§ Order for Second Reading read.4.23 pm
§ The Minister for Children (Margaret Hodge)
I feel very proud and privileged to present the Bill to the House. It is a year since we published our Green Paper "Every Child Matters", in which time we have engaged in extensive discussion and consultation on our proposals. We have listened carefully, and in some instances we have amended our plans to reflect people's views and concerns. I am delighted that our determination to place children and young people at the heart of our programmes has been so clearly demonstrated by the fact that 3,000 of the 4,500 responses that we received to the consultation came from children themselves.
In the past year, we have also embarked on a wide range of programmes and activities to proceed with the programme of change. This is not about a quick political fix for the short term; it is a programme of fundamental reform involving the transformation of children's services, which will take time to deliver. If we are to succeed in our ambition, we need legislation to facilitate and underpin our reforms.
The Bill provides the legislative spine for a hugely ambitious agenda. By itself it is not enough, but without it we will not succeed in the pursuit of our ambition to enable every child to realise their potential, or in our determination to secure a step change in how we safeguard and protect children. Our aim is to maximise opportunity and to minimise risk; to respond better to the additional needs of some children by ensuring that all our universal services respond better to the individual needs of every child; and to raise the importance of children and families on the political and public policy agenda by prioritising their needs and aspirations at Government, local government and community level.
The reform agenda is driven by the outcomes that children themselves told us matter. We consulted them widely and they told us that they want to be healthy, to stay safe, to enjoy themselves and to achieve, to make a positive contribution to society and to achieve economic well-being. The centrality of these aspirations is reflected by their inclusion in clause 7. Those are broad and general aspirations, and translating them into objectives and priorities for action is critical, but we have started that work by developing public service agreement targets for the next spending review period across many Government Departments; by developing comprehensive performance assessment targets for local government; and through the national service framework for children's health services, which we will shortly launch with our colleagues in the Department of Health.
I should point out how delighted I am that my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for community, from the Department of Health, will wind up today's debate, and that my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), from the Home Office, is also here to support it. That makes it 1001 transparent to the House that we are joining up across Government Departments to achieve our agenda for change for children.
§ Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab)
I join my right hon. Friend in praising the array of talent on the Front Bench, but regret that a Minister from the Department for Constitutional Affairs is not present. Will she assure me that the radical policies that this Government are putting in place—particularly those on schools and the devolution of power to them—in no way clash with the co-operative agenda that we are trying to establish to ensure that children's services are integrated and work well across the board?
§ Margaret Hodge
That issue was raised during the summer by a number of interested parties. Independence and interdependence are two key drivers of our reform programme, and the fact that the Minister for School Standards is here today, and that he and I have together written recently to all chief executive directors of education and of social services, demonstrates our determination to get schools strongly engaged in the agenda.
§ Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con)
The right hon. Lady referred a moment ago to the aspirations contained in clause 7. Does she accept that they are best delivered and supported when children have access to both parents, even if those parents have chosen to live apart? What steps is she taking in this Bill to prevent one parent from unilaterally preventing their children from accessing the other parent?
§ Margaret Hodge
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have always said that in the tragic circumstances where parents separate, it is generally in the children's interests to maintain contact with both parents where it is safe for them to do so. That principle underpinned the Green Paper, published just before the summer recess, on these very difficult issues. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will respond to that consultation process, and once we have consulted we hope to produce some clear propositions—both in legislation and in policy—to advance the agenda set out in the Green Paper.
Two key policy principles underpin our approach in this Bill and in all else that we do. We want to reconfigure services around the needs of children rather than in the interests of traditional professional hierarchies, and we want to shift our effort to prevention and early intervention while at the same time strengthening child protection in all the services that touch children's lives. Nobody can disagree with our desire to refocus services in that way. We also know that those changes make sense in children's lives.
We are beginning to garner strong evidence from some of the Government's most successful and innovative programmes to affirm our approach. For instance, evidence from local Sure Start programmes is beginning to tell a powerful story of how early intervention with services joined up around the needs of a child and their family can make a profound difference. In a Sheffield Sure Start, we have seen a 27 per cent. increase in breastfeeding rates among mothers. In a Sure 1002 Start in Whitehaven in Cumbria, 25 per cent. of known smokers stopped smoking during their pregnancy. In Scunthorpe, 56 people were helped into work in one year alone, while in the Sure Start in Church street, Westminster, library membership increased by 11.5 per cent. In Corby, the number of children starting school with a special educational need was reduced by 10 per cent., while in east Hailsham child protection re-registration rates are down from 8 per cent. of 0 to 3-year-olds to 3 per cent.
Achieving that radical, whole-system reform of our services is, however, a mammoth endeavour. It requires genuine partnership across professional boundaries and a fundamental cultural change, which can be facilitated and encouraged through legislation, hence the Bill, and also depends on us employing a broad range of levers—from investing in training to promoting new leadership skills, from joining up funding at local authority level to joining up policies at central Government level and from being clear about the accountabilities and responsibilities of all those who work in the children's work force to being clear about the outcomes that we expect from all the services that we fund.
Reforming children's services means that we must work in partnership. That lies at the heart of the Bill: we want to join up people around the needs of the child by making multi-disciplinary working the norm and reinforcing it through co-location and common skills and training.
§ Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab)
I agree with my right hon. Friend about the importance of partnership and co-operation, but some concern has been expressed that the Youth Justice Board is not included on the list of organisations that should promote welfare. We know about the tragic circumstances of the deaths in prison of Adam Rickwood and Joseph Scholes, and it is the Youth Justice Board that decides where to place youngsters. Why is it not included?
§ Margaret Hodge
The Youth Justice Board, as with other organisations such as schools—someone is likely to raise the issue of general practitioners later in the debate—will have to work in partnership with other professions and agencies to secure the outcomes for children that we want. Simply placing a legal obligation on such bodies is not always the best means of achieving that objective. That is why I am talking now about the other levers. The outcomes that we want, the targets that we set, the training that we do and the leadership skills that we try to engender are crucial to ensuring joint working. I reassure my hon. Friend that I have regular and frequent meetings not just with the appropriate Minister of State and Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, but with the Youth Justice Board itself to ensure integration. It is working with us very closely at the local level in the development of children's trusts and other partnership arrangements.
As well as joining up people, we want to join up processes around the needs of the child by developing a common assessment and a common inspection framework and by developing new ways to enable professionals to share information.
1003 We want to join up the systems around the needs of the child, by integrated commissioning, supported by pooled resources in children's trusts. We want to join up strategies around the needs of the child by developing partnerships and accountability that reflect all that has gone before. We shall get that all right only if we make sure that children and young people's voices lie at the heart of our endeavour.
§ Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con)
The Minister will know that the Opposition share many of the Bill's objectives, but she will be aware that Government Departments have not always been able to get the best out of computer technology. She describes a multi-agency approach, but will she clarify whether every single child in the country will be included in the register, or will it be only children who are deemed to be at risk in some way?
§ Margaret Hodge
The hon. Lady is right to remind the House of the poor record of Government over many decades of launching and managing complex information systems. That is why the first rule in developing this system has been to keep it simple. We are also undertaking a long period of testing the feasibility of our propositions before taking the final decision on how to proceed.
The system will include every child, for three reasons. First, we want every child to be able to access all the universal services to which they are entitled. Secondly, we want to shift the emphasis to prevention and early intervention. It is too late to put children on the list after their needs have been identified. That would run counter to the whole emphasis on the drive towards early intervention, which can only be achieved if we know about every child. Thirdly, the children who have additional needs do not necessarily need child protection measures or safeguards. Some 3 million out of the 11 million children in this country are in that position, and if we really want to identify them it makes sense to have a fuller register. I will deal with some of the concerns that have been expressed on that point, in the other place and elsewhere, later in my speech.
§ Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
The Minister has just said that she wants to keep matters simple with regard to IT, and I wholly concur with that. Therefore, instead of trying to place all 11 million children in England on a single database, which the Information Commissioner has said would lead us towards a surveillance society, would it not be much more sensible to concentrate on the most vulnerable children—about whom we are all most concerned—and do a proper job for them?
§ Margaret Hodge
I have two points to make to the hon. Gentleman. First, the shift towards prevention means that we would need to define who would be placed on that database, and that would assume that we had already identified the additional needs of the children involved. We would be able to effect that sensibly only if we had knowledge of how every child responded to the universal services that are on offer. The assumption behind a more limited list is that someone somewhere else has made a decision about the additional needs of the child without the conversations 1004 that that we want to take place between professionals. We hope that the new system will enable such conversations to take place.
Secondly, there is no way in which the Bill will increase surveillance, as the Information Commissioner suggests. We stand by the data protection regulations. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we have to strike a balance between privacy for individuals and their families and safeguarding and protecting children. In the light of the many reports we have had on child deaths, it is critical that we grasp this opportunity to put right the failure of professionals to communicate with each other at an early enough stage about the needs of the child—a problem identified in all the reports—which then leads to things going wrong in the life of that child.
§ Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC)
The Minister talked of "this country" earlier. Does she mean England, England and Wales or England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland? Given the nature of the Bill, it would clarify matters if she could explain what she means by those words.
§ Margaret Hodge
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman welcomes, as I do, the fact that many clauses specifically relate to children in Wales and, indeed, involve the devolution of further powers on children's issues to the Welsh Assembly. When I talk about children, I speak about children in the round, but specifically about children in England where matters have been devolved to the Welsh Assembly. Where there are non-devolved issues, clearly I have responsibility for children whether they live in Wales or in any of the other countries of the UK.
On our consultation with children and young people, I am delighted that we have set up the children and youth board to work with us. It will help us to find out the views of children and young people and reflect them in our work. Beyond that, however, we are creating an independent national voice in England: the children's commissioner, who will be a strong, independent champion for children. The children and youth board will play a key role in the appointment of the commissioner.
I know that the principle of establishing such a commissioner has been widely welcomed but that some concerns remain about the detailed powers and functions. I shall deal with those. First, the Government are proud to have adopted the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. We have reflected its importance by accepting an amendment that the commissioner "must have regard" to the UNCRC.
We have also strengthened the independence of the commissioner by promoting changes that will enable the commissioner to initiate inquiries into issues raised by individual cases where they are of wider significance and where existing mechanisms are inadequate or inappropriate. However, I firmly believe that an entirely rights-based commissioner will not best serve the interests of children in England. We do not want the commissioner to get bogged down with individual complaints; we want the commissioner to have time to get involved, from the perspective of children, in the many issues that affect their lives—from the way in which the media portray young people to the way in 1005 which the Government promote healthy eating, and from how we tackle bullying to how we decide the rules on contact and access for separated parents.
We must not set the commissioner up to fail. With the changes that we were planning in the other place, I believe we got the balance right, so we look to the House to restore that balance.
§ Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD)
I apologise for arriving late—the Great North Eastern Railway was running late today.
We genuinely welcome the Minister's proposals, but is not there a contradiction in having an independent commissioner, with the Secretary of State retaining some powers, but ordering the commissioner to hold inquiries as to the Government's wishes?
§ Margaret Hodge
I do not believe that contradiction exists. Over time, there will inevitably be some individual cases of such importance and wide significance—although we hope not—that they warrant detailed inquiry and investigation. In those circumstances, I have no doubt that both the commissioner and the Government will agree that the individual case warrants such an inquiry. However, it is obvious to me that the person or office to undertake such an inquiry must be the children's commissioner, as children's interests will be at the heart of his or her responsibility, so we have taken that power in the Bill. After discourse between the commissioner and the Government, should the commissioner not want to pursue a particular inquiry, due to particular circumstances, I do not believe that the Government will be unreasonable in listening to the argument.
§ Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab)
I should like to draw my right hon. Friend's attention to an excellent briefing from Women's Aid which expresses concern about the courts continuing to enforce contact with estranged parents even in cases where that parent has been convicted of violent offences against the parent with custody. Will the commissioner have any role in such things? Will any change to those provisions be made in the Bill?
§ Margaret Hodge
The commissioner will certainly have a role in commenting on the Government's proposals to deal with the extremely complex and difficult issues of access and contact between children and their separated parents, but the propositions that we included in the Green Paper that we published just before the summer recess go a long way to try to ameliorate the difficulties that people face. By trying to take more cases out of litigation and introduce earlier conciliation and mediation, we hope to make it easier for children to maintain contact with both their parents. Where mothers may have concerns about domestic violence, we propose to give the courts additional powers, so that they can consider how and whether access and contact should be maintained.
§ Tim Loughton
In response to the question from the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. 1006 Willis), will the Minister confirm whether she intends to overturn new clause 2, which was proposed in the upper House with cross-party support?
§ Margaret Hodge
I confirm that I intend to propose amendments that would return us to the position that applied before the amendments were endorsed by the upper House.
The other unresolved issue concerns the commissioner's role in relation to non-devolved issues. I am aware of the Welsh Affairs Committee report, and I have been involved in much work on this issue over the past year. It must be right that the new commissioner should report to this Parliament on non-devolved issues. However, there has never been any question of the Bill overriding the existing powers of the other commissioners. Our amendments in Committee will make it even clearer that we want to provide an additional direct route of influence in reporting to Parliament on the issues that affect children across the whole UK. On a day-to-day basis, we want children in other parts of the UK to be clear about the process. I believe that that can best be achieved by the commissioners working together, and we will legislate to remove any unnecessary barriers that stop that happening.
The Bill will make a big difference to the lives of children and young people in Wales. Nearly a third of the Bill is specifically given over to that purpose. I have worked with my counterparts in Government and in the National Assembly to ensure that the Bill provides what the Welsh Assembly needs for everyone in Wales to continue to improve and achieve better outcomes for children in their unique context. In particular, the Bill will take an important step by transferring to the Assembly responsibility for the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service in Wales. That is a significant increase in the devolution of children's services and reflects the absolute dedication that exists in the Assembly Government to providing the best possible support to their children and young people.
§ Hywel Williams
I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. As a matter of curiosity, will she tell the House what the commissioner will be called? Will he or she be the English commissioner, the English/Wales commissioner, the Wales/English commissioner, or perhaps the UK commissioner present in England, but not in Wales? I am sure that hon. Members would like to hear.
§ Margaret Hodge
If the hon. Gentleman is seeking to suggest that the commissioner's title will create confusion, I am sure that he and I can have discourse in Committee to ensure that that does not take place; it is not our intention, and we will certainly listen to common sense on that argument.
§ Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on introducing the children's commissioner. I think that the whole House is pleased about that. Will there be one point of contact in Wales for all children in Wales to go to, whatever issue is raised?
§ Margaret Hodge
I know that many hon. Members think that that is how the commissioner should work, 1007 but I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that the best practical way to ensure that children in Wales are not confused is for the commissioners to agree how they should operate through a memorandum of understanding or another mechanism. All hon. Members agree, as will be reflected in this debate and elsewhere, that we do not want Welsh children to be confused, but the way in which that happens in practice should be devolved to the commissioners themselves.
§ Mr. Andrew Turner
Will the Minister tell me something about the appointment process and those who will be consulted? We know that the Secretary of State will appoint the independent commissioner, but Megan Thomas, the youth MP for Isle of Wight, has asked me why the children's commissioner cannot be elected by children.
