HC Deb 17 March 2000 vol 346 cc623-91

[Relevant documents: Report and Summary of the Tribunal of Inquiry into the abuse of children in care in the former County Council areas of Gwynedd and Clwyd since 1974—Lost in Care (HC 201); Local Authority Circular 99/33—The Quality Protects Programme: Transforming Children's Services 2000/01; The Government's Objectives for Children's Social Services, Department of Health, September 1999; Explanatory Notes to the Care Standards Bill [Lords] and Children (Leaving Care) Bill [Lords].]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

9.33 am
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton)

Promoting the well-being of children in our country, and protecting them from harm, are fundamental responsibilities of all hon. Members. We can—we frequently do—disagree on many things, but not, I hope, when it comes to safeguarding children. Children may make up only 20 per cent. of our population, but they represent 100 per cent. of our future.

Safeguarding children has been one of the Government's top priorities since taking office. The approach that we have taken has recognised that the physical health and mental well-being of all children is closely linked to wider issues of poverty and disadvantage. It has recognised the need to ensure that all children, wherever they are, get the best possible start in life. It has also involved major reforms of the public care system, and, in the framework of criminal law, provided better protection for children from those who would harm them, either physically or sexually.

All those reforms have been developed and implemented in partnership with a wide variety of organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors. Safeguarding children can never be the sole preserve of any one organisation. It is the responsibility of us all to discharge the obligation that we owe to our young people. The Government intend to discharge our responsibilities to the fullest possible extent, and to work with everyone who shares our ambition to create a safer and more secure environment in which children can thrive and prosper.

Our objectives must always be clear and well focused. First, we must never allow the appalling situation that occurred in north Wales to happen again.

Secondly, we must ensure that the statutory agencies effectively protect children from harm at all times and in all places. To do that, children's social services must be of the highest quality, well managed and staffed by well-qualified people working to the best models of both practice and policy. The standards currently set by the best must become the norm, not the exception.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

The hon. Gentleman has, so far, identified exclusively north Wales as an area where very great damage has been done to children. Does he accept that there are other areas—sadly, even in my own county of Cheshire, and in the adjacent county of Staffordshire—where similar events have occurred?

Mr. Hutton

I accept that. In a few minutes, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall comment on the wider situation. He may know that, in England, there are 32 on-going police inquiries into aspects of child abuse, including physical abuse. The situation in England is very serious, and I shall be dealing with it later in my speech.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we have to ensure that the standards of the best become the norm, rather than the exception. That is certainly the objective both of the Department of Health and of the entire Government.

Our third objective is to ensure that those who harm children are punished severely and prevented from working with children again.

If we are to succeed in implementing those changes, we will need a powerful change in the culture of children's social services, so that the pursuit of excellence becomes routine and second best will never be good enough. Although I think that that process of change is well under way, more progress obviously still has to be made. I shall return to that theme in a few moments.

There is nothing revolutionary in this approach, or in the principles by which we are working. Those principles are the building blocks for a successful life—which is what we as parents try to give our own children. I am sure that all hon. Members subscribe to those basic principles.

We must nevertheless compare those basic principles with the tragic childhoods recorded in Sir Ronald Waterhouse's report, "Lost in Care". His report bears witness to childhoods filled with fear, abuse, violence and misery—to childhoods destroyed by betrayal of trust and by administrative incompetence. We should, therefore, begin this debate by reminding ourselves of the key findings of the Waterhouse report on the abuse of children in care.

In Clwyd, there was widespread sexual abuse of boys, and to a lesser extent of girls, in local authority and privately run children's residential establishments and schools and in a national health service psychiatric unit. There was no evidence of persistent sexual abuse in Gwynedd. However, many children in children's residential establishments in both Clwyd and Gwynedd were subjected to physical abuse. Sexual and physical abuse occurred also in a small number of foster homes in Clwyd and Gwynedd. That disastrous catalogue of neglect and abuse is the reason for today's debate. Together, we must ensure that abuse on that scale can never happen again.

We owe our thanks to Sir Ronald Waterhouse and his team for their determination to document so meticulously the mistreatment of children in north Wales over so many years. We must also acknowledge that all of us have failed those children and the many others who have suffered in care elsewhere. Too sadly, we know that that case was not unique, and that, across the country, police forces and social services departments are investigating allegations of past abuse. The Government are determined to learn the lessons of the inquiry. We shall do all that we can to stamp out child abuse and create better safeguards for children.

Sir Ronald Waterhouse has made 72 recommendations. Many of them echo those made by Sir William Utting in "People Like Us"—his report on the review of safeguards for children living away from home. The Utting review was commissioned at the same time as the Waterhouse inquiry.

"People Like Us" made 20 key recommendations and more than 130 other recommendations, with the principal aim of improving protection for children living away from home. The Government published their response to "People Like Us" in November 1998, setting out a detailed and comprehensive programme of policy and management changes across Government to deliver a safer environment for all children living away from home. We are pursuing that programme with vigour. We are already taking forward many of the recommendations in the Waterhouse report through existing legislation, such as the Protection of Children Act 1999, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) played such a crucial role in taking through the House, and through new legislative initiatives such as the Care Standards Bill and the Children (Leaving Care) Bill, as well as through the quality protects programme and the children first programme in Wales. I shall describe all those initiatives briefly in a few moments.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

The Minister will be aware that many arguments have been made about advocacy. The Waterhouse report recommends that an independent advocacy service should be available to any complainant or affected child who wishes to have it. When will that be in place?

Mr. Hutton

The right hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to an important aspect of the Waterhouse recommendations. I am not announcing the Government's response to the recommendations today. We hope to do that early in the summer. I hope that he can wait until then for the details. The Waterhouse report did not call for the creation of a statutory right to advocacy, but we are reviewing the complaints procedures under section 26 of the Children Act 1989 and the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 for adult social services.

That is part of a continuing programme in the Department. We shall need to consider it carefully in the context of what Sir Ronald Waterhouse has said. We are looking carefully, in the context of quality protects and children first, at how we can encourage local authorities to develop more effective advocacy services for looked-after children. That work is under way, but we shall respond more fully to Sir Ronald Waterhouse's recommendations when we publish our response early in the summer.

We are also fully involving the ministerial task force on safeguarding children in considering all 72 of the report's recommendations to see what further steps we can take to safeguard children. The task force is helping us to identify where further action is needed and to establish key priorities. It has already met twice since the report was published and has identified the following priority areas where further action is needed: first, on a commissioner for looked-after children; secondly, on complaints procedures; thirdly, on independent advocacy services, which the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) referred to; fourthly, on human resources issues; and fifthly, on the future role of residential care as a placement choice.

Further work is being done on all those areas and I am liaising closely with my ministerial colleagues across Government to ensure that our response to the report is comprehensive and cohesive.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Six children from my constituency were at those homes and were sexually abused. I am particularly concerned about the role of the insurers in suppressing two major reports—the Cartrefle report and the Jillings report. Had they been published, that abuse might have been discovered much earlier. The role of the insurers in suppressing that information was a disgrace.

Mr. Hutton

I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that the Waterhouse report made some specific recommendations on that aspect of the tragic events in north Wales. I assure her that the Government are looking closely at those parts of the recommendations. Our response on that will be part of the full response that we publish in the summer. I am conscious of the broad consensus of concern that has been expressed on that aspect of the terrible events. I assure my hon. Friend and the House that we take those concerns very seriously.

We took two immediate steps on the day of publication of the Waterhouse report. First, we extended the Department of Health's consultancy index—the list of individuals deemed unsuitable to work with children. That enabled Ministers to include on the index a number of individuals named in the report who had been convicted of offences against children or against whom a clear finding had been made and who had not already been referred to the index by previous employers. Some of those individuals should have been referred to the index many years ago.

Secondly, we took immediate steps to check that those individuals named in the report who had been convicted of offences against children or against whom a clear finding had been made and whose current whereabouts or employment status were not clearly known were not currently working in regulated services with access to children.

In the days immediately after publication, the Government distributed many copies of the report to ensure that it was easily accessible to all those who needed to read it. Copies have been sent to all local authorities, chief constables, health authorities and NHS trusts.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)

The consultancy index is clearly important. The provisions of the Protection of Children Act 1999 allowing for the updating of the index are not yet operational, because many things need to be done first. I understand that it is hoped that they will come on-stream in the summer. Will my hon. Friend tell us when? Will the index be updated before the Department for Education and Employment's pilot schemes for summer activities for young people are under way?

Mr. Hutton

I pay tribute again to the work that my hon. Friend did in ensuring that the Protection of Children Act 1999 reached the statute book. She has raised two issues. The first is when the Act will become operational. There are a range of measures in the Care Standards Bill designed to extend protection to vulnerable adults, based on the provisions in the Bill that she took through the House. We are trying to ensure that the new protection of vulnerable adults and the Protection of Children Act measures are consistent. I am afraid that it is likely that the implementation date for the Protection of Children Act might slip a little into the autumn, because we need to ensure that the two measures are consistent.

The second issue is the updating of the names on the list. That work is well under way. I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that, as part of her measure, we agreed that it was appropriate to review all the existing names on the list to ensure that they were suitable for inclusion on the new list that will be maintained under the terms of the 1999 Act.

Ms Shipley

I am grateful for that clarification. There are implications for the pilot schemes for outdoor activities run by the Department for Education and Employment. I hugely welcome those excellent schemes, which are the way forward. I fear that if the Department for Education and Employment is not able to draw on the measures in the 1999 Act, it will have insufficient powers to conduct proper vetting. The 1999 list and the Department for Education and Employment's measures go a long way to protecting children in such situations, but some people will not be covered. I should be grateful for clarification on that.

Mr. Hutton

We may need further discussions on that within the Department and with Ministers at the Department for Education and Employment. When I said that there might be a slight delay in implementing the Protection of Children Act, I was trying to be candid with my hon. Friend and tell her how things were going. We may be able to implement the Protection of Children Act slightly earlier, but at the moment it is not entirely clear whether or not that will be possible. However, given the obvious need for synergy between provisions in the Protection of Children Act and measures for the protection of vulnerable adults in the Care Standards Bill, it is important that we try to get it right. Guiding us throughout is our determination to make the protection of children our top priority, as I have said this morning. The concerns that my hon. Friend has raised will be taken seriously in the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Employment.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

Will the Minister clarify that he is saying that in the summer, or perhaps after a short delay in the autumn, the Protection of Children Act will be fully operational and that certificates from the criminal records agency will be available?

Mr. Hutton

I am not sure that I can be quite that specific this morning. We still need to resolve a number of issues. My hon. Friend's Protection of Children Act may need to be amended in the light of discussions in another place about the scheme for the protection of vulnerable adults. I am trying to be as honest as I can with the House, but I cannot go quite as far as the hon. Gentleman is inviting me to do. We certainly hope that the main provisions of the Act will be implemented in the autumn, but obviously we are keeping the situation under careful review.

Our immediate actions on the publication of the Waterhouse report were necessary to safeguard children from individuals who had been found to have harmed children in north Wales in the past, but those actions in themselves could not solve all the problems described in the report, which are bigger than any one individual or group of individuals. They are rooted in systematic failure. The tragedy is that we know that the children in north Wales were not alone in suffering in this way.

The clear evidence is that too many children in the past were failed by the very services that should have been there to help them. There has been too much inconsistent quality and poor management in children's services. We know from reports such as "People Like Us" and "Lost in Care", and from the shocking testimony of young people who have suffered abuse in children's homes, that the risks for children living away from home in the 1970s and 1980s were seriously underestimated.

We cannot dismiss these as problems of the past, however. In the 1990s, evidence from social services inspection and joint review reports of children's services show continuing problems—and not only in children's homes.

Social services inspectorate reports and joint reviews have demonstrated inconsistencies, both within and between authorities. They have shown poor assessment, planning and case recording, which has led to very unfocused work with families; decisions about who gets a service are often made on a haphazard basis; and poor planning for looked-after children has resulted in unnecessary delays and inappropriate placements.

That is why is September 1998 we launched quality protects, which is a programme to help local authorities improve the management and delivery of children's social services. We also announced that the programme would be supported by a £375 million new special children's grant, which is being paid to local authorities over three years. A similar programme, children first, is under way in Wales.

Quality protects is part of our wider plans, detailed in our White Paper "Modernising Social Services", to tailor services to real needs, delivered efficiently and to the highest standards. Today's public services have to be shaped around the people who use them—not the other way around. Social change, growing public expectations, an ageing population and shifts in family structures all call for a modernised system of social care.

That is why when we launched quality protects we announced for the first time new Government objectives and specific targets for children's services. That was a major step forward which has provided a clear framework for developing local services. The failures in the system also called for a new framework of legal protections for children and that is precisely what we are delivering.

The Protection of Children Act 1999 will place the Department of Health's consultancy index on a statutory footing. Regulated child care providers will be required to check the names of anyone they propose to employ in posts involving regular contact with children against the index and DFEE's List 99, which is already on a statutory footing. People placed on the new list will not be able to work with children. As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge, the Department of Health is working toward implementation of the Protection of Children Act later this year.

In particular, we want to provide greater protection and care for the most vulnerable children and families. This is why we recently introduced The Care Standards Bill, which has at its heart two key aims: first, to protect vulnerable people from abuse and neglect; and secondly, to promote the highest standards of quality in the care that people receive.

The Bill provides for the establishment of a new independent national body, the National Care Standards Commission, which will have significant responsibilities for safeguarding children. All children's homes will be regulated and subjected to rigorous inspections. This will include local authority homes, which are currently exempt, and small private children's homes for fewer than four children. That loophole in the current law has long been considered a scandal, and rightly so. We shall not wait for the establishment of the commission to bring small private homes within regulation. As soon as we have Royal Assent for the Bill, we shall bring them within the current regulatory regime.

Good quality care must be provided in all children's homes, whether they are in the private or voluntary sector, or run by local authorities. Children must be protected from abuse and their welfare promoted, whoever is responsible for running the home. In the past, problems have occurred in all types of homes. In future, all homes will have to meet the same rigorous standards.

The Bill will also introduce for the first time regulatory regimes for fostering agencies and for residential family centres. The National Care Standards Commission will also regulate the crucial and very specialised work of voluntary adoption agencies, in a way similar to the current system operated by the social services inspectorate.

In recognition of its role in safeguarding children, the National Care Standards Commission will appoint a children's rights director, whose job it will be to ensure that children's rights and welfare are at the heart of all its responsibilities for regulating children's services. The children's rights director will provide a crucial function in being the person who will be there when children or staff have concerns or suspicions about what may be happening in a children's home or other service. The creation of this new post in England is very much in the spirit of the Waterhouse report's recommendations.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has already announced that we will also use the Care Standards Bill to implement Sir Ronald's Waterhouse first recommendation, that an independent children's commissioner for looked-after children in Wales should be appointed.

We believe that the appointment of the children's rights director in England and the children's commissioner for Wales will act as significant additional safeguards for looked-after children.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

I was tempted to intervene earlier when my hon. Friend said that the Government were committed to appointing a commissioner for looked-after children. Waterhouse places no limit on the commissioner in respect of looked-after children or other children. When one considers that some children are not looked after, but on the at-risk registers, there is a strong case for the children's commissioner having a wider remit for the welfare of all children.

Mr. Hutton

My hon. Friend will be aware that in Wales, these issues will ultimately be the responsibility of the National Assembly for Wales. We have the primary responsibility to make legislation for Wales, but we do so in close consultation with the National Assembly. I am not sure that I agree with my hon. Friend's initial observation. The context of the Waterhouse report is specific and clear: it is about looked-after children. That is what Sir Ronald Waterhouse was investigating. It is certainly our view that the appointment of the commissioner in Wales and the children's rights director in England are consistent with the spirit of the Waterhouse recommendations.

Ms Shipley

I welcome my hon. Friend's statement about the commissioner in Wales. Does he agree that the rest of the United Kingdom also needs a commissioner?

Mr. Hutton

The establishment of the children's rights director in England will closely mirror the role of the commissioner for looked-after children in Wales. I understand that the National Assembly for Wales is still working on the details of what the new commissioner should do. There is a danger of focusing on job titles when it is more important to establish the functions of the children's rights director in England and the commissioner for looked-after children in Wales.

We are satisfied that the post of children's rights director is a significant breakthrough in children's welfare in England. We are happy to consult a wide variety of organisations on the director's precise role. Against the background of the appalling abuse and violence inflicted on children in north Wales, this is a significant step forward, and very much in line with the Waterhouse recommendations.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Is the Minister aware that some children's charities are concerned that there may be a difference between the commissioner and the director? I appreciate what he says about titles being less important than the responsibilities and duties of the position, so can he confirm that the duties will be exactly the same in England and in Wales?

Mr. Hutton

The hon. Gentleman is a late convert to the cause of devolution—he opposed the enactment of the Government of Wales Act 1998. He will be aware that the National Assembly for Wales is responsible for what the commissioner will do in Wales. It is not a decision for Ministers in my Department. Job titles should not dominate this debate. The most important thing is what the new officers will do to enhance the welfare and well-being of children. The hon. Gentleman will agree that it is more important to focus on the substance of the job rather than the title conferred by legislation.

Mr. Wigley

The powers of the National Assembly will be constrained by any statutory powers regarding the commissioner. Can the Minister assure us that, if it is the wish of the National Assembly, the commissioner can have a wider remit than just looked-after children, especially in view of the immensely worrying conclusion in the report that a significant number of children regarded life in care, even at Bryn Estyn, as distinctly better than life at home..? Can he assure us that the statutory underpinning will not debar the National Assembly from conferring that wider remit?

Mr. Hutton

I think that I am right in saying that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales dealt with all those issues in the House a few days ago, when he explained that it was our intention to table amendments to the Care Standards Bill to allow the establishment of a commissioner for looked-after children in Wales and that we would look for the earliest opportunity to carry out the wish of the Assembly to establish a commissioner with a wider remit, in line with the manifesto commitment of the Labour party in Wales. I do not want to add to what my right hon. Friend said.

We have been concerned for some time about the support that care leavers receive from local authorties. Every year, about 5,000 young people aged 16 and 17 leave the care of local authorities. There has been an increasing trend to discharge young people from care early. The proportion of care leavers aged 16 to 18 who leave care at the age of 16 increased from 33 per cent. in 1993 to 46 per cent. in 1998. That is completely unacceptable and the trend must be reversed. It is undoubtedly one of the reasons why so many children leave care without a single qualification and why so many find themselves unemployed and ultimately homeless.

The Government believe that care leavers ought to be able to expect as much support from their "parent"—the local authority—as any young person would receive from their own parents. That is why the Children (Leaving Care) Bill gives local authorities a new duty to assess and meet their needs, from the essentials for living—accommodation and maintenance—through to their needs for development, including education, training, any special needs, and the ordinary skills that all children have to learn in order to be able to live independently: how to shop, how to manage a budget, how to cater for themselves.

The Bill obliges local authorities to provide a young person's adviser and a pathway plan for all eligible young people. The plan will map out a route to independence, including consideration of when they might be ready to leave care. The new financial arrangements ensure that there will no longer be any incentive to push young people out of care until they are ready to go, but they will not be forced to stay in care: the system will be built around their individual needs.

