should be included. In the Government's own publication, the needs of disabled children are clearly spelled out. The foreword in, Removing Barriers to Achievement, the Government's strategy for SEN, clearly states:

"Removing Barriers to Achievement sets out the Government's vision for giving children with special educational needs and disabilities the opportunity to succeed. Building on the proposals for the reform of children's services in Every Child Matters, it sets a new agenda for improvement and action at national and local level. All children, wherever they are educated, need to be able to learn, play and develop alongside each other within their local community of schools".

In the debate on the previous amendment, I asked the Minister to have particular regard for the needs of disabled children. I have in mind another group of children who, in their way, are disabled themselves, but have duties and responsibilities to other people who are disabled, who may be siblings or older members of their own family. I understand that a recent children's programme on Radio 4 highlighted ways in which these children—in cases of the slow onset of illness in a parent or another child—cope magnificently with their added duties and responsibilities. This particular group of children may be overlooked under certain circumstances, if only because they are often isolated. Schools and local social groups to which they might belong may not be aware of their family commitments.

The Disability Rights Commission has lobbied us, along with many other organisations and I am grateful for its detailed lines on why it is so important that we have close regard for the needs of disabled children and young people in the Bill. We do not often have such a Bill coming through the House, so we must not miss this opportunity.

I would also like to share with noble Lords that last night I attended a meeting with the Children Group here in the House, at which a presentation was made by Triangle. The group considered the implications of the Children Bill on this particular interest group. One important thing came out of that meeting: the group hoped that the Minister and the Government would take on board the great need to hear what disabled children and young people want for themselves. An example was highlighted of the difficulty of trying to make all of us who take speech and hearing for granted understand that people who cannot speak still understand and want to get their views across. That was a hugely important aspect and I was very moved. I was sorry that there were not more people from the parliamentary side there to listen to what the group said. The group was also very concerned to safeguard the interests of disabled children and young people, and we shall deal with that later on in the Bill. The most important issue that was raised was that the voices of disabled children and young people should be heard.

It is government policy that children and young people with disabilities should be treated in the same way as all children—I do not want to say normal children because children with disabilities are normal children who have different requirements. I am particularly thinking of school and local community activities. The group last night said very clearly that, although many children wanted to attend and could cope in ordinary schools, for some that is not possible because their needs are so great that they cannot compete and take part in normal community life. The group wanted to make it clear that the needs of such young people are special. They said that it was all very well the Government saying that we should treat all children alike: they are not all alike, which is why I am labouring the point today. The Minister is nodding and accepts that point. It is hugely important.

The meeting last night was very impressive and it was appropriate that it was held just before today's debate. Therefore, I move this amendment on two fronts. I move it on behalf of all disabled children, some of whom can cope in the normal accepted sense, and those who have additional needs. Those needs should be met and should be clearly spelled out in the Bill. I hope that the Minister will not respond by saying that their needs will be covered elsewhere, because it is so important that they are included in the Bill. This very simple amendment would specify that the Children's Commissioner is concerned with disabled children and young people and that they will not be lost in the wider aspects of wellbeing currently laid down in the Bill.

Photo of Lord Rix Lord Rix Crossbench

Mencap was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. As President of the Royal Mencap Society, I must not only add its enthusiastic support for Amendments Nos. 30 and 33, I must also express my personal support for them. This is not just because I am president, but because I am the grandfather of a little lad with Down's syndrome who is aged three.

The amendment, which refers to "opportunities for disabled children", must apply to him. He, fortunately, has parents who know their way around the disability field a little because of their background. However, there are thousands of other parents who do not know their way around the complicated area of equality for disabled children. I would love to see Amendments Nos. 30 and 33—or something of a similar nature—on the face of the Bill, to make clear to all people responsible for opportunities for disabled children and learning-disabled children that they have a statutory duty to perform their best endeavours in this regard. Therefore, I heartily support both these amendments.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, before the noble Earl, Lord Listowel speaks to his group of amendments, it might be for the convenience of your Lordships if I explain that his amendments cover in principle the area that my Amendments Nos. 100 and 110 cover. Mine relate to Part 2 of the Bill, his to Part 1. I think it would be better if we discussed mine in the second part, so I am disaggregating them, and leaving him free.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for his helpful intervention. I shall speak to my Amendments Nos. 34, 42 and 44. Before doing so, perhaps I may also say how strongly I support the amendments of both previous speakers.

The first amendment, Amendment No. 34, is to include,

"in particular children looked after by a local authority and children and young people who have been so looked after".

My purpose is to obtain an assurance from the Minister, first, that particular attention will be paid to this group of children and, secondly, that she will at least consider that children who have left care and are over the age of 18 can be included on the face of the Bill in terms of the duties of the Children's Commissioner.

