Children and Social Work Bill [HL] - Report (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:04 pm on 8th November 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health) 6:04 pm, 8th November 2016

My Lords, I move Amendment 69 and speak to Amendment 71 in this group. Amendment 71 arises from the third report of the JCHR for the current Session, and I am delighted that we are of one mind on the matter. Although there are some differences between them, both amendments are intended to do the same thing: to enshrine a duty on public bodies to have regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the Government became a signatory 25 years ago.

Some might say that the obligation under the convention means that public bodies already have such a duty, but most people would also consider that the processes in place to ensure that the duty is carried out require improvement. One has to look only at successive reports from the Committee on the Rights of the Child when it scrutinises the Government’s performance under the convention, including that of April this year, to see that there is still a lot to be desired. It concluded that the UK Government have failed so far to put effective law, policy and resources in place to protect and promote children’s human rights.

Both amendments would require public authorities to determine the impact of decision-making on the rights of children and provide a framework for public service delivery in relation to children compatible with their convention rights. That is what “due regard” means. There are a couple of differences between the amendments, and I have added my name to Amendment 71 to indicate that, should the Government choose to accept it, I will gladly withdraw Amendment 69. Although Amendment 71 uses the wording of existing statute, which I have to say is probably better than mine, my amendment has the advantage of including a reporting duty to children on steps that a public authority has taken to implement the requirement every five years. This is similar to the Scottish Act. There is nothing like a reporting duty to put pressure on people to do something. Nobody wants to have to report that they have not done anything.

I thank Edward Timpson MP, the responsible Minister in another place, for meeting me and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, on several occasions to inform us what the Government are already doing to make children’s lives better and to inform himself of our concerns. Those meetings are much appreciated, and we were pleased to hear about the improvements in the process, at least in the Department for Education, to promote awareness of children’s rights and ensure that they are built into the policy-making process. However, we were disappointed to learn that the Government are reluctant to accept either of these amendments because they might increase bureaucracy, have unintended consequences and result in a tick-box mentality rather than a genuine way forward—that sounds familiar. If civil servants are inclined to use such an important duty simply as a tick-box exercise, I would encourage the Government to look very carefully at how they are trained and how their performance is monitored. Such a mentality should be stamped out, and quickly. On the contrary, I believe that such a duty will put the convention at the heart of policy-making—a first consideration, not a last-minute add-on—before a policy is finalised, which would be completely the wrong way to go about it.

We are also very disappointed that the further information which we were promised yesterday would be provided before this debate has not arrived. In the absence of that, we will therefore almost certainly have to return to this at Third Reading.

The Minister has asked us whether such a duty would really make a difference to children’s lives. I would therefore pray in aid the public sector equality duty from the Equality Act 2010, which has had a real effect and, indeed, changed mindsets. As the JCHR records, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has provided evidence that a similar duty to the one we are suggesting now has already had positive results in Wales and Scotland, though the duties have not been in place for very long. Secondly, there is significant evidence from the experience of the public sector equality duty that an approach to promoting equality rights through the use of public duties to have “due regard” has led to substantive change. The response to the government review of the PSED in 2014 included a fairly comprehensive catalogue of positive outcomes which show us how effective it has been.

Public authorities have introduced systems to identify disadvantaged groups, enabling them to ensure better equality outcomes. Some tangible examples of these outcomes are: a better understanding of school exclusions; an increase in the provision of support for homeless women; and better fire-prevention processes for older people. These are just a few very practical results from the PSED. In addition, a culture of concern for equality issues has infiltrated public organisations. I would like to see a similar culture of concern infiltrate public organisations in relation to children’s rights.

In December 2010 the Liberal Democrat Minister, Sarah Teather, on behalf of the Government, made a welcome commitment to give the UNCRC due consideration in the development of new policy and legislation. It seems to have taken six years to put in place some sort of system to ensure that, and the Minister in another place has now told us that he is keen to promote awareness of children’s rights across government and has a framework to help him achieve it. However welcome that is, it falls short of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Scottish Ministers must consider what steps they could take to secure the effect of UNCRC in Scotland, and if they identify such steps, they must take them. In other words, they must actually do something, not just promote awareness. That is what we are looking for in moving our amendment today. Awareness raising alone falls far short of the responsibility which we as signatories to the UNCRC have promised to shoulder. It is time that the Government accepted this and showed us some real action. I beg to move.