§ Margaret Hodge
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would like a postal ballot to be used for that election. We clearly want to engage and involve children and young people in the appointment, so the board is being established as a mechanism for doing that; I have made several statements on that. I doubt that an election would be the best way of involving children and young people, but I do not think that there is a difference of principle between the hon. Gentleman and me. If the children's commissioner is to be a powerful voice working on behalf of children, she or he will need the support of children themselves, so we need to find appropriate ways of achieving such support.
§ Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC)
I listened to the Minister's reply to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) and thought that she was making a point against elections. The Children's Commissioner for Wales was interviewed for his job by children, so would that not be the best way to take the process forward in England?
§ Margaret Hodge
The Children's Commissioner for Wales was interviewed by not only children, but other people. We are considering the mechanisms that were used in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and elsewhere to determine the most positive way in which we can engage children and young people in the process.
I have already said that we want professionals to work better together. That is why we are creating directors of children's services, introducing an integrated inspection of children's services in every local authority area and enabling professionals to pool resources and budgets—that is all in the Bill. However, we want to go further. We want to reduce the bureaucratic burden on local authorities and stimulate better integrated planning and delivery of children's services. We will bring together planning arrangements, including education plans, into a single children and young people's plan to achieve that. I will table an amendment to that effect in Committee and we will review the need for a statutory plan after the first new plans have been prepared.
Over the summer, some people argued that we should place legal duties on both schools and general practitioners to co-operate with other services, but I believe that that would be unnecessary and bureaucratic. GPs work under contract to primary care trusts and PCTs will be covered by appropriate duties.
1008 They will, no doubt, wish to use the contracts to bring GPs on board. There are those who fear that some schools will want to opt out of their responsibilities for all children, including the most vulnerable, but I think that such fears are unfounded. Higher educational achievement and the wider concept of well-being go hand in hand with achieving better outcomes for children.
§ Tim Loughton
We are also worried about the accountability of GPs, people with other health functions and schools. How will what the Minister said apply to independent medical practitioners and independent schools, for example?
§ Margaret Hodge
In both instances, it is not just through legal requirements that we will ensure the engagement of other professionals and institutions in children's well-being. As a result of the outcomes that we have set out, the inspection regime and other mechanisms including training and the common core skills that we expect all professionals to hold, we will ensure that all professionals and institutions will play their part in promoting the well-being and educational achievement of children and young people.
§ Jonathan Shaw
In 2000, the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Health published "The Education of Children and Young People in Public Care", which proposed that all schools should have a designated teacher responsible for children in public care. How does the Minister reconcile that guidance with the report produced by the social exclusion unit in 2003, which said that the success of the designated teacher scheme was mixed or variable? Some schools are proactive and operate the scheme, but others do not. We should draw a line under current arrangements and say that all schools need to promote children's welfare by having a designated teacher—there should not be any that are separate from the scheme.
§ Margaret Hodge
By drawing attention to that issue my hon. Friend has shown that trying to provide a universal prescription for dealing with difficult problems through legislation or regulation does not achieve the objective of better outcomes for children. I genuinely believe that getting the integrated inspection framework right, setting the outcomes appropriately, stimulating a new style of leadership that promotes multi-agency working and providing training and education for professionals so that they can achieve common core skills are at the root of transforming the culture and will make inclusion and educational achievement the twin pillars of the Department for Education and Skills.
§ Mr. Willis
How will it be possible to inspect against the background of a non-statutory or non-existent framework?
§ Margaret Hodge
In the current negotiations on Ofsted's new inspection framework we aim to ensure that the five outcomes in the Bill are a key area for inspection of the way in which education and other 1009 services are delivered to children in school. As that work progresses, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be comforted that we will achieve our common objective.
§ Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)
How frequent will inspections be? If they take place every four years, it will take a long time to pick up any problems.
§ Margaret Hodge
I hope that the hon. Lady agrees that we do not want to make the burden of inspection unnecessarily heavy and bureaucratic in cases where we know that services for children are well delivered. Our review of Ofsted's new phase of inspection will put greater emphasis on more frequent inspection in cases where children's services or educational services in schools are not as good as they should be and less inspection in schools that are performing well in the delivery of traditional educational services and the wider services incorporated in the Bill. The principle of inspection in inverse proportion to success is employed and it has underpinned much of the work that we have done since coming to power in 1997.
When we talk about planning arrangements and legal duties, it is easy to give the impression that achieving better outcomes for children is all about statutory services. Far from it—some of the most innovative and effective practice can be found in the voluntary and community sector. The voluntary sector has often shown both how we can deliver better, joined-up services that work and how we can shift to a more effective preventive set of interventions. Most of us have seen evidence of that in our constituencies, for example, in projects funded by the children's fund. We want to build on that.
The Bill represents a strong vote of confidence in local government, but it is vital that we also create a framework and environment in which voluntary and community organisations can be at the heart of partnership working, so we are removing the barriers to the sector's greater involvement in service delivery. We want to ensure that the sector is fully involved in the planning and commissioning of services. We are developing with the sector a strategy for what we need to do at the centre to make things work both at national and at local level, and we are considering how we can support effective engagement at local level, build the sector's capacity in every local authority area and create better funding arrangements and communication processes.
I have emphasised our desire to shift to prevention, but we also want to legislate to strengthen the way in which we protect children. We aim to create a duty on relevant professionals to safeguard children so that we learn the lessons of the countless tragedies and implement Lord Laming's recommendations. We want to create statutory local safeguarding children boards, so that people really do work together and produce appropriate practical solutions to safeguard children from harm. We want to strengthen the private fostering notification scheme, which is why we have said that we will create a statutory registration scheme, without further legislation, if the voluntary route fails better to protect that especially vulnerable group of children.
1010 We need to provide professionals with appropriate tools and support to work more effectively across agencies. We cannot legislate for culture change, but we can legislate to put the right support in place. That is why we are working, for example, on a common assessment framework to stop children and families having to tell and retell their story to every professional they meet; and why, drawing on what we have learned from our trailblazer authorities, clause 9 will enable us to put in place information databases—not as an end in themselves, but as a means and an effective tool to enable professionals better to work together. Time and again, I have seen reports on child deaths in which someone says, "If only I'd known others were working with the child, I'd have done things differently." We want to make things easier, although I accept that striking the right balance between the right to privacy and the rights of a child to be protected and safeguarded is a complex matter.
§ Miss Kirkbride
I think that I just heard the Minister say that the Government are still not minded to create a statutory duty to register private fostering arrangements, but remain willing to go down the voluntary route. What degree of success or lack thereof will she use to judge that approach? Surely it would be more straightforward simply to create a duty to register such an arrangement. In that way, we could monitor whether those involved are fit and proper persons to act as parents.
§ Margaret Hodge
Some make that argument, but we believe that we have to give a final push to the voluntary approach. Where we get local authorities to engage seriously in the effort, there is a massive increase in registration. If we adopt the other approach, we might create new ways whereby people slip through the net. In the Victoria Climbié tragedy, her aunt purported to be her mother; in such a context it is difficult to tell how anyone would have revealed anything that would have brought the child to the authorities' attention and put her name on a private fostering registration scheme, thus enabling action to be taken to ensure her safety in the home. Such issues are not easy to deal with. We fear that we will drive people underground if we do not use a voluntary approach.
§ Mr. Dawson
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the system of registering child minders has corrected a markedly similar situation, in which all sorts of abuses were going on? The registration scheme has been widely accepted and upheld with almost no problems. What is the difference? What is the difficulty with private fostering?
§ Margaret Hodge
I have to say that even having a statutory registration scheme for child minding still has not brought into the open all the illegal child minding that continues to exist. That is one of our concerns, but there are other issues, which I hope we will discuss in Committee. We always have to balance the need to safeguard children against the desire to over-regulate. We have to think about the difference in the regulatory framework for private fostering and for other carers. There are complex issues around that, such as who is covered by the scheme and whether, for example, young 1011 people who come here aged 13 to 16 to go to a language school for a long period should be covered by a private fostering scheme. Those are not easy issues, and I hope that we can tease some of them out in Committee so that there is a greater understanding of what we are doing.
§ Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con)
The Minister is right to say that Committee discussion will be worth while, and the whole House will be able to be involved in trying to decide whether the balance has been struck appropriately when we come back on Report. There is no ideology behind this question; it is a straightforward point about practicality. How, and how soon, do the Government plan to notice the reduction in avoidable disadvantage, distress and handicap that is supposed to follow from the Bill, and how do they intend to monitor the improvement in well-being, wealth and welfare of children? Or will there just be action and no real measurement?
§ Margaret Hodge
Absolutely not. We want clear measurement of progress as we develop our reform agenda. The targets that we have set ourselves in Government were published alongside the comprehensive spending review in the summer and, together with the targets that we are currently negotiating in the public service agreement with local government and the relationship that we are developing with the voluntary and community sector, will enable us to start to flesh out in a real and practical way measures of improvement on which we hope to measure our success in pursuing our reform.
Clause 9 will enable us to put in place information databases, not as an end in itself, but as a tool to enable professionals to work together. Striking the balance between the right to privacy and the right of a child to be protected is complex. We have said—I again give the House this assurance—that we will consult widely. We listened to concerns expressed in the House of Lords and amended the Bill to show clearly what information will be collected and that case details will not feature on databases. Our purpose is to make sure that children access all the services to which they are entitled and that professionals are put in touch with each other at an early stage.
We all know that the most important people in children's lives are their parents. All our understanding confirms that parenting in the home is more important than anything else in influencing a child's outcomes. We are working to develop much better support for parents in that most difficult task of bringing up their children. Our efforts may be derided by some as nannying, but I challenge that. Parents want support, particularly at key transitions in their children's lives, such as when they come home from hospital or when they first go to nursery, and so on into the teenage years and beyond. However, I do not believe that it would be right to interfere and to criminalise parents for smacking, which is why we shall continue to resist a free vote on any amendment that would create a new offence.
§ Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)(Lab)
In two days' time, I suspect, this Chamber will be a bit busier with hon. Members than it is now, because we will be discussing fox hunting. Can the Minister explain to me 1012 the logic of our being allowed a free vote on fox hunting but not on something like the physical punishment of children? Surely, if anything is a conscience issue, that is.
§ Margaret Hodge
I know that my hon. Friend has fought long and hard on the issue and feels passionately about it, as do many other hon. Members in the Chamber. However, the Government have taken the view that, if we were to move to a total ban on smacking, that would create a new offence, which would not in any way support all the policies with which I prefaced my contribution, and through which we are trying to support positive and better parenting. Because we do not want to create a new offence, we felt that the amendments tabled by some Members in another place would have been an inappropriate issue for a free vote.
§ Peter Bottomley
I agree with the Minister on smacking, but I also agree with the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe). Why cannot the right hon. Lady trust her Back Benchers with a free vote, to be convinced by the arguments?
§ Margaret Hodge
I assure all hon. Members that we shall continue to listen to the debate and, as in the House of Lords, we shall consider when and whether a free vote on particular amendments is appropriate. But the Government have taken a pretty clear view that in this contentious area we do not want to create a new offence, which we think will not support our determination to give parents better support in parenting their children in the home.
§ Mr. Hinchliffe
I appreciate my right hon. Friend's giving way again. Bearing it in mind that a total of 12 European countries have managed to deal with the issue of removing the defence of reasonable chastisement, outlawing punishment and giving children equal treatment against assault, why is it so difficult for this country to do exactly the same thing?
§ Margaret Hodge
Interestingly enough, I met representatives from some of the countries that have completely banned smacking. Most recently, my hon. Friend brought somebody from Germany and somebody from Sweden to talk to me. The representative of one of the countries—Sweden, I think—told us that there was a long and slow process of reform, so I hope that the amendment moved by Lord Lester in the House of Lords, which takes us further in ensuring that the defence is not used in such a way as to give succour to people who believe that any form of abuse is allowable, is a welcome first step as we build a consensus. If my hon. Friend wishes to make progress, he needs to work with others to build a consensus in the wider community around a very contentious issue, which is seen to be an interference in the privacy of family life.
§ Julie Morgan
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the campaign in support of getting rid of the defence of reasonable chastisement is probably the biggest coalition of voluntary bodies that there has ever been? It has the support of the Catholic Church, the Association 1013 of Directors of Social Services, the United Reformed Church—the list is endless. Does she agree that there is already a good deal of consensus?
§ Margaret Hodge
I accept entirely that there is a powerful coalition on the issue, but it is a coalition of professionals. We need to move beyond the professional consensus to an acceptance by parents, which I do not believe yet exists around such a complicated issue.
§ Mr. Dawson
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Would she please look further into the situation in Sweden? It is my information that way back in 1957 the Swedish Government removed at a stroke the equivalent defence of reasonable chastisement, and thereafter the smacking of children was criminalised.
§ Margaret Hodge
I will not do anything by strokes, but I will undertake to look further into the matter. The information that we were given suggested that Sweden adopted a gradualist approach leading to that reform.
I said at the beginning of the debate that I am proud to bring the Bill to the Commons. In the Lords, it earned its deserved tag as the small Bill with a large heart. I am proud to be creating a children's commissioner for England, taking forward the most radical reform in children's services for a generation and laying the groundwork that will make it easier for professionals to work together in support of children, young people and families.
The Bill is not the first step in achieving better things for children, because hard-working and dedicated people such as professionals and voluntary groups, parents, children and young people have already taken the first steps, but it represents a further unique and important step towards a long-term change that will give us better children's services, and I am delighted to move it on Second Reading.
§ Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)(Con)
On behalf of the Opposition, I welcome the Bill. Since the announcement of Lord Laming's inquiry into the tragic death of Victoria Climbié, we have been calling for many of the measures that the Bill contains. When Lord Laming reported last year, we offered strong support for urgent measures and welcomed many of the proposals in the Green Paper "Every Child Matters", although we expressed concern about much of the missing detail.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House are familiar enough with the horrific events surrounding the death of Victoria Climbié, and we must not forget the 80 or so other cruel or unnecessary deaths of children each year at the hands of carers or parents that do not provoke the same publicity as the Climbié case. It is for Victoria Climbié and all the other victims of abuse—fatal or otherwise—and in the hope of preventing their numbers from being swelled in the future that we continue to give our support and co-operation.
1014 Herbert Laming made it clear in his report, which followed a succession of other depressingly familiar reports dealing with the deaths of children who had been failed by system, that this time things must be different, and that his recommendations could not, as he put it, be referred "to some bright tomorrow". Not one of the agencies empowered by Parliament to protect children such as Victoria Climbié emerged from the inquiry with much credit. As Herbert Laming put it, bad practice can be expensive.
The Bill is an opportunity to put that right, to join up all the agencies and individuals responsible for the welfare of children and, hopefully, to reverse many tarnished reputations and to give renewed hope to all the professionals in child care, social services and child protection who do their best for vulnerable children, often in spite of, rather than with the help of, the system.
The Bill has made great progress in the Lords, and we welcome the constructive way in which the noble Baroness Ashton of Upholland responded to and accepted amendments from both sides of the House—although we hear that some of those amendments may now be overturned. I hope that that spirit of co-operation and flexibility from Ministers will endure throughout the Bill's passage through the House, in pursuit of our shared greater ambitions for children.