A significant number of children in care under the age of 18 experience disability. I believe there are about 10,000 children with disabilities who are in residential settings run by local authorities. About 40 per cent of the general care population have an emotional disorder—that is, an enduring emotional problem which impedes their ability to enjoy normal life, although that is not always identified.

The Government have made important steps in improving the quality of life for these children. In the Adoption and Children Bill they introduced a duty to provide independent advocacy on local authorities. Yet the Government will acknowledge that there is still a long way to go to ensure that the voices of these children are properly heard. Therefore I hope that the Minister will look very favourably on finding some way to incorporate the drift of this amendment into the Bill.

I give an example of a care leaver, a young man who left care and entered prison. He was then moved into inappropriate accommodation in Earls Court and had taken up drug use. He needed to gain the support of a mental health worker and an advocate in order to obtain better housing in a more appropriate and supportive setting. That is just one example of the issues that affect care leavers and need to be dealt with.

It would also be helpful to hear how the Commissioner for Children will work with Roger Morgan—the Children's Rights Officer at the Commission for Social Care Inspection—who has a special brief for these particular children. Obviously the Children's Commissioner may have significantly more powers than this Children's Rights Officer. How can we best ensure that these two officers work in the interests of these children, and all children?

I would like to divide Amendment No. 42 into two sections—42A and 42B—for ease of reference. The first part of this amendment is:

"For the purpose of this section 'children' includes young people in custody".

The purpose is again to obtain an assurance that the Minister will at least consider this group among the responsibilities of the Children's Commissioner. Approximately 40 per cent of this group have been in care—are care leavers. We know that only 10 per cent of children in care have had an involvement with the criminal justice system before being involved in the care system, but over 50 per cent have experienced sexual abuse or neglect. We know the origins of a significant number of these children. They have often been very badly let down by their parents, and then—I regret to say—badly let down by the systems that should have supported them.

I am not thinking only about the care system. However, if one does look at the care system—and I have no wish to bore your Lordships by repeating these facts—until recently, 80 per cent of the staff working in children's homes with the most vulnerable children had no relevant qualification to do such work. I salute the Government for the steps they are taking to improve this situation. The introduction of non-vocational qualification level 3 in child care is not yet achieved for all the staff in this group, but they are working towards the bulk of them achieving it.

However, if we compare what we do here with the Continent—if we look at Germany or Denmark—by far the majority of their staff have three years' specialist training in a high-level qualification to work with these children. This is just one example of how we have failed to intervene to support these children, who very often come from dysfunctional families, and have not provided the support to those families and children that would have diverted them from the prison experience.

We recognised in the Children (Leaving Care) Act that children who have this sort of poor experience in early life may take additional time to reach maturity. Therefore there are certain provisions in that Act permitting children to be looked after by local authorities until the age of 21—and, in certain circumstances, until the age of 25. So it is quite appropriate that we should consider extending the law in this particular area to children under 21 in young offender institutions.

The second part of the amendment reads:

"For the purpose of this section 'children' includes those young people for whom a local authority has duties under the Children (Leaving Care) Act".

I understand that currently the commissioner will have no possibility of considering the needs of these children because his remit relates to children under the age of 18. In other parts of this Bill—the next part for instance—there is the possibility of considering these children's needs. However, in this part they are excluded. Why is that the case?

The outcomes of this group are, for example, teenage pregnancies—these women are two-and-a-half times more likely to become pregnant in their teenage years. A quarter of the prison population comes from this group. They are more likely to become involved in drugs. I have spoken long enough on this issue.

I look forward to some assurance that the Minister will at least consider the matter during the Committee stage, and report on how we might make the commissioner's role more important in this area. Indeed, how can his role add value to the role of Roger Morgan, and Roger Morgan's role add value to the work of the Children's Commissioner? I look forward to the Minister's response.

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Shadow Minister, Home Affairs 1:00 pm, 6th May 2004

I support Amendment No. 30, tabled in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, to which I enthusiastically added my name. According to the Explanatory Notes and the Green Paper, the role of the commissioner will be to seek and represent the views of children and young people on how far the five outcomes that they identified as important are being achieved. The list of the five outcomes, as provided for in the Bill, unfortunately does not appear to include an explicit equality of opportunities concern. That is why we have tabled this amendment from three sets of Benches in this Chamber.

It is hoped that the commissioner will have a role in ensuring that services focus on addressing inequalities across social class, ethnicity, gender and special needs as well as disability. In addition, it is hoped that he or she will address issues such as how children's services can better combat all forms of bullying, including homophobic bullying. In any selection process, how will the credibility of candidates for the post of commissioner be tested in relation to their knowledge, understanding and experience of the needs of children and young people from minority groups and those with disabilities, and so on?