Beacon status has recently been awarded to four councils for their excellence in helping care leavers: Suffolk, Wakefield, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster. The specialist leaving care teams in those local authorities have excelled in developing effective partnerships with statutory and voluntary sector bodies to deliver high-quality services in housing, health and education; in developing innovative methods to assist care leavers in preparing and planning for adult life; in developing initiatives on education and employment for young people and providing basic skills training and intensive support to sustain them on college and training placements; and in involving young people in shaping and influencing the development of the services.

I want to pay a special tribute today not only to the staff working in those four authorities, but to all those people throughout the country who work so hard to promote the best interests of young people in care. Their hard work and dedication rarely get any mention when we discuss these issues. It is right that their commitment should be acknowledged today.

Mr. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd)

About six weeks ago, a worker in a care home who had been sexually assaulted by a young resident came to see me. I welcome my hon. Friend's support for people who work with children in care. What will the Government do to protect those who work in homes, often with disturbed children?

Mr. Hutton

It is ultimately the responsibility of the employer to provide a safe working environment for the employees, and we certainly encourage local authorities to do that. My hon. Friend represents a Welsh constituency, but he might be interested to know that in England we have convened a special advisory group to assist the Department in tackling issues of violence against social care workers. It is a high-powered group under the chairmanship of Chris Davies, who is a distinguished leader of social services in England. He is considering precisely those issues, and I hope to have a report from him soon about what further steps we can take to protect the social care work force in England. I do not know what initiatives are under way in Wales, as that is ultimately the responsibility of the National Assembly.

Social care workers do some of the most important jobs in our country, helping and dealing with some of the most vulnerable, and sometimes the most difficult, people in our society. They are entitled to look to us—we are ultimately responsible for their employment—to make their working environment safe. They do a difficult job on our behalf and we have clear responsibilities towards them.

We are determined that all authorities should give care leavers high-quality services. Local authorities were asked to explain, in their management action plans relating to this year's use of the children's special grant in England, how they were improving services to care leavers and putting in place plans to implement the new arrangements.

The new arrangements for young people in and leaving care will link closely with the development of the new ConneXions service for all young people aged 13 to 19, which was launched earlier this year. This new, joined-up, modern service will connect services provided locally to young people. It will radically transform the support that young people receive as they make the transition from adolescence to adult and working life. The ConneXions service will raise the expectations and aspirations of all young people, of all abilities and from all backgrounds, by ensuring that they receive the support and advice they need, when and where they need it, to make a success of their lives.

It is a flagship venture for cross-Government and cross-agency working; effectively, we are trying to "wire up" public services for young people.

Mr. Win Griffiths

My hon. Friend said that young people up to the age of 19 would be assisted. However, did not Lord Hunt recently assure the other place that the costs of education, training and employment would be paid for up to the age of 21 and, in certain circumstances, beyond that?

Mr. Hutton

My hon. Friend is referring to specific provisions in the Children (Leaving Care) Bill. I was referring to the new ConneXions youth service, which will provide a service up to the age of 19. The Bill will give local authorities powers to provide additional support for children who have left care, or who have been in local authority care, to support their education, employment and training up to the age of 21. My hon. Friend and I are talking about two separate matters. Establishing the ConneXions service will be a complex and ambitious undertaking, which will require a lot of detailed and ground-breaking work. We are determined to build on what works best.

Two of the key developments which form part of the quality protects programme are the revision of the inter-agency guidance "Working Together To Safeguard Children" and the development of the new framework for the assessment of children in need and their families. The aim is to ensure that how we safeguard and promote the welfare of children and how we assess their needs are consistent with the approaches used for all children.

At the end of December last year, the Government, following extensive consultation, published new guidance on inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. "Working Together to Safeguard Children" replaces the previous guidance, published in 1991, and takes account of new research, experience and legislation concerning child abuse. The new guidance emphasises the importance of agencies working together to help families and children before abuse and neglect has taken place. It provides a clear framework for social workers, the police, teachers, health service staff and others to work together and with families to secure the best possible outcomes for vulnerable children and young people. The new guidance provides a number of essential safeguards against abuse that apply in every setting in which children live away from home. Where services are not directly provided, basic safeguards should be explicitly addressed in contracts with external providers.

In September 1999, the Department of Health issued draft new assessment guidance which focuses on assessing the needs of children and the capacity of their parents and families to respond to these needs in the short and longer term. It is underpinned by the latest knowledge of the impact that adult problems such as domestic violence, alcohol and drug misuse, mental health problems and sex offending can have on a child's development. We will be publishing the final version of the assessment framework shortly.

Both the new working together programme and the assessment framework form important components of the wide-ranging programme of work across Government to strengthen protection for children and to improve the support given to vulnerable children and families. But protection is not enough—we must ensure that all children have the love, care and support that they need for the whole of their childhoods, and that the children for whom social services are responsible gain maximum life chances from education and other opportunities.

In particular, we want to see looked-after children achieving more at school; more care-leavers in training, education or employment; fewer moves between placements for children who have been looked after by local authorities; the level of offending among children brought right down; and, where appropriate, children being adopted without undue delay. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently announced the setting up of a ministerial group to carry out an urgent review of our adoption policy and procedures, which will report to him later this year. We also want to see better services for disabled children.

These are tough objectives, but we believe that they are achievable; indeed, they must be achieved if we are not to fail these children. Quality protects and children first have been warmly welcomed by local authorities and the voluntary sector. No one challenges the need to transform the quality of care and the chances in life of some of those vulnerable children. The challenge is to make it happen.

All local authorities are required each year to submit management action plans to the Department of Health. These set out their plans for modernising the management of their children's services. On 31 January, we received local authorities second management action plans. These set out how local authorities have improved their services in year 1 of the programme of quality protects, and their plans for year 2. No one expects all of these problems to be sorted out overnight; they will not be. However, all authorities must now show how they are beginning to make a real difference to the lives of looked-after children.

In the second year of quality protects, the challenge is to fully implement the plans, improve services and achieve much better outcomes for children and young people.

Mr. Ruane

These are admirable aims. How will the programme be monitored by central Government?

Mr. Hutton

While I am not going to speak about children first in Wales—my hon. Friend the Under—Secretary of State for Wales will deal with that when he winds up—the monitoring of the management action plans in England is being done by the Department in conjunction with the social services inspectorate.

As part of quality protects, we have employed a number of experienced regional development workers who are working across the regions of England with local authorities in improving, developing and monitoring those plans. In other words, the full monitoring arrangements that we had in the Department to check on the progress of social services are being deployed to monitor the progress of the quality protects initiative. It is a flagship initiative; it is the first time that any Government have systematically tried to get to the bottom of some of these fundamental problems that have dogged social services in England for many years. We want the programme to work, and all the resources that we have in the Department that can be deployed to raise quality and to monitor standards in local authorities are being pointed at the quality protects programme to ensure that it is a success.

Next year, we are increasing the grant from £75 million to £120 million. We expect to see real improvements delivered in return for these extra resources. The early evidence is that we are beginning to deliver on those objectives. We hope that, by the end of this month, all authorities will be meeting their statutory duties to inspect children's homes. We have also seen an increase in the number of adoptions, in the support being given to care leavers and in councils listening to children.

One of the key priorities of the quality protects programme is to improve the supply and choice of placement options for looked-after children. One important choice is adoption. Research shows that, generally, adopted children make good progress through their childhood and into adulthood, compared with children who have remained in the care system. Adoption provides children with a unique opportunity for a fresh start as permanent members of new families, enjoying a sense of security and well-being so far denied them in their young lives.

I know that the Department's circular "Adoption—Achieving the Right Balance" has had an important impact on social services. I am pleased to say that our monitoring shows that most authorities have taken action to improve their adoption services. I am pleased also that 200 more children found adoptive families in 1998–99 than in the previous year. That equates to an 11 per cent. increase. This is good news, but there is still much more to do.

Recently, we launched the publication "Adoption Now—Messages from Research". The report shows how the nature of adoption has changed. We know that there are now few babies that need adoption. We know that many children needing adoptive families have faced great difficulties in their young lives. We are currently holding seminars, nationally and locally, to discuss the report and to consider how we can promote more co-operation between the statutory and voluntary sectors, particularly in the development of consortiums and greater collaborative working. Following the publication of the Waterhouse report, my right. hon. Friend the Prime Minister set up a ministerial group to review the operation of adoption services in England. The group will report to the Prime Minister in mid-May. A consultation paper outlining the way forward is expected to be available by the end of the year.

We also need to ensure that good quality foster care is available. At the moment, despite the fact that there are around 32,000 existing foster carers, we have a shortage nationally. I am pleased to say that work is currently under way to develop a national foster care recruitment campaign, with a launch date planned for June. The campaign is being run by a steering group consisting of the Department of Health, the National Foster Care Association, the Association of Directors of Social Services and the Local Government Association. This is a good example of how central and local government and the voluntary sector can work in partnership for the benefit of all. I hope that the campaign will lead more people to consider taking up the unique challenge of caring for children from other families by becoming foster carers.

Mr. Evans

A foster parent came to my surgery on Saturday and told me of the difficulties of placing foster children in local schools, which are usually full. Will the Minister ensure that children cared for by foster parents are able to gain access to local schools for their education?

Mr. Hutton

We will certainly take that issue into consideration. Of course, that is also a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to consider. We want children who have been fostered to have the best possible access to schools and education and that is why, as part of quality protects, we are trying to drive up the qualifications and educational achievements of looked-after children. That is the first time that any Government have tried to do that with a specific programme of work, and access to good schools is important if we are to succeed in that.

I am pleased that councils have begun to listen to children and young people in their care much more effectively. Listening to children helps to protect children—from harm and from low expectations. If children can speak up and are heard, abuse is less likely to happen. Children and young people demand and need to have a voice in all decisions taken about them—not just on the big issues such as education, health, and their placement, but on the day-to-day big issues for them such as pocket money, sleep-overs, and bedtimes.

Young people can and want to contribute to making the care system more effective. Children's participation will help local authorities to provide high-quality and effective services. It will also help councils to implement one of the key responsibilities under the requirements of best value. Councils must become more responsive to the people to whom they are supplying services. I am glad to be able to tell the House that listening to children was a priority area for expenditure for the children's special grant last year, and that councils spent nearly £5 million on improving the way in which they consult looked-after children in their care. Listening to children will remain a priority area for use of the grant in future as well.

In order to practise what we preach, we are organising a series of regional events at which I and senior members of the Department will hear directly from looked-after children. We are working with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Association of Directors of Social Services and a small project team of young people to plan the events.

We are currently reviewing the Children Act 1989 complaints procedure, which was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Caernarfon, and the procedure under the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970. A consultation document will be published shortly. The aim is to bring the two procedures more closely into line with each other and to ensure that they are effectively observed.

The review of complaints procedures has addressed issues such as the role of the "independent person" within the existing Children Act guidance. The review has shown that there is often confusion about that role. The consultation document will discuss whether a complainant would be better served by having a statutory right to an advocacy service in formulating and pursing their complaints. As I have already indicated, a statutory right to advocacy is being considered as part of the review of complaints procedures. Advocacy in general is a developing area and—I am glad to say in relation to the point made by the right hon. Gentleman—is a priority area for grant funding under quality protects.

I recognise that for quality protects to be a success, authorities need to be able to recruit and retain staff. For quality protects and the whole social care modernisation agenda, local authorities and other employers need to be able to recruit and retain staff of the highest calibre and in the right numbers. A high-quality work force is essential to the delivery of high-quality services.

We are well aware of the concerns expressed in the media and directly to us by local government about the shortages of social workers and other care staff which jeopardise our modernisation plans and quality protects in particular. It is important to see that against a general background in which the social care work force have been fairly stable. The latest data available show vacancies for social workers are at the lowest level for a decade. Vacancies have declined from 10 per cent. in 1990 to just over 7 per cent. in 1998. Turnover rates over the same period have also declined from 14 per cent. to about 8.5 per cent. Those overall trends do mask particular difficulties in some service sectors and some parts of the country, which may be affected by the demands of service developments such as quality protects.

It is the responsibility of local authorities, in the first place, to address their work force requirements. The Government are not the employer. We are therefore particularly pleased that the Local Government Association has recently taken an initiative to set up a work force task group with the express purpose of identifying, for implementation as soon as possible, a series of practical measures that can have a more immediate impact.

We also recognise that the Government have a role to play. We have therefore agreed with the LGA to build on this early work and, together with the wider employment interests across the whole of social care, to work on a programme of action for implementation over a longer time scale. We are therefore making arrangements for a work force summit to be held on 22 March. Among the issues to be discussed in that summit will be the image and status of social care, including conditions of service, family friendly employment policies, encouraging return to work, developments in the existing work force, the skills mix, and the problems of recruiting students to social work.

The Government are of course already taking action to raise the quality of social workers and other social care staff. For example, we are funding a top management development programme for senior managers in social services. The Care Standards Bill provides for the creation of a new General Social Care Council. That body will have a statutory duty to promote high standards of conduct and practice through its codes of conduct and practice for all social care staff. We have already commissioned the initial drafting of those codes. The council will have the powers necessary to ensure that social work training is fit for the purpose. In addition, we are currently considering the reports of external consultants whom we engaged to advise us on the content and delivery of professional social work training. Those reports will be published with the forthcoming Green Paper on quality issues in social services at Easter and further announcements are likely in the summer.

The Government accept that to build the new ethos of excellence in social services that we all desire, we need the highest standards among all of the social care work force. The essence of modernising social services lies in raising standards. We must have a new ethos of excellence, not of excuses. We must drive standards up and drive failure out. At their best, social services authorities are capable of just that sort of excellence. That is why we will issue a quality strategy Green Paper for social services.

The quality strategy is the Government's next step in their modernising agenda for social care. It will set a national framework for raising local standards, reducing unacceptable variations in practice and achieving an ethos of excellence in social services. It will build on and consolidate existing initiatives to improve quality. It will consider the creation of a new institution to support the drive for quality—a social care institute for excellence. The institute would provide authoritative guidance about effective and efficient social care interventions and help to guide local authorities through the modernisation process.

No one who has read the Waterhouse report could fail to be shocked by the catalogue of abuse it records of children in care in the former county council areas of Clwyd and Gwynedd. That abuse destroyed young lives over a period of more than 20 years. I repeat that this Government are determined to learn the lessons of that inquiry. We must use it as a catalyst for meaningful and radical change in children's services. The report should serve as a warning of the constant need for vigilance, of the need to ensure that children being looked after can always talk freely about their concerns and worries, and of our duty to listen to them and to treat them as we would our own children.

Safeguarding children is an absolute priority for this Government. Through quality protects, we are taking action now to get the management and services right. Through our legislative initiatives, we will enshrine real safeguards for vulnerable children and young people on the statute book. Through the ministerial task force, we are actively considering our response to all of the outstanding recommendations of the Waterhouse report, which we hope to publish early in the summer.

In conclusion, I would echo the words of Jo Williams of the Association of Directors of Social Services, who said recently that the age of innocence is past. We must shoulder our responsibilities now for the children of this generation and for the future. There can be no more excuses. The events recorded in this unhappy report must never be allowed to happen again.

10.29 am
Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

The Minister started his speech by emphasising the consensus that we have across the Chamber in dealing with matters of children's safety and protection. Indeed, there was little in his speech with which I could disagree. Where we do disagree, is about the modalities of achieving those safeguards and that protection, and I hope that the Minister and the House will take it as read that, even though we have questions to ask and, perhaps, criticisms to voice, we are at one with the Government in their determination to ensure that vulnerable children are properly protected and safeguarded and in our recognition that achieving that is a responsibility that we must all share.

This debate is being held in the aftermath of the publication of the Waterhouse report. The report was a very long time coming and, as the Minister said, many of its conclusions had been anticipated, by the previous Government as well as by this one. Many initiatives are already in hand that seek to address the problems that Waterhouse identified.

However, nothing prepared any of us for seeing in black and white the horror of what went on in north Wales over a long period. We had to read a catalogue of abuse, a damning indictment of the failure of our statutory public services to protect the most vulnerable in our society. The report was an exposé of the violation of the concept of care by authorities in a place of safety. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) described the report as the greatest scandal to hit the modern welfare state.

Mr. Ruane

The hon. Gentleman mentioned consensus, and I do not want to break it, but I want to put matters into their historical context. Paragraph 47.18 of the summary document states that in 1979, the new Government announced its intention to reduce substantially the number of bureaucratic controls in order to give local authorities more choice and flexibility. The next paragraph states that a "climate of disengagement" was thus created. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that the child abuse scandals of the 1980s and 1990s were exacerbated by that Government instruction?

Mr. Hammond

My instinctive answer is no. As I was going to go on to say, Waterhouse has exposed and uncovered dark and shameful secrets that have been buried in our society, probably for a long time. As those shameful secrets are exposed and examined, it is important that we work together to address them and to expunge such activity from our society.

The Waterhouse report is shocking. It will have shocked many hon. Members in the most genuine sense of the word, but there is no doubt that it describes only the tip of an iceberg. The Minister confirmed that 32 other police inquiries into child abuse are under way, but we should also look on the positive side. What has been exposed so far has been acted on. Things are changing for the better. Waterhouse said so, and he described the Children Act 1989 as the springboard for many improvements in children's services.

However, no one who has read the Waterhouse or Utting reports could possibly dispute the obvious and imperative need for still greater safeguards in the future. No one could fail to be dismayed that what is described as care should have failed so dismally to provide for so many children.

Taken together, the Utting and Waterhouse reports identify what was in some cases the deliberate exploitation and abuse of children. The Waterhouse report is a catalogue of physical and sexual abuse. However, as the Minister also said, the reports also identify the systematic failure of the statutory services to deliver the protection that they are charged to deliver. Sometimes, that failure was the result of political misguidedness, but more often it was the result of bureaucratic incompetence that harmed those whom the statutory authorities were supposed to help.

The Minister referred to the haphazard arrangements for access to child care services. I should be interested to hear, when the debate is wound up much later on, whether that indicates that the Government are minded to consider the arguments for standardisation of assessment throughout the system to prevent such problems of haphazard access and differing thresholds.

Yet there is no doubt in my mind that society as a whole has gradually woken up to the problem in its midst. There is a consensus on this issue, which we are taking forward. A growing awareness of these problems in the 1980s led to the Children Act 1989. The Secretary of State for Wales has said that the far-reaching changes of the past decade resulted directly from changed perceptions introduced by the 1989 Act. That sea change in attitude placed children at centre stage. Their well-being became the paramount consideration when arranging the affairs of families and the responsibilities of the statutory bodies dealing with them.

The commissioning of the Utting and Waterhouse reports in the summer of 1996 by my right hon. Friends the Members for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) carried forward the recognition and awareness of the problem. It demonstrated the determination on all sides of the House to address the problem, deal with it, and to expunge this shame from our society.