Baroness Ashton introduced the Bill asour vision to improve life chances for all children and young people, with a particular focus on the most vulnerable, including those who are disabled; those who are cared for by the local authority or are otherwise outside their immediate families; those who have experienced changes in their family circumstances, perhaps through bereavement; or those at risk of abuse or violence … We want to focus on better prevention so that support can be offered early, when it is needed, in a way that responds to the needs of children and their parents and carers."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 March 2004; Vol. 659, c. 1208.]We concur with those aims.
My noble Friend Lord Howe agreed that the Bill represents a fantastic opportunity:This is a Bill which is, at heart, about finding better ways of doing what we already do."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 March 2004; Vol. 659, c. 1214.]That is true, and it is essential that we get the Bill right. Some of the more radical changes that the Government propose must be accompanied by as much detail as possible in the Bill itself, and their workability must be properly thought through so that as many people as possible who are involved in the area are taken along with them.
We will table a number of constructive amendments in Committee in an attempt to add clarity to the Bill and to tease out the Government's thinking, not least on data sharing, on which their proposals are, at best, muddled and incomplete, and in relation to which we will introduce our own models.
In welcoming the Bill, I also welcome the opportunity to debate issues concerning vulnerable children. I remind the Minister that this is our first opportunity to debate this important subject in this Chamber, in Government time, during this Parliament, despite the welcome creation of her role as Minister for Children. The joined-up approach in the Bill seems particularly important as we read today's headlines. The front page of The Guardian features an article about the deterioration in the mental health of our young people 1015 and children. The Sun carries a headline about the "sex time bomb" and discusses the considerable problems involved in sexually transmitted diseases and responsible sex education. Those issues must be considered in combination with the obvious cases of vulnerable children that the Bill primarily addresses.
§ Miss Kirkbride
One thing that was missing from the Minister's remarks about providing better services for children was the fact that they are often let down because social workers are undervalued and change jobs so frequently that there is no continuity of service among the departments in which they work. If vulnerable children are not readily seen by the same people, the simple fact is that no matter what institutions and mechanisms are put in place, they will not be caught by the Bill. I shall be interested to see what my hon. Friends and the Minister say about that in Committee.
§ Tim Loughton
My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is an aspect that we will certainly address and to which I shall turn later in my speech. We have many very good social workers. Although they are often the first people to have the finger of blame pointed at them, many do a fine job in very difficult circumstances. Because many vacancies have to be covered by agency staff, there is not the continuity of care towards cases for which one would wish. In every case I sat in on when I spent the morning in a family court in London recently, I found that the social worker involved was not the social worker who had initiated the case. Interestingly, every single one was Australian. Although exceedingly impressive, they will not be over here for long enough to see many of those cases through. That is part of the problem. We can change the structure and create new committees and titles, but that will not make a difference where it matters unless we have the people on the ground.
The Conservatives take this issue very seriously. That is why over the past few years we have devoted official Opposition debating time to the subject of vulnerable children; have organised children's summits on the subject at Westminster; and have tackled related subjects such as the abuse of the internet by child abusers and paedophiles and the inadequate arrangements for promoting equal parenting as between resident and non-resident parents in the interests of their children. We are continuing to engage in wide-ranging dialogues and policy formulation with a large number of children's organisations.
Before highlighting some of our concerns about what is in the Bill—or what remains outside it—I shall set out the guiding principles that we will apply in proposing our amendments. First, we echo the sentiments of the noble Baroness Ashton when she assured the upper House on Second Reading that the Government would beprescriptive only where we believe that this is necessary to ensure accountability or to protect children's welfare."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 March 2004; Vol. 659, c. 1209.]It is surely right that, where possible, local authorities that are already doing good work in improving child protection should be able to continue to do so according to local structures and local circumstances. Local authorities are already bogged down by ill-thought-out 1016 and usually ill-financed Government diktats and do not need more of the same just for the sake of it. We welcome Government assurances that partnership working is at the heart of their reforms and hope that that will be borne out in practice. I give a particularly warm welcome to the Government's success in encouraging participation in this exercise by children and young people, who gave an impressive number of responses to the consultation.
Our second guiding principle in assessing the Bill will be the basis on which it adds to quality outcomes. We can appoint as many children's commissioners or children's tsars as we can shake a stick at—apparently the Liberal Democrats want a children's commissioner for every region of England—and set up as many new committees and structures as there are bureaucrats to organise the paperwork for them, but in the end the Bill must be about protecting as many children as possible from abuse, and ultimately death, and promoting the life chances of as many vulnerable children as possible.
This is not about ticking boxes to register the number of new officials who are given titles or the number of committees that they set up or meetings that they hold.
§ Mr. Dawson
Would the hon. Gentleman include children in custody in the category of vulnerable children that he mentioned? If so, what would he do to prevent them from dying there?
§ Tim Loughton
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, for once without having a go at me, which is welcome. I am sure that that will come later. We shall discuss children in prison and in the penal system and table amendments on the subject. Recent developments in court cases have left a deal of confusion as between the responsibility of social services and that of the prison system for the welfare of children in custody. The Bill provides an opportunity for greater clarification, for which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will push in Committee should he be involved in those proceedings.
My third point is that none of what we are considering can be achieved unless there are skilled professionals on the ground to knock on doors, investigate abuse and work with others to root it out. I fear that that is currently far from the case. Social worker vacancies remain worryingly high, especially in London and the south-east of England. Recruitment for social services staff has not been nearly as high a priority as that for doctors and nurses. The recruitment campaign launched by the then Secretary of State for Health—who miraculously reappeared in a Cabinet position last week—was not followed through, and we have yet to perceive any great results from it.
A Unison survey of social services departments revealed a heavy reliance on agency staff and a high staff turnover, with 60 per cent. of departments saying that even if all the vacant posts were filled there would still not be enough social workers to manage the current case loads—before the additional work and responsibilities for which the Bill provides are introduced.
Have some local authorities taken notice of events in the past few years? Last week, we read the worrying stories about Haringey, where it was discovered that 18 people employed by the social services department had criminal records. When the records appeared in 1017 Criminal Records Bureau checks, they were ignored in some cases and the people were still employed by Haringey social services department. Evidence has now come to light showing that one of those people was a convicted paedophile, who was given a job working with children with learning difficulties.
Despite all the hot air and the supposed extra regulation from Government, the abuses continue. More worryingly, some authorities appear not to take them seriously. I hope the Minister will examine in particular the case I have mentioned, and will respond urgently to the parliamentary questions that I have tabled.
We are also concerned that, although the Bill deals primarily with introducing new procedures and partnership working to protect vulnerable children, the media coverage—to wake the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) up—has focused entirely on the emotive subject of smacking, which this afternoon has threatened to lengthen considerably the Minister's opening speech. The Bill did not begin as a measure to legislate against smacking, and I hope that it will not be hijacked in this House as it was in their lordships' House. There are too many important issues at stake in the original measure. We shall doubtless be subject to a tight timetable—I hope that the Bill will not be derailed altogether by the latest posturing about fox hunting—and we should not allow valuable time to be diverted to debating smacking, rather than the wider issues of child abuse. I trust that hon. Members will adhere to that in Committee and during our doubtless limited time on Report.
§ Mr. Hinchliffe
I think the hon. Gentleman was deliberately provoking me to intervene and I shall not disappoint him. He must be aware that at least one child a week in this country dies at the hands of parents or carers. That is at least 80 a year. It is a disgraceful figure and I do not apologise for concentrating on an issue—physical punishment—which, having been involved in child protection, I believe relates directly to the number of child deaths in this country.
§ Tim Loughton
The hon. Gentleman and I agree on the solutions that need to be introduced in the Bill to attack child abuse. My point is that, although smacking may be part of that problem, it is an issue that threatens to overwhelm the whole of the Bill, and that we could lose valuable time which we desperately need to discuss some of the other details that need to be improved. The hon. Gentleman knows that, from the fact that there were virtually no media reports on the Children Bill until the amendments on smacking were discussed in the House of Lords. It would be unfortunate if that were to happen, as it would undermine much of the good work that needs to be done on the rest of the Bill. I need not talk about this issue at great length, because the Conservative party will quite rightly allow my colleagues a free vote on it, as we did in their lordships' House.
§ Tim Loughton
Well, we are talking about the Children Bill, and that is all I need say on the subject of 1018 smacking, other than to express my amused fascination at the way in which the Government propose to repeat their practice of allowing a free vote only on their favoured option—or, more bizarrely still, at the Liberal Democrats, whose policy is to criminalise smacking by parents but whose peers voted for another Liberal Democrat amendment on a so-called middle way.
§ Peter Bottomley
As Labour Members know, I supported the free vote option, but said to its organisers that I would not necessarily vote for the criminalising of smacking. When I said that I did not want ordinary parents criminalised for doing reasonably ordinary things, I was told that the Director of Public Prosecutions would ensure that there would not be any prosecutions. It therefore seems slightly odd to be pushing to incorporate such a measure in the Bill.
§ Tim Loughton
My hon. Friend may well think that, but I could not possibly comment. We shall invite contributions on the matter on Report, but I repeat my hope that it will not overwhelm the rest of the Bill.
I should like to outline some of the specific changes that we want to make to the Bill. We support the establishment of a children's commissioner for England, and will therefore defend the new clause 2—we have now made it clear that we shall have to—which was passed in the upper House and which rightly seeks to give the commissioner proper teeth, rather than creating the feeble poodle that the Government originally sought to create and now seek to recreate.
As I have said, the jury will be out on the creation of the children's commissioners until they have shown that they can have a real, positive effect on quality outcomes, but if we are going to the trouble of setting up such an office, for goodness' sake let us give its holder the proper powers to do the job properly, in an open and accountable way and independently of the Government. Under the original wording of clause 2, that would not have happened.
The Children's Society has stated that the changes made in the Lords mean that we are nowmuch closer to having a credible and effective children's champion, independent of Government, as promised in the Green Paper … England's commissioner must not be the poor relation in all of the other three parts of the UK who have strong investigatory powers and duties to protect and promote the rights of children and young people.One young respondent to the consultation exercise asked:What is the point in having a children's commissioner if they can't do their job properly?",and one Member of the upper House voiced a similar concern that the commissioner should not be "castrated". We shall therefore defend new clause 2, which I guess will take up quite a lot of the early deliberations in Committee.
We also want to clarify the relationship between England's commissioner and those in the rest of the United Kingdom. We want to establish a reporting mechanism to Parliament that is independent of the Secretary of State and has clear procedures for producing meaningful responses by the Government and other relevant parties. We shall also table amendments to clarify who is responsible for children 1019 normally resident in England but who receive education or medical treatment in, say, Wales—or vice versa. Cross-border responsibilities are far from clear in the Bill and, as Lord Laming made clear, it is imperative that the question of where those responsibilities lie and where the buck stops should be quite open.
In relation to part 2 of the Bill, under the heading "Co-operation to improve well-being", we are concerned about the particular problems of children in care outside the responsible authority's area. The Minister has not touched on that point, and it did not really come up in the other place. Many hon. Members will be aware of the problems being caused by some errant young people being placed in small private children's homes far from their natural homes.
Nationally, there has been an explosion of private children's homes. In 2002–03, 1,172 such homes were registered, according to the Government's figures. By the following year, that figure had leapt by two thirds, to 1,956. They are mostly small, containing six or fewer people—which allows them to get round the planning regulations—and many offer a good service. In my constituency, in Worthing, however, the chief inspector of police has told me that earlier this year, 23 per cent. of one month's crime figures were down to a handful of youths from private children's homes in our town.
For example, one child in care in one of those private children's homes was supposedly responsible, over a period of between three and four years, for 66 calls to Sussex police regarding his activities, 38 recorded calls to Worthing police directly, had 12 recorded arrests in the town, was recorded as a missing person seven times, and since 2000, when he was aged 11—he is now aged 15—has committed one offence against the person, four offences against property, three theft and kindred offences, two public disorder offences, one offence relating to police and courts, and three miscellaneous offences. He also has a number of impending prosecutions. I fully acknowledge that that is probably at the upper end of the extremities in this regard, but it is very worrying.
West Sussex calculates—it has no way of doing so officially, because there is no duty to notify when placing people in the care of another authority—that about 200 children are placed by other authorities in our county. That one individual to whom I referred has been a mini crime wave on his own. That is not to suggest that the vast majority of those children will go down that slippery slope, but some of them are doing so.
The problem—which we need to see addressed—is the responsibility of the placing authority being properly recognised. It should be the responsibility of the placing authority, however distant it may be, to take responsibility for such children. In our case, however, which has been repeated up and down the country, it has fallen in the lap of the local police, the local magistrates court and the local social services, even though they have no duty of care or responsibility over that child. There is a problem with the line of accountability and where the buck stops—the issues that are dealt with in Lord Laming's report. The Commission for Social Care Inspection has at last been made aware of that problem, and we will table amendments urging the Government to adopt legislation to address it and to tackle the issue urgently, as it threatens to get out of hand in certain places.
1020 Under arrangements to safeguard and promote welfare, we want greater clarification on involving schools, as has been mentioned and presaged by the Minister for Children, as they are not named explicitly in the Bill. We would query the absence of explicit reference to schools and educational facilities in clauses 7 and 8. As the Local Government Association has said:School staff are closer to children's social, emotional and educational development than any other professionals. Schools are best placed to provide hubs for the co-ordination of all services for children.We will also address, as the Minister again foretold, the problem with including practitioners of health authorities—because we do not feel that it is sufficient to say that a legal obligation is not the be-all and end-all, as she has said—and other health care professionals outside of normal trusts, given the increasing amount of health care provided by autonomous trusts and bodies. We also believe that the immigration service at ports of entry should sign up to that responsibility, particularly when dealing with the increasing problems of unaccompanied child asylum seekers and child trafficking, about which we are all concerned.
The subject of databases will be one of the most problematic areas in the Bill. Unlike the Liberal Democrats, we believe that databases are necessary if the reforms are to be meaningful, but they are contentious and fraught with problems, and too much detail is still missing from the Bill. We welcome improvements instigated by my noble Friend Earl Howe in the upper House about standard criteria for how long information can be shared, and making sure that the information is accurate, for example. Currently, however, the Government are still leaving too much to as yet undetermined regulations.
The Minister answered a query earlier in relation to whether there will be a national database to include all 11 million-plus children; whether it will be in place on day one, or how they will come to be included, we do not know. I fear, however, that she confuses appearing on a database or list with being able to monitor and address properly those children's needs. Again, I fear that it smacks—not a good word to use—of the tick-box approach.
Who will have access to the databases, national or local? Will there be common thresholds for all relevant professionals to trigger a reference to a database? What on earth does the woolly reference to "any cause for concern" in clause 9(4)(g) mean, and what basis has it in law? That question has been raised by a great many bodies.