The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, referred to each of the minority groups. I shall add briefly to that. In February, the Secretary of State launched Removing Barriers to Achievement, a new long-term strategy to transform the education of children with SEN. The strategy proposes six very important principles. The NUT has briefed us on the amendment, which it enthusiastically supports. The union believes that in order to improve educational and wider outcomes for all children with SEN, the Government must in addition restore funding for continuing professional development on SEN, which provides opportunities to develop and enhance both generic and specialist skills. Will the Minister say something about the Government's commitment to that? The NUT is also anxious to know whether the Minister can assure the House that awareness of disability discrimination duties is, or will be, included in the standards for qualified teacher status and in any standards set for staff across all services.

It is also important that the commissioner is able to tackle the bullying of young people in schools or anywhere else. That issue is very much in the news at the moment. We very much welcome the Government's focus on reducing bullying in schools, but we were disappointed that the Green Paper did not spell out why a child may be bullied. Very often it is because the child is in some way different. The child may be from a minority group, or may simply be perceived by children to be different. It is vital that initiatives to tackle bullying in schools explicitly promote anti-discrimination on any of these grounds. Of course, staying safe is one of the goals set out for every child, so there should be more publicity given to statistics about racial harassment and homophobic bullying, to focus attention on the threat posed to the safety and well-being of young people by that sort of activity.

The Government's increased recognition that services need to focus on addressing inequalities across ethnicity is also very welcome. However, will the Minister ensure that those involved in the provision of children's services have the knowledge and skills necessary for them to support the needs of minority ethnic pupils?

Provision for minority languages is very important. International research shows that the maintenance of first-language proficiency has a beneficial impact on learning a second language. We know that when children have learnt a second language it is very much easier for them to learn a third and a fourth language. Equally, high-quality translation services are often vital for effective communication. How will the commissioner's office be resourced with respect to minority languages—including Welsh, of course?

Every Child Matters made no reference to the needs of Traveller pupils, which is the group most at risk in the education system. Although some make a reasonably promising start in primary school—and many schools make enormous efforts to encourage Traveller pupils to attend regularly—by the time they reach secondary level their generally low attainment is a matter of serious concern. Access to schooling is also a particular issue for Traveller pupils.

In the report, Raising the attainment of minority ethnic pupils, Ofsted found that a majority of Traveller children were on the SEN register. I am quite sure that that is not because of their intellectual capacity but because they have fallen behind in their schooling. In one primary school, 74 per cent of Traveller children were on the register; in one secondary school the figure was as high as 80 per cent. Alarmingly, in half the schools in the Ofsted study, no Traveller student had yet even sat for a GCSE. It is very important that the commissioner is able to focus on promoting equality of opportunity for those children, too.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, has said, the commissioner must as part of his role take gender equality into account. There needs to be further exploration by Government and the commissioner, when he or she is appointed, in partnership with the representatives of those responsible for frontline delivery of children's services on the links between gender, subject, training and work choices and occupational segregation, the pay gaps to which the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, referred, and the skill gaps. If every child truly is to matter equally, gender equality must not be forgotten or sidelined in the agenda to improve children's services. I look forward to the Minister accepting some amendment to the Bill to put equality of opportunity right there at the heart of the commissioner's objectives.

Photo of Lord Laming Lord Laming Crossbench

I have no doubt about the very best intentions behind the amendments in this group. However, the discussions that have taken place in this Chamber raise a number of great concerns for me. I would be grateful if the Minister would address those concerns.

One great strength of the Bill is that it seeks to address the well-being of all children and young people. That is a great strength that we must not put at risk. The more we attempt to specify a list of needs, the more we run the danger of excluding people, because the list will never be comprehensive. I take this part of the Bill to be one that deals with the general responsibilities of the commissioner to promote the well-being of all children and young people. With that in mind, I would hope that the commissioner would give particular attention to those children and young people with the greatest needs. Members of the Committee have already referred to some of those needs.

Will the Minister address what I believe to be a real problem? If we begin to specify, we either go for a comprehensive list, which I believe to be impossible bearing in mind the variety of need and the social situation of children and young people in our society—or, if we decide that we cannot be comprehensive, as I suspect that we cannot, there is a danger that we will emphasise the needs of one group of children above those of others.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench

I recognise the importance of what my noble friend Lord Laming said. I point out briefly that the two groups of children that I mentioned—the care leavers and the young offenders in institutions—would be excluded from the commissioner's role. I underline that.