The Family Law Act, the Sex Offenders Act and the Police Act all became law in 1997 and provided the foundation for legislation introduced by this Government, such as the Protection of Children Act 1999. There has been a continuum of legislation and initiatives to deal with what was gradually being revealed to the nation and to the politicians charged with its conduct.

In anticipation of Waterhouse and in response to Utting, I am glad to say that this Government have continued that approach and have delivered further improvements to services for children. I am happy that the Government are building on what my right hon. Friends the Members for Richmond, Yorks and for Charnwood started in 1996 with the commissioning of those reports.

There has been abuse in our care system and a failure to perform the statutory duty of care with which local authorities are charged. That is especially shocking to all of us, as we share a responsibility for ensuring that bodies charged with caring for the vulnerable and taking on the role of parents discharge those responsibilities effectively and with appropriate diligence. We have to acknowledge that it is an indictment of us all that, over the years, that has not been the case.

We must also acknowledge that most abuse suffered by children takes place in the home and at the hands of a family member. I would be the first to accept that, but we must retain a sense of proportion. Our starting point must be that the vast majority of parents are supportive and proper guardians for children, and that the family is by far the best environment in which to care for children.

Ms Shipley

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, according to widely accepted figures, one woman in seven experiences violence in the home in this country? Where that happens, there is a high probability that children will also experience violence in the home. That adds up to a very large number of children, and makes it clear that families in this country have real problems. Although the family is an important unit, and we support it, it is problematic and not always perfect. Violence in the home is unacceptable.

Mr. Hammond

I agree entirely, and I do not wish to suggest that the family is a perfect unit. However, it is the preferable unit for raising children appropriately, and I shall return to the points that the hon. Lady made when I speak a little later about the arrangements for support of the family.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I accept the point that has just been made, but instead of lowering and modifying society's standards and mores, should not we in this House aim to raise those standards and provide the funds needed to cope with the problems that arise when things go wrong?

Mr. Hammond

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and I agree with what he says. I shall shortly be arguing that although we support what the Government are doing in dealing with the issues of children in care and ensuring that they are properly safeguarded, it is also important to look upstream, at the way in which families become dysfunctional. We must give families every possible support and encouragement so that children do not have to come into contact with the statutory care system in the first place.

We recognise the problems that can exist within the home, but we believe that family life is the optimum way to bring up children. It makes sense to support families to try to avoid the possibility of children coming into contact with the care system. Once they are, however, we must maximise the use of fostering and adoption to ensure that they return as soon as possible and as often as possible to something as close as possible to a normal family life. I shall develop that theme a little later.

In seeking to ensure the well-being and safety of children, we must look through the chain at how they come to need the support of the statutory care system, and then look at what the Government are doing to address each of the areas that I shall outline.

First, it is axiomatic to me that we should encourage and support the family in general, and proper and appropriate parenting in particular. In that way, we will enhance the opportunity for the greatest possible number of children to be brought up within the family context without the need for statutory authorities to be involved. Secondly, we must target particular help on vulnerable families, making appropriate interventions early enough to support families in crisis and seeking to avert family breakdown. Thirdly, once family breakdown becomes inevitable, we need to have effective and appropriate mechanisms for identifying children at risk and taking rapid and effective action to protect them when their families, for whatever reason, can no longer do so.

Fourthly, as the Minister outlined in some detail, we need to ensure that there are proper safeguards for children who are looked after or are identified as being at risk. We must at all costs ensure that children do not go from the frying pan into the fire, which is clearly what happened to some of the children described in the Waterhouse report. Fifthly, effective programmes must, wherever possible, place children back into family situations through the mechanisms of adoption or fostering.

I hope that those aspirations are uncontroversial. I hope that every hon. Member would agree that care, in itself, must not be seen as a parking ground where children end up, but that everything possible must be done to make it an interlude in their lives—a safe and secure interlude—on their way back to something better.

We have made much of the consensus on the issue, and I have no wish to disrupt that consensus. However, the duty of the Opposition is to identify areas on which the Government should focus more or differently. I have criticisms of the Government's performance when it comes to encouragement and support for the family. Their support for the family is, at best, ambivalent. The last recognitions for marriage in our tax system have been withdrawn. There seems to be a general agenda of downgrading the value of conventional family relationships. I do not propose to engage in a debate on section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. However, last night on television I saw a Minister refusing to acknowledge that marriage is the preferable relationship in which to bring up children, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary in every study that I have seen.

It is a debate for another day and another place whether individuals should have different views about the appropriateness of various relationships. That is not our purpose today. However, we have been talking about a child-focused, child-centred agenda. Whatever else people may say about unconventional relationships, the evidence is that when we look at the world from a child-focused point of view, the argument for conventional marriage between two parents of the opposite sex is overwhelming. I hope that at least in relation to their child protection programme, the Government will recognise the logic of such a child-centred, pro-family, pro-marriage approach.

I was contacted yesterday by a constituent who is involved in a divorce case. She was told by a court-appointed welfare officer that her concerns about the safety of her four-year-old child in the hands of her ex-husband arose from her "abnormally stable family background". The court welfare officer then authorised unsupervised access. The father is now awaiting trial on a charge of indecently assaulting the child. That is the sort of attitude that we must tackle and change if we are genuinely to protect children in our society.

The second area that I highlighted was help for vulnerable families—those at risk and in difficulty. I have discussed this with the Minister, and I know that he understands the value of the work of the voluntary sector in supporting families in difficulty. I have seen at close quarters the work of home start in my county of Surrey. It is an effective, low-cost solution to supporting and enhancing the care of children within families. However, financial pressures on local authority social services departments and the ending of joint funding initiatives have put pressure on many of those voluntary services and some of them are under threat. I hope that the Minister will recognise the good sense—economic and common—of ensuring that those relatively modest local voluntary initiatives are supported. Investment in them is hugely beneficial and greatly reduces the burden on the statutory authorities further down the line.

Thirdly, we must ensure that rapid and effective intervention mechanisms are available when children become at risk. We must recognise that, from time to time, families become dysfunctional. I acknowledge the Government's initiatives in seeking to improve the responsiveness of social services and, when appropriate, clamping down on failing authorities which have not discharged their duties.

Support and appropriate intervention are the most sensitive issues. There is always a danger that in seeking to be effective, the statutory authorities will become heavy-handed and undermine rather than support the family. The challenge for us is to ensure that we protect children without eroding the role of parents in society.

The focus of much of what the Minister said started from the point that I have now reached in my analysis, when the family has broken down and the child is taken into care for his or her own protection. I understand why Government thinking is focused on this area, especially in light of the findings of Utting and Waterhouse. However, that focus addresses the consequences of failure rather than directing resources at seeking to avoid failure in the structure of the family.

Our prime responsibility is to ensure that safeguards for children in care are adequate to ensure their safety and well-being. The Government have rightly targeted legislation at that. Sometimes we are dealing with the problems of a culture of abuse, but more often there is simply a culture of despair. The quality protects initiative rightly focused attention on that culture of failure and despair, and we support the Government's initiative to change it. Statutory authorities looking after children must encourage a positive, forward-looking vision for the children in their care.

We support the broad objectives of the Government's legislative programme. The Minister mentioned three Bills—the Care Standards Bill, the Protection of Children Bill—now the Protection of Children Act 1999—and the Children (Leaving Care) Bill. We support the underlying objectives of each of them, but we have some concerns. The Protection of Children Act passed through the House last year, but Members have not yet questioned in detail the Government's intentions on the other two Bills. We rely for information on debates in the other place. I have a few questions about those Bills.

Is the Minister entirely satisfied that the arrangements proposed in the Care Standards Bill will allow inspection to focus properly on areas that are seen to be failing? Is he sure that the system will not bear down inappropriately on good performers but instead will focus on improving and, if necessary, dealing, perhaps dramatically, with those who are failing? Is he satisfied that the care standards commissioner will be sufficiently independent? The Minister is aware of widespread concern that we are shuffling seats, and that the same people will take on essentially the same roles under the different title of the commission. What reassurance can he offer that the commission is a genuinely new initiative that will break with the past arrangements that so often failed us?

Can the Minister assure us that the regulations that will govern provision for children and the standards by which they will be judged will focus on outputs, not inputs? Will they measure the quality of care delivered, rather than the nuts and bolts provided to deliver that care? Can he assure us that the proposed inspection of child minders and day care centres will not place a burden on those operations, which might lead to a reduction in provision—a concern expressed in other places?

Do the Government propose to follow the recommendations of the Utting report by extending the Children (Leaving Care) Bill to people aged 18 to 21? When does the Minister expect to do that? Resources are tight, but it has been estimated that the cost would be modest. If we seek to emulate for children leaving care the support and protection that they could expect from natural parents, it seems logical to extend the Bill as soon as possible. Do the Government intend to use voluntary agencies to maintain contact with children once they have left care, rather than consigning the job entirely to statutory bodies?

The Protection of Children Act 1999 is on the statute book, and the Minister has told us when he expects to implement it. I asked him about the availability of certificates from the Criminal Records Bureau because I understand that they are not expected to be available until next year. I find it difficult to see how the protection afforded by the Act can work effectively in the absence of the certificates. Perhaps the Minister would clarify the point.

Will the Minister say whether the Government plan to deal with the loophole identified by the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley)? The 1999 Act does not require vetting of voluntary sector workers. When and how does the Minister expect that loophole to be closed?

I confess that I have not yet had a chance to read the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill, which was published this week. It will create the criminal offence of seeking employment from which one is banned, as the Minister assured us would be done during the passage of the 1999 Act. I assume that it will extend to vulnerable adults, as the Care Standards Bill does. Will the Minister confirm that when the Bill is on the statute book, the Act will include criminal sanctions against those who should not apply, but do apply for jobs with children and vulnerable adults?

Ms Shipley

I understand that the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill will cover a wide range of areas, including education, health, social care, accommodation, leisure and sporting activities, religious activities and the criminal justice system. Will the hon. Gentleman undertake that Opposition Members will support that wide-ranging measure?

Mr. Hammond

I was fortunate in confessing just before the hon. Lady's intervention that I had not had a chance to read the Bill. It would be unwise of me to give any undertaking without having read it in detail. I thank her for that information, and I shall read the Bill.

The Waterhouse report recommended an examination of the availability and adequacy of fostering. Being looked after should be seen as an interim step towards fostering and adoption—the optimum outcome for children in care who are unable, for whatever reason, to return to their natural families. Does the Minister agree that we should clear any ideological impediments to maximising fostering and adoption?

My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) has announced our policy that children in care should have a fostering and adoption plan and that the system should be overhauled to ensure that those plans are implemented on a fast track wherever possible. No one will be written off. There will be no admission of failure, and no toleration of consigning children in care to the category "unplaceable". My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) is heading a commission set up by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring to look into these matters. We will be happy to share its findings with the Government.

What are the Government doing? The Prime Minister responded to the Waterhouse report, and his spokesman said, in a Lobby briefing of 17 February, that the Secretaries of State for Health, for the Home Department and for Wales would meet that week to consider it. What are the Government doing to stamp out once and for all misguided, politically motivated interference in adoption and fostering, which we have seen too often in the past?

Mr. Hutton

When the hon. Gentleman checks Hansard, he will see that I set out what we are doing on the overhaul of adoption policy and procedures. He mentioned his policy that every child who is being looked after by a local authority should have an adoption plan. However, he will be aware that the majority of children who enter the care of a local authority return to their family within eight weeks. What is the point of such children having an adoption plan?

Mr. Hammond

I am not talking about children in short-term local authority care, who are expected to return to their natural family. My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring wants to avoid the creation or continuation of a category of children who are treated and regarded as unplaceable. As the Minister is well aware, such a category has existed and continues to exist. I am sure that he agrees that it is unacceptable. All children in care have to be regarded as being on their way to something better. Ideally, they would return to their family; where that is not an option—or not likely to be one—it is incumbent on the responsible authority to set up an appropriate plan for them to be fostered or adopted as soon as possible.

We have a responsibility to ensure that the system works correctly and appropriately at all stages, so that we provide support as early in the chain as possible. We must protect those who cannot be, or who are not, protected by their parents, but in our zeal to do so, we must always ensure that we do not undermine the parent-child relationship which serves so well in the majority of cases.

The married family unit remains the cornerstone of our social structure. In that context, I want to explore a little further the Government's response to the Waterhouse report. Interventions in the debate highlight the ambiguity in what the Government have said so far. One of the central recommendations of the report was the appointment of an independent children's commissioner for Wales, whose duties should include ensuring that children's rights are respected through the monitoring and oversight of the operation of complaints and whistleblowing procedures and the arrangements for children's advocacy; and examining the handling of individual cases brought to the Commissioner's attention … when he considers it necessary and appropriate to do so. In response to a question about the report, the Prime Minister told my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that: All parts of the House will be anxious to take action as soon as possible to act on the recommendations of the report. The Care Standards Bill and the Children (Leaving Care) Bill give us an opportunity to do so. We shall respond as soon as we possibly can … We shall implement the recommendations as soon as we possibly can.—[Official Report, 16 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 941.] However, the Minister of State, Department of Health said: My hon. Friend drew attention to the fact that Sir Ronald today recommended the appointment of an independent children's commissioner for looked-after children in Wales. Our proposal, to which my hon. Friend referred, to appoint a children's rights director to the proposed National Care Standards Commission captures the spirit of that recommendation.—[Official Report, 15 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 926.] The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) has already pointed out that the Waterhouse report does not limit the commissioner's remit to children in care. We need more detail about the children's rights director proposed under the Care Standards Bill to test the Minister's statement that the proposal does indeed capture the spirit of the Waterhouse recommendation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson)

I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman could tell House what discussions he has held with the National Assembly for Wales. Is he aware of the stage it has reached in its consideration of the appointment of a children's commissioner? He will know that Members of the Assembly are currently discussing that matter. What is his understanding of the Assembly's current position?

Mr. Hammond

Although I wholly accept that the Waterhouse report addressed itself specifically to Wales, I am sure that it is understood in the House that the recommendations for Wales are equally applicable to the other countries of the United Kingdom. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister had an exchange to that effect. I accept that in Wales matters may be moving in a particular direction, but I now want to clarify whether the Government intend to follow the Waterhouse recommendations in England as well. Do they intend to limit the role of the children's rights director only to looked-after children?

The Minister should not regard my question as sinister or as having an ulterior motive. I merely want to understand where the Government are going. Other hon. Members have pointed out that children in care are not the only ones who have problems and who need protection. I do not urge the Minister to take a route that would involve intervention in what goes on in a normal, functional family. However, he will readily realise that, beyond children in care, there are many children who are identified as at risk. Does the Minister think that the role of the children's rights director for England might be extended beyond children in care to cover other categories of children whose well-being is already the responsibility of the statutory authorities? Would it cover children who are identified as at risk, even though they might still be looked after by their families? I ask those questions in a genuine spirit of inquiry and would be grateful for some clarification of the Minister's intentions in that matter—especially for England.

Do the Government believe that the role of the children's rights director—or a similar position—might extend to other statutory authorities? For example, might it apply in the case involving a court welfare officer that I cited earlier? Statutory authorities other than local authority social services departments have a role in ensuring the safety and well-being of vulnerable children. I should be grateful for any clarification that the Minister can offer on that point.

The thoroughness and detail of Sir Ronald Waterhouse' s inquiry mean that all the recommendations merit the closest scrutiny. It is clear that what is relevant, applicable and necessary in Wales will be so in the rest of the UK. I accept that the Government cannot answer for what will happen in Scotland, but I hope that they can assure us that the spirit of the report will be properly implemented in England and Northern Ireland.

A comprehensive programme is already in hand—through legislation and through non-legislative initiatives—to address the wholly unacceptable situation that has existed. One of the dark secrets of our society has been exposed; we are gradually becoming aware of its extent and learning from it. Working together, we shall ensure that looked-after children are safer in future than they have been in the past.

We must be honest with ourselves, however. As was noted during the proceedings on the Protection of Children Act 1999, promoted by the hon. Member for Stourbridge, we must realise that we shall never completely eliminate abuse, neglect or indifference. We certainly shall not eliminate incompetence—either from the statutes or from the family. We must strive constantly to combat it, while taking care that we do not destroy or undermine the structure of the family.

The majority of parents conscientiously bring up their children—although none of us are perfect—far better than the best, most caring and well-run statutory bodies. We must not create some Orwellian nightmare society in which the authority and rights of parents are undermined by well-meaning but misplaced excesses of zeal in addressing the tiny minority who—whether through wickedness, incompetence or indifference—put at risk the children in their charge. I am sure that the Government are alert to that danger, and will ensure that the action that they take is a measured and appropriate response to the situation.

We have a structure in place for identifying and intervening in situations where parents are failing. I believe that we need to focus more of the overall effort on refining and continuously improving that structure, and on moving further upstream to ensure proper support for families in all aspects of Government policy—national and local—partly by providing proper, effective support to the voluntary sector, which can so often be effective and economic in helping to prevent family breakdown and its unfortunate consequences for children.

In view of the terrible revelations of the Utting and Waterhouse reports, I entirely understand the focus of recent Government policy initiatives on looked-after children, because we as a society have obviously failed in our duty to these vulnerable children in all too many cases. In doing so we are addressing the consequences of family failure, however, and it is right that we also focus a good proportion of our attention on doing everything possible to prevent children from finding themselves in that situation.

We look forward to a continuing programme of legislation and other initiatives to strengthen and make more effective support for the family and support for children where the family has failed. If the Government approach that programme with the clear objective of reinforcing, not undermining, the family, and strengthening the safeguards for children at risk or in care—regulating with the lightest touch compatible with achieving those objectives, and recognising and involving the skills and capabilities of the voluntary and independent sectors in delivering services within a framework of regulation and oversight provided by the statutory bodies—they will have our continued, wholehearted support.

I hope and expect that, in 20 or 30 years' time, when the history of this inglorious episode comes to be written, there will be no perceptible breaks in the continuity of evolution of policy between Governments of different parties; because, as the Minister said at the start of his speech, if ever there was a field of endeavour where we must put aside party politics and work together in the best interests of children and families, this is it. We owe that much at least to the many people whose lives have been blighted by our collective failures of the past.

11.12 am
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

The report of Sir Ronald Waterhouse and his tribunal members Margaret Clough and Moms le Fleming is an admirable but incredibly depressing document. It recounts a story of failures at every level of children's services, as children suffered sexual and physical abuse in the knowledge that any complaint would be a waste of time.

Everything that could be wrong was wrong. The Welsh Office, at a political and civil service level, local government officials, staff and elected members, private providers, and one critical police investigation triggered by Alison Thomas's complaint, all failed abused children appallingly.

Waterhouse catalogues the errors meticulously and, just as meticulously, makes 72 recommendations to prevent such abuse occurring again. At last the voices of the vulnerable and abused have been heard. However, that cannot compensate them properly for the abuse that they suffered. I hope that there is some comfort for them in the opening up of this secret world of terror, and the proposals made by Waterhouse to prevent it from happening again.

Unfortunately, the Waterhouse report probably will not be the last major investigation of child abuse in the United Kingdom. Even as I speak, police officers across England and Wales are investigating allegations of child abuse, involving, as the Minister said, 32 police teams.