When will the Government be in a position to give fuller details of how the databases will work, given that many of the trailblazers are only part of the way through their assessments? Many, indeed, are in the middle of applying for second-wave funding, including mine in West Sussex. We are being asked, potentially, to write the Government a blank cheque on a highly significant issue within the next few weeks. Barnardo's has queried that, saying:The clause as currently drafted may lead to the establishment of information sharing systems that fail to contribute to better outcomes for children and young people, and potentially leave vulnerable children at risk.It also says:
1021The breadth of drafting of the clause may well lead to an overwhelming quantity of poor quality data, with professionals unable to identify those children in need of support.As I have said, there are particular problems involving the role of GPs and other health professionals contributing to databases in the light of confidentiality considerations. The Minister is well aware of that. The British Medical Association has said:It would be a shame if, as a result of the provisions in this bill, vulnerable children were dissuaded from using vital health and social care services because they no longer felt that doctors and other health professionals could protect their confidentiality.Let alone all the other pressures on GPs, there are serious question marks over how they will fit into the whole mechanism.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Dr. Stephen Ladyman)
Are not the issues the hon. Gentleman has raised just as significant whether we have a database listing only children at risk or a universal database?
§ Tim Loughton
No, because they will be replicated from an initial database that could consist of the 61,000 looked-after children, plus some others, in another requiring up-to-date information relating to more than 11 million children. Doctors will be required to give further details about their child patients, even if they are not concerned about child abuse or anything like that—simply because they change their address, for instance. I am alarmed that the Minister thinks that that could lead to anything other than an enormous multiplication of the amount of work that will be required of GPs, let alone everyone else.
§ Jonathan Shaw
In his response to my hon. Friend the Minister, the hon. Gentleman demonstrated how much ambiguity there could be if we referred to a particular group of children. He referred to children in care. We know about those children. The point is the children whom we do not know about. We cannot have any ambiguity if we are to do what the hon. Gentleman spoke of in his opening remarks, and not make the mistakes of the past.
§ Tim Loughton
The hon. Gentleman fails to acknowledge that putting the names—and perhaps addresses and national insurance numbers: I gather that the Government may be thinking along those lines—on a database does not necessarily make the children any safer, unless means exist to bring about action for those who are genuinely vulnerable. It is the tick-box mentality that worries me most. Making a list does not protect children; concentrating on those who are likely to be most vulnerable, for a whole range of reasons, is much more manageable and practical if they are to be given the attention, care and protection that the Bill is surely all about.
§ Margaret Hodge
I was trying to avoid intervening, because many other Members wish to contribute, but there is a basic misunderstanding of the purpose of the database. The database is merely a tool that will make it easier for professionals to take the action that they need to take. In no way does this constitute an action in itself.
1022 What will be shown on the database is this. If a professional has a particular concern about a particular child—we will discuss this in Committee—the concern itself will not appear on the database, but the fact that the professional has a concern will. If another professional were to have a concern as well, all that would be facilitated would be the two professionals speaking to each other and then taking the appropriate action to safeguard, protect and promote better outcomes for children.
§ Tim Loughton
The Minister has proved my point. It is the children who have triggered a cause for concern—as she puts it—and it is the mechanism by which that cause for concern is triggered that we need to concentrate on, instead of putting all children on a national database, which will do nothing to enhance the prospects of getting care for those in respect of whom a cause of concern has been triggered. This clearly shows that the Government have yet to decide on a great deal of the detail, and we and many of the relevant bodies are enormously confused about what this provision actually amounts to. I appreciate that the Government still have a lot of work to do, but we are being asked to write a blank cheque in the next few weeks for what is a significant and important measure.
I shall not go into great detail now—I shall do so in Committee—but we envisage two models, the first of which concerns the local hub. If the relevant professionals—the general practitioner, the social worker, the teacher, the police officer and so on—have cause for concern about a particular child, they should be able to flag it up directly with the office of the director of children's services, and the information should be kept on a database. Where several professionals—or even just one—provide such information, it should be up to the office of the director of children's services to decide whether action is required. There would be a reporting mechanism, the practicalities of which we can talk about.
Secondly, a national database is needed to deal with the transient child who, for example, leaves Dagenham and ends up in Worthing, where no data exist showing that there were suspicions that they were being abused, or being subjected to violence by someone in the domestic environment, or by others who were in charge. But that database need not automatically contain all 11 million children. It needs to be a mutual reference, so that when the child turns up in Worthing and comes into contact with social services, the police or the education authorities, those organisations can refer to the database if they have a particular concern. They could then be told that some information is available on that child, and that they need to speak to the director of social services in Dagenham, Barking or wherever it may be.
We do not see why, in trying to concentrate on the most vulnerable children, it is necessary to clog up the system with all 11 million children. I look forward to debating in Committee the relative merits of our system and of the Minister's yet-to-be-formulated system. On the face of it, she is trying to create a surrogate identity card scheme. The suggestion of using national insurance numbers also gives cause for concern. That system is 1023 already greatly discredited—we have substantially more national insurance numbers than citizens in this country.
§ Tim Loughton
I shall very generously—and perhaps for the last time, so that he can speak later—give way to the hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Dawson
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Is he not trying to create a system with holes in it? It relies on far too many subjective definitions and hardly caters at all for those who want to evade it and to hide the child's identity. Is he not being massively inconsistent in drawing attention—rightly—to the role that the immigration authorities should play in such a system, but then saying that the vast majority of children should play no part in it?
§ Tim Loughton
There is no reason why such a system should contain more holes than one that simply lists everyone who happens to be a child. We will need to continue this debate on Report, because I remain unconvinced. I began by saying that we support the idea of a database, but it needs to work and to benefit the people whom it is supposed to benefit. We should not simply create another database that involves sleepwalking into a surveillance society, as Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, has put it. Setting up such a comprehensive national system would also lead to all sorts of problems with data protection; and key questions remain about security and who would have access to the system.
I want to consider a final point on databases that the Bill has totally ignored. The system is completely one-sided and we will be looking to set up an appeals procedure. There seems to be no mechanism whereby a perfectly good parent or a professional against whom concerns have, for whatever reason, been wrongfully expressed can challenge the inclusion of information relating to the person on the database. Circumstances can change and vexatious complaints can be initiated by professionals against individuals. In the vast majority of cases I hope that that will not happen, but there are no checks and balances for the few cases where it will.
I look forward to hearing the Minister's assurances that our suggestion for proper checks and balances may not be necessary. However, I suspect that they will be—certainly they were in setting up the potential leviathan of the Financial Services Authority, which deals with all sorts of professional bodies. On the face of it, checks and balances are missing from the Bill, so we will propose amendments to rectify the difficulty. There should be a procedure whereby people giving rise to "cause for concern", in the Government's own terminology, should be able to challenge the veracity or continued relevance of the complaints rather than risk being fingered indefinitely.
We will also propose some technical amendments about the running of the local safeguarding children boards. On the inspection framework, there is surely a greater role for children's services authorities in overseeing nurseries, particularly in view of recent revelations about abuses and the failure of the Ofsted 1024 inspectorate on its unannounced inspections. That is particularly important given the likely proliferation of such places in the future.
On the duty of local authorities to promote educational achievement, set out in clause 44, it has to be said that the current circumstances are a scandal. I wholeheartedly concur with the intentions behind this part of the Bill. It is a scandal that only 44 per cent. of young people leaving care had gained at least one GCSE or GNVQ compared with 96 per cent. of all year 11 children at large. It is a scandal that as few as 1 per cent. of young people leaving care go on to university and that fewer than 6 per cent. go on to any form of further education—let alone all the other problems that they are likely to face by having to move schools more often than non-looked-after children and all the additional health problems that they are likely to suffer. Surely the placing authorities—social services departments—should be much more mindful of the desirability of stability and continuity in the school of an individual in care. All that is, indeed, a scandal.
Too much of the existing guidance—on designated teachers and governors and proper educational plans for looked-after children—has been and is being ignored. There is no excuse for the social workers who are responsible for individual children in care not to attend parent evenings at school. They should be placed on the same basis as other parents who, to the great embarrassment of the rest of us, fail to attend such evenings.
I also recognise that there are problems with admissions policies, but arrangements for accessing schools must not prejudice other children living with birth parents. The clause should deal with that problem. There must be equality of opportunity in education—the key to helping many vulnerable children.
§ Jonathan Shaw
Does the hon. Gentleman think that it is right for the adjudicator to say to admissions authorities—independent or local authority schools—that children should be number one when it comes to the oversubscribed criteria? Is that right?
§ Tim Loughton
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I do not necessarily agree with that. The mechanics of how to advantage looked-after children within the school system need to be thoroughly debated. I want to bring about a system in which looked-after children are greatly advantaged within schools. We must ensure that they receive the equality of opportunity within education that I spoke about earlier. I realise that that has been greatly abused and is likely to be even further abused in view of the greater independence that schools have for their admissions policies. [Interruption.] The potential is absolutely there. We have to find a balance between recognising the independence and autonomy of schools and ensuring that looked-after children are not left behind. It is not a straightforward matter.
A child who lives with his birth parents could live next door to a foster child who lives with foster parents. If both applied to an oversubscribed school it might be more appropriate, for whatever reason, for the child with birth parents to attend it. Is it right to be discriminated against in order to promote the 1025 educational advances of the child in foster care? [Interruption.] That is precisely the sort of problem that the issue raises. I am not suggesting that I have the model solution to the problem, but we will need to debate the issue properly in Committee. It risks producing a considerable amount of prejudice among parents whose children miss out in relation to the looked-after children whom we desperately need to help to make educational advances. It is a contentious argument and, as the Bill stands now, we need to go into far more detail about how the policy will be carried out in practice. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) has admitted that many schools do not follow the procedures, so we must secure more consistency in that respect.
Finally, the Bill does not make sufficient reference to the specific needs of disabled children and it makes no provision to ensure an assumption of reasonable contact between siblings who may be in care separately. Given that the Bill is about children, we will take the earliest opportunity to insert amendments to give non-resident parents a legal presumption of equal parenting rights, unless there is a particular threat to the welfare of child. Clearly, it must be in the child's best interests. Following our recent summit, Conservative proposals for the next election will—in contrast to the Minister's fudge in her Green Paper—deal with that scandal. Perhaps she will intervene to explain herself.
§ Margaret Hodge
I was bewildered by the later part of the hon. Gentleman's speech. Is he saying that the Opposition believe that the interests of the child should not be paramount in decisions taken about access or contact, or is he saying that the interests of parents—in equal parenting—should have priority over the interests of the child? The two cannot go together. The hon. Gentleman has to choose between the one or the other principle.
§ Tim Loughton
That is complete rubbish, and the Minister knows it. There are no implications here for the welfare of the child being paramount, as she admitted herself at the beginning of her speech when she said that what is in the best interests of the child is to have the love and attention of both parents. At the moment, no legal right is enshrined for parents who are unfairly excluded from being able to be good and loving parents. That is the injustice that we want the Bill to deal with. The Minister has singularly failed on that with her ill-thought-out, half-fudged and half-baked Green Paper on the subject—it has been around for far too long—even though she was chased out of her burrow by our Westminster summit on the subject back in July.
How will the Children Bill fit in with the long overdue national services framework for children, which I gather may be produced on Wednesday? On the subject of private fostering, we do not believe that the proposals are strong enough. One last voluntary push is necessary, according to the Minister, but how many last pushes do we need before we properly deal with those people who are cocking a snook at the law in private fostering arrangements? My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) mentioned that earlier.
1026 What account will the Bill take of the use of expert witnesses in care cases? The Government announced a review at the beginning of the year in the light of the Canning judgment, so how will the legislation impact on the qualifications of expert witnesses and their preparedness to come forward? We also have reservations about the timetable and accountability of children's trusts, on which the Government place so much expectation. As the National Children's Bureau queried, who will be accountable for the children's trusts? If children's services authorities are the governing bodies, how will clinical governance over health staff and their professional development be addressed?
The timetable for children's trusts also seems to be getting pushed back. As last week's Children Now survey showed, fewer than two thirds of councils are working to meet the 2006 deadline to set up their children's trusts and 56 per cent. of councils have not yet started recruiting for a director of children's services. As one director put it, there has been an overemphasis on structural change, because it is the bit that people can get their heads around.
Surely the preparedness of children's trusts and the close integration that they represent is key to the effective implementation of the Bill, and we will look for assurances on that point from the Minister.
How will many of the Bill's provisions be funded, given the severe confusion and ensuing chaos over the funding of the many accomplished and relevant projects by the children's fund earlier this year? Many voluntary groups and projects operating on a shoestring are still worried about their future sustainability.
As I said at the outset, we strongly support the Bill, but we think that it can be greatly improved to make it work better. We will seek to raise many of the issues that I have mentioned, and others, in Committee, and we will do so constructively, positively and flexibly. We hope that the Government will respond accordingly, as the urgent goals that we all wish to achieve on behalf of vulnerable children are too great to miss because of parliamentary niceties.
§ 6 pm
§ Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) (Lab)
This wide-ranging Bill will be a landmark in the improvement of services, opportunities and protection for children. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on introducing it, and the whole Government team who have worked hard on it.
The first issue I wish to consider is the role of the commissioner for children. I rejoice that the Government have at last agreed to a children's commissioner in England. We have had one in Wales since April 2001 and I like to think that it was the work done in the Welsh Office from 1997 that enabled the National Assembly to push forward with the agenda for a Children's Commissioner for Wales.
§ Mr. Griffiths
Well, I have to agree with that. I would even say that I am elated by the progress that we have made. Nevertheless, I remain worried about one or two 1027 aspects of the role of the children's commissioner. I am relaxed about how clause 2 has come to us from the other place. I concede the need for some fine tuning, but I would much rather have clause 2 as it is now than as it was when the Bill was first published. I hope that we will have an opportunity in Committee to make clear the role of the children's commissioner in England in respect of his or her responsibilities in Wales on non-devolved issues and how that will work with the Children's Commissioner for Wales.
It is interesting that responsibility for CAFCASS has been devolved to the Children's Commissioner for Wales. If I were being cynical, I might think that that was because of all the difficulties that arose from the creation of CAFCASS and that the opportunity was taken to give someone else the responsibility of making it work properly, at least in Wales. I would dearly love to think that the commissioner in England would have the same powers—on matters relating to England—that the Children's Commissioner for Wales has on devolved matters. As for those issues that are not devolved and will therefore be the responsibility of the commissioner established by the Bill, there should be clear working arrangements to enable the Children's Commissioner for Wales to act as the representative of the commissioner created by this Bill, so that children in Wales will have a one-stop shop for their concerns. We should do everything possible to ensure that the commissioner for England will have an excellent working relationship with the Children's Commissioner for Wales.
§ Hywel Williams
The hon. Gentleman will be familiar with the concerns of the Children's Commissioner for Wales that his role is different from that proposed for the commissioner in England, whatever that commissioner will be called. How would the hon. Gentleman address the point about the credibility of the Welsh commissioner being undermined by a perceived lack of independence from the English children's commissioner?