Photo of Baroness Stern Baroness Stern Crossbench

I support the thrust of the amendments and, to my great sorrow, disagree profoundly with my noble friend Lord Laming. I should like to make a comment about what is in the Bill and the law and its meaning. The law does not just set out the law, it also gives messages about our values and about who is in and who is out, who has been thought about and who has not.

I think that we would all agree, either from personal knowledge or from being generally well informed, that the parents of disabled children face intolerable hurdles in getting what they need. Their lives are very difficult and a constant struggle. For them to see their situation mentioned in the Bill would be an important recognition by us that we understand and appreciate what they are doing and what their lives are like.

Without spelling it out, the same applies to children in care—looked-after children. They know that in many ways they are at the bottom of the heap. Perhaps what is even more important, the people who look after them know that their status is low and that they are not valued. It is important that we think about the meaning of the law to people who work in those services. They face many difficult situations in their work and it is sometimes hard for them to decide what is the right thing to do.

Members of the Committee who have had the time to read the coroner's verdict in the inquest on Joseph Scholes, which was issued on 30 April, will understand how public servants are sometimes placed in intolerable situations. Some of us remember the matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Elton—the death of Gareth Mayatt. Similarly, that involved people placed in a very difficult position. In my view, staff working in such situations need the clear and unambiguous support of the law in words that everyone can understand when they have to decide what is the right thing to do.

I would very much support thought being given to Amendment No. 42, tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, because it could help the Government to rectify their unfortunate drafting in response to the Joint Committee on the Rights of the Child, when they said that children who commit crimes are not just children.

Photo of Lord Chan Lord Chan Crossbench

Briefly, I identify with Amendment No. 30, especially concerning equality of opportunity for children belonging to racial groups and religious beliefs. Nine out of 10 ethnic minority children and families live in England, which makes it different from the other territories.

I ask the Minister to what extent the consultation of 2,000 children included representation from black and other ethnic minority children. I do not assume that all of them are at risk of exclusion, but there are definite, well known and well researched racial groups of children who have difficulty with our society and system. For example, one would be children whose parents are first-generation migrants, do not speak English and want to rear their children according to customs developed elsewhere. That immediately brings the children into conflict between the culture that they learn in school and society here and that of their parents. Therefore, groups such as Bangladeshi and Pakistani children need to be identified for those purposes, as well as because they are in poverty and tend to live in segregated communities.

There is also the issue of black Caribbean boys, who continue to form a significant proportion of children excluded from school—a third, at least. Is there any way that the children's commissioner could have some oversight over such groups that are at risk of social exclusion? I know that racial incidents have been recorded, at least in schools on Merseyside, during the past three years, and that there is a cross-boundary consultation every month with voluntary bodies as well as all the statutory bodies in local government.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Labour 1:15 pm, 6th May 2004

I had not intended to take part in this debate, but I thought that I ought to weigh in in support of what the noble Lord, Lord Laming, said. When discussing issues of enormous emotional attachment for noble Lords, the House often find itself saying, "All is all", and then starting to define all the different specialist interest groups that may be contained within "all". Indeed, during our discussion on Tuesday, we discussed whether "all" meant all children and generally agreed that it did.

There are three reasons why it is then important not to start qualifying "all". One is because, further down the road, when the Bill is on the statute book and people are using it, we are then in danger of excluding people who are not included in the list. That is a serious problem. The Government may not be the one that introduced the Bill or be particularly sympathetic to some of the groups. So it is important to leave "all" meaning "all" and not qualify it. Secondly, many of the groups that have been mentioned have their own legislation—which is quite right. Examples are disabled children and care leavers. We have discussed that legislation on many occasions and will rightly continue to do so.

Thirdly, I expect the commissioner to involve all of us in a large discussion about what his or her priorities should be and to which groups he or she should pay particular attention—whether they be ethnic minority under-achieving boys, disabled children, children who are living in extreme poverty or Travellers' children. We should not try to define the job of the commissioner in the Bill.

Photo of Lord Northbourne Lord Northbourne Crossbench

I support those who share the concern of my noble friend Lord Laming about selecting particular sub-groups for special attention. His suggestion almost in passing that if one has in any way to define how the commissioner should select his priorities, words such as "the groups of children in the greatest need" would leave him to make the judgment. I could quite easily add half a dozen categories to those that have already been mentioned this afternoon, as, I am sure, could other Members of the Committee.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

I see that danger. Indeed, I am told that Laming's law is expressed in Latin as expressio unius est exclusio alterius—if one is in, it implies that the rest are not; and the more you have in, the stronger you imply it. However, I think that we must exempt the two amendments tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, from that because the definition of a child is to be found in Clause 49(1), as it applies to this part of the Bill, as being under 18. Amendment No. 42 specifically refers to children as being under the age of 21 if they are in custody. So that does not breach that principle.