It is salutary and deeply worrying to remember that Waterhouse is but the most recent of a long line of inquiries into child abuse allegations concerning both children in care and children living in their own homes. In the 1990s there were more than 20 child abuse inquiries; in the 1980s, more than 30; and in the 1970s, 17.

Those figures do not include more broadly based inquiries. The report of the Warner inquiry into the selection, development and management of staff in children's homes, "Choosing with Care", was published in 1992. The report of an inquiry chaired by Lady Howe into the pay, conditions of service, training and qualifications of residential staff employed in homes and hostels—including those for children—run by local authorities, "Quality of Care", was published the same year. The report of a review of children's homes in Wales by the Welsh social services inspectorate, focusing on the quality of care and the provision of solutions to meet the needs of children in care in appropriate settings, "Accommodating Children", was published the same year.

A wide-ranging review was undertaken by the social services inspectorate of the Department of Health, whose report, "Children in the Public Care", was published in 1991, hard on the heels of publication of the "Pindown Experience" report by Staffordshire county council. In 1987 Lady Wagner chaired an independent review of all residential care, commissioned by the then Secretary of State for Social Services, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler); its report, entitled "Residential Care: A Positive Choice", was published by the National Institute for Social Work.

The most recent such report of this 10-year period was the Utting report, "Children Like Us: the report of the review of the safeguards for children living away from home", published in July 1997.

Let us hope that the fruits of these latest investigations will successfully ripen in the Care Standards Bill, the Children (Leaving Care) Bill and other Bills that, as this morning's debate has revealed, will address these concerns. Let us hope that they will all be enacted in this parliamentary year.

In the meantime, what is happening to children in children's services out there in the real world? In England in the 1990s, the number of children looked after by local authorities fell by nearly 5,000—8.5 per cent. In Wales, it increased by 122—3.7 per cent. The number of children on child protection registers in England fell by 30 per cent., while in Wales it increased by 16 per cent. In England, 28 of every 10,000 children were on child protection registers last year, while in Wales 40 of every 10,000 were.

In the last two years for which figures are available in Wales—1996–97 and 1997–98—the cost per child increased by 13.2 per cent., from £135,000 to £153,000. In the latter year, social services departments in Wales spent almost £103 million on children and their families.

It is obvious from reports such as the Waterhouse report that, in far too many instances, that money has not been well spent. Waterhouse notes in paragraph 55.12 of the summary that, from the records available to him, of 127 of the 129 people who gave oral evidence, 52 had convictions before they entered care, 85 were convicted of offences while they were in care and 85 had convictions after they had left care. There are undoubtedly huge savings to be made in the criminal justice system if we can provide positive, sympathetic and well-structured environments for looked-after children to recover for themselves the ordinary things of life, which most children enjoy without even realising it.

Although, in one sense, the Waterhouse report is history and an investigation of events over 16 years, the most recent of which took place more than a decade past, the shadow of those years still blights the lives of hundreds of youngsters who are now men and women seeking to come to terms with their betrayal in care. Can we be confident that we will do better by the young people in care now? We are certainly more aware of the dangers that can face young people in care, dangers which in the 1970s and the 1980s we deemed to be so horrific, brutal and inhumane that, all too often, we could not bring ourselves to think that such sexual and physical abuse of young children in care was really possible. We know now that it is, and we can look around us and say that we are trying to make sure that such abuse does not happen again.

By the time we came to power in May 1997, the previous Government had begun to tackle the problems in the care of looked-after children that had been revealed across the United Kingdom. We know, however, that that was not enough. Indeed, the Waterhouse report shows us that even the improvements that our own Government are making through the Care Standards Bill and the Children (Leaving Care) Bill, the additional funding through the quality protects programme and children first in Wales, and the commitments to have more qualified staff at all levels are not sufficient to provide the necessary safeguards for looked-after children and provide them with new hope, so that they do not feel, as Waterhouse puts it, "Lost in Care".

There is no doubt that the spirit is willing. In our first year in government, I was fortunate to be, among many other things, the first Minister with responsibility for children in Wales. In the Welsh Office, in local government and in the voluntary sector, I found willing partners in the campaign to improve children's services, to have better co-ordination across government in Wales and to have a strengthened appreciation of the need to assess the impact of our policies and programmes for children in Wales.

In September 1998, the Welsh Local Government Association published "Developing a Strategy for Children in Need in Wales: Local Government Role". I want to emphasise that it was a strategy for children in need, not in care. The association realised that the issue went beyond children in care. In many ways, the report foreshadows many of the recommendations in the Waterhouse report. The key areas identified in the report give a flavour of the wide-ranging nature of its work. It refers to children's service plans, looking at children in need including those with disabilities, children in public care, child protection, child care, leaving care and after care, youth justice and youth crime, staff training and development, educational issues, partnerships between the health service and local authorities and changes in the pattern of services.

That report was also set in the context of Government initiatives such as the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, on welfare to work and social exclusion, on building excellent schools together and on the health agenda as set out in the report "The Strategic Framework: Better Health, Better Wales". That report is an excellent blueprint for promoting public health strategies. It is, however, notable for its chapter on children and young people, which is about more than promoting their physical health. Its aim is to ensure that they reach their potential for achieving healthy and satisfying lives. The strategic framework focuses on a series of initiatives in the community—in schools and colleges—that will raise all aspects of services and enable children and young people to look forward confidently to opportunities for achieving healthy and satisfying lives.

I believe that, despite the rough ride that the National Assembly has had in the early months since its birth, it has the potential for developing an all-embracing, co-ordinated approach to services for children, bearing in mind particularly the duties placed on the Assembly to strengthen the role of local government and the voluntary sector in policy making and providing services. It is not for me to predict how the Assembly will rise to that exciting challenge, but I believe that it has the opportunity to concentrate more deeply on the needs of children and the services provided both to protect their rights and to enhance the quality of their lives.

Waterhouse was right to have as his first recommendation a children's commissioner in Wales. He said that the post should be established by statute and that it should be accountable to the whole Assembly and not just to a particular Secretary in it. That is rather like the Public Accounts Committee, which reports to the House and not to a particular Minister. Parliament should create similar offices in England and Northern Ireland.

We have already had an exchange on whether it is a commissioner for children in Wales or a commissioner for children in care in Wales. Waterhouse does not, in his list of recommendations, make any distinction. He says that an independent children's commissioner should be appointed and he lists some of the post's duties. It is misplaced to put the recommendation simply in the context of the report itself, which is about looked-after children.

Although the vast majority of Waterhouse's recommendations are about dealing with looked-after children, he does from time to time consider wider issues. In recommendation (62) he suggests: An Advisory Council for Children's Services in Wales comprised of members covering a wide range of expertise in children's services, including practice, research, management and training, should be established in order to strengthen the provision of children's services in Wales and to ensure that they are accorded the priority that they deserve. Those are not services for children in care, but for all children. We should take the spirit of the Waterhouse recommendation for a children's commissioner in Wales to mean a commissioner who is involved with all children.

The commissioner or his office—one person could not do the job—should monitor and assess the policies and practice of all Government Departments in respect of the delivery of services to children. He or she—or the office—should ensure the development of policies and services designed to promote the welfare of children and young people. The office should undertake and promote research into any matter relating to the welfare of children and young people. It should be able to inquire generally into, and report on, any matter, including any enactment of the law or any practice or procedure relating to the welfare of children and young people. It should receive and invite representations from members of the public on any matter relating to the welfare of children and young people and it should increase public awareness of matters relating to their welfare.

It is obvious that, for too long, we have buried the issue deep in our psyche. I think that I am relatively sensitive to these matters, but the issue was brought home to me when I watched the BBC's adaptation of "David Copperfield" over Christmas. I do not know why, but it struck me forcefully that the abuse of children seems deeply endemic in our psyche. Although we have moved on from those days, to see total brutality as a matter of everyday life was something that hit me much more than reading that novel or the many others that describe such brutality.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

The hon. Gentleman is making a speech not only from the head but from the heart, and I fully appreciate the sincerity with which he is addressing the House. However, does he accept that some people think that having a commissioner for all children, rather than for children in care, would cause problems because it might usurp the normal rights of the majority of responsible mothers and fathers? Although I would be happy to accept a children's rights officer with jurisdiction also over children on the at-risk register, I would not be prepared to support a commissioner for all children.

Mr. Griffiths

I could understand the hon. Gentleman's concern if the policy were being introduced in a one-party, totalitarian state, but we have to remember that many countries, including Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Peru, have a commissioner for children. I would seek to make sure that the commissioner's statutory powers were focused on the policies of the Government and the public sector to promote the welfare of children and young people. That could be the subject of an important debate in the consideration of any legislation that is introduced.

Mr. Evans

I agree with almost everything that the hon. Gentleman is saying. He talked about his perception of Dickensian days and said that abuse of children is deep in the psyche. Does he share my concern about some of the refugees who come to this country taking children and babies begging with them? I make no party political point whatsoever in raising this issue. Does he deplore that practice and agree that urgent action should be taken to ensure that it is not allowed to continue?

Mr. Griffiths

The hon. Gentleman is taking me beyond the subject of this debate, but I agree that the issue is important and needs to be dealt with properly.

The office of the children's commissioner should also advise the Secretary for Education and Children in Wales on any matter relating to the administration of the law for children and young people, and it should keep under review and make recommendations on the working of that law. It should investigate and monitor the effectiveness of services for children provided by the public and voluntary sectors, including the investigation of specific complaints. Last but not least, it should promote the full implementation of the convention on the rights of the child to guarantee the rights and welfare and children.

The office will of course need to be properly funded to do its incredibly important job. Critical in that regard will be the implementation of the recommendations made by Waterhouse on strategic issues, including a national review of children's services and a proper assessment of the financial resources needed to ensure appropriate staffing to support and monitor the provision of those services in Wales.

There is no doubt that despite the warm welcome given to the improvements made by our Government, fears have been expressed by voluntary sector organisations such as Voices, Children in Wales, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and many others that some of the existing weaknesses will remain to endanger the efficacy of the new framework being developed to protect and enhance the lives of children in need in Wales.

Sufficient funding is needed to establish a truly independent advocacy service for youngsters, as the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) pointed out in an intervention. Without clear independence of action and standing, there will always be the danger that youngsters' confidence that their complaints and concerns will be listened to will disappear, and the culture of hopelessness about ever getting complaints treated seriously, which blighted social services in Gwynedd and Clwyd, will enable abuse to start again and remain hidden.

Funding is also critical for the delivery of effective education services for children in care. The record of provision so far is appalling, with some 75 per cent. of these children leaving school with no qualifications whatsoever. It is good to hear of the Government's commitment to increasing the age up to which local authorities will have a duty to provide education and training for care leavers, rather than relying on their discretion, which has been discredited and has failed children since 1948.

Mr. Hammond

The hon. Gentleman talks about the Government changing arrangements so that local authorities will have a duty to provide educational support, but my understanding is that the Children (Leaving Care) Bill merely permits local authorities to provide that support. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that unless local authorities have a duty, we will not achieve more than the Children Act 1989 did?

Mr. Griffiths

There is absolutely no doubt about that. I understood from exchanges in the other place that there will be a change. I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify that point, because we know that discretion has been discredited and has not worked.

Extra funding, with the dissemination of best practice in positive corporate parenting, will immensely improve the chances of children leaving care then leading fulfilled and happy lives.

The review of children's services and funding will provide the opportunity to ensure that properly developed and monitored services, including fostering, for children on the at-risk register, will not become a disaster zone for social services' credibility.

There have recently been two well-publicised cases of children at risk in Caerphilly in south Wales, and in Brighton three children died between 1994 and 1997. Those are horrific and tragic examples of the need to raise funding issues. One point that is made in the Waterhouse report and which can been seen from the way in which high-profile tragedies are dealt with is that social services workers are totally overstretched. They do not therefore make the best judgments when faced with difficult situations. Waterhouse records that one social worker had responsibility for about 60 children in care, so it was impossible to cope.

On a slightly different issue, Waterhouse records also that in the care homes in north Wales were children from Tower Hamlets, Derbyshire and Newcastle, who had almost been abandoned there without any monitoring. One of the significant factors must have been a failure to provide the money for such monitoring.

Many social workers are undoubtedly overstretched. We need an in-depth review of funding. There are also issues around training: it is clear that lack of training was important in many, although not all, instances. At homes mentioned in the Waterhouse report, there was good care despite lack of training. That was one beacon of light in a sea of darkness. We also need money to help oil the wheels of co-operation between Departments and different parts of government which have responsibility for children.

If the Waterhouse recommendations are implemented in full and properly funded, I have every confidence in services for children leaving behind the dark terrors in Clwyd and Gwynedd expressed in the report, offering new hope to children who previously have been, tragically, "Lost in Care".

11.40 am
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

I very much welcome this debate. It follows one on the Waterhouse report in the National Assembly for Wales on Wednesday. Conducting the two debates so close together is timely.

We are dealing with what has been a tragedy for children in care in Clywd and Gwynedd and, indeed, other areas. My constituency is in Gwynedd, although the main location of concern in the report, "Ty'r Felin", is in Bangor, which is outside my constituency. Clearly, however, I have great constituency involvement in the issue, of which I have been aware over many years.

When I was a young Member of Parliament, many such areas were unknown to me. It has been part of my personal education to learn about them as the sad episode has developed. There is room for all of us in public life, as Members of Parliament, Assembly Members or local authority councillors, to maximise our education in order to understand matters in which we would not normally be involved.

There has, of course, been a change in local government, and there are now six new counties in north Wales that cover the areas previously under the jurisdiction of Clywd and Gwynedd. I know that the officers and members of those new authorities are acutely aware of the lessons that have to be learned from this sad saga and that there have already been many changes in order that that might be so. Those who work with such young people need our support and help in their very difficult work. It is from that direction that we should approach the Waterhouse report. Many more steps need to be taken, and urgently. We should dwell a little in this debate on the need for such urgency.

I noted that, in opening the debate, the Minister said that we would have to wait until the summer for the Government's response to the Waterhouse report. We understand that there must be in-depth consideration, because the issues are very important, but I hope that there will be no undue delay. We have already been waiting far too long for action.

I welcome the establishment of a statutory children's commissioner for Wales. Several bodies and individuals in Wales have called for such a post for many years. As a party, Plaid Cymru has called for it for the best part of 10 years, as I know have other parties and many in the voluntary sector. The role of the commissioner should not be restricted just to children in care. I follow the points made by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) and others in this debate. I do not accept that the Waterhouse proposals implied that the children's commissioner should deal only with children who are being looked after. That is obviously the report's remit, but it must be read in a wider context.

Indeed, the Government of Wales in Cardiff have not taken such a narrow approach. In the debate in the National Assembly on Wednesday, the Minister responsible, Jane Hutt, said: The Assembly has shown in its commitment to setting up an independent children's commissioner that it is willing to listen to children and young people. The Assembly will establish an independent children's commissioner for Wales. An amendment to the Care Standards Bill currently going through Parliament will enable us to meet the first two recommendations of the Waterhouse report, but we fully recognise the need to establish an office with a wider remit to promote the interests of children in Wales. That is the policy of the Government in Cardiff. I very much hope that the Government in London will facilitate the statutory underpinning necessary to grant the children's commissioner in Wales the full powers that he or she will need in order to undertake responsibility in that wider setting.

I would be grateful if the Minister gave an assurance in his winding-up speech that the Government's attitude towards such powers will not be restrictive, but will allow the National Assembly to determine a broader role, if it so wishes. Certainly, bodies such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children do not want a narrow interpretation of the commissioner's role.

We must, of course, look further than just the plight of those in formal care, as stated in paragraph 55.14 on page 212 of the summary of the report, which is well worth quoting again. I quoted it in part earlier. It in no way undervalues the very serious problem at Bryn Estyn. It states: Despite what we have said, however, a significant number of children regarded life in care, even at Bryn Estyn, as distinctly better than life at home and did not want to return to their family of origin. They were fed and clothed regularly and preferred a more predictable life to the unstable and sometimes dangerous one that they had known. That surely underlines the need for the remit of the children's commissioner to go beyond those who are in formal care.

Ms Shipley

Earlier in the debate, I raised the issue of violence in the home. I should clarify that I am talking not about smacking, but kicking, punching, the stubbing out of cigarettes on children, very serious assault and a range of neglect, which the right hon. Gentleman has pinpointed. Does he agree that if, as a result of the Waterhouse report, good practice is developed in Wales, it should be a matter of political leadership that it is very quickly transferred to other parts of the country?

Mr. Wigley

Yes, I agree with the hon. Lady on both points. On her second point, we in Wales have clearly closely adhered to a fairly radical and progressive social agenda over many years and in different political contexts. If we can make progress that can be implemented and learned from in other parts of the United Kingdom, all the better. We are looking for the power and the right to be able to make progress in Wales in line with the wishes of the National Assembly, and to do so as quickly as possible.

The hon. Lady's first point is fundamental to the entire question. It would be far better if we could avoid the need for children to go into care by ensuring that they are looked after properly. That means being sensitive to the problems that they might be suffering in their homes and communities. If we can respond sufficiently rapidly, it might be possible sometimes to head off the trouble before it becomes too bad. There may be a need for foster homes in some instances, but there should not be an artificial barrier restricting the work of the children's commissioner. That view is widely shared in Wales.

All such points touch on the question of how much wider the problems go. I have the distinct feeling that the report touches only the very tip of a huge iceberg. The report implies that problems, particularly in the formal care sector in Clwyd and Gwynedd, may extend to other geographic areas—reference has been made by hon. Members to that—and that the breakdown of the care system, or even an absence of appropriate systems, may be endemic throughout these islands.

The issue of treatment of children within their own homes may require in-depth consideration. Although I took the point made by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) on the extent to which the state should interfere in families, I am sure that not only he and I but all hon. Members believe that children's welfare must be the paramount consideration. Although we must not interfere more than necessary, when it is necessary to do so, we have to take responsibility to ensure that well-being. The children at-risk register is one example of how we take such responsibility.

I hope that Ministers, in responding to the report, will address the issues that it raises in a much wider context, not only geographically but in terms of the responsibilities that we as a community have towards our children.

The report highlights three or four key issues that must be addressed if we are to improve standards. The first is the training of the staff who look after children and young people. Recommendations 25 to 30 address that issue.

The pay and quality of staff is another issue, and addressing it is a basic requirement if we are to improve our standards. We have to make progress on appointing a children's complaints officer in each authority. We also have to address the issue of staff management tiers, and of appointing a specified social worker for each child in care.

We also need a statutory independent advocacy service, which was mentioned earlier in the debate. On that, I received a very moving letter from the mother of a young boy, who is autistic. She wrote: What about the children who can't talk or communicate at all? My son is eight and autistic. He would be unable to get help if anyone was to hurt him. We need that advocacy service if we are to ensure that the system we are developing provides safeguards to the most vulnerable children.