§ Mr. Griffiths
We do not need to worry about the standing and the independence of the Children's Commissioner for Wales on devolved issues. I want to ensure that, when the process is complete, the commissioner in England, who will have responsibility for some non-devolved issues in Wales, has a similar role to that of the commissioner in Wales on devolved issues. For example, Government Departments in England should have the duty to respond within three months to commissioner recommendations, as happens in Wales. We will need to address such points in Committee and on Report. I hope that we will not see any diminution of the powers of the commissioner, as already expressed in the Bill. Indeed, perhaps the work of the commissioner in England and in other parts of the United Kingdom could be improved and strengthened.
§ Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy)(Lab)
If that does not happen, does my hon. Friend agree that—as the Welsh Affairs Committee said in its report—linguistic issues or other non-devolved issues might not be resolved in 1028 respect of a child from Wales who is in an institution in England? If that happens, the only person to suffer will be the child.
§ Mr. Griffiths
Yes, and we must ensure that such issues are fully resolved in the Bill and that any commitments made by the Minister to issue guidance are met.
The protections given in clause 8 should include refugee and asylum-seeker children. We should not stand by the reservation that we have to the convention on the rights of the child, because those children are already disadvantaged enough. We should ensure that they do not suffer further disadvantage while they—either on their own or with their parents—seek refuge in the United Kingdom.
I may annoy the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) by discussing whether the smacking issue will hijack the Bill, but it has been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe). I do not think that it will, and the issue should not be discussed in those terms. I believe that the issue of whether children should have equal protection to that which adults enjoy is fundamental to the issues that the Bill is designed to tackle. The whole problem of child abuse can be traced back to the way in which we have deeply embedded in our culture the right for parents and carers to smack their children.
§ Mr. Griffiths
The hon. Gentleman says that that is rubbish, but the whole situation is Dickensian. The basis of the law on which we are acting goes back to 1860, a time when it was considered normal to beat children until they bled. We have come a long way since then, but the right to smack is still deeply embedded in our psyche.
I take that issue very seriously. The clause 49 compromise in the other place is inadequate.
§ Mr. Turner
On consideration, does the hon. Gentleman not think that his description diminishes the suffering of some of the children whom the Bill is designed to protect? The suggestion that, for example, Victoria Climbiés suffering was something to do with legislation on smacking children is completely absurd.
§ Mr. Griffiths
It is not completely absurd. Because of the defence of reasonable chastisement, smacking has been too easy. There was even a court case in which beating a child with the bough of a tree was considered reasonable chastisement in the circumstances. The important thing is that we give children equal protection with adults and that we outlaw smacking. That will begin to attack the idea that parents can smack children in such ways. Only a minority may do so, but none the less 80 or more children are killed every year in circumstances that relate to our allowing ourselves to think that it is okay for parents and carers to smack children.
We do not think that it is okay for parents and carers to smack adults in comparable circumstances; that would be brawling, affray or grievous bodily harm. 1029 When adults knock each other about, there is a gamut of offences to deal with it, yet under our current law children can be hit.
§ Mr. Dawson
Does my hon. Friend recall the chilling words of Carl Manning, the murderer of Victoria Climbié? He was reported as saying that she could take a beating like anything.
§ Mr. Griffiths
We need to keep reminding ourselves of such awful things, because children are legally being hit. A recent Government-sponsored survey showed that more than 90 per cent. of children were being hit regularly—nearly half were being hit weekly and 35 per cent. were being punished in a manner that their parents or carers thought severe. It is incredible to think that 75 per cent. of the mothers interviewed for that survey had smacked their baby in the first year of its life. Those are terrible things and we need to act positively to get rid of them.
§ Jonathan Shaw
Does my hon. Friend agree that quoting Manning's words—as our hon. Friend the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) did just now—in the horrendous case of the abuse of Victoria Climbié and making a comparison between that and a gentle tap on the back of the legs of a two-year-old just will not chime with the general public?
§ Mr. Griffiths
I shall come to that point shortly. I agree that there is a huge difference, but perhaps we are afraid to face up to the facts, and we need to do so. I have already mentioned that our law is based on an archaic judgment made in 1860. We must also remember that there are specific human rights obligations to which we must adhere; for example, we have signed up to the UN convention on the rights of the child. On several occasions, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has put it to our Government that we need to amend our law, as we are not treating children properly. Not only international bodies, but almost everybody involved in child protection and the care and promotion of children's rights, whether professionals, voluntary bodies or others with an interest in children—more than 350 organisations—backs equal protection for children. We need a legal framework to change our culture of hitting children.
My right hon. Friend the Minister referred to the fact that such changes had taken place in Sweden over a long period. When the Swedes made it illegal to hit children the majority of people surveyed at the time were against the law, yet now only 6 per cent. of parents still want the right to smack their children. That shows how important it is to get the legal framework right. We need that cultural change.
We must also give much greater priority to provisions for positive parenting. Many parents have already come to the conclusion that it is wrong to smack their children and have found other ways of disciplining them. By getting rid of the defence of reasonable chastisement, we would be taking a major step forward in the push for positive parenting.
We know that such reforms work. A dozen states already have commissioners and there has been a huge improvement in the situation in Sweden, where the legal 1030 framework has existed for the longest time. We should draw something positive from that and take steps today. Sensationalising in papers such as The Sun should not fool us. Recent opinion polls suggest that people will support equal protection for children—more than 70 per cent. in a MORI poll. It was interesting that 76 per cent. of under-24-year-olds wanted equal protection; for women, the figure was 73 per cent., while for parents it was 74 per cent. The Government have a sound basis for making such provisions. A Populus poll showed that a majority of young people wanted equal protection for children.
We should support an amendment to give equal protection because it is right. I was a bit chilled to be told that we would not be allowed a free vote on that issue. As a parent, I made the decision many years ago not to chastise our children physically and managed to keep to it. Both my children are well into their 30s and neither can recollect ever being hit—although they can remember times when I exploded. However, we managed and we can all manage. As a child, I received some hefty beatings and some people may see that as a good reason to abolish physical punishment. Although I do not feel permanently scarred by that process I still believe that giving equal protection is far better.
Finally, I turn to some issues to which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham alluded—personnel and finance. If the Bill is to work properly, substantial extra finance will be needed and much will have to be done to encourage people to move into work relating to children. Such workers have taken so many knocks recently that it will not be an easy job.
I wish the Bill well. I shall not be able to support every aspect of it. From the sound of things, I shall not be able to support some of the amendments that the Government will table, but I am fairly sure that whatever the state of the measure at the end of the process it will be far better than what we have at present. I shall be happy to support it in that context, although I hope that what I have spoken about today will come to pass so that I can be deliriously happy when the Bill receives Royal Assent.
§ Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)(LD)
I congratulate the Members of the other place on their assiduous work on the Bill. They certainly spent many a long hour on it. I particularly mention those on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench—Baroness Walmsley and her team. As I read the lengthy passages in the Lords Hansard that cover the deliberations on the Bill in the other place, I was struck by the thoughtfulness and responsiveness of the Minister there throughout, so I am disappointed that the Minister is missing from the Chamber now. The cross-party approach on many aspects of the Bill is to be highly commended and has resulted in great improvements in the Bill. I hope that we will work cross-party throughout the Committee to improve it further.
Although the Government may feel that the time spent on the Bill in the other place provides an excuse for allocating such a short time for the House to scrutinise it, the Liberal Democrats believe that a wide range of important issues still require detailed debate, especially if another 15 years pass before there is further major 1031 legislation on this issue. We support the Government's aim in introducing the Bill, and look forward to making positive contributions to ensure that the legislation will indeed improve children's lives and help to enhance services and support for all young people. Indeed, I hope that we achieve what the Minister outlined: a true transformation in services—over time, of course.
We strongly endorse the aim of achieving the five outcomes for children, as outlined in "Every Child Matters": being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution and economic well-being. It is interesting to see how those outcomes were expressed on Second Reading in the other place and how they have been amended. Education and training did not seem to match with enjoying and achieving, and we welcome the inclusion of recreation.
We also welcome the inclusion of emotional well-being, along with social and economic well-being. Staying safe, of course, involves a proactive, preventive agenda, as some hon. Members have mentioned today. However, we share the Children's Society's concern about how the achievement of those outcomes will be measured. We also believe that equality of opportunity should be considered within the outcome framework and hope that the Government will address that issue. Gaining access to important services is likely to be far more difficult for those with specialist needs.
It is heartening that clause 45, on ascertaining children's wishes, was introduced on Report in the other place, but it is worrying that it was not at the heart of Government thought and included earlier. Even so, despite the Minister's words, insufficient emphasis seems to have been given in the Bill to listening to children and taking on board their views and experiences, which must be seen as important in the context of evaluating the outcomes and, of course, in all the processes. That reminds us that no one appeared to ask Victoria Climbié her views and feelings about her situation.
I recall that, long ago in the Fred West case, early clues were missed because children were not fully listened to. That has happened time and again. We have missed vital clues and we need to put more emphasis in the Bill on that aspect of listening to children. The Children's Society calls on the Government to take the opportunity of the Bill to place a new duty on local authorities actively to seek the wishes and feelings of all children about whom there are child protection concerns. I hope that, when the Minister returns, we will have some idea about whether that is being considered.
A strong, independent champion of children's rights was needed and we particularly welcome the establishment of the children's commissioner. That was a proposal in the Liberal Democrats' general election manifesto for 2001, so we are delighted that, yet again, the Government will implement one of our policies. Of course, we acknowledge that Wales has had a children's commissioner since 2001, and we are lagging behind Scotland and Northern Ireland.
We read the first proposals put before the other House with great disappointment. The cross-party approach there resulted in the now proposed commissioner for England. At least that bit has been endorsed today, and while I am pleased about that, what I am really pleased about is the fact that the 1032 commissioner will be firmly based on the rights of the child and reflect the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. We certainly would strongly oppose any move by the Government to reverse any of those key changes. We have heard some strong hints today that there will be attempts at reversal. I accept that further clarification is probably needed with regard to the interaction between the four commissioners in the different parts of the UK and look forward to debating that in Committee.
We should like some further amendments to be made, particularly in relation to the Secretary of State's power to direct the commissioner to hold an inquiry. We think it important that the children's commissioner is truly independent of the Government. Of course, the commissioner can always consider a request, but it is important that the commissioner has discretion. A cynic might feel that the Secretary of State—a future one, of course, I am sure—might keep the commissioner so tied down with directed inquiries that the commissioner would have little time left for the priorities, perhaps set by children.
On Third Reading in the other place, the Minister indicated that there might well be a Government amendment relating to the requirement on the Government or others to respond to the commissioner's recommendations. We would greatly welcome that. A requirement for some longer-term monitoring on whether action has taken place and its effectiveness would also be positive. A few other issues were not fully answered during that debate and we shall return to them in Committee.
Concern continues to be raised that schools have not been included in the list of partners who will have a duty to make arrangements to co-operate and to improve children's well-being under clause 7, which is about strategic functions. I can understand the argument for including only local education authorities, but independent schools, city academies and city technology colleges have very limited relationships with current LEAs and the new funding arrangements currently under discussion will further reduce links between schools and LEAs. That issue must be revisited, although we must also be mindful of the extra duties placed on schools. We welcome the proposals on extended schools because they will provide vital further opportunities to support children and families.
As other hon. Members have said, it is important that all children who live in this country are eligible for the same rights. The children of refugees and asylum seekers should have the basic human rights afforded to all children in this country.
§ Mr. Andrew Turner
The hon. Lady referred to extended schools, and there are certainly some imaginative proposals. She says that she supports those proposals, but does she think that local or national taxpayers should pay for them?
§ Mrs. Brooke
I see schools in the context of the LEAs, and I will look in great detail at where the funding streams will come through to LEAs, but we favour local decision making in implementation.
Refugee children were identified as those in greatest need in "Every Child Matters", yet amendments proposed in the other place were resisted. We certainly 1033 wish to revisit some of the discussion. We welcome the fact that, under clause 8, the relevant agencies that provide services to children will have a duty to make arrangements to safeguard and promote welfare, but we feel that the relevant agencies must include those responsible for immigration detention centres where children are held, the National Asylum Support Service and those who deal with refugee children at ports. That is urgent, given the concerns about trafficking and the rise in the number of refugee children being detained.
The detention of children will always raise serious child protection concerns. In 2002, the view of the inspector of prisons was thatthe positive development of children was compromised by the secure nature of the facility"—Dungavel—and the uncertainty surrounding the length of stay".
She made various recommendations on immigration removal centres, with further recommendations in 2003. What progress has been made on their implementation? In a reply to a recent parliamentary question, I was told:The Immigration Service does not routinely collect data on children arriving in the United Kingdom."—[Official Report, 19 July 2004; Vol. 424, c. 74W.]I know that several measures have been introduced recently to ensure that such children at risk are identified, but surely we must have comprehensive data on children who enter the country because, if we do not, the situation will not fit with the other proposals in the Bill.
I welcome the fact that youth offending teams and governors of prisons and secure training centres are included under the new duty to safeguard and promote welfare, but it is clear from the number of tragic suicides of young people in custody. Between 1990 and the present day, there were 186 self-inflicted deaths among under-21s in prison. How does that make us feel about our society and the system?
Recent statistics show that the number of children assessed as vulnerable and remanded in, or sentenced to, Prison Service custody in 2003–04 was 3,337, which represents a massive increase from 2000–01 when there were only 432 such cases. The recent death in custody of 14-year-old Adam Rickwood highlights the tragic situation that can result from that. I know that the Government have indicated their intention to legislate on youth justice sentencing in "Youth Justice—The Next Steps" and "Every Child Matters: The Next Steps", but the new safeguarding framework in the Bill offers us the opportunity to address concerns about vulnerable children who are sentenced to, or remanded in, custody now—before more of them die.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children raises the important point that the Bill does not adequately address the educational attainment of children in prisons. We know that children in the secure estate have low educational attainment because recent research shows that such children of school age have literacy and numeracy levels below those of children aged 11 and that more than a quarter have a level equivalent to that of an average child aged seven or younger. We also know that educational standards have an impact on reoffending rates, so addressing that matter in the Bill would be a positive step.
1034 Tackling housing need is central to the welfare of children. Shelter calls for the Bill to go further in two key respects by suggesting thatHousing need should be included among the key factors to be considered in promoting a child's well being; and … Action should be taken to ensure that children's services authorities … fulfil their responsibilities to homeless children under the Children Act.I have long been worried about how well councils—especially when different councils, such as county and district councils, are involved—ensure that housing and social services work together. I know that there are excellent examples of good practice, but it is easy for things to go wrong if those services do not work well together. Is the Minister considering issuing supporting guidance on housing?
We welcome the additional detail that is now provided in clause 9 because we could not have supported the original clause 8 given that its total lack of detail made it a blank cheque. We support the principle of a simple database with objective data. In the case of Victoria Climbié, a simple database would have shown that she was not attending a school. We appreciate that achievements can be made, but we need to know more about the details. Will the database be local, regional or national and will it have a relationship with existing databases?
There remain questions about the proposed flags of concerns on a child's record in the proposed database. The suggestion in the other place of finding an alternative name for those does not overcome our fundamental objections. Different professionals will have different thresholds of concern and, despite the probing amendments moved in the other place, the Government have not produced a more detailed definition of a "cause for concern". Confusion could result from different interpretations of the term. It is possible that those who work with children will tend to flag every minor concern rather than risk accusations of negligence. If the system constantly delivers alerts for trivial issues, any urgent intervention required might be obscured because people cannot see the wood for the trees. Children already at risk of harm might be overlooked.