Slightly less respectable, but still passable, is his Amendment No. 34, because it is saved by the words, "in particular". The doubtful ground is whether we avoid the difficulty of saying that all does not mean all but particular people if we say that all means all but that the commissioner should be especially careful of these people.

There may be a blanket term with special regard to those in special need, which could be general. I warm to the cautions of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, because I have come across this difficulty so often in legislation. It is very good for us to air in debate on probing amendments the critical areas to which the commissioner should pay attention. We flatter ourselves that he or she will read every word of every stage of this Bill when he or she is appointed, which, of course, they will not. However, one hopes that an academic will do the job for us and draw these specific points to their notice.

Photo of Lord Hylton Lord Hylton Crossbench

I follow the noble Lord, Lord Elton, in venturing to oppose my noble friend Lord Laming despite his enormous experience and knowledge in these fields. My noble friend Lord Listowel responded very effectively in about one sentence by pointing out where his amendments would go beyond the existing text of the Bill.

My noble friend Lord Listowel, all of whose amendments in this group I support, might have mentioned one extra thing which has not yet been said today; namely, that we are faced with a national shortage of good foster parents which leads to all too frequent breakdown in foster placements with very bad consequences for the children concerned.

I also support this group of amendments from the point of view of penal affairs and crime prevention. I invite the Minister when she replies to say whether in her opinion the change of name or terminology from "children in care" to "children looked after" made any real difference at all. Was it a purely cosmetic change, I wonder?

Will the Minister go a little further when replying to inform the Committee about what has been the real effect of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, which I think has now been in force for at least three years, or a period of about that length? Is it beginning to produce results? Have studies been conducted into improvements resulting from that Act?

More generally, I support the amendments that we are discussing from a penal affairs point of view. We know, and have known for a good many years, that a far too high proportion of those coming within the scope of the criminal justice system have previously been in care or looked after. I suggest that greater investment, for example, in foster parents and in improving the training and qualifications of care workers would yield—I hope that the Treasury will take this point on board—savings in criminal justice and in penal custody. I hope that I have made that point sufficiently strongly and that we shall get a really good and effective reply on these amendments from the noble Baroness.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Crossbench

I shall try to speak briefly. I am sure that we shall return to the issues of disability and discrimination when we discuss Amendment No. 94. I am slightly concerned that the term "racial groups" has been used in the amendment rather than the broader term "ethnic groups" to reflect the mosaic constitution of our current society. However, I wish to concentrate on Amendment No. 42 which I consider is terribly important.

I am very concerned about children in custody, particularly in Wales. This is exactly the situation that could result in a child in custody having no one directly to turn to. I remind the Committee of the twin boys in Hillside to whom I referred earlier in Committee when child B's needs fall under the England/UK children's commissioner.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, reminded us how difficult it is for a disturbed youngster to pick up the telephone to make contact for help. If there is any doubt whatever that the person answering is completely trustworthy and will act on behalf of the child, the child will not attempt to make contact. If the child cannot contact the commissioner, the whole purpose of the role is lost.

There have been suicides in custody. That shows how despairing some of the youngsters in care can become. You have to ask why they got there. How is it that they are in care? It is because they have been failed previously. As the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, highlighted, the care system lets them down—sometimes at every step of the way.

Until there was a Children's Commissioner for Wales, there was nothing. Since being in post, the Children's Commissioner for Wales has established open lines of communication with custody services. That is not as good as his formal powers but it is better than nothing. Now it is proposed that the England/UK commissioner will be at arm's length. That arrangement is perceived by young people in Wales as distancing them from their current champion.

I would love the important obligations, as outlined in the amendments proposed by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, to be part of the functions of the Children's Commissioner for Wales. But if that cannot be done, they really must be considered on a UK-basis. I completely understand the reason for avoiding a list, but children in custody are in a very different situation. They have to be viewed as a core duty of someone who has responsibility for the children who have ended up in custody because at every other step of the way they have probably been let down. They may have disabilities or learning disabilities.

Photo of Baroness Howarth of Breckland Baroness Howarth of Breckland Crossbench

I shall speak very briefly. I am totally committed to young people in custody. There are issues concerning age here. I am extraordinarily committed to disabled young people. I am president of John Grooms Association for Disabled People. As the Minister knows from a conversation that I had with her earlier in the week, I also care passionately about the children of asylum seekers.