We need resources to address those issues. The Minister mentioned the sum of £370 million, but I seriously doubt whether that will be enough. We have to ensure that sufficient resources are made available, in England and, in Wales, to the National Assembly. We also have to ensure that the money provided to Wales is in addition to the Barnett block grant, as that is currently defined. The Waterhouse report specifically, in paragraph 69, highlights the need to provide adequate resources in Wales, at a national level, for those purposes.

Paragraph 64 of the report calls for a general review of the needs and costs of children's services, with a comprehensive and costed strategy. Waterhouse puts foursquare to the Government the need for more resources to safeguard our children.

Earlier, I mentioned the responsibility of elected representatives. As company directors are aware of their legal responsibilities towards those whose interests they safeguard, we have to- ensure that elected representatives are aware of their responsibilities. In some ways, members of local authorities and hon. Members have even more serious responsibilities. We have to ensure that we are all not only aware of every aspect of those responsibilities, but fulfil them.

Recommendations 71 and 72 are the final recommendations in the report, and call for the Law Commission to ensure that the legal issues arising from the fillings report—which was not published because of the pressure put on Clwyd council by the insurers—are addressed. Had that report been fully and promptly published, action might have been taken much sooner, thereby avoiding some of the difficulties.

On Wednesday, my colleague Gareth Jones, Assembly Member for Conwy, spoke very strongly on that matter. He was speaking from his own experience, both as a former headmaster of John Bright's comprehensive school in Llandudno, and as a local county councillor. He highlighted the failure to implement the lessons of previous inquiries—Cartrefle, Jillings and Cleveland. He called for implementation of Sir Alan Marre' s report, back in 1978, entitled "Ad Hoc Inquiries in Local Government". That report is quoted on page 486 of the Waterhouse report.

The Mane report suggested changes in law, to enable local authorities to establish formal inquiries—a point that Waterhouse also emphasised very strongly, on page 485. I hope that Ministers will urgently ask the Law Commission to consider the Waterhouse recommendations on that matter.

My conclusions flow directly from the Waterhouse report's recommendations. We have had a string of previous reports. Some of them have been published, but some have not. Sometimes, the recommendations in the published reports have not been implemented. Waterhouse must not fall into that category. We owe it to all the children whose lives have been blighted, to the staff whom we ask to work with those children on our behalf, and to our communities to implement Waterhouse not only in full, but promptly. We also have to ensure that the resources are available to do exactly that.

11.55 am
Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South)

Hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that, as a north Wales Member, I should like to focus on the Waterhouse inquiry. I should also like to introduce a slight note of discord into the debate. Although the Waterhouse report makes some very good recommendations, which I shall deal with later, I know that at least some of the victims feel let down by it. I am disappointed in some of its conclusions.

My involvement in the issue dates from about 1989, when a victim came to a surgery that I was holding in my then constituency. He was not a constituent of mine, and the abuse did not occur in one of the homes in my constituency, although events of that nature occurred in some of the homes in my constituency. I thought that the best plan would be to pass him on to the then chair of Clwyd county council social services, Mr. Malcolm King—who deserves an accolade for the efforts that he made to discover the problems that were occurring.

I was a Clwyd county councillor, from 1981 to 1989, although, from 1987 onwards, I was also a Member of Parliament and did not participate much in the county council's proceedings. However, at that time, there was no whisper at all of any problem—at least not to those of us who were in opposition on the council. It was only later, after the Labour party took control of the council, in 1989, that the matter started to be examined. I give Councillor King credit for that.

As we have heard, Councillor King' s efforts resulted, ultimately, in an internal inquiry, which has come to be called the Jillings report. John Jillings, at the request of county councillors, produced the report. As we have also heard, that report was effectively suppressed by the insurance company. The council's insurers refused to allow it to be published.

Although Waterhouse recommended that that should be looked at, he said that it was not illegal. It is appalling for councils to be punished financially for acting in the interests of children. It would be astonishing if we allowed that to go on. The Government must ensure that it cannot happen again. If the Jillings report had been allowed to be published, we would have been able to investigate the issues a lot earlier, and I am sure that some of the victims who committed suicide after that would still be alive.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

The hon. Gentleman is not the first hon. Member to mention that the Jillings report was not published because the council was apparently refused the opportunity or right to publish it. Under what law can an insurance company prevent a publicly elected body such as Clwyd county council from publishing a report on such a critical matter? That is an issue of deep concern.

Mr. Jones

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. I note that, like me, he is concerned about the situation. As I understand it, the council was not prevented by law from publishing, but had the report been published, the insurers were legally entitled to withdraw their insurance. That would have meant that the individual councillors who acquiesced in the publication of the report, in the best interests of their charges in care, would have been personally liable for any legal action resulting from publication. They would have lost their houses. That is an appalling situation and an understandable, if deplorable, incentive not to publish the report.

In 1996, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan)—now the First Secretary—my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) and I met the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). We threatened—if that is the word—to read edited highlights of a leaked copy of the Jillings report under parliamentary privilege. A week later the Government agreed to hold the public inquiry that we are now discussing. I hope that we had some hand in that, but I give credit to the Government of the time for agreeing to hold an inquiry.

The report makes gruelling reading and shows some interesting gaps in the care of children in Clwyd and Gwynedd: a culture of disregard for children seemed to be endemic in the system. It should have drawn a line under the sorry saga of child abuse in homes in Clwyd and Gwynedd and at least begun the healing process for the victims who were affected.

Some of the conclusions are good and all the recommendations are excellent, but sadly the report does not draw a line under the problems or satisfy the victims that they have been listened to. Why is that? I believe that it is because it was a public inquiry that was not public. The evidence was read out in front of the tribunal and victims went through the gruelling experience—not for the first time in some cases—of giving evidence about horrendous things that were done to them and their friends. Perhaps I am naive, but I thought that the point of a public inquiry was that all the evidence was published and that the duty of the tribunal was to analyse that evidence and say what had happened and how those children and young people would be treated and listened to. Unfortunately, that did not happen.

I understand that the naming of people who may be innocent is difficult. It is right that the victims were not named, but I do not understand how the public interest is properly served by not naming the potential abusers. The inquiry could exonerate those who were maliciously accused or for some reason mistaken by the children. We are talking about events that took place up to 20 years before. It is difficult, but I do not understand why all the accused were not named. That feeds the idea that there has been a cover-up. I have not established whether there is any evidence to support that belief, but unfortunately the refusal to allow the reporting of names leads to such accusations. That is a huge problem for the service of the public interest.

The belief that there might have been a cover-up stems partly from the fact that it is an open secret in the press and among those who were involved in the inquiry that many high-profile people have been named by the victims. I do not intend to name any of them at the moment, but I shall mention the categories. They include current and former Members of Parliament, senior members of the judiciary, members of the police force, including senior officers, and prominent business men. It was almost certainly a difficult judgment to make, but I do not accept that it is not possible to name these abusers.

Ms Shipley

I support what my hon. Friend is saying. It is important that these people are known. There is a facility to put people who are abusers or are very likely to have been abusers on the consultancy index. The Protection of Children Act included that important provision, but it also provided a balance by, for the first time, allowing an independent right of appeal. As there is such a right of appeal, the naming of such people appears to strike the right balance in these serious cases.

Mr. Jones

I absolutely agree. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention as it adds weight to the point that I am trying to make.

The problem with the decision not to allow the public naming of people accused of abuse is that it makes it easier to avoid the hard work of following up less high-profile, but potentially dangerous people. The feeling that there has been a cover-up is encouraged by the fact that the Crown Prosecution Service was excluded from the inquiry. Why on earth was it excluded? I do not understand, and nor does the CPS.

I have been given a list of 45 people—excluding the categories that I have mentioned—who may or may not be abusers. We have no way of knowing for sure because of the way in which the report has been drafted. I have been making inquiries and I have received helpful responses from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and from the police. I hope to be able to exonerate some of the people on the list as it would be nice to know that some of them are not potential abusers. It is a mammoth task and one that I should not have to do. The inquiry should have decided who to name as a potential abuser and, whether or not the victims' allegations were correct, those people should have been investigated.

Mr. Win Griffiths

A thought has occurred to me about what my hon. Friend said about the CPS being excluded from the inquiry. Can he tell me whether it is possible for the evidence collected by the inquiry to be given to the CPS, or to the police so that they can draw up a file for the CPS to follow up?

Mr. Jones

My hon. Friend has pre-empted me. He is absolutely right and I am pleased that we are obviously thinking along the same lines.

Before I turn to that point, I should like to query why that line was taken by the inquiry. I have read the official reasons in paragraph 6 of the report, but I remain concerned. I find it inconceivable that Sir Ronald Waterhouse did not consult Derek Brushett, a senior social services inspector, about the inquiry, as Mr. Brushett was in good standing between 1988 and 1997. I know for a fact that when the idea was mooted in 1996, he strongly advised the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, the former Member for Clwyd, North-West, Mr. Rod Richards, not to have a public inquiry. That is hardly surprising, as it now transpires that Mr. Derek Brushett is in jail for 14 years for sexual abuse of children. If he was involved in setting up the criteria for the inquiry, that puts yet another question mark over why the people were not named.

We have a huge body of evidence that could now be published, with the names. It is not unreasonable to ask for that. We could have a royal commission on the whole matter.

Mr. Hanson

Let me assure my hon. Friend and the House that Mr. Derek Brushett was not involved in establishing the criteria for the inquiry.

Mr. Jones

I understood that to be the case, but I have not yet had a reply to my written parliamentary question asking whether he attended any of the four meetings that were set up by Sir Ronald Waterhouse.

There are other areas of concern throughout the United Kingdom. The problem is not confined to north Wales, to children in care or even to children: other vulnerable people are being looked after by the state and local government. A royal commission on all such vulnerable people would be an appropriate way forward.

The police—I use them as one example—set priorities for car theft, burglary and other crimes, and sexual offences and the abuse of children and vulnerable people are not very high on the list, but given the choice between a slightly lower risk of their car being stolen and a lower risk of their children being abused, I am pretty certain what most people's priority would be. A royal commission could take that on board.

The National Assembly for Wales discussed this issue on Wednesday. I only managed to get a transcript of the debate about 10 minutes ago, and I have not quite got through it, but I approve of its conclusion that there should be more powers for a commissioner in Wales. I am sure that most hon. Members would support that. I hope that we will get a positive response from my hon. Friend the Minister.

The evidence—naming names—should be published. That is the only way of getting the idea of a cover-up off the agenda. It is not acceptable to carry on pretending that because we have looked into the matter it is now all right. We have a 937-page report, with nearly half a million words, but unless people outside—and especially the victims—can be sure that their evidence has been taken proper note of, we will not be able to draw a line under the matter and the healing process will not be able to start.

12.14 pm
Jackie Ballard (Taunton)

First, I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House and the Minister, because after I have spoken I will have to leave for a long-standing engagement in Devon. I realise that that is a discourtesy and I am very sorry about it.

Many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones), have referred to the Waterhouse report, but over the years there have been too many reports and too many investigations that have all identified actions that could be taken to safeguard our children further.

The Utting report, referred to by the Minister, identified three key dangers to children. The first was paedophiles, who are often very credible people who find ways of getting access to vulnerable children. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has produced an excellent booklet, advising parents on how to do as much as they can to protect their children from the attentions of paedophiles in the community. However, the NSPCC makes the point—which has been raised in the debate—that most child abuse happens within the family, and not with strangers.

The second key danger that Utting mentioned was adults and children who harm other children, either emotionally or sexually. The third danger—and the focus of much of today's debate—was failing organisation, where human error, incompetence or even indifference cause damage to children.

As we know from the Waterhouse report, institutionalised incompetence or indifference allows misconduct to flourish and fails to promote the welfare of children. We all want to believe that the abuse that happened 10, 20 or more years ago could not happen now. However, it is clear that, in many care settings, better strategies are still needed to drive up standards.

Mr. Ruane

The hon. Lady states that there have been too many inquiries in the past, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) has said that there were 17 inquiries into child abuse in the 1970s, 30 in the 1980s and 20 in the 1990s. Does she think that there should be an inquiry into those inquiries to find out why the recommendations were not implemented?

Jackie Ballard

As part of the Government's programme for the protection of children, it would be useful to have a compendium of all past recommendations to see where we have failed to deliver those which could have been useful. I am sure that that would be a long process.

Many actions are still needed in many care settings to drive up standards. I would include in that increasing the status of child care workers. Too often, residential social work has been seen as a second-best career, and not a particularly well-paid one. It is important that we have clear and consistent qualification requirements and on-going accreditation schemes. Staff should be able to whistleblow, or to report colleagues or managers, without damaging their own careers.

We have talked a lot about adults who have come forward in recent years to tell their stories of abuse when they were in residential care. We need a network of support and counselling for those adults. Just over a year ago, a constituent came to see me, alleging that he had been abused many years ago in a children's home in my constituency: a home which closed down a few years ago. Yet another inquiry—as part of a larger inquiry in Avon and Somerset—is going on into events at that home, and many people have come forward to say that they were abused in the home.

Just yesterday, a woman phoned my office, and we could hardly understand what she was saying because of her tears, and her obvious distress and anguish. We desperately need support, counselling and help for people such as that. It is not enough to set up the mechanisms of inquiries; people need on-going support for something that they may have suppressed for many years. It is only now that, after reading that an inquiry is going on, they feel able to come forward to talk of their experiences.

A number of hon. Members in the Chamber today served on the Committee scrutinising the Protection of Children Bill, as it then was. As has been said, there was widespread party consensus on most of the issues. Yesterday, the Government published new proposals in the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill that will place a statutory ban on people working with children in any setting if they have committed a serious offence against a child. There will be criminal sanctions if they break that ban. The measure should have widespread support in the House.

The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) asked Conservative Members whether they supported the measure. That is a difficult question to answer, because it is encompassed in a wide-ranging Bill that includes a lot of other things that Opposition Members might not be able to support easily. However, I certainly support the measures in the Bill dealing with the protection of children. I believe that they will further strengthen the safeguards for children.

I especially welcome the widening of the definition of working with children to include voluntary settings. I am pleased, too, that it will be an offence for a disqualified person to seek to work with children. That was an issue that was raised during proceedings on the Protection of Children Act 1999, to try to minimise the risk of unsuitable people seeking work in less regulated sectors of child care. However, those provisions will apply only to people who have been convicted of harming a child and, for civil liberties reasons, I would not argue for extending the ban to non-convicted persons on suspicion only. As the hon. Member for Stourbridge knows, we had long discussions in the Committee on that Act about the civil liberties implications of preventing someone from working with children on the grounds of a reasonable suspicion that he or she might hurt them.

Children also need trusted people to whom they can turn if they are not happy with what is going on in child care settings. As other hon. Members said, children's complaints should be supported by independent advocates. That is especially important for children who have less of a voice to make their case. The position of children would be markedly improved by the appointment of a children's rights commissioner, as other hon. Members have commented.

The principal task of the commissioner would be to give advice and to keep under review the working of legislation affecting children. He or she would also have a key role in listening to children—not just looked-after children, but all children—and ensuring that their views were effectively represented to Government and other bodies. My party also strongly supports the campaign that has been launched by the NSPCC, Barnardos and others to that end. Waterhouse clearly recommended the establishment of a children's commissioner in Wales for all children. The creation of a children's rights director for England, as proposed by the Government, will safeguard only looked-after children. Many hon. Members hope that the Government will reconsider those proposals.

Children are too often at risk in their own homes, whether from someone who is paid to care for them or from their parents or other relatives. Too often, children in families do not receive the support they need and the Government are to be commended for introducing home start. However, it needs to be more widely accessible if it is really to provide the sure and safe start in life we want for all our children and the support that their parents need. I have said before in the House that being a parent is one of the most difficult jobs in the world.

We also need to acknowledge, as the hon. Member for Stourbridge pointed out in an intervention, that thousands of children a year witness or are subject to domestic violence. In the early days of the women's aid movement, the focus was on the battered wife and her needs. We are now much more aware of the impact on children of witnessing an abusive relationship. Research shows that children who grow up seeing violence in their daily lives, let alone experiencing that violence directly, are more likely to become violent themselves. A damaged child can become a damaging adult. Much more needs to be done by the Government and by statutory services working with the voluntary sector to produce a properly co-ordinated and resourced strategy for dealing with both the perpetrators and the direct and indirect victims of domestic violence.

The Government have taken some welcome initiatives in extending the statutory protection for children. However, there is still the question of people who have not been convicted of an offence against children and who are working in unregulated settings—as, for example, nannies in the child's home or as child minders. Child minders are registered and regulated, but at a local level only, not at a national level. We are all aware how cunning and credible child abusers can be and I believe that one more piece of the jigsaw is needed to minimise the chance of an abuser gaining access to children.

I am the chair of the parliamentary campaign for the registration of workers with young people and children. That is not a very sexy title, but we have shortened it to CRY. The campaign is supported by Labour Members and includes the hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths), who was its chair before me. It is also supported by nanny agencies, the Chiltern and Norland colleges and the Professional Association of Nursery Nurses. Our key aim is to persuade the Government that there should be a national register of all those who work with children and young people. The Institute of Child Care and Social Education has prepared plans for the implementation of such a register. It would enable employers, whether public or private, corporate or individual, to check the background and see the information provided by an applicant, knowing that it had been independently checked out. A national register would prevent a person refused registration as a child minder, say, in one part of the country, from obtaining work in another area.

It seems that many of the workers named in the Waterhouse report are missing. They could still be working with children—they have not been convicted, and they may even have changed their names and faked their employment histories. A register could not totally exclude the possibility of child abuse but, by including police checks, a requirement for a minimum standard of relevant qualifications and a complete work history, it could enable employers to make better informed decisions.

Ms Shipley

I have had extensive discussions with the hon. Lady, and I recognise that she is making a very genuine proposal, but she will know that I have some reservations about it. She is proposing the establishment of a positive register, which will list those who are deemed to be good people to work with children. Such a register would be huge. There are many thousands working with children who are good people and who are the right ones for that work. However, my experience of the Protection of Children Act 1999 is that the bad people who certainly should not work with children are devious liars and very cunning.

I would be very wary of the positive register that the hon. Lady proposes, as it would be extremely difficult to ensure that all the people in it justified their positive identification. I am worried—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. The hon. Lady is making an intervention, not a speech. If she wishes to make a speech, she must seek to catch my eye.

Jackie Ballard

Fortunately, the hon. Lady and I have discussed these matters many times, so I can imagine what she was about to say. I agree that the register would be very large, given the many people working in residential and non-residential child care. The people who would be bad and harmful to children would, under the proposals in the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill and in the Protection of Children Act 1999, be included in the register of non-approved people. However, that would not tell a parent employing a nanny, for example, whether the pleasant and plausible person coming for interview was who she said she was and had the qualifications that she claimed.

A parent might be able to find out that such an applicant was not on a register of unapproved people, but I believe that a positive register would help give more information to people making the difficult decisions involved in employing a nanny. I and my campaign group would be happy to discuss the matter further with the hon. Lady, as we would be very pleased to have her support.

The Government intend to regulate nanny agencies, but only a small percentage of parents find nannies through agencies: 70 per cent. still use ads in magazines, or word of mouth. Only a national register will give parents better peace of mind.