It is important for different agencies to communicate clearly with each other and to take effective action. The database may be a tool, but it will not be a substitute for professional work. It is estimated that there is currently a shortage of some 2,000 children's social workers, but we must have well-trained social workers. I am aware that funding is available for training at present, but will the Minister assure me that funding streams will continue year on year to ensure that social workers and partners receive support for professional development and multi-agency work in all areas of child protection? All too often, the Government start something and do not continue it. At the moment, local authorities have money for training, but what will the situation be in five years' time? We must plan ahead.
One thing that could be useful would be if sufficient funding were provided for outreach work to access vulnerable families, rather than waiting for vulnerable families to access services: that would mean that people did not become aware of their social services only when they were in difficulty. People involved in the trailblazer 1035 pilots made it clear to me that knowledge about, and confidence in, the levels and types of data that may be shared under existing legislation was important. We share the worries of several organisations about the implications for children of having service contact details on their records if the nature of the services that they have accessed automatically infers private and confidential details about their personal situations. Such an inference could be drawn from children accessing HIV, sexual health or abortion clinics, or drugs services. It is critical to ensure that there are tighter access restrictions on details about such sensitive services, because neither parents nor children must be deterred from seeking help or advice. Clarification is needed on how risks to children caused by inappropriate access to data will be prevented.
We are told that consultation is taking place on such matters, and that guidance will be published in due course, but we need more details before the Committee stage. Who will see the database? Who will update the data? Who will remove data when they are out of date, and for how long should they be kept? Where will responsibility lie? And how will common standards be met throughout the country? There are matters relating to voluntary sector organisations now. They are signing service level agreements with local authorities now, and given that there is an assumption that everything in the Bill will go through, they need to know what will happen regarding the data.
I welcome many aspects of the Bill. I am pleased that there is confidence on both sides of the argument that we can change the structure of integrated services while maintaining sufficient accountability. There are questions about how the money will work out for children's trusts and how health priorities will match up with other priorities. A point has been raised with me about the ring-fencing of money for children's services. In my part of the country and throughout the south-west, money invariably has to be poached from adult social services to prop up the children's services budget, so what will happen when insufficient money is available owing to the ring-fencing of money for children's services? Given that the problem is widespread, that is an important consideration.
On private fostering, there is widespread agreement among interested organisations that proposals to amend the existing notification requirements do not address the failings of the current system. Rigorous standards apply to children in day care and to children accommodated by local authorities. However, the system for private fostering only requires the local authority to be notified of the arrangement, and does not require its approval. Once again, we must ask why there is not a compulsory registration scheme, as there have long been concerns about the system of notification. A register of suitable private foster parents would enable the designated local authority official to provide information to parents about the suitability of a prospective private foster carer based on a minimum set of standards, including the question of whether they had been police-checked or had had any of their own children placed in local authority care. Privately fostered children and their parents must be afforded the same standard of safeguarding as children who are looked after by child minders or accommodated by the local authority.
1036 Looked-after children are a particularly vulnerable group and, as we have heard, the current guidance requires schools to take certain action. The Government's own reports, however, show that the impact of the designated teacher scheme is mixed. Some schools allow non-contact time for designated teachers to liaise with other agencies and to attend planning and review meetings, but others do not. It is more appropriate to place a statutory duty on schools and governing bodies than to rely on further guidance. As an aside, Baroness Ashton, the Under-Secretary for Education and Skills, said in a debate in the other place:If children do not have a supportive environment with opportunities to learn and to use computer equipment … they can be disadvantaged."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 July 2004; Vol. 663, c. 1490–91.]It has recently been drawn to my attention that a grant available for a two-year period that has enabled councils to purchase computer equipment for looked-after children has come to an end, and does not appear to have been replaced with other funding. I would be grateful for clarification on that important matter—I am sure that no one in the House wishes to cut back on significant support at a time when we are saying that we will give more support to vulnerable children.
I am anxious about unreasonable chastisement and, although I welcome the Bill overall, I believe that it should be amended to give children the same protection in their homes as adults are afforded under the law on assault. I believe that the amendment introduced on Report by Lord Lester attempts a legal definition of ways in which children can continue to be assaulted, which sends a dangerous message to society about the acceptability of violence towards children. Children who witness or are recipients of violence are likely to repeat that behaviour at other times and in different settings. There is obviously a lack of clarity about what is acceptable: some people bruise more easily, for example. There is also the problem of different coloured skins and the concern raised by a child protection police officer that regular physical punishment may not leave obvious signs on a child's body. Constant severe punishment may be a great cause for concern, but it is not covered by the amendment if it does not leave a mark on the child's body. I accept that the amendment deals with mental harm, but how on earth do we measure such harm or judge its severity?
§ Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton)(Con)
Is the hon. Lady speaking about that provision in a personal capacity or as a party spokesman? If Lord Lester's amendment were before the House of Commons, would she support it?
§ Mrs. Brooke
Obviously, I am speaking as party spokesman. Personally, I believe that a great strength of the Lords is the opportunity that it provides for genuine discussion and debate of different ideas—whereas Members of the main parties in the Commons may prefer not to engage fully in the democratic process, and that is particularly true if a free vote is not allowed on this issue.
Removing the defence of reasonable chastisement would send a clear message to the effect that children are equal in law, and it would make it easier for children to identify abusive behaviour towards them. We have an opportunity to initiate a change in culture. We would 1037 expect attitudes and behaviour to change slowly over time, as happened in Germany. We should certainly welcome the chance to introduce more family support services, more positive parenting messages, the promotion of non-violent discipline and a cultural shift in child-adult relationships. If we think that nothing should change in our attitudes, why—and I am delighted that this should be the case—is it that domestic violence is no longer acceptable? Attitudes change, and I remind the House that I spent a lot of time trying to prevent a kiss between two 13-year-olds from being viewed in a criminal context. However, it was decided for the greater good that that provision should remain in the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
Finally, I re-emphasise the fundamental importance to the Bill of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, as it sets a clear, critical standard for the way in which children should be understood, respected and treated. The United Kingdom has been a signatory state to the convention for well over 10 years, and it should be applied throughout the Bill, covering everything from the duties of the children's commissioner to the disciplining of children. Both local and national Government should be accountable, and all Government Departments should comply with the convention, especially when new legislation and policy are introduced. Why cannot child impact statements be produced for all legislation? If we comply without reservation with the UN convention on the rights of the child, all children will matter in our country.
§ Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield) (Lab)
I strongly welcome the broad thrust of the Bill, which has been introduced in the wake of Lord Laming's important report on the tragic case of Victoria Climbié. Interestingly, that report made it clear that the basic statutory framework of children's provisions in the Children Act 1989 serves this country well. I was proud of that assessment, because I served on the Standing Committee that considered that Act, and I pay tribute to the previous Government for listening to Members of all parties to ensure that it was a positive piece of legislation. I hope that the present Government will listen to Members from all parties, including their own, to improve one or two parts of the Bill.
The Bill needs to be seen in the wider context of Government policy on children and families. I praise the steps that, for example, the Government have taken to address child poverty. Their measures to address levels of child benefit have been crucial in tackling serious poverty among children and families in various parts of the country. I hope that they will learn the lesson that the concept of universality is relevant to other policy areas such as the pensions system, where universal benefits and clawback through the tax system will help us to address poverty, which we are not doing sufficiently at the moment—[Hon. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I hope that I will hear "Hear, hear" from Labour Members as well as Liberal Democrat Members.
§ Mr. Hinchliffe
I thank my hon. Friend.
1038 I commend the Government on their development of preventive measures in child care. One of my worries about the 1989 Act is that its provisions on prevention are, for various reasons, not as effective as its other provisions. I very much welcome the Government's emphasis on Sure Start.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley), a former Secretary of State for Health, who was involved in Home Start, which had and continues to have a major impact in my constituency. Sure Start has built on many of the positive outcomes of the Home Start experiment. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) said that we have to see the legislation in the context of positive parenting. Clause 49 is crucial in that respect.
I commend the Government on their attempts to achieve joined-up thinking. In the week when the national service framework is to be published, I thank Al Aynsley-Green, who has led the work on the NSF, for his inclusive approach. He has listened to a range of people voicing views from a range of perspectives. I am sure that the outcome will be positive.
The improvements that we have achieved in opportunities and attainment in the education system relate strongly to disadvantaged youngsters. I see that in my constituency. It is especially welcome that the Bill creates a duty to promote educational achievement among looked-after children. When, some years ago, the Health Committee carried out an inquiry into looked-after children, all of us were surprised to learn that the most common concerns felt by the children in the care system from whom we took evidence were not about the care system, but about the education system and their experience in schools. Especially since the creation of a more competitive environment in education, in which schools look to league tables and results, disadvantaged youngsters are often regarded as holding schools back. I therefore welcome the provision in the Bill. My only concern is that perhaps the duty should be placed on schools rather than only on local education authorities, given that it was at the level of schools that the children in question expressed that concern to us.
I welcome the proposals on structural change, improved accountability and communication, and joint working. The integration of children's services is common sense, but I am concerned that the model adopted might vary from area to area. People who are involved in child protection and who need to contact colleagues in other parts of the country might find that difficult if the structures adopted elsewhere are different from the model in their own area, with which they are familiar.
The Government are right to put local safeguarding children boards on a statutory footing. I was surprised to learn that area child protection committees are not a statutory requirement; they apply in my area and in others and I had assumed that they were required by law.
I welcome the proposed framework for registration of private fostering, but I remain frustrated, because it seems that we have not yet got a grip on that issue. I share some of the concerns raised by colleagues and hope that, in Committee, we will consider a serious approach to the matter, which has been the cause of 1039 immense concern for many years. Successive Governments have failed to act in as positive a fashion as they should.
The introduction of a children's commissioner is of fundamental importance and long overdue. I do not wish to contradict the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke), most of whose comments I agreed with, but the first party commitment on the introduction of a children's commissioner came from the Labour party at least 10 years ago. I know because I wrote, or at least I was responsible for, the policy document that included the commitment. However, I welcome the fact that the Liberal Democrats picked up on it and that the Government are now doing something about it.
As I said, the measure is long overdue. The Health Committee has recommended the establishment of a children's commissioner in two separate inquiries. I welcome the way in which the Lords have strengthened the provision, and I will be concerned if in Committee or on Report the Government row back on what appear to me to be very sensible amendments made in the other place, especially the requirement that the commissioner must have regard to the UN convention on the rights of the child. I remind colleagues that the Conservative Government signed up to the UN convention, presumably in the knowledge that doing so had implications for key areas of policy in this country such as reasonable chastisement. We were all well aware of that at the time. I am therefore concerned that the Conservatives do not appear to be getting a grip on the issue as I hoped they would. As the party that, rightly, signed Britain up to the convention, the Conservatives seem to me to have a vested interest in ensuring that we deliver what the convention requires. I am sorry that they are finding the question of reasonable chastisement rather difficult.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend. He spoke with passion and great common sense and I entirely agree with every word he said. The Bill as amended in the Lords keeps Britain on a collision course with the UN committee—it resolves absolutely nothing. My hon. Friend pointed out that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child had referred to the matter. In October 2002—not long ago—the committee reminded the UK of previous recommendations to remove the defence of reasonable chastisement, stating:The committee deeply regrets that the state party persists in retaining the defence of 'reasonable chastisement' and has taken no significant action towards prohibiting all corporal punishment of children in the family.The committee criticised the proposals to limit the defence that we see in the Bill, having been introduced by Lord Lester. The committee called, first, for the prohibition of all corporal punishment; and, secondly, for the promotion of positive non-violent forms of discipline.
I echo my hon. Friend's comments on positive parenting. Those of us who believe passionately that the law must be changed accept entirely that a programme of positive parenting must accompany the change in the law. We have to help people to deal with the most difficult job that any of us do—bringing up our children. Speaking as a parent, it is a standing joke to me that I was taught nothing about parenting. I saw a half-hour 1040 video in a maternity hospital shortly before my wife gave birth to our first child; it told me where it had gone in and where it came out, and that was it. It told me nothing about what I should do when I had got the little thing home and the problems started—when it was screaming in the middle of the night, or it would not go to sleep. We all need help, whatever our social background.
§ Mr. Dawson
Is my hon. Friend aware of cutting-edge research into the way in which social interactions and parents' behaviour can have physical effects on the brains of very young children that affect the way in which they behave throughout their lives? Is it not therefore incredibly important that we reach out to the parents of very young children and help them to manage their children appropriately?
§ Mr. Hinchliffe
I have not seen the research, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will let me have a look at it. He reinforces the point that I was making.
Other than the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the present UK position has been criticised by the European Court of Human rights, by the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Health Committee—both all-party Committees—and by every child protection agency in the country. We should listen to bodies that are in the front line of child protection every day.
I thank my right hon. Friends the Minister for Children, who is no longer in her place, and the Secretary of State for Education and Skills for the time that they have taken to listen to me and many of my colleagues on the question of reasonable chastisement. We have engaged in lots of dialogue over a long period and I genuinely hope that that dialogue will continue. I appreciate that media attitudes make the issue a difficult one for any Government, but clause 49 as amended is full of holes, which worries me very much. The briefing note sent to hon. Members by Save the Children says that clause 49will lead to greater legal ambiguity, professional uncertainty and parental confusion about what is, and is not, acceptable".I am not a lawyer, but I spent a long time in child protection, and in my view the clause is naive, totally impractical and frankly dangerous. We have to do something about it.
Clause 49 relies on "wounding" and "bodily harm" in defining an offence against a child. In practice, though, as one or two of my colleagues know who have had experience in child protection, it is frequently difficult to prove whether such bodily harm has occurred when children are injured, sometimes quite seriously. Indeed, the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole referred to the fact that people mark in different ways. In another place, on the Lester amendment, the point was rightly made that there are clear ethnic differences about what may be visible on a child's body.
Invisible injuries are often the most painful and dangerous. I spent 20 years playing rugby league, and I speak with feeling about some of my injuries. The worst was to a rib cartilage: there was nothing to see, but the doctor told me it was worse than having broken ribs. I could not move for around six months without acute pain. Nothing could be seen: there was no bruising or 1041 anything else to see, but that was a serious and painful injury. On several occasions, I certainly had head injuries when there was no visible sign but when the fact that I was seeing double or treble indicated that something was rather wrong.
The clause, as amended, does not address the practical reality of the situations with which social workers, the police and child protection agencies will deal with day to day. It will be helpful to the lawyers, who will laugh all the way to the bank. Frankly, though, it will not help the child victims of serious assault.
