Equality Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 9th November 2005.

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Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Spokesperson in the Lords (Children), Education & Skills 3:08 pm, 9th November 2005

My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 1, I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 2 with which it is grouped. At an earlier stage of the Bill, we tried to obtain an explicit reference in Clause 9 to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. I set out four main reasons for doing this. The convention is the most ratified of all human rights treaties. It is one of the most comprehensive treaties covering children's rights. Children are uniquely vulnerable and easy to ignore and England's 11 million children, unlike those in the rest of the UK, do not have a rights-based Children's Commissioner. On that occasion I was delighted that the Minister said that she would go away and think about how to ensure that the commission will work for children. That has always been our point—to gain assurances that children will very much be part of this vital new body. The Minister well understands that we are looking for a steadfast guarantee that children will be included in the establishment, operation and review of the commission, and that that will not be left to chance or good will.

Amendments Nos. 1 and 2, which we are debating today, avoid the problem of lists that the Minister described in her reply. "Children and adults" includes everybody. It could be argued that children are implicitly covered in the legislation. However, I strongly fear that without an explicit reference to children in the Bill the new commission will focus exclusively on adults. Experience shows that, where children are not explicitly provided for in an organisation, they are ignored or given inadequate resources and attention. That is why we have Every Child Matters and the new roles at local authority level of children's services director and lead member for children's services, to make sure that children get their fair share of attention and resources. That is the Government's own agenda.

Are we satisfied that the existing equality bodies are working adequately for children; that children's issues are part of their strategic planning; that they regularly consult children to find out about their experiences and what matters to them; that their casework includes those under 18; and that they are working with the Government and others to bring about greater equality for children's rights? If children are missing out now, what guarantees have we that they will not be kept to the margins in the future?

Working for children does not mean simply adapting what is written or done for adults; it means being child-focused from the start—consulting them, setting priorities relating to them, and having the staff and organisational competence to work effectively and systematically to improve their lives. I am reminded that the National Service Framework for Children, Young People and Maternity Services states that, until recently, children's needs in the NHS were seen as no more than,

"smaller beds and smaller portions of food".

We can all learn from that.

Involving children in knowing their rights and responsibilities as young citizens can be an immense power for good—both for them as individuals and for their families, schools and communities. Only this morning, I visited one of UNICEF's "Rights Respecting Schools", Kempshott Junior School in Basingstoke, and saw for myself the benefits—both academic and social—of incorporating an understanding of the convention into their citizenship education. That was at primary level; I was much impressed.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has produced guidelines on establishing human rights institutions for children. It stresses the participation of children in the work of the institution, the need for tailored programmes to advance their human rights, and urges that:

"The legislation (establishing the institution) should include provisions setting out specific functions, powers and duties relating to children linked to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its optional protocols".

I accept the Minister's assurances that the Convention on the Rights of the Child is covered in "other human rights" in the Bill, but ask that she think again about including a specific reference to children in this Bill setting up the commission. The task in establishing this new commission is not just to make sure children are not left out; it is to plan systematically to put them in. That will mean having a fresh approach and doing some things very differently. I believe my amendments will enable this to happen and I look forward to the statement the Minister promised us at an earlier stage. I beg to move.