A national register would also help to raise the status of child care workers. One thing is certain: if we are to safeguard children, we must value unpaid, parental caring as well as paid carers. As I said, looking after a child can be the most difficult, frustrating and demanding job in the world. It should be valued much more by society.

Life cannot be risk free, but we have a duty to do whatever we can to minimise the risks to children. The Government have made very welcome strides in putting together a network of regulation and legislation to safeguard children. I hope that they will be convinced to go just a few inches further—on a children's commissioner, and on a national register of child care workers.

12.29 pm
Mr. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd)

I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate, and I shall concentrate on Waterhouse's "Lost in Care" report. First, however, I should like to pay tribute to the work of Councillors Malcolm King and Dennis Parry from the Wrexham area, and of Alison Taylor, a social care worker in Gwynedd. For 10 years, they kept up the pressure to ensure that the Waterhouse report, and the Jillings report, came to fruition.

I know that "Lost in Care" will be different from all the other reports in the past—there have been 67, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) said. This report's recommendations will be implemented. There are 72 recommendations—60 pertain to the Department of Health, which is acting urgently upon 43 of them and reviewing another 27. That shows how serious the Government are in implementing those recommendations.

I am particularly pleased with the recommendation that those working with children should receive proper training and be required to gain proper qualifications to work in this difficult and demanding area. I hope that those who work in child care will receive adequate financial reward so that we attract people of the highest calibre.

I am pleased that the consultancy list of people who are unsuitable to work with children will be put on a statutory basis. Some of those named in the report have already gone on to jobs working with children in other areas of the country. That is unacceptable.

Another key recommendation—that children should have proper independent representation—will improve the lot of children in care. That, coupled with the local authorities' children complaints officer, will ensure that complaints are taken seriously. I was astounded to read of one ex-resident, who escaped from Bryn Estyn through his dormitory window. When he was caught by the police and told them that he was being abused, they did not believe him and took him back to the home the same night, where he was further abused. That is unacceptable.

There are a number of aspects of the report with which I am not satisfied. I share the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones). I am not happy that some of the abusers were named in the report and others were not. In appendix 4, page 877, the tribunal sets out its reasons for anonymity. The tribunal received requests from virtually all the potential witnesses … that they should be granted anonymity in the proceedings. I agree that that should have been the case during the proceedings. Although it is entirely acceptable that those who have been abused have anonymity, I do not think that it should be given to people who have abused children and have admitted to doing so. For example, page 768 of the report refers to police officer Z, who was accused of indecently assaulting a 15-year-old boy on three occasions. He admitted the offence, and was given a written caution. That is unbelievable. It happened in 1993. He was let off lightly then, and I believe that he was also let off lightly in 2000, when the report was published, by not being named. Others were named in the report for carrying out physical abuse. Physical abuse is bad, and it is right that those people were named in the report, but the police officer committed sexual abuse, which I put on an equal footing, at least, with physical abuse. People accused of physical abuse were named in the report, while that police officer, who admitted sexual abuse, was not. I question that.

Mr. Martyn Jones

Is it not the case that people who accept a caution from the police, whether or not they are policemen, agree to accept the guilt of that offence? In other words, they are guilty.

Mr. Ruane

That is right. The officer in question admitted his guilt. There was no wild accusation; it was verified by the officer's admittance of guilt. I cannot understand why a person who has been found guilty should be named while a person who admits guilt should not. Will the Minister address that point?

My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South said that there is a feeling in north Wales that the investigation was not sufficiently transparent or public. He put it mildly. Because of the lack of names being made public, people in north Wales feel that there was a cover-up. Naming perpetrators would bring them great anxiety. They are probably sitting at home, terrified of being named. There have been press reports that my hon. Friend would name them today, and I am glad that he has not used parliamentary privilege to do so. If they are to be named, they should be named through the proper channels.

Mr. Hanson

My hon. Friend will be aware that chapter 6 of the Waterhouse report sets out the tribunal's policy on naming. For the record, the report states that the tribunal do not consider that the evidence against particular individuals has been such as to warrant naming them, bearing in mind the climate in which they were working. We have a duty to recognise what the tribunal has said.

Mr. Ruane

I thank the Minister for that, but in the example that I have given, guilt was admitted. There are no two ways about it; the man was guilty, according to his own tongue. He should have been named. He got off leniently in 1993, and he has got off lightly again in the report.

People guilty of child abuse who were not named in the report are worried—probably terrified—about being named. But I ask them to remember the terror that they engendered in the young people in their care. I have spoken with people who were in care at Bryn Estyn and other schools, including some lads from the council estate where I was brought up in the 1960s and 1970s. They were placed in the dormitories of those homes, and they have told me of their terror at hearing footsteps on the stairs in the middle of the night. They have told me of their panic when they heard the door opening and closing. They have told me of their revulsion when people in positions of trust abused that trust and tried to force themselves on the young people.

Many of my friends from that tough council estate were tough lads, and they defended themselves. They have told me that if they did so, they were not bothered. The abusers were like water, flowing to the weakest point—abusing the most vulnerable young people. Those who abused young people in care in north Wales may be feeling anxious—even terrified—that they will be named, but I ask them to reflect on the terror that they caused.

Mr. Martyn Jones

My hon. Friend mentioned reports that I would use parliamentary privilege to name people, and I can say only that they were greatly exaggerated. I had no intention of doing so, unless I felt certain that people had not been properly investigated by the police and that they were a danger to the public.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that no one's interest will be served if many people who were innocent are scared? They have no need to be scared. An awful lot of people do very good work, and I commend them. I hope that they do not fear that they will be named.

Mr. Ruane

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention; I share his view on that matter.

Another issue that relates to the report is the number of ex-residents who have taken their own life because of the abuse that they experienced in those homes in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. I put a battery of parliamentary questions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, but, with respect, I was disappointed with the response. One of my questions was a request for a list of all the young people who had committed suicide as a result of their experiences as residents in those homes. I was told that the information was not held centrally. After the Jillings and "Lost in Care" inquiries, I should have thought that such information would have been kept centrally in the Welsh Office.

The Secretary of State did not supply the information. I had to rely on a newspaper—the Daily Mail. I shall read the toll of young people who committed suicide because of their experience in those homes: Peter Wynne, who hanged himself in 1994, aged 27; Mark Humphreys, who killed himself, aged 30, and who was raped at least 50 times in Bryn Estyn; Simon Burley, who hanged himself from a tree aged 27, after being abused by Peter Howarth; Robert Arthur Smith, who committed suicide in 1978, aged 16, by taking an overdose of painkillers; Barry Williams, found dead in his flat aged 21; Brendon Randalls, who died aged 27, after drinking himself to death; Richard Williams, who was found dead in a car, aged 18; Heath Kelvin Jones, aged 18, found dead in a car from solvent abuse; and Robert Chapman, who fell to his death from a railway bridge.

The last person I shall mention was one of my constituents, Craig Wilson. He committed suicide in 1994, aged 16. His case was examined in the Jillings report. Craig died six years ago, but the first that his parents knew about the abuse that he had suffered was when they read that report in the Daily Mail four weeks ago. That is unbelievable. We have had the Jillings report, the "Lost in Care" report and the coroner's report. Craig's suicide was trawled over by banisters, solicitors and other professionals, but his family were denied the right to know the circumstances of their child's death.

I spoke to Craig's mother at 11 pm yesterday and shall read from the letter that I received from the family: Dear Chris Once again I have to ask for your help. Our son Craig died on 21st November 1994 while being accommodated by Clywd social services. For five years we tried in vain to find through police, coroner and legal professions what exactly happened. To no avail. My wife's legal aid was withdrawn. I opened the Daily Mail on the 16th February … to see our son was one of the twelve victims related to the abuse in Clwyd. We did not know!!! The Daily Mail have told us the source of their information is the Jillings report. We can't access the report, can you? Will my hon. Friend the Minister give me an assurance that the Wilson family in Prestatyn in my constituency will be given all the relevant information from the Jillings and "Lost in Care" reports, so that they know all the true circumstances behind their son's death. It is not much to ask. Any Member of the House would demand exactly the same if that had happened to their child.

I have expressed my main concerns about the report. I am sorry to be negative, because many positive results will come from the report. The 72 recommendations will lead to better care for young people in children's homes. However, I repeat my two main concerns: that anonymity is being given to certain people and not to others; and that the parents of Craig Wilson, my constituents, have been denied access to information that they should have been given years ago.

12.45 pm
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Mr. Ruane) has related to the House some horrific cases with which he has been intimately involved. I believe that we all listened with deep concern to what he said about his experiences and those of the families whom he is helping.

The Minister, in concluding a lengthy but detailed and helpful speech, quoted Mrs. Jo Williams, director of social services for Cheshire, who, quite by chance, is also chairman of the Association of Directors of Social Services, who said: the age of innocence is past. Despite everything that I have heard this morning, I am still one of those who believe that Parliament and rational and reasonable people, especially parents, should seek to restore that age of innocence to young people. It is a crying shame that people can say that no longer can children have eight, 10, 11 or 12 years of happy innocence, because for many, that may well prove to be the happiest time of their life. I make no apology for saying that I hope that this place, in legislation and in example, will restore that age of innocence to young boys and young girls.

The hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard), who has told the House that, sadly, she cannot be here for the remainder of the debate for reasons that we well understand, said that the bringing up of a child was a difficult, demanding job—and, moreover, a full-time job. I make the plea, because it has not yet been made during this debate, for the Government, whether the present Government or a Government of my own party or of another, to recognise the role that a mother, particularly, undertakes in bringing up a child. That could be done through the tax system. We have never properly reflected the full-time job of a mother in bringing up a child. Admittedly, times have changed and fathers now play a greater role than they used to, but I still believe that the tax system should recognise the role of the mother for the highly responsible and important job that she undertakes.

I make a plea to the present Government, and to my own party in drawing up an election manifesto, as it will in the next 12 months, properly to reflect in the tax system—perhaps by way of an allowance—the role of a woman in bringing up a child, the role of a mother. We should acknowledge the inadequacy of the way in which that role has been recognised.

I shall endeavour to be brief. For many years I served on the Select Committee on Social Services and the Select Committee on Health and, before both those Committees, on the Social Services and Employment Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Expenditure. I knew Sir William Utting well. I endorse and actively promote the recommendations in his report, "People"—young people—"Like Us". I also endorse the recommendations of the Sir Ronald Waterhouse report, "Lost in Care", which has been the major source of all the matters discussed in today's debate.

I also wished to speak because an office of the firm of solicitors, Abney, Garsden and MacDonald, is located in the village of Poynton in my constituency. That firm is actively involved in the issues that the House is rightly debating. One of its partners is handling many of the cases that have resulted from child abuse.

Cases have occurred not just in north Wales. In an intervention at the beginning of the Minister's speech, I drew attention to the fact that, although north Wales has featured prominently because of the Waterhouse report, matters relating to the abuse of children have occurred in other counties, including my own county of Cheshire, and Staffordshire, which has been mentioned in the debate.

I have talked at length to the partner at Abney, Garsden and MacDonald about the experiences that he and his firm have had in dealing with such cases. I do not think that I am revealing a private conversation when I say that he told me that, for a period after his initial involvement, he was what I would describe as "traumatised" by the details of the horrors that had been revealed in the cases of child abuse. He has obviously got over that, but it clearly suggests that the House must do more about this issue. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) for what she has done, but much more action is necessary.

When I was on the Social Services Committee, we held an inquiry into young people in care. During that inquiry, we took evidence from and met several young people who were involved with what was then known as the National Association of Young People in Care—NAYPIC. I greatly admired the courage of the young people whom we met and took evidence from. The representatives of young people in care told us that there were problems and, although many people in recent years have been against the existence of residential care, they also told us that there was a need for such care. As the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) and others have said, some young people believe that residential care provides them with a better quality and style of life than they would have received in their own homes.

Despite all the criticism that has been made of residential care homes for children and young people, we should not condemn them all. A number of them have clearly done an excellent job. Many young people who are doing well in society today spent part of their youth in residential homes.

I was in full-time business before I entered the House. I was involved in the construction industry when the midlands branch of the Contractors Mechanical Plant Engineers Association adopted the Pebble Mill children's home in Birmingham to give the children living there a better quality of life. We provided treats, entertainment and outings that they would not otherwise have had, so as to give them the best possible life. During the time of my involvement, I had every admiration for the house father and the house mother and many of the people who cared for the children. Many of the children were delightful and I was amazed that they were in local authority care because their parents were not able or did not want to look after them. That children's home provided a caring environment, and the house mother and house father did a wonderful job and had my full support. I therefore pay tribute to many of the people who spend their professional life looking after children in care.

I intervened a couple of times earlier on the subject of the children's rights commissioner. Although we need such a commissioner, his duties and responsibilities should mainly relate to children in care and, as I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), to children on the at-risk register. The commissioner's overall responsibilities might be broader, although I am deeply concerned that he might usurp parents' normal and natural rights and responsibilities and have an undesirable effect. However, I fully understand the concern expressed by all hon. Members who have spoken.

I speak on behalf of my party, and I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will understand that my party, like all others, takes the safety of children extremely seriously. What is more, my party is proud of the legislation that was enacted when it was in government. As the House will know, legislation was introduced in 1988 and 1991 to overcome the problem of children feeling too scared to give evidence in court. One solution introduced was the use of videos in court, which is now taken for granted. That was a desirable development which clearly enables children to be more open and to feel more relaxed when giving evidence in horrific cases such as those described to the House today.

The Conservative Government also introduced the Children Act 1989. I played a part in that as a member of the then Select Committee on Social Services, which undertook an inquiry into the Bill. I pay particular tribute to a colleague who is no longer in the House, Roger Sims—latterly Sir Roger Sims—for his tremendous contribution to that inquiry. The Select Committees make a major contribution to the developments that the House wants to make.

It is worth saying also that the Conservative Government introduced the Family Law Act 1996, which protected all those, including children, who were abused in their own home. It has been said, I think by the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd, that a great many child abuse cases occurred not in residential homes but in private homes, and that relations—and sadly, in some cases, even parents—were responsible for the abuse.

In 1997 the Sex Offenders Act was passed, and required certain sex offenders to notify the police of their names and addresses and any subsequent changes in those details. It was also designed to enable UK courts to prosecute British citizens or residents who commit certain sexual acts abroad. That legislation was long overdue, and I am delighted that it was passed.

This debate has been useful. With the exception of a few areas in which there is not total agreement, hon. Members are united on the need to seek the greater safety and protection of children.

I want to return briefly to the Children Act. The then Social Services Committee made a major contribution in one other area. We considered the way in which Scotland dealt with cases relating to children, and we learned a lot. We discovered that the way in which matters were conducted in Scotland was much less confrontational and more informal. The changes subsequently taken on board in this House as a result of the Scottish experience were extremely beneficial.

I return to where I began: children are very precious to us all. I speak as a parent of three grown-up children. My two sons have married and I have seven grandchildren who—were it not for the fact that my constituents might be listening to the debate—I would say are the most important thing in the lives of my wife and me. We have a happy family. We want all children to share that experience and to have a happy and fulfilling life.

1.1 pm

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)

This debate is important. The Protection of Children Act 1999 introduced me to information which I wish I had never known. It churns my stomach, reduces me to tears and is more than I can cope with on some occasions. "People Like Us"—the Utting report—and the Waterhouse report have shown that we have clearly failed to protect children. They have been abused, attacked and neglected. For far too long, they have been left with nowhere to turn, their voices have not been heard and they have not been believed.

I thank hon. Members who have mentioned the Protection of Children Act and its measures. I had the honour of taking the Bill through the House. As a result I learned exactly where there are gaps in legislation and how very much more needs to be done. As a Back Bencher, I was limited in the amount that I could do, which hugely upset and frustrated me.

In the light of "Lost in Care", there have been many calls in the House and from children's charities for a commissioner for children, which I fully support. This debate has highlighted discussion of which areas the commissioner should cover. There is certainly consensus that care homes should be covered, but how much wider the remit should be is under discussion. There is compelling evidence of the need for a United Kingdom-wide commissioner. I certainly believe that the remit should reach beyond care homes for children.

In responding to my intervention, my hon. Friend the Minister suggested that an English version of the commissioner would be similar and that the matter was one of title. I am not quibbling over matters of title; it is the content that is vital. We need a strong commissioner. I would welcome more thoughts on the matter from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales in his winding-up speech. I should like to know whether he agrees, first, that a UK-wide commissioner, of whatever name, would be an important step in supporting and protecting children, and secondly, that confining a commissioner's role to care homes would be far too restrictive.

I turn briefly to measures regarding leaving care, which have been raised. I welcome the measures in the Children (Leaving Care) Bill. For far too long, children who have no family or parental support have been brought up in care homes and left with little or no support once they leave. It is up to the Government to do something about that. It is to their credit that they are tackling the issue, and I truly welcome the measures taken.

Nevertheless, people working with these young people have told me that they have some concerns. Although they do an excellent job, the resources available to them are limited. They will require support, training and more resources to implement the important and correct innovations proposed in the Children (Leaving Care) Bill. I hope that the Minister is able to offer some reassurances that they will receive that support.

I cannot adequately express to the House how happy I am with some aspects of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill. As I said, the Protection of Children Act 1999 has great limitations. However, some of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill's provisions will build on and greatly enhance the powers provided in the Act, to help stop those who are identified as unsuitable to work with children from moving with impunity from one type of employment to another. Such provision is vital.

It is my understanding that the Bill will apply to those who work in a wide range of employment, including those working in education, health, social care, accommodation, leisure and sporting activities, religious activities and the criminal justice system.

It is my understanding that the Bill will also provide for a ban on such people working with children regardless of the status of their employment, whether it is paid or unpaid, public or private, or—within the definition—in the voluntary or volunteering sectors. As I have said in the House on a number of occasions, inclusion in legislation of the voluntary and volunteering sector is extremely important. I tried to include it in the Protection of Children Act, but was not able to do so because sanctions could not be applied to it. We have to make such provision, and the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill will tackle the issue. I hugely welcome the Bill, as it will, for the first time, provide an integrated system to cover those who work with children.

However, I am not sure that the provisions of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill will make it a statutory requirement to vet employees in all the spheres that I have just mentioned. In the Protection of Children Act, in certain circumstances, vetting of volunteers is permissible, but it is not a statutory requirement. It is vital that vetting in all those spheres be made a statutory requirement, and I should be very pleased if my hon. Friend the Minister clarified whether the Bill will make it a requirement.

I raised the issue of domestic violence in an earlier intervention, but it is worth raising again. The sad truth is that many children end up in care because of family breakdowns and violence in the family. For too long, the issue of violence in the home has been hidden. Now it is being revealed as a very widespread phenomenon. I welcome the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's full stop campaign.

I also welcome the Daphne project, which, under the auspices of various organisations—including my union, the GMB—is being piloted in the west midlands. It will make violence in the home a workplace issue. I had the honour of launching the pilot scheme, which will train managers and union convenors to recognise the signs of violence in the home and offer help and advice in the workplace. It is a huge step forward that a very large trade union, such as the GMB, and some important businesses in the west midlands have agreed to pilot the scheme, and I thank them for doing so.

