Child Protection

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 24th October 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Spokesperson in the Lords, Children, Schools and Families 5:45 pm, 24th October 2007

My Lords, I apologise for my delayed entrance in this debate. My office is right at the other end and I anticipated that the previous business would go on slightly longer, so please accept my heartfelt apologies.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Walmsley for giving us the opportunity to debate this critical issue. I will keep my intervention rather brief, although I have to agree with her that time limiting people when there is a 90-minute debate and we have so few speakers is quite extraordinary. Nevertheless, I will concentrate on two or three areas, one of which is the use of restraint on children in custody.

We know that there is much concern about the rising numbers of children in the United Kingdom who are incarcerated. While there may be exigencies where no other option is available than to incarcerate children, surely their protection when under custodial sentence is paramount. The House will be aware of the work of my noble friend Lord Carlile in this regard and the report by the Howard League for Penal Reform on the treatment of children in penal custody resulting from the inquiry undertaken by him. The House debated that report earlier this year in an extremely wide-ranging and thoughtful discussion.

In the United Kingdom, we incarcerate more children than most other European countries—about 2,900 children are in custody of one form or other. As my noble friend Lord Carlile pointed out in our debate on 19 February 2007, restraint was used about 8,000 times in the last 12-month period for which figures were available.

The Government have acknowledged that statistical data on the use of restraint can be improved. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, in responding then informed the House that a set of common definitions and new accounting rules had been agreed to enable statistical data to be collected in a way that allows clearer comparisons of practice across the three sectors of the estate. He said that the new data reporting and recording would come into effect from April. In the light of those new systems, can the Minister confirm that the new system will indeed break down data according to race and ethnicity as well, so that we may be able to tell how many of the affected children come from ethnic minorities? That is the minimal information that we need in order to evaluate whether particularly community interventions are successful.

Another area that I want to raise today is about the use of physical interventions overall. The Minister will know of the report in the Guardian on Monday this week that the Ministry of Justice is to review current guidelines on the use of batons on children as young as 15. The Government confirmed to my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford that the Youth Justice Board has not indicated that it wants a change of policy in that regard, but I hope that the Minister will use this opportunity today to reconfirm that they will not move in that direction. In fact, will the Minister confirm that the Government accept that physical force must never be used to secure compliance or as punishment? According to the NSPCC, staff in secure training centres currently use restraint to maintain order all to impose the authority of staff over children. If that is the case, that is indeed to be deplored.

I understand that the Joint Committee on Human Rights is currently looking into the compatibility of the Secure Training Centre (Amendment) Rules 2007 with international human rights standards. The committee's deliberations are currently under way, but I wonder whether the Minister can assure me that the views of the JCHR will indeed inform the Government's position on the rules in their current review. At the moment, the rules allow for powers to restrain under that technique to prevent physical injury, escape, property damage or the incitement of other children to do the same. Now, we understand, the amended rules will further extend those powers to permit the use of authorised physical restraint,

"where necessary for the purpose of ensuring good order and discipline ... Where no alternative method of ensuring good order or discipline ... is available".

The implication of that change is that the use of force will become far more frequent and that signifies a trend in the wrong direction. If that is the direction of travel, we are in danger as a society of sanctioning behaviour on the part of the state that we find unacceptable—indeed, criminal—when practised by individuals.

My other point is to do with the trafficking of children. In 2004, the most conservative figure that we had for child trafficking was that of the US State Department, which thought that about 600,000 to 700,000 people were trafficked worldwide. According to the State Department, the figure for children was about 50 per cent of that. On the other end of the scale, the OSCE thinks that 1.2 million children are trafficked each year. The scale of the problem is unknown, yet the misery and suffering that it causes are all too evident. It has been referred to as the modern-day equivalent of the slave trade.

The Minister will be aware of the recent report from UNICEF, Rights Here, Rights Now, which indicates that more than 180 children trafficked illegally into the UK have gone missing without trace from social services care. The report said that even where traffic children are identified,

"their care and protection is inconsistent, ad hoc and, in some regions, completely absent".

In their review, are the Government giving any consideration to UNICEF's suggestion that a professional guardian for each trafficked child should be appointed to protect that child's interests?

I welcome the signing by the United Kingdom of the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings. This certainly brings a little closer the guarantee of help and protection for those who are trafficked. But, nevertheless, there are concerns about the lack of access to care and support, particularly for those children entering under asylum rules.

Concerns also remain about the Government's reservation on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which, in the opinion of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, legitimises unequal treatment of asylum-seeking children. Will the Government ensure that the protection of child victims of trafficking is not compromised? Will they furthermore indicate when they expect to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings. The matter is pressing and the longer reviews take, the more children are exposed to risk.