However, I agree with my noble friend Lord Laming and with the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, that lists are exclusive, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said, rather than inclusive, and that "all" must mean all. My great anxiety is that restriction might be placed on the commissioner in the form of direction from the Secretary of State. I should like the Minister to assure us that all these groups of children can be accessed by the commissioner when issues need to be raised. Like the Government, I believe that the commissioner should be looking at strategic issues but should have to listen to children regarding those strategic issues.

I place on record my wish that all these children should have the right to access the commissioner, even if they do not individually reach him—with 11 million children that is difficult. The commissioner must work with other people and in particular with the children's rights director of the Commission for Social Care Inspection, Roger Morgan, who I think the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, mentioned. If we place such a great emphasis—I have mentioned this before—on the commissioner and do not pay attention to those people who must work with him or her in the interests of children, we lose the benefit of teamwork. That goes right through local authorities, schools and all the other institutions that work, I hope, for the benefit of children. I hope that they will be led and encouraged by a very strong commissioner for children.

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Shadow Minister, Home Affairs 1:30 pm, 6th May 2004

While heeding the warnings on the dangers of lists from the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Laming, I hope that noble Lords will not dismiss Amendment No. 30 on the basis that it has a list in it. The heart of Amendment No. 30 is the need for the commissioner to promote equality of opportunity. That is what it seeks to address. Later on, we will be moving the need for the commissioner to report on the actions that have taken place to promote equality of opportunity. That is what is at the heart of Amendment No. 30 and, in order to illustrate what is meant, that amendment does mention a list. However, the point of that amendment is equality of opportunity.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Education and Science), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

This has been an interesting and important debate in our deliberations about the role of the commissioner. I want to begin by making it absolutely clear that the word "all" means "all". The commissioner's job is to listen to, and to find ways of talking to, all children; that is, with all of the children that noble Lords have mentioned and with many children that noble Lords have not mentioned.

The second point, in terms of framing the debate, is that, by talking about everything that the commissioner will do, we are investing a huge amount in that individual and his office just from this one debate. We should not fail to recognise that many of the responsibilities that noble Lords have described, for example, about bullying or the role of different agencies, rest with those agencies and with the Government. It is important that we do not forget that the Government rightly bear a huge responsibility for many of the issues that have been raised and for which they should be held to account—something which noble Lords strive to do. It is against that backdrop that I shall make my remarks in response to the amendments that have been tabled.

I shall address, first, the amendments that relate to the Children's Commissioner. I have already indicated that it is critical that all children and young people are heard, especially, as noble Lords have indicated, those who often do not get the opportunity to be listened to. I was not able to be at the meeting last night that was attended by the noble Lady, Baroness Byford, and was very interested in what she said. However, I have had the privilege in my other life, as it were, and in my ministerial life, of meeting people from many agencies and discussing with them the ways in which they are creatively able to involve children who do not communicate in the traditional sense, as we understand it.

Some fantastic work is being done, not least by Mencap and others, about understanding how to make sure that children's views are listened to, heard and understood by others. That will be a critical part of the work that we do with the commissioner; but, beyond the commissioner, it will be critical in the work done overall by the Government, by local government, and by others in making sure that we recognise that need. I encompass within that the issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, about minority languages and other aspects of communication skills, which are both critical and important.

We shall be looking at all of those issues in the appointment of the commissioner and will make sure that we find ways to involve the representation of all children in the process in one way or another. We shall take advice from those who have great experience of such matters. I accept the importance of this: the commissioner is the champion for all children. However, the nature of that remit means that the commissioner will focus on our most vulnerable children and young people because they are the ones who are least likely to have the outcomes that children have identified as being critical. Clause 2(5) requires that, in carrying out this function, the commissioner must have particular regard to those who do not have "adequate means" to make their voices heard; namely, many of those groups mentioned by noble Lords today.

Amendments Nos. 34 and 44 were spoken to by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. As noble Lords will know, they are about making sure that the views and interests of children and young people who are, or have been, looked after are taken into account. Of course, by themselves these amendments would not include care leavers aged 18 or more. Amendment No. 42 raises the issue of whether such care leavers should be covered in this part of the Bill. I shall return to that shortly. I am grateful to the noble Earl for once again reminding us of the particular vulnerability of children who are, or have been, looked after by local authorities. Noble Lords made the connection between those who are looked after and the potential for their lives to be, at best, in disarray and, at worst, to lead them to prison, or worse. We are very aware of that. For far too long, as noble Lords have heard me say before, these children and young people have experienced poorer outcomes in many of the areas recorded in the Bill.