I anticipate that the scheme will be a success, as there is much good will behind it. A similar pilot is being conducted in Spain. Should the initiative prove successful, it will be launched Europe wide.

I am proud that we have a Government who are putting children at the heart of their decision making. I welcome my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's endeavours substantially to reduce child poverty, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's sincere pledge to work for children. That commitment by the Government is not only enormously important, but hugely complicated. From my experience with the Protection of Children Act, I know that a great deal of interdepartmental co-operation is required to implement such a commitment, and that, even with good will, the job can be immensely difficult.

I should like to tell the House a small anecdote about the Protection of Children Act, to illustrate my point. All the time I was battling for more. Three Departments were primarily concerned with the Bill—the Department of Health, which had the lead responsibility, the Department for Education and Employment and the Home Office. Several other Departments also had significant input. I had large meetings and was frequently told, "Ms Shipley, you can't do that." I said, "Why? This is very important." On occasions I needed to get three Secretaries of State to agree something before it could happen. Perhaps that is right. That interdepartmental co-operation—

Mr. Win Griffiths

What my hon. Friend is saying is interesting. I think that there may be up to 10 Departments involved in some matters relating to children. In Wales we decided to have a Minister for children. I wonder whether my hon. Friend has given any thought to that for England.

Ms Shipley

How right my hon. Friend is. He anticipates the direction of my thoughts. The arcane structures of the House worked in my favour, because during a Division I was able to find three Secretaries of State in the Lobby with me. I could rush up to each of them, grab their elbow and say, "Look, this is really important."

Mr. Nicholas Winterton:

Very important.

Ms Shipley

I hear supportive words from Conservative Members. Excellent though that facility was on that occasion, it is surely wrong that chance should play a part in such an important aspect of legislation.

There is a need for one person to be responsible for children's issues and to co-ordinate all the varying and very tangled strands relating to children. I received great good will on my Bill from all the Departments involved, but even so it was difficult to bring about the measures that everybody wanted. That is not good enough. The time has come for a Minister for children at least. I have given the matter a good deal of consideration and I believe that it is time for an entire Department for children, because they are a huge and very important topic. Every time we take a little step in the right direction, we find that there is a huge amount more to be done. There is currently nobody responsible for pulling together those strands. Without someone, we shall carry on failing our children.

1.13 pm
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), who, for 17 years, did excellent work on Select Committees on topics such as this. He had two excellent years as the Chairman of the Health Committee before he was the victim of a putsch, which was one of the most short-sighted deeds of the previous Parliament. My hon. Friend always says things as he sees them, and if we had more Members of Parliament like him people would have more respect for the House.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) for the Protection of Children Act 1999, which she piloted through the House. It is an excellent Act, but very technical and complex and it will be difficult to get it fully operational. The hon. Lady acknowledges that there are one or two holes in it. We may have to revisit the issue. However, it is one of her major achievements in this Parliament.

The fact that she happened to be in the Division Lobby and was able to grab two or three Ministers is a good thing. The way in which we vote is excellent, because it enables Back Benchers to talk to Ministers, even for only a minute or two, to mention their concerns. No electronic system could substitute for that. I know that people sometimes regret the current system on hot, sweaty evenings, but it is a good system.

I serve on the Health Committee. One of the most harrowing investigations that we have done in this Parliament was on child migrants. This country had a history of sending young children to the colonies. In the 1950s and 1960s—I think until 1972—we sent young people to Australia.

The Select Committee went to Australia to talk to people who had come from children's homes in Liverpool, Bristol and Coventry and had ended up in children's homes in the outback, 500 miles from Perth. Many of them had suffered abuse. On meeting those people, who are now in their 50s and 60s, we were struck by the collateral damage that they had suffered. Many of them had experienced divorce, prison or mental hospital and all sorts of other personal problems which stemmed from their dreadful upbringing and the abuse that they had undergone. Many speeches today have referred to the consequences of abuse, which can be a ticking time bomb for many years afterwards.

Safeguarding children is extremely important. As my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield said, perhaps the House does not spend enough time on it and today's debate is welcome. I agree with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) that the best place for children is in a traditional loving family. Our job is to look after those who unfortunately do not have that advantage.

I should like to touch on a few points. We are all aware that we are not doing as well as we would like in respect of adoption. It can take five years for a child over five to find a family. That is far too long. We have to redouble our efforts to place children. Many people would like to adopt. I know that sufficient checks have to be made, but bureaucracy sometimes gets in the way of children finding loving homes.

The unsung heroes of children are the 32,000 foster carers in Britain. We all know many people in our constituencies who foster children for precious little reward. They sometimes have concerns and difficulties with children who may have been damaged, yet they continue to care, and do so good humouredly. They and their families put a great deal into supporting those children. We have to consider whether the rewards are adequate. Some local authorities do not reward foster carers as well as private agencies do and people are tempted to come off the local authority list. That is wrong because foster carers are a tremendous resource that we should value.

The Health Committee also considered looked-after children and the relationship between local authorities and children. That inquiry took place at about the same time as the William Utting report "People Like Us". Many of us were shocked by the way in which the system operated and the fact that children have to leave children's homes at 16, which is very early. Children living at home with their parents usually decide when they want to leave. Quite often it is when they are beyond their teens, but they still have their bedrooms at home. Sometimes even when one gets married one can go back to one's parents, look at the toys in the cupboard and feel that there is a refuge.

For many 16-year-olds who have only ever lived in a children's home, the moment they go out the door their posters come down and their bed is allocated to someone else. In many cases they are discouraged from returning to the home. It is considered that the job has been done and they have to leave. In 1993, 33 per cent. of 16-year-olds had left care. The figure has now gone up to 46 per cent., and 75 per cent. of them leave homes with no educational qualifications. We should be greatly concerned by that.

The Children (Leaving Care) Bill is a good Bill that deserves all our support. It is very much in line with the proposals of the Health Committee to encourage children to stay at home until they are 18. We were hoping for 21, but it is a good start. Pathway plans for young people up to 21 covering education, training and careers and providing support is also a good idea. Young person advisers are also a step in the right direction. We found that many young people need advice and someone to act as an advocate. That is a good way forward. The points in the Bill about vocational support—at university, for instance—education and training are very good.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

My hon. Friend mentioned advocacy. Does he share my view that there should be a clear advocate for children—I do not go so far as to ask for a Ministry for children—within Government, on any legislative matter that directly affects them?

Mr. Syms

We should consider that point seriously, but more often the problem for a child in a home is finding someone to talk to who is not part of the institution. In the Health Committee, we heard about children being able to talk to the gardeners, for example. They need someone to talk their life out with, as most children do routinely with their own parents.

The Bill is a step in the right direction. If we get it wrong with these children and fail to give them more educational qualifications and offer them better guidance, society as a whole will pay the price not only in terms of crime but financially for the taxpayer. Sometimes we seem to be penny wise and pound foolish when it comes to looking after our young people. We are all aware of the importance of ensuring that they have the best possible start in life.

There is much consensus, although that does not stop Opposition Members asking hard questions. We are making a lot of progress. I have been pleased to contribute today, and I have learned a great deal.

1.21 pm
Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

I, too, welcome this debate, which gives us an opportunity to raise issues about the welfare and protection of children. In his opening speech, my hon. Friend the Minister of State touched on a wide range of issues. He was right to point out the commitment that the Government have shown on this very important matter.

Many interrelated factors affect children and young people, including where the family lives, what the environment is like, whether the father or mother is working, what the education system is like, whether the child goes to school and whether there is crime in the area. The evidence shows that if, sadly, the family is living in what is now known as social exclusion, that family will find life very hard indeed and the youngsters will often be deeply affected. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will have that high on his list of commitments in his Budget next week.

We have heard moving speeches from Welsh Members about the abuses in children's homes in north Wales. The report by Sir Ronald Waterhouse clearly showed the lack or the weakness of the policies of organisations that were there to protect the children. Sadly, we know that they failed those youngsters.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State will recall the Adjournment debate that I had on 15 February, when I called for the appointment of a children's commissioner. He referred then, as he did this morning, to the appointment of a children's rights director. We will watch with interest the appointment of the director. I hope that he or she will have wide-ranging powers and, above all, will regularly consult young people and organisations for the protection of children.

I meet regularly with ombudsmen and women and commissioners for children through my work in the Council of Europe. They all speak of their success in building up confidence with children and children's organisations. I hope that, in the coming months, the new director will work on that.

Before I came to this House, I chaired the children's committee of one of the largest London authorities, the London borough of Hammersmith. From my experiences, I know that we need a clear policy on the accountability of Government Departments. Often in local government, the roles of committees overlap and one finds repeatedly that Departments believe that an aspect of legislation is not their responsibility. The Government's proposals must make clear which organisation is responsible.

I hope that the director will encourage children's organisations to co-operate on proposals to strengthen the law as it relates to children's rights. Also, we must get their opinions on legislation on children's rights and protection. We must seek at all times the views of children and young people; sadly, that has not been done often in the past.

I am one of the British delegation from this Parliament to the Council of Europe, where I chair the Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee, which looks at all issues concerning family life, especially those relating to children. Sadly, the work of the Council of Europe—and our opportunities to meet representatives of the 41 member states—is rarely discussed in this Parliament.

I was in Paris on Wednesday chairing the Committee. We had four items on the agenda concerning children, including the role and responsibility of different Governments on children. We learned a great deal. The Council of Europe—which has existed for 50 years—was at the forefront in the preparation of the UN convention on the rights of the child, and we have a close involvement with UNICEF. I hope that the Government and the director will work closely with the Council of Europe. We have the opportunity to learn from other member states about the legislation they have introduced and how it works. The House has missed the opportunity of working with the Council of Europe and its Committees for too long.

I have one or two specific issues to raise. First, there has recently been much coverage of the court cases involving paedophiles. Those who abuse children, boys or girls, are dangerous and evil people. They often totally refuse to accept the damage that they have done to children. The Waterhouse report makes that damage clear, and my hon. Friend the Minister mentioned the number of young people who have been abused who take their own lives. All the evidence shows that the rest suffer throughout their lives as a result of the abuse.

I welcome the register of sex offenders, but I hope that we will make it clear that when such people are released from prison, as some will be, they will never work with children again. Wandsworth prison, in my constituency, has one of the biggest rule 43 units in the country. It contains men who have committed offences against children, and some who have been convicted of rape. When one meets those men, one soon learns that they have no regrets about what they have done to children and young people. If they are released from prison—and I am not one to say that they should never be released—we should have effective safeguards in place to ensure that they never work with children or young people again. It is the duty of the Government and local authorities to ensure that. I accept that it is not always easy to prevent sex offenders from working with children—people can move to different areas and adopt new identities. However, we must make it clear that we will not tolerate offenders being allowed to work with children again.

My second point concerns pornography. Our society has changed enormously and many of the things that we now see on television would have deeply shocked people just a few years ago. They would not even have been allowed to be shown on television. I am deeply concerned about the growth of pornography. Often, we read that the only type of pornography that individuals want is that which involves young people and children.

A case was reported in the national press only this week of a head teacher who was sent to prison for five months. I wonder whether a sentence of five months for someone who has been involved in child pornography is long enough. I would like to know much more about the case because the sentence seems inadequate. The House must remember that the person involved was a primary school head teacher.

Some people claim that although their interest is in child pornography, they are very different from people who trade in such material. I see no difference at all—young people are abused to make that material. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, who will wind up the debate, will assure the House that the courts will not accept that there is a difference between users of such material and traders in it, and that those users will not be treated more leniently.

Finally, I come to the question of refugees, especially those who are children. The debate is entitled "Safeguards for Children". In recent weeks, there have been many press stories about women begging with young children. That is a regular sight in my constituency. The begging is frightening and aggressive, and it arouses hostility in decent men and women who are usually generous towards people who have come to this country to escape religious or political persecution at home. It is time something was done.

I have received many complaints from constituents on this matter, and on 7 February I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary asking what action the Government proposed. The reply from the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), outlined the existing legislation and the measures that the Government intend to introduce. I have told my local police that I hope that they will enforce the existing legislation.

On 6 March, I asked the Home Office another question about the numbers of asylum seekers being housed in Greater London. The Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), replied on 13 March. She said that the number of asylum seekers in Greater London area came to 59,350. I shall give the House some examples of the numbers in individual boroughs. There are 570 refugees living in Sutton, 2,540 in Barking and Dagenham, 5,040 in Haringey, and 5,870 in Newham. In my borough of Wandsworth, there are 980 refugees. In her reply, my hon. Friend said that those figures included 3,320 unaccompanied minors under 17. Those youngsters were allowed into the United Kingdom unaccompanied. I make no comment on whether they should have been allowed in, but we have a right to know what kind of welfare and supervision exists for them. For example, who was informed when they came here? Which organisations are looking after them? I do not know the age span of those youngsters because that information was not included in my hon. Friend's reply, but I know that they are under 17.

When we see these very young children taken by, one assumes, their mother on begging expeditions, we have a right to ask whether they go to school, because some of them are of school age. Do we know where they live? Do we know how they live? The responsibilities of Government Departments often overlap, as do those of local authority departments. Surely the welfare and protection of young refugee children is the responsibility of the Department of Health. I hope that if my hon. Friend the Minister cannot tell me today what supervision his Department seeks to enforce on the welfare of these youngsters, he will write to me about it.

The number of refugees living in London is of great concern to many Members of Parliament representing London constituencies, but it is a separate issue from the welfare and protection of these young children. Who is responsible for that? As other hon. Members have said, we are talking about the welfare and protection of all children and young people. We do not mean certain children who come from a different kind of background. The welfare of all children is crucial. I pay tribute again to the work that the Government have been doing. My hon. Friend the Minister of State outlined in his speech the legislation that will be introduced in the coming months.

We have had an excellent debate in which the Waterhouse report has figured prominently. However, I would like to have more debates on this kind of issue. Members on both sides of the House have mentioned adoption. The Committee that I chair in Europe produced a report on adoption which contained some horrendous findings about the problems and abuse that youngsters can face even when they are adopted. We should have the opportunity to discuss that.

I asked a parliamentary question last week about the number of youngsters held in secure training centres. The reply on 9 March said that 103 youngsters between the ages of 12 and 14 were being held in secure training centres. We never have debates in the House about the system adopted in those centres. That is something else that we should have an opportunity to discuss.

I am glad to have had this opportunity to speak. I have heard interesting and deeply moving speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House. No matter which side we sit on, all hon. Members must be committed to the welfare and protection of children.

1.45 pm
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

We have rightly had a sober debate about a subject that demanded it. We are discussing safeguards for children, the most vulnerable people in our society whether they are in foster care, adoption or even boarding school. There are 13 million children in the United Kingdom. Many of those of whom we have spoken have special needs, making them even more vulnerable.

The Minister of State, Department of Health said that 32 police inquiries are going on into child abuse—a chilling statistic. The Waterhouse report is one of the most disturbing documents that I have ever read. The prospect of its being the tip of the iceberg should make us all feel cold. We are talking about sexual, physical and mental abuse. Children in our care must have proper protection, the best that we can afford them. We must put strategies in place to ensure sufficient detection and prosecution.

As the Minister said, no one who reads the report can fail to be shocked. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), as Secretary of State for Wales, began the judicial review into the care of children in 70 homes in Clwyd and Gwynedd from 1974 onwards. The review began in 1997—it was a long time in coming. Waterhouse has made 72 recommendations across a comprehensive range including training, care planning, fostering breakdown, staff recruitment, the duty to report abuse and vitally important whistleblowing procedures.

The role of elected members is also mentioned at page 224. I was a West Glamorgan county councillor for six years, and I do not think that sufficient stress was laid on what my duties should be in regard to children in our care. That recommendation must be fully implemented, and councillors must be given sufficient advice and training in what to look for. I was a young councillor, and even if I had been told what to look for, I am not sure that I would have had the tools and wisdom to see it. Councillors have a vital role, and I am disturbed that the Government's response to the report seems to be slipping. I hope that the Minister will reassure us on when the Government will respond. I heard what the Secretary of State for Wales had to say in the St. David's day debate—on 2 Marchand was grateful for it.

Several hon. Members have discussed the need for more foster care, as the Minister did when he opened the debate. He said that there are 32,000 foster carers, and that he wants more. We welcome that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) has set up a commission to consider fostering and adoption. The Minister will welcome all the advice he can get when he considers how to persuade more youngsters into foster care or adoption.

Education is important. A constituent of mine who is a foster parent has a statemented child with special needs. We must ensure that there is proper provision for that child within the area where he or she happens to be. It is not appropriate to put a child on a bus, or in a taxi, to travel to school many miles outside the area, when schools are available locally. That child was offered 10 hours education a week. That is not suitable; I hope that the local authorities will ensure that there is proper provision for children who are being fostered, as such situations will continue to arise.

The roles of the children's commissioner and the children's rights director have been mentioned. The precise title of that person does not bother me, as long as the duties are such that they ensure the proper protection of children. I am sure that the Minister is fully aware of the request by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children that the commissioner should operate throughout the country. The commissioner should be fully independent, but should have a wide remit that does not only cover children in care.

The Minister will also know that the NSPCC's call is supported by several reputable organisations, including Barnardos, Childline, UNICEF UK and Oxfam. In opinion polls on an independent office for children, 85 per cent. of those responding said yes. It is obviously a matter that we must consider carefully.

The Minister mentioned the beacon councils of Suffolk, Wakefield, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster. We applaud the good work that they are doing and look forward to the time when the best practice in those areas rolls around to the rest of the country.

The hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and several other hon. Members mentioned recommendation 71 of the Waterhouse report, which deals with Jillings. It is right that that recommendation be taken on board. It deals with the problem of advice from lawyers acting on behalf of local authorities. We should examine the role played by insurance companies during that time to ensure that reports, such as Jillings, will never be suppressed in future. Had that report become public earlier, several children who were abused would not have suffered in that way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) referred to the measures on which the Government have already embarked. We welcome that. They are building on legislation that was introduced by the Conservative Government and we support what they are doing. However, my hon. Friend is right to question some aspects of those measures. He referred to the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill; the ink is hardly dry on some of the Government's proposals. However, we shall support any common-sense measures proposed by the Government to try to eradicate the abuses that we have been discussing.

The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Mr. Ruane) spoke eloquently on the Waterhouse report; he showed great knowledge of the subject—of the problems of abuse and of the number of inquiries that are currently under way. When people realise how many police inquiries and internal inquiries have been set up, they will scratch their heads and wonder why we are holding the debate and why action was not taken sooner to ensure that some of the problems were sorted out. The hon. Gentleman also referred to the wider implications of the Waterhouse report.

The right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), whose reputation on this matter precedes him, talked about the urgency of adopting the Waterhouse recommendations. He was right to do so. He too referred to recommendations 71 and 72 and to the string of previous reports.