When the Children Act 1989 went through the House, I served on the Committee and moved an amendment to remove reasonable chastisement as a defence. We failed to do that, and we were perhaps before our time; I have frequently been before my time but I hope it will come. We were defeated, I suspect, because we did not have the evidence at that stage of what had happened with our policy in other countries. Now, as I said when I intervened on the Minister, 12 European countries have prohibited all physical punishment, and we can see from their research the positive impact of what they have done. If anyone wants to read some of the detailed research, I can let them have copies. Latvia and Romania are the most recent, and I mention Romania because it is only 10 years since I was there with a voluntary organisation, helping the Romanians to construct a child care system. Since then, they have gone past us in their advanced thinking on child protection and have taken the commonsense measure of giving children equal protection in law against assault.
I hope that we can continue to have the dialogue that the Minister for Children indicated she was willing to hold. Eighty children die each year in the United Kingdom at the hands of their parents or carers.
§ Mr. Win Griffiths
We have heard before the figure of 80 children dying, which is terrible. We also need to remember, though, that thousands of children are physically abused all over the United Kingdom every year.
§ Mr. Hinchliffe
I entirely agree. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children told me not long ago that at least one child in every classroom in the country is being seriously assaulted, and that is a worrying figure.
To have any credibility on child protection, the Bill has to ensure that children have the same protection in law as adults. We have time to put that right, and I genuinely hope that we will manage to do it before we get the Bill into law.
§ 7.4 pm
§ Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con)
I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate, which is on a subject of the highest importance and on which we probably do not spend enough time. Like my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), I support the aims of the Bill and the Bill itself, and I welcome the tone that he took. When the Bill goes into Committee, I hope that the Government will respond in kind to his constructive approach and to 1042 constructive comments from Members on both sides of the House. I believe that there are still some improvements to be made.
I approach this matter in the spirit of the Laming report on the Victoria Climbié case, which, in many respects, forms a vital part of the background to the Bill. I interpret the spirit of that report, at least in part, as being the fullest and widest acceptance of responsibility for the welfare of children, especially those who are the most vulnerable. In the case of those children who are most at risk, front-line social workers, who have all the burden of face to face contact with children and families and who are in receipt, no doubt, of a less than princely reward for doing so, should not be left to shoulder all the responsibility when things go wrong. In saying that, I am mindful of the view explicitly expressed by Lord Laming:Having considered all the evidence, it is not to the hapless front-line staff that I direct most criticism for the failure to protect Victoria Climbié.He found that the greatest failures lay elsewhere, higher up the chain of command. In the spirit of his report, we need to ensure that there is an appropriate acceptance of responsibility at all levels, up to the highest levels of local authorities, and beyond to this House and Ministers.
With that in mind, I welcome the Bill's principal provision for focusing minds on the welfare of children—the creation of a children's commissioner. The Bill has been very much improved as a result of debates in the other place, so it was with some disappointment that I heard the Minister say that the Government plan to overturn clause 2 as it stands and to go back to the original form of clause 2. Having studied it, I think that the current clause 2 is an improvement, and I hope that that will be fully considered in Committee.
There are other respects in which the Bill could be further improved, and those will need detailed consideration. Concerns remain about the independence of the commissioner, which is a key point if we are to have effective provision. When the Bill was published, the commissioner looked too much like a champion of the Government rather than a champion of children. In the other place, Lord Northbourne graphically referred to a "castrated children's commissioner". The provisions have been improved, but further improvements could make the commissioner much more clearly independent of Government. As the Bill stands, even in its improved form, and by contrast with the position in Wales, the children's commissioner is to be appointed by the Secretary of State and to be eligible for reappointment at the end of his or her five-year term entirely at the discretion of the Secretary of State. That is hardly a configuration suggesting the presence of the attributes that Lord Northbourne suggested might be lacking in the children's commissioner.
What is the flavour of the relationship suggested by clause 5(1), which provides that the Secretary of State can direct the commissioner to hold an inquiry? The word used is "direct" as opposed to "request". Again, that contrasts with the independence granted to other children's commissioners in that regard.
The Bill has been much improved since it was first published, when there was a widespread perception that the commissioner needed to be made more independent, 1043 but still more needs to be done to buttress the independence and the effectiveness of the commissioner. I hope we will hear from the Government in due course, in Committee, what more they propose should happen, for example, as a result of the reports from the commissioner—something that they have undertaken to do. We must ensure that the commissioner's work is effective and that it is listened to and responded to.
It must be right to encourage co-operation and closer working between different services. We wait to see how much progress is made towards the creation of children's trusts. Surely we should aim to measure children's trusts by looking for demonstrable improvements in the care of children—improvements that are commensurate with the scale and cost of the administrative reorganisation that will be necessary to create such trusts. It is not enough for Ministers to reel off long lists of new names and new bodies. It must be demonstrated that there have been tangible and commensurate improvements as a result of the investments being made.
I welcome the provisions in clause 9 relating to information databases, although my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made some important points in that regard. The matter needs to be further debated. There has been a constructive debate so far, but I demur from the views expressed by the Liberal Democrats. The data-sharing provisions are a step forward. I make a plea to Ministers that, in the detail of the provisions, we ensure that the overriding considerations are the welfare and safety of children, and that those come before any other concerns. If there is a conflict between the safety of a child and the technicalities of data protection, let us avoid a situation in which those charged with a child's safety are afraid to act because they are worried about the data protection provisions. Let the safety of the child come first, and let it be the overriding consideration. It may be the intention of clause 9(11) to make that clear. I hope it will be made crystal clear when the matter is debated in Committee.
I also welcome the provisions relating to the educational achievement of children in care and the spelling out of a duty on local authorities to promote the child's educational achievements, although I note that that appears in the miscellaneous provisions in part 5. In my view, it is far more important than that. I welcome the fact that the educational performance and well-being of children being looked after by local authorities has been mentioned today from all parts of the House.
I accept that other work is being done on this topic, and rightly so. As has been observed from all sides, children in care lag behind other children in educational achievement. The statistics for children being looked after have already been given: only 8 per cent. of young people in year 11 who had spent at least one year in care gained five or more GCSEs graded A to C, compared with 50 per cent. of all young people. Only 1 per cent. of them go on to university. If a school were producing such results, it would be soon be put into special measures, if not closed down altogether. We cannot allow a situation to persist in which children in care lag so far behind other children in an area as crucial as educational achievement, with their life prospects so badly hindered as a result.
1044 Another issue that should have received greater prominence in the Bill is the role of parents, with which I shall deal in a moment in another context. The importance of the role of parents is dealt with in a rather perfunctory way in the Bill as it stands. It is dealt with in three lines in clause 7(3)—three lines in a 44-page Bill. I would welcome hearing rather more about parents.
That brings me to the aspect of the Bill that has brought parental rights into the sharpest focus: the issue of chastisement of children. My hon. Friend was right to make a plea that we should not allow that to overshadow the rest of the Bill, but we cannot avoid a debate on it because for many people it is an important subject. It may surprise Members in some quarters of the House that my approach to the matter is rather coloured by my personal view that physical chastisement is a wholly ineffective way of administering the discipline that children sometimes need. My own observations lead me to the view that smacking, and certainly the use of an implement such as a cane, does no good whatever, and could conceivably do some harm.
The case has been somewhat overstated from the Labour Benches, particularly by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), who made a sincere speech about his strongly held views. The case of Victoria Climbié, which has been prayed in aid in this context, is not the right example. The injuries in that case went way beyond anything that could have fallen within the ambit of reasonable chastisement. I remember that the pathologist said that they were the worst injuries he had ever encountered and the worst he had ever heard of. That is way beyond the subject of today's debate.
There is an issue, however, in the case of the repeated use of moderate chastisement, which would fall outside the ambit of clause 49. I have some concerns about the long-term effect of the repeated use of physical chastisement on a child.
§ Mr. Dawson
Bearing in mind his views, will the hon. Gentleman study the reports of other child abuse inquiries, going back even to Maria Colwell, and note the number of times a parent's predilection for using physical punishment, coupled with a child's apparent imperviousness to that physical punishment, has resulted in over-chastisement to the dreadful point where the child dies?
§ Mr. Clappison
That brings me to my next point, from which the hon. Gentleman may draw some comfort. The issue calls for further research and a careful examination of all the evidence. I am the first to confess that I have not yet done sufficient research into all the evidence from previous cases to lead me to a concluded view.
There are other facts that I would have to set against that if there were a free vote on the matter, which there will not be. The issue that should exercise the conscience of all of us, and which I set against my worries about harm to children—this is my personal view as a parent—is whether it would be right for me to impose my view in this regard on other parents, and whether it would be right for the House, and in effect the state, to limit the decisions of parents. I would have to weigh that in the balance.
I have great hesitation in circumscribing the actions that other parents, contrary to my own views, feel could be taken and would improve their care of their child.
1045 Other parents may take a different view from mine, and I have some hesitation in circumscribing their rights. As I said a moment ago, not only in the Bill but in the wider debate, we do not pay sufficient attention to the rights of parents. It is the parents in the first instance who provide the care that we hope our children will receive.
§ Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whose speech I am listening to with great interest. As he is a lawyer, what would he say about the view that children should have equal status before the law and equal protection from assault and battery?
§ Mr. Clappison
Since 1860 the defence of reasonable chastisement has taken children out of what would otherwise be the provisions of the law. Carried out against an adult, the sort of actions that we are considering would probably fall within the offence of assault. Those actions do not fall within the offence of assault because of the defence of reasonable chastisement, and we must examine the matter, taking into account the facts that I just elucidated.
Under clause 49, a prosecution for assault, which is the relevant part of our criminal code, could still take place, subject to the provisions of reasonable chastisement. Clause 49 will need careful consideration in Committee, particularly on the question whether it changes the law and risks creating new loopholes. Today, the law allows parents to administer the discipline that they feel is appropriate in the case of their child through reasonable chastisement.
We must primarily look to parents. We are trying to achieve what we can through legislation, but we must recognise the limit on what legislation can achieve. I suspect that many children today have not received the same quality of emotional experience as children in previous generations, because of a range of factors that it is beyond our power to control. We must do what we can to control things, particularly in the case of those children—this is a minority of cases, but it is a substantial minority—who are most at risk of abuse and neglect. We must do everything that we possibly can through legislation to protect those children, and I hope that the Bill is subject to detailed consideration to make sure that it is as effective as it can be for that purpose.
§ Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab)
I am delighted to participate in this debate. The Government have made successive commitments to children through the use of their legislative time. We have seen the Care Standards Act 2000, the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 and the Adoption and Children Act 2002, and now we have the Children Bill. No previous Government have included so much children's legislation in their agenda over a seven-year period.
This is not just about legislation, but about backing up legislation with resources. The Government have attacked child poverty, provided more nursery places and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) said, increased child benefit. We know the benefits that children and their families derive from 1046 investment in nursery education because we can see them in all our constituencies. The Government have also invested in the Sure Start programme, which I want extended. When one talks to parents about Sure Start's impact, it is apparent that it provides considerable assistance in bringing up children.
The Government's record is considerable and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister for her work over a number of years. She has had her critics, particularly when she was appointed, but she has delivered with this Bill. She has listened to the various agencies and to hon. Members and delivered a Bill of which the Government can be proud.
The Government have put in money, too. The vulnerable children's grant will provide an additional £252 million in 2003 to 2006, which includes £113 million to improve care placements. Many hon. Members have spoken about children in care, to whom I shall return later in my remarks.
It is important that individual cases do not bog down the commissioner. The commissioner must be independent, and they will retain that independence, which is a point that does not need to be on the face of the Bill. Consider the chief inspector of schools at Ofsted, who is independent. Certain previous chief inspectors could not be accused of lacking independence, although in some cases the line between policy and politics became blurred. The personality of the individual who is appointed is important and we cannot put that on the face of the Bill.
On the appointment, we want a powerful advocate to examine children's issues. My right hon. Friend mentioned the issues that she wants the commissioner to examine, and I hope that the commissioner will examine issues such as children in custody and the secure estate, because in many instances, the record on protecting those vulnerable individuals is appalling.
Private fostering was debated in the parliamentary stages of all the legislation to which I referred and we need proper regulation to come into effect sooner rather than later. I welcome the Conservatives' conversion to regulation. Conservative Front Benchers often discuss regulation, but I do not know whether the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has consulted the shadow Secretary of State for deregulation.
§ Tim Loughton
The hon. Gentleman knows that throughout the entire course of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, I supported the greater regulation of private fostering as part of official policy, and I produced a Private Member's Bill on the subject just last year. A conversion has not occurred, and Conservative policy has been entirely consistent. We will continue to press for greater regulation when it means greater safety for vulnerable children.
§ Jonathan Shaw
The conversion occurred after the Care Standards Act 2000, on which the hon. Gentleman led for the Conservatives.
§ Jonathan Shaw
The Conservative spokesperson on the Care Standards Act 2000 and the Children (Leaving 1047 Care) Act 2000 did not agree with me and my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson). I am delighted that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has caught up, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister catches up before another four years elapse.
The database is important. We must put every child on it, otherwise ambiguities will occur and we will lose children but we will probably lose children anyway. Will we have another inquiry like the Victoria Climbié inquiry? Yes, we will, in which case we must be able to put our hands on our hearts and say that we did everything that we possibly could. We must close loopholes such as private fostering and ensure that we have information on children.
We should obtain information on all 11 million children in the country. Problems will undoubtedly occur and it is down to us to ensure that we get the legislation right, and down to the Government to order the correct software to build the right kind of database. Appeals were mentioned earlier, and the issue is undoubtedly a can of worms. However, if we step back from it, we will not be able to put our hands on our hearts and say that we could not have done anything else if another case occurs. We should not put appeals in the tray marked, "too difficult", but grasp the problem and get it right.
On chastisement, given my background in child protection and social work, it may surprise some of my hon. Friends that I am not persuaded that we should take a position on parental rights. I share much of the hesitation articulated by the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison)—the measure is a step too far and a step too soon. Daily mild physical punishment, which may have an impact on a child, has been referred to, but what about daily emotional abuse, which can be equally painful?
We want to move to a situation in which we provide parents with support through parenting information. The children's fund has done good work in assisting parents to find new solutions to bring up children in difficult circumstances. I am not convinced that we should take away control from parents.
It is unhelpful for hon. Members to use the very emotive case of Victoria Climbié to make a comparison with a tap on the back of the legs. The general public will not recognise that comparison but will be offended by it. I ask my hon. Friends to exercise caution instead of letting their desire to amend the Bill run away with them.
On schools, I welcome the extensions proposed by the Government, but I am not yet convinced that schools should not have a duty to co-operate to improve well-being. Some schools see themselves as part of the local authority family with all agencies working together, but many are isolated. Schools should be part of promoting well-being and have nothing to fear from it. There should be no ambiguity on that score.
We have heard about the number of children who leave care having gained qualifications. We all share the despair that as few as 6 per cent. of those children—56,000—leave school with five or more good GCSEs, with only 1 per cent. going to university. We need to do far more work in relation to designated teachers, as the Government's own research said that the situation is mixed at best. Mixed is not good enough: it needs to be 1048 much better. In this context, the state is the child's parent, and a parent wants their child to go to the very best school. That is where I would challenge the Conservatives. It is all very well to list the statistics, as many of us do, but we need to ensure that there is a mechanism whereby children in care—looked-after children—can get into the very best schools. That is why I welcome admissions arrangements by the adjudicator whereby children in public care should be treated as No. 1, before anyone else, where there are oversubscribed places. Without that provision, I fail to see how that can happen. It is like saying, "We feel your pain. We're very sorry about this, and something should happen, but we're not going to do anything about it."