The vast majority of children who are in care are there because their parents cannot or will not look after them. They are not in care because they have "done" anything. It is because they have not had, for one reason or another, the kind of supportive, loving environments that would enable them to thrive. With the Quality Protects programme we have attempted to improve services for those children. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred to what has happened after the Children (Leaving Care) Act. We are very pleased with the positive outcomes but, rather than take the Committee's time now, I shall write to him more fully on the impact, which is very positive and with which we are pleased. There is a long way to go, but we are pleased. I shall put a copy of my letter in the Library of the House in order to ensure that I have covered that point effectively.

I agree with my noble friend Lady Thornton and the noble Lord, Lord Laming, who I am pleased to see back from his trip to China, which I trust was successful. I am very nervous about putting lists in this legislation. That is not to say that I do not accept the value and importance of these groups of children and the passion with which noble Lords have talked of them. I share their sentiments. However, I am very conscious of what lists do. Lists either mean that people focus on the list and not on the rest, as noble Lords have indicated, or they produce silo services. As the Minister responsible for children with special needs and disabilities, I feel that, in the process of identifying them, we sometimes put children in a corner. We identify them in a way that says that they have certain needs and we do not see that for many children there is a progression of need that is often a gradual slope. Our objective is to get to the bottom of the slope and to identify those needs without always feeling a need to put a label on an individual group to identify it. Unless we think of our institutions, such as schools and children's services, as having a responsibility as regards all children and to identify the needs of all children, that is the risk that we take.

My view as a Minister has been that it is the responsibility of all services to look at children with special needs and disabilities, not just services designed for children with special needs and disabilities. That is where I draw my line and I want to ensure that this legislation reflects that aim. So there will be a Children's Commissioner for all children. All of the groups identified by noble Lords are critical, but there are others that have not been identified. For example, the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, talked about young carers. We have discussed this many times in the Chamber. The average age for a young carer is about 11. There are also the siblings of children who are very ill and children who are bereaved. I met representatives of the Bereaved Children's Trust recently and children who are bereaved are a particular group with additional problems. There are also children who are witnesses or victims of domestic violence. We know that there are many children who, for a variety of reasons, do not get the kind of outcomes that children and young people themselves have identified as important and we are enshrining that in this legislation. I agree with the sentiment 100 per cent but that means that I believe that the best way of doing this is to identify all children. We are in conversation with the Disability Rights Commission and the Council for Disabled Children, which I meet regularly, in order to ensure that we recognise the need to include those children in all our work.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative

I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. I have looked at the wording in the Bill and it might be a help to all noble Lords if the word "all" were in it. It is not. It just says "children". I wonder whether that is something that the Minister might consider. I shall come back on the other matters at a later stage.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Education and Science), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

The noble Baroness will be pleased to know that we debated the question of "all" on Tuesday and we are looking at it. As noble Lords know, when the Bill says "children" it means "all children" but we have taken that away, as noble Lords will remember. I agree with that.

I have already mentioned the fact that, as Minister for special needs and disability within the department, I take a particular view of ensuring that all services reflect that aim. Indeed, Removing Barriers to Achievement—our document which, in a sense, sets out the next step—is a critical part of it. Inclusion for children is not about the setting: it is about the experience; it is about what happens to children. That is why it is absolutely critical, both in education and in every other service that we provide for them, that children should be included in the broadest sense, whether it be in play and recreation, services provided by other statutory bodies or voluntary organisations. Again, that covers all children.

Although I could, I will not go on at length about the strategy. It is designed to deliver the improvements that we all wish. I mention it partly because developing such a strategy is the Government's role. Although that should certainly involve the commissioner, I do not want our responsibilities in any way to be shuffled off to the commissioner and the commissioner's office. This is about everyone playing their part. The commissioner exercises the strategic overview role by ensuring that the system works. The commissioner is the voice of children and, as I said on Tuesday, gets his power from children. Disabled children are part of the remit under Clause 2(5) because of the particular need to make their views known. I therefore hope that those amendments will not be pressed.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, reminded us, Amendment No. 30 is about the need to promote equality of opportunity for disabled children and refers also to issues of race, religion and belief. The noble Lord, Lord Chan, rightly raised issues of cultural understanding that concern some of our ethnic minority children. Perhaps I may offer one small anecdote concerning the understanding of some of our most recently arrived families about such matters as the education system. I came across one family who believed that children went into the French system when they were moved up an academic year. As children were not moved up in the educational system in the part of Africa from which they came, and because of language difficulties, they were not aware that their child was falling steadily and substantially behind. They quite properly assumed that children were not moved up unless those educational standards had already been reached. This small anecdote demonstrates the critical need to understand some of the cultural issues and the desire of all parents to do the best by their children. Work on the issue is under way, as I have previously mentioned in your Lordships' House.