The hon. Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) spoke about the cover-ups over previous reports. That too relates to recommendation 71. It is disturbing that a cover-up could take place, as is the fact that people in positions of responsibility were involved in abuse. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and his hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd, that there is no reason why we should not make public the names of those who have admitted carrying out abuse. However, the hon. Member for Clwyd, South will also know that another reason why such names should be made public is to exonerate innocent people who have been under suspicion. If the names are not published, suspicion might always linger around those people. It is right that people who have been involved in abuse be properly investigated, and I hope that I correctly understood the hon. Gentleman to say that they should be properly investigated and that those who have not yet been brought to justice should be brought to justice as soon as possible.

Mr. Martyn Jones

That is precisely what I was saying, but I was also trying to say that people should be named only if they have not been properly investigated, for the sole purpose of bringing their names into the public domain to protect children from potential abuse.

Mr. Evans

I also assume that all the people under suspicion in cases described in the Waterhouse report would have been properly investigated before the report came anywhere near us. I can only hope that the Minister will give us some assurance that all those names have been properly investigated.

The hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) spoke about the need for better strategies and the involvement of the voluntary sector. I agree with her on that.

The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd spoke feelingly about some anecdotal evidence of abuse. The nine suicides that he mentioned are chilling indeed. He also asked the Minister that the parents of Craig Wilson be given information about the death of their son. I find it astonishing that that information has not previously been given. We add our support to the request that the parents be given information as to what happened leading up to the death of their son.

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) spoke, also with passion, about the restoration of the years of innocence; we can only agree with him on that. It seems as though children become adults suddenly at the age of three or four, which is rather sad. Therefore, I believe that we could all support the restoration of the years of innocence. My hon. Friend also spoke with great knowledge, with his experience on the Select Committee on Social Services and the Select Committee on Health, about the stress and trauma experienced by professionals involved in abuse cases. We too easily forget the stress and trauma that must build up in people who are involved in such cases. The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) gave a prelude to that when she spoke about her involvement in the passage of the Protection of Children Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield also spoke about the businesses that have become involved in what might be described as a twinning arrangement with children's homes. We should encourage many businesses to form such links, to afford opportunities to youngsters who otherwise would not get them.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stourbridge on the work that she has done in steering the Protection of Children Bill through the House; it is now the Protection of Children Act 1999. She spoke with great passion about the knowledge that she gained—the learning experience of steering the Bill through the House—and suggestions that she now has to improve on the 1999 Act. The Government should listen carefully to her calls for a strong United Kingdom commissioner for children. The hon. Lady also spoke about the fact that the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill will build on the 1999 Act. We applaud that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), who also has experience on the Health Committee, spoke about the abuses of migrants from the UK to Australia as children. He also spoke with emotion about the fact that he can still go to his parents' house and play with his toys. [HON. MEMBERS: "How often?"] Probably on a regular basis. We were all heartened by that, but of course he is saying something important about the fact that youngsters in care do not have the same sort of building blocks that the rest of have—the security that we all have from knowing that we can always go home to our parents. He also spoke about the vital need for the pathway plans for those up to the age of 21.

The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) has enormous experience in considering these issues at the Council of Europe. I wish that more were done with the Council of Europe's reports. Perhaps more debates on its recommendations could take place in the House, but I congratulate him on the hard work that he has done. He spoke with passion about the evils of paedophilia, and I do not suspect that anyone in the House would disagree with a single word that he said about that.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke with feeling—I am glad that he did—about the problems with asylum seekers. We are debating the welfare of children and that means all the children who reside in this country. Social services have a serious role in that, and the Government have a duty to take a strong position on the way in which children and babies are used as tools for begging on the streets and on the tube by, in the main, eastern European refugees. Children and babies should not be used in that way.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of the fact that children wander about on their own, begging. I have seen youngsters as young as 12 or 13 carrying younger children with them. That is quite appalling. It is totally wrong for youngsters to spend hours on the underground or on the streets and to carry even younger children with them in the attempt to shame people into giving money. That must be stopped as a matter of urgency. A strategy must be put in place for refugees and their children while they are in this country. The Government must not turn a blind eye to a growing and appalling practice.

I applaud the work of charities, such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which do so much work. This week, I met representatives of the NSPCC who told me that, last year, they were called into 82 investigations because of their knowledge of working with children and in children's homes. Local authorities use the NSPCC as an independent source to investigate particular problems and I have already said that it has called for an independent children's commissioner.

Conservative Members believe that much has already been done in the legislation that we introduced and since the inquiry that was set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks. We passed several pieces of legislation when we were in government and we have supported this Government's legislation on this issue since 1997. It is right that we consider and scrutinise such legislation carefully to ensure that it is right and proper and does the job that we want. Too many people will read this debate and wonder why more was not done in the past by both Governments and by social services under the political direction of all parties.

The system has let down the children, and this debate is about them. They do not have a voice other than through us here. That is why we must redouble our efforts to ensure that we introduce the right measures to protect them. It has been said—and I can only agree—that we shall not fully eliminate the problem, but that should not stop us trying. We cannot prevent individual cases from happening, but we must ensure that the wholesale abuse that was revealed in the Waterhouse report and other inquires never again happens to children in care. The Government will always receive the support of the official Opposition for any common-sense measures that will help to prevent the most corrosive and squalid practices from happening in our society.

2.3 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson)

We have had an intensely interesting, moving and harrowing debate in which hon. Members have described their experiences and policy suggestions to the House. I welcome the tone of the debate and the fact that we have had a strong element of cross-party support for the aim of providing positive safeguards for children.

I welcome the debate, not least because I am the father of three children under the age of 12 and because I represent a constituency in north Wales, in which many of my constituents were the victims of child abuse and violence because the system failed them. The debate has given us the chance to show the importance that the Government and the House attach to listening to children and to ensuring that effective systems are in place to prevent abuse in future.

Let my say at the outset that children deserve to be safe and protected. Abuse has lasting and terrible effects on children, not only in their formative years but for the rest of their lives, and accordingly shapes the whole of our future society. The Government are committed to protecting children, and in the past three years we have considered and reconsidered the safeguards in place to protect them.

We have responded to the findings of the Utting report, and we continue to pursue that agenda. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Health said in opening the debate, we have put in place a series of initiatives to help to ensure as far as possible that there are effective measures to prevent further abuse.

The Protection of Children Act 1999, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley), the quality protects and children first programmes, the Care Standards Bill and the Children (Leaving Care) Bill are all important measures, to which I shall return after I have responded to hon. Members' contributions.

It is the paramount duty of Government to ensure that a safe environment exists for our children, and this Government take that duty very seriously. The Waterhouse report, our response to its recommendations and today's debate are only the latest steps in our assessment of the risks that children face.

We have had an interesting debate, which has been permeated by certain serious themes. Those issues are important, and I shall respond to all hon. Members in my winding-up speech as far as I can and contact them with further information after the debate, if my hon. Friend and I have not, between us, covered all the points mentioned.

In the past, there was inconsistent control and poor management of children in care, and we must make sure that it does not happen again. A considered response to recommendations is needed to help to prevent those tragic events from recurring. We need to take immediate steps to stop known offenders offending again, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) said.

There must be partnership with the devolved Administrations and local authorities to protect children, deliver effective services and ensure that those people who have abused are not currently working with children. We need to rebuild trust and ensure that we listen to children because what they are saying is as relevant to our day-to-day lives as it is to theirs. All that underlines the Government's commitment to safeguard children.

I say to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) that I appreciate the consensus on these issues and the serious consideration of them. There is cross-party support for tackling them. First and foremost, the hon. Gentleman raised family policy, and there is strong cross-party support for the family. The Government have introduced the sure start initiative in England and Wales, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Health has provided additional resources to support that initiative. Although there may be political disagreements, which I will not bring into play now, child benefit and the working families tax credit are important in helping to underpin the security that families bring to our community, and the Government want to support those policies.

The hon. Gentleman raised important issues about the Care Standards Bill. As he knows, the House will shortly have an opportunity to consider that Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister of State and I will be dealing with that Bill, and I look forward to listening to hon. Members' concerns. The hon. Gentleman asked important questions that deserve answers. We envisage that the National Care Standards Commission will look at regulation and inspection, work to national minimum standards and set professional training standards for the work force to ensure that we protect and regulate care standards.

The hon. Gentleman also raised important issues on the Children (Leaving Care) Bill. The Government will certainly consider extending the powers of that Bill to 18 to 21-year-olds when resources permit. The matter is important and I look forward, as does my hon. Friend the Minister of State, to discussing those issues with the hon. Gentleman in due course. The Government will certainly encourage voluntary organisations to play an important part in providing such services. I recognise that organisations such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and those providing residential care play an important part not just in protecting children, but generally in our society.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Wales and the Prime Minister and my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Health are carefully considering the review of adoption services and will be making recommendations in due course. I hope that we shall scrutinise them on a cross-party basis. There is ground for consensus.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) raised very important points. I pay tribute to his work as my predecessor in what was then the Welsh Office during the first year of the Labour Government. He brings to the debate great knowledge of the importance of safeguards for children and their rights. I welcome his contribution to today's debate.

My hon. Friend dealt with two specific points, both of which were also raised by the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley). I shall deal with them immediately. My hon. Friend mentioned the question of the National Assembly's role and the children's commissioner for Wales. Sir Ronald Waterhouse recommended such a commissioner. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales wanted to take immediate action to ensure that we indicated our strong support for legislation on that matter as soon as possible. He announced in the St. David's day debate on 2 March that we would take the issue forward. I am pleased to confirm that we will amend the Care Standards Bill to allow the National Assembly to establish a children's commissioner for Wales.

I know—because the National Assembly is still considering the matter—that it wants to consider a wider remit for the commissioner. We shall certainly consider sympathetically and with urgency its reports once the Care Standards Bill has been dealt with. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend and the right hon. Member for Caernarfon will recognise that, for the reasons that we have discussed, the Government want to act quickly, table an amendment that covers children in care and ensure that the Assembly is given initial powers to get the matter moving. I hope that that reassures hon. Members. In due course, we shall certainly look at the National Assembly's proposals.

Mr. Hammond

Would there be any logic in finding a different solution in Wales from that ultimately found in England, given that the problem is universal?

Mr. Hanson

The issue is one of devolution. I am pleased and impressed that my party and, indeed, other parties, were committed on entering the Assembly election to the establishment of a children's commissioner. I believe strongly that a children's rights director in England will deal with many similar issues. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State said, we should not get too hung up on titles. The devolved Assembly will develop different solutions for Wales. What is important is the output and the protection that results.

The right hon. Member for Caernarfon and my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend mentioned advocacy services. As the right hon. Gentleman will understand, there have been six months of research into such services in Wales by the National Assembly. The Assembly is considering the findings of the report on that research.

The right hon. Gentleman said that he wanted urgency. The ministerial safeguards committee, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Minister, is considering such matters urgently. The National Assembly is represented on that committee by Jane Hutt, the Assembly Secretary. We met very soon after the Waterhouse report was published, and again in the past 10 days. We shall meet again shortly to produce the Government's response.

We are addressing the issue as a matter of urgency. However, in considering the report and its recommendations, we are also trying to include various people—Members of the National Assembly and of the Scottish Executive, Ministers from various Departments, and various people outside government. We have to get our response right and to inject urgency into our proceedings, and I know that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Health wants to do precisely that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) raised some important issues. The first one was insurance cover, which was mentioned also by my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). The Jillings report was dealt with by Clywd county council, and advice from insurers influenced the council's decisions on it.

The Local Government Association has now issued guidance to local authorities in England and Wales recommending principles to be applied when considering arrangements for an inquiry, particularly the relationship between insurance companies and local authorities. The guidance has been drawn up by the Local Government Association, with the support of the Association of British Insurers. My Department and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are considering those issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South also mentioned the tribunal's naming policy, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Mr. Ruane). The tribunal's naming policy, stated in chapter 6, was clear and specific. The tribunal considered all the evidence in detail—in more detail than hon. Members could have dealt with at the time—and, in chapter 6, stated: we do not consider that the evidence against particular individuals has been such as to warrant naming them, bearing in mind the climate in which they were working. I emphasise that the tribunal was independent of the Government. I also do not want to compromise the tribunal's independence by questioning the way in which Sir Ronald and the other tribunal members conducted the inquiry. We have to recognise that the tribunal has considered the evidence and that it reached that conclusion. I tell my hon. Friends the Members for Clwyd, South and for Vale of Clwyd that, although I realise that that policy will disappoint them, we have to acknowledge the tribunal's conclusions.

Mr. Hammond

On the day that the Waterhouse report was published, the Government extended the scope of the consultancy index and added to it names that had appeared in the report. Will the Minister assure the House that that was the first occasion on which the Government had sight of those names, and that there were no delays whatever in adding them to the extended consultancy index?

Mr. Hanson

The day of the report's publication was the first day on which the Government could act on those names. Previously, the names identified in Sir Ronald's inquiry as having caused concern were passed to appropriate authorities. Prosecutions have been conducted in some of those cases. However, the Government could take action on the matter only on publication of the report.

Mr. Evans

In the statement on the Waterhouse report, the Secretary of State for Wales said that various bodies working with children would receive the list of individuals and have to reply on whether any of them had been working in their area. What was the response to the request—was anyone found?

Mr. Hanson

If I may, I would prefer to reply to that in writing. I do not have to hand the facts and figures, and I do not wish to mislead the hon. Gentleman on the list's impact. Some names were identified. I shall certainly reply to him on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd also mentioned Craig Wilson and his family, who contacted my hon. Friend. Before boundary reorganisation, Craig Wilson was my constituent, and I met Mr. and Mrs. Wilson when I was their Member of Parliament. If my hon. Friend would write to me with the family's difficulties and details on the issue that he raised today, I shall urgently investigate the matter and report back to him as soon as practicable.

The hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) raised several important issues about support and counselling. I am sorry that she was not able to be here for the final speeches, but I valued her contribution.

The right hon. Member for Macclesfield—

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Not yet.

Mr. Hanson

Sorry, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). Perhaps I could do him a service after his 30 years in the House. I welcomed and valued his contribution. His work as the Chairman of the Health Committee during my first Parliament was valued by many Labour Members and others. He raised important points about recognising the role of the mother and the family. I come from a happy family. Despite many financial deprivations, I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family that had security, warmth, love and care. The most important thing that we can give our children is a sure start in life. The hon. Gentleman's points were well made.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge on her recent initiative in bringing forward the Protection of Children Act 1999. I look forward to its implementation. The Government are listening to her important points about a Minister and a Department for children. We shall examine the representations in due course. Her points about domestic violence and the importance of security in the home are equally well taken.

The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) also made some points that struck a chord with me. Despite my constituency and Government experience, the debate was slightly abstract for me until the hon. Gentleman made the strong point that many children who grow up in care disappear and do not have the solid base that many of us have to refer to. That has left an impression on me about the impact of the lasting difficulties that such children face as a result of the lack of a solid family base. I thank him for that contribution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting talked about the children's rights director. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Health believes in a strong role for that senior post in the National Care Standards Commission. It is a real breakthrough for looked-after children that will bolster the Government's commitment to improving safeguards for them. When the appointment is in place it will make a real difference.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting also mentioned the important role of Europe. Paedophile behaviour, the control of pornography and refugees are pan-European issues. I would welcome debates in the House on the reports that my hon. Friend mentioned from his work with the Council of Europe. His important points on pornography and refugees are well met. I do not have ministerial responsibility for either issue, but I shall draw the attention of the relevant Home Office Ministers to his comments.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) asked how many people we found following the publication of the Waterhouse report. By the magic of this place, I now have further information on that. Twenty-eight individuals whose whereabouts and employment status were unknown were identified in the Waterhouse report as abusers of children. As a result of the inquiries that were immediately initiated, we were able to establish the whereabouts of all of them. One person was found to be working with children and was immediately suspended. I hope that that obviates the need for a letter, but if the hon. Gentleman requires further information I shall certainly follow the point up.

I have tried to cover as many issues as I can in the time available. The Waterhouse report will have a significant and lasting impact on Government policy and children's rights. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State submitted the report to the House and I remind hon. Members of the background to the inquiry and the report.

Mr. Evans

I have a question about the information that the Minister has just given us about the person who was found still to be involved with children. It was quite disturbing news and I am pleased that the individual concerned was suspended. Has there been an investigation to ensure that there has been no incidence of abuse in the institution where that person was working?

Mr. Hanson

I understand that the individual concerned was working for an authority in the west midlands. He was suspended immediately, so it is now a matter for the authority and the employing organisation. The Government will certainly take an interest in the outcome of that case.

The Waterhouse report drew 95 conclusions and made 72 recommendations. Some were specific to Wales and others had wider implications. The report made important recommendations on assessment and care planning, inter-agency working, recruitment and retention of staff, foster carers, inspection and regulation of private residential schools and all forms of residential care and on common standards of care. We must certainly address the catalogue of errors and mistreatment to which the Waterhouse report drew attention.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State outlined some of the steps that have been taken. In Wales, in which I have a particular interest, the National Assembly is already working up detailed proposals for a children's commissioner. The Secretary of State for Wales has announced that the Government will table amendments to the Care Standards Bill to legislate for a children's commissioner for Wales. That was the first recommendation in the report and we have taken this early opportunity to implement it for children in care. The Government will also consider with sympathy the urgency of the Assembly's proposals, when they are made.

On the day of the publication of the report, the Department of Health took immediate action in respect of the names of the individuals mentioned in the report. It is important to recognise that the Government have not been complacent. We have established a ministerial task force under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, comprising 10 Ministers from across Government to ensure that our response to the Waterhouse report is comprehensive and wide-ranging.

The task force has identified priority areas where further action is needed, which my hon. Friend outlined in his speech. They are the commissioner for looked-after children, the complaints procedure, the independent advocacy services, the human resources issues and the future role of residential care as a placement choice. We shall report as soon as practicable—I hope by the summer—and I look forward to the Government's further proposals to implement those recommendations.

As my hon. Friend said, before the publication of the report, the Government took a range of important steps in response to the Utting report and the Protection of Children Act. The Care Standards Bill will introduce improved arrangements in England and Wales for an independent regulation service. The Bill also contains specific clauses to reflect the situation in Wales. The Assembly will have the power to establish the commission for care standards which will be part of the National Assembly rather than an independent statutory body as planned in England. Devolution will mean differences, but we should support and relish those differences. It is important that the Assembly and the Government reflect the needs of each individual nation within the United Kingdom.

The Children (Leaving Care) Bill will provide further support. The Government have launched major new programmes, including children first in Wales and quality protects in England. The importance of those programmes cannot be overstated.

In conclusion, the aim of all that the Government have done, including the programmes that we have undertaken before Waterhouse and those that we will undertake in future, is to ensure that those responsible for children in need and looked-after children—in social services, education and the health service—play their full part in raising standards. Today's debate has been an important stage in that process. I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to it. I assure them, and others who have taken an interest in the debate, that all the points that have been made will be considered and that we shall act in the short term and in the long term to prevent those horrific occurrences from happening again. We must ensure that children are safe. The Government are committed to that and, as far as we can, we shall protect children and make sure that safeguards for children are protected in future.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

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