The noble Lord, Lord Chan, also raised issues concerning Afro-Caribbean boys such as exclusions and the fact that, although they do comparatively reasonably well at key stage 2, we begin to see difficulties at key stage 3. That is a critical part of the work done by my colleague Stephen Twigg and of our strategy to focus work particularly on the secondary schools with the highest number of Afro-Caribbean boys. We are working closely with colleagues in Ofsted to learn and understand those issues. Again, I completely accept that that is our responsibility and that we need to take it seriously.

I wholeheartedly affirm our commitment to equality of opportunity. That includes looking at the outcomes for boys and girls, an issue previously raised in your Lordships' House. This is about outcomes for all children. The commissioner will determine his priorities based on what he hears from children. As I say, that is intended to focus the commissioner very firmly on listening to children. I believe that that is the way to approach it. I do not think that it is necessary to write that on the face of the Bill.

Returning to Amendment No. 42, I say to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, that I have the good fortune, through the all-party group, to be in discussion with the Children's Rights Director about work with the commissioner. I believe that Roger Morgan is very keen to ensure that the relationship works. I think that it will be a very dynamic one. It is critical that the commissioner works closely with the Children's Rights Director and other colleagues. I think it will be a particularly important and special relationship.

I am very sympathetic to the concerns of the noble Earl, the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, and others including the noble Lord, Lord Elton, about young offender issues. As regards the Bill, we regard those over 18 who are in custody as adults. We believe that some of the issues the noble Earl raised need to be addressed through the work the Government do with the services for those young people. We will be discussing issues such as training and the work being done more fully in later amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. We have to be very clear about the commissioner's role and about the children and young people with whom the commissioner is working. Perhaps I may be so bold as to say that we should not expand and extend that role on the assumption that that is a solution. Some critical issues regarding these young people need to be taken up, but I do not believe that the Bill is the appropriate place to do that.

Amendment No. 42 deals with the position of care leavers over 18. We have considered that issue in the Bill. As young adults, care leavers are in receipt of specific services arising directly from their experiences as children, which is the point that the noble Earl makes. The co-operation duty in Clause 6 covers arrangements that relate to them. It also covers young people with learning difficulties who are in a comparable position in service provision. We took a different approach because the commissioner's functions do not lend themselves so easily to extension beyond 18 as they are about the views and interests of children rather than specific services. None the less, I am ready to consider how we can positively and constructively address that issue and ensure that the noble Earl's concerns about care leavers are met.

With that reassurance, and in the hope that I have addressed most of the concerns raised in this group of amendments, I ask noble Lords to withdraw or not to press their amendments in the group.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 1:45 pm, 6th May 2004

I thank the Minister for her helpful and full response. I am very gladdened to hear that she will look at the situation of care leavers over the age of 18. I thank too all noble Lords who spoke in favour of the amendment. Perhaps I may make it clear that I am in no way critical of those who provide care to these young people. They do an outstanding job in the circumstances. It is simply that they have not been adequately equipped to do the job that is needed.

Perhaps I may also make one quick point about the prison system and young offenders. Anne Owers addressed a recent meeting sponsored by the Howard League for Penal Reform and pointed out how greatly 18 to 20 year-olds had benefited from the changes. Since 16 and 17 year-olds had been in the same institutions, the culture had begun to change as people became more sensitive to the immaturity of the elder group of children; they were old in years but young in development. Although she applauded the fact that children were being taken out of these settings, that had worked to the detriment of the 18 to 20 year-olds. The commissioner might have a very useful role in such strategic thinking.

Those young people are cared for by prison officers who have had only nine weeks of training. The Chief Inspector of Prisons toured the Continent and said that practice in this country is at the bottom range of that on the Continent. The practice in Germany far exceeds ours. Two years of training are required in order to work in such settings in Norway. The commissioner could play a crucial role in such strategic issues. I am grateful to all who have spoken and for the Minister's helpful response, but I may return to the issue at the next stage.

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench

There has been a great deal of passion and real feeling about these issues and we must thank the Minister for her comments. However, I have to make one comment. Although I back the equal opportunities point which is the basis of our amendment, and although I have considerable sympathy with the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and not least with his phrasing that greatest attention should be paid to those in greatest need, I must remind your Lordships that, based on past experience, we will achieve change through legislation such as the Race Relations Acts and—from my own experience—the equal opportunities legislation which sets out that people should be treated equally. With one lot of change you get a leap-frogging effect as far as the others are concerned.

So we will think again with that in mind. We may or may not raise some of these issues again at a later stage. For now, however, I am pleased to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 1:49 pm, 6th May 2004

I beg to move that the House do now resume. In moving this Motion, I suggest that the Committee stage begin again not before ten minutes to three.

Moved accordingly, and on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.