§ Mr. Andrew Turner
We discussed this at some length in the Select Committee on Education and Skills before our report on admissions. The failure lies neither with schools nor with the parents of children who would be displaced were other children to have priority on admissions, but with the children's homes that are meant to be looking after these looked-after children. I have yet to hear an explanation of why those displaced children should suffer.
§ Jonathan Shaw
Of the 60,000 children in care, 56,000 are with foster carers, so very few are in children's homes, whether failing or not. The point is this: does a school make a difference in terms of a child's educational opportunity and attainment? Of course it does. Therefore, given that such a small number of children have such a huge impact on society in terms of the number who are in prison or involved in crime, drugs and so on, should not we intervene to provide them with the best opportunities? This is perhaps an ideological difference. I happen to think that, if there is a mechanism whereby we can intervene to assist a child in care who has been abused and has had absolutely nothing in the way of a good start in life, we should do so.
§ Jonathan Shaw
If the hon. Gentleman disagrees, that indicates a perfectly reasonable ideological difference. I am prepared to make my argument, and the electorate can make the choice.
§ Tim Loughton
Neither I nor my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) dispute the end that the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve, but he has not addressed an important point. In an area where there are five children living with foster parents or in children's homes and five children who are living with their birth parents and who may have siblings at a school or live very close to it, the hon. Gentleman suggests that, if that school was oversubscribed, the five children in care should receive preference, while the five children living with their birth parents, through no fault of their own, would not. That is the consequence that he does not address.
§ Jonathan Shaw
It is extreme. The hon. Gentleman suggests that there might be five children living in care 1049 surrounding the most popular school. I have never known that situation in 10 years of working with children in care.
§ Jonathan Shaw
Yes—20 years. The situation that the hon. Gentleman describes is unlikely to arise, so it is not a good argument for him to advance.
§ Jonathan Shaw
Let me try to respond to his point before he jumps up again. I know why he is struggling: it is because the Conservatives' admissions policy is all over the place. For example, they would not have any proximity requirements. It is perfectly reasonable that, if a child in care is on the waiting list to go to a very popular school, the corporate parent should exercise that responsibility and choice. It is not a question of displacing others, but of parents—in this case, the state—doing the best for their child. We all, as parents, want to do the best for our child. We have not done enough in the past—the statistics showing so few such children leaving school with educational qualifications tell us that. We should make that intervention and be more robust, as the state parent, in ensuring that our children get a better deal than they have before.
§ Tim Loughton
We will have a great deal of interesting debate on this in Committee, and rightly so. I am not disagreeing with the hon. Gentleman. We certainly need state intervention and state preference to do everything possible to promote the educational achievement of those children at school through a whole range of measures, some of which the hon. Gentleman touched on.
I am surprised that that the hon. Gentleman described my example as extreme, because I am faced with highly oversubscribed schools all the time. In the case of two such schools in my constituency last year, one was oversubscribed by 76, and 67 appeals were heard, while another was oversubscribed by 21, all of whom had siblings at the same school. Like it or not, adding a preference on admission will add yet another complication. It is not an extreme example—it happens in practice—and the hon. Gentleman has not squared the disbenefit that his approach would inevitably bring to other children through no fault of their own. That is what we need to address.
§ Jonathan Shaw
Such children are in care through no fault of their own and we need to decide whether we want to intervene to provide them with the best schools and the best opportunities. The hon. Gentleman is saying, "This has lots of problems, it's too difficult, and we're not going to do anything about it."
I am conscious that I have spent a lot of time on that issue and I want to conclude with a few points about children in secure accommodation. Currently, 3,135 children are locked up, compared with 2,590 in 1997. Nine out of 10 have mental health problems. Black 1050 youngsters are over-represented. Twenty-five per cent. of male offenders are fathers and 39 per cent. of female offenders are mothers. We need to find better ways of ensuring that children are placed appropriately. One tragic case was that of Adam Rickwood, a 14-year-old who was placed 100 miles away from his family and took his own life.
We know that it is vital for individuals who are locked up to have family support. That is why I intervened on my right hon. Friend the Minister to suggest that the Youth Justice Board should promote welfare. If it makes decisions to place children 100 miles away from their family, it would be difficult to argue that it promoted welfare. That organisation needs to be on the list.
§ Jonathan Shaw
I am going to curtail my remarks. I wanted to say many other things but I got bogged down in admissions. I have been bogged down in the Select Committee's admissions inquiry for the past six months and that has continued this evening.
Overall, I welcome the Bill. If I am selected to serve on the Committee, I should like to take up some issues, but the measure is a testament to my right hon. Friend's hard work in getting it to the House of Commons. There have been compromises and changes, and that is right. As I said previously, we need to do our very best to get it right. In any future inquiry, we would have to put our hands on our hearts and ask ourselves, "Did the House of Commons, when it debated the Children Bill in 2004, do the right thing?" Let us hope that we do.
§ Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), who referred to the independence of which inspectors and commissioners are capable. The best advocate for children in the past few years was the one to whom the hon. Gentleman referred without naming him—Chris Woodhead, Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools. He advocated with energy and enthusiasm his perception of children's needs. The then Secretary of State appointed him, and I have no doubt that it would be possible to find an equivalent advocate for children in the form of the commissioner.
I hope that, in appointing a commissioner, the Minister will take seriously children's views and those of their representatives—I do not mean bodies, however important or worthy, but children. I suggest that she at least consult the United Kingdom Youth Parliament, and perhaps gives it a shortlist from which it could make the appointment.
It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), who adopted a tone of realistic modesty about our responsibilities as hon. Members. It is important that we do not diminish parents' efforts by appearing to know best. It is easy to stand here and say what we think should happen and give the impression that we know better, because we do not necessarily know better. Many parents struggle valiantly to do a good job in the best way that they know how. It would be a great error for us to take from parents the weapons and support systems that they 1051 already have. That is one reason why I would vote against removal of the defence of reasonable chastisement from parents, who undertake the difficult task of bringing up children.
The Bill has some good aspects. I am particularly impressed by the proposal for joined-up inspection, and we have spoken about the need for effective education of cared-for children—I shall not take up any more of the House's time on that—but there are also some questionable points. I am worried about the database and the amount of involvement and intervention in people's private lives that is implicit in maintaining it for every single child. I note that the Government have made a reservation. They said that they believe that it is a proportionate action to prevent a greater ill. That is their understandable opinion, but I am concerned about what might feature on the database.
The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) said that not attending a school might be a cause for concern. I am not sure whether she meant that not being registered at a school was a cause for concern. Parents in this country have the right—indeed, the duty—to educate their children. They have the right not to register their children at a school, and to educate them at home. Many parents take advantage of that, and it is not right for us automatically to assume that that is a cause for concern. It would be wrong if professionals referred to some database and took account of it as a cause for elevating the case of a child.
§ Mrs. Brooke
Does the hon. Gentleman concede that a local authority has to know the full arrangements for educating at home, and that there is a form of inspection?
§ Mr. Turner
Of course there is some sort of inspection, but that does not mean that there is a cause for concern. It is wrong to interpret as a cause for concern a parent's legitimate choice about the way in which to bring up a child. Yet the hon. Lady suggested that in the context of the database.
We have briefly discussed parental contact and access. One of the reasons for the Bill's importance is that there is no doubt that having two loving parents is a privilege that many enjoy and too many do not, yet some Labour Members have in the past suggested that it should be possible to deny a child's access to one parent because of that parent's treatment of the other parent. We should focus on whom we deprive when and if that happens. It is suggested that the courts should make some of those decisions but too many are taken unilaterally by an individual parent who flouts a court order, which was made with the paramount interests of his or her children in mind.
Except in exceptional circumstances, the courts seem unable to do anything to prevent the flouting of their orders. The result is not the deprivation of another parent—although, of course, he or she is deprived—but that of a child. A child is being deprived of access to a parent's love and care. I welcome the fact that the Government published proposals on 21 July, but we need to take steps as quickly as possible to give the courts and other authorities the necessary powers to ensure that children are not so deprived. That is fundamentally important.
§ Mr. Dawson
The hon. Gentleman has spoken eloquently about the need to consult children. Has he 1052 taken any of the opportunities that Women's Aid has provided in the House to meet children who have been in situations of domestic violence? Has he studied any of the literature that clearly links domestic violence and child abuse?
§ Mr. Turner
I have consulted Women's Aid in my constituency and I have met children in that situation. I was not referring only to children who have witnessed domestic violence, although they form one group—that for which it is suggested that we make formal arrangements to prevent access to one of their parents. I was speaking more of those for whom one parent makes the unilateral decision that they shall not meet or have access to their other parent.
We should also consider sibling contact—the right of one child to have access to his or her siblings. I have a sad case in my constituency of a child who was taken for adoption without the interests of the other child in the family being taken into account by the courts, which had in mind the paramount interests of the first child. Of course I understand that, but I find it difficult to see how one child's interests should be paramount over those of another. There have been cases in which local authorities have not known which parent's views to take into account, when the parents give conflicting preferences for schools. That needs to be sorted out. There can also be clashes between magistrates imposing an order against harassment and a court's decision that a child should have access to both parents. I suspect that that is the kind of case to which the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) was referring. I can assure him that no physical violence was involved in the case that I have in mind, although there was justification, in the eyes of the magistrates, for a non-harassment order.
We should take this opportunity to deal with these matters. It is not sufficient to say that we will deal with them in due course, because childhood is short and we need to give as many children as possible access to both their parents through the opportunities afforded by the Bill, when that is what the court has decided. That is why I support the presumption of equal parenting—I believe that it was merely a presumption that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) put forward. That should be the position from which the courts start when making a decision about the paramount interests of the child.
I am glad that the Government have come forward with proposals on combining inspection, but the proposals to he made by Her Majesty's chief inspector must be very clear, sharp and simple. If we are not careful, there will be a multiplicity of inspections and of hoops through which all sorts of providers will have to jump. That would not be to the benefit of children.
On child protection, I am concerned about the implementation of the decisions of the Bichard inquiry. Of course I understand the need for adolescents to be afforded privacy, but the Bichard inquiry found that Ian Huntley had abused a number of young women, some just above and some just below the statutory age of consent, and that their cases had not been reported appropriately to the police. I corresponded with a director of social services on this subject and asked what measures were being put in place to implement the recommendations of the Bichard inquiry that all such 1053 contacts should be brought to the attention of the police. I got the distinct feeling that the matter was being kicked into the long grass. I am sure that that is not the Government's intention—I do not know whether it was the intention of the director concerned—but I felt that there was a move to say, "Hang on. In some cases, these contacts should not be brought to the attention of the police."
Another issue related to child protection is that of how the child protection rules deter volunteers from helping in voluntary organisations. I have been told that the Red Cross has found it difficult to maintain its young people's organisation, and I have seen examples in my constituency of sports organisations finding it difficult to keep sufficient adults on board to provide the wide range of sports and training that they have provided in the past. When Yvonne Baxter addressed the children's services committee of my local council, she said:Child protection in sports is an issue. Children in a group need a chaperone or someone to drive them. We know it is for child protection but people are opting out because of these rules, such as vetting. It is a double-edged sword, for example, the driver cannot be alone in a car with just one young person.That might be a misinterpretation of the rules, but it is a widespread understanding of them, and it is leading people to refuse to take part in training or to come forward as scout or guide leaders, school governors or assistants in schools. I hope that we can take this opportunity to look again at the Criminal Records Bureau, and at the way in which it does its job and the amount of information that it needs to approve someone for one of those posts.
The Bill has great potential to do good for children, but there are some aspects, to which I have referred, that could be improved. I hope that we shall take the opportunity to improve them in Committee.
§ Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab)
Like the hon. Members who have spoken before me, I am privileged to take part in this debate. Some will not even regard this as the most important Bill that we discuss this week, but I believe that it is the most significant one in a long list of tremendous legislation that the Government have introduced in the past seven years. It sits firmly in the framework of measures to improve the situation of children in this country. Frankly, in 1997, I would not have believed that the Government could have achieved as much as they have done. Saying that will entitle me to be extremely critical later, but I want to start by being extremely positive.
We should be positive about children—perhaps more so than we have been so far today. We have a degree of self-interest in this regard, because the children we are talking about will run the world when we are in our old age. It is therefore in our interest to treat them well. If we get the Bill right, it could transform the prospects of children throughout the UK and provide firm ground for a generational and cultural change that could go far beyond any policy or law that any single Government could enact. Above all, we should enjoy and celebrate our children. Every parent knows that nothing matters as much as their children. The first rule of social work with children is to ask, "Would what I am about to do 1054 be good enough for my own child?" That should be the first rule of being an MP as well, and of children's policy making.
On the way to this Bill, the Government have made a profound statement about this country's best resource. The very title of the Green Paper—"Every Child Matters"—recognises children's significance but also sets out a challenge and a means by which all of us—the Government and everyone taking part in this debate—can be judged. The Laming inquiry, the Green Paper and the Bill were prompted by the brutal murder of Victoria Climbié following a period of atrocious abuse. Much change was immediately implemented following the recommendations of Lord Laming but, terribly, over the summer, things began to get worse.
Many hon. Members have mentioned the death of 14-year-old Adam Rickwood, who was found hanged on 9 August at Hassockfield secure training centre. That was an appalling tragedy in itself, but its awful significance is increased by the fact that Adam was the youngest child to die in custody in modern penal history. What are we doing to allow such a young child to become so desperate, locked up among strangers, miles from his home? The deaths of 15 children in the custody of the state since 1997, of more than 20 children during contact visits at the hands of violent parents since the early 1990s, and of one or two children every week at the hands of parents or care givers in this so civilised country should shame us all. They should make us determined not to leave our work on the Bill until the situation has radically improved.
Every child matters, not just most of them, and not just every child apart from those who misbehave, those who have entered the country from abroad, those whose special needs are complex and difficult to meet, or those whose voices are lost in the selfish clamour from adults. Every child matters.
I am delighted that we have this Bill. Lots of us have laid a claim on the children's commissioner, but when my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children introduced the Bill today, she was the first person to move for a children's commissioner in England since I did so in a private Member's Bill on 16 April 2001. During discussions at that time, I was told by one Minister, an excellent colleague, that we would never get one. Things change, and sometimes we should just enjoy our little victories.
Since I was persuaded of this idea by a young woman called Suraya Patel, at a conference of young people in care in Lancashire in 1987, I have firmly believed that the establishment of a children's rights commissioner, independent of government, answerable to children and young people, able to go where he or she wills, investigate what he or she wishes, and freely inquire and report, working in accordance with the UN convention on the rights of the child, is a necessary—although not sufficient—condition for the fundamental improvement of the lives of all children.
At the heart of it, children are ignored, overlooked, neglected, abused, and sometimes die, because they have no power. Yet children are this country's greatest asset by far—by a million miles—and they know more than we do about what it is like to be them, and about many other things, too. They have good, practical ideas, which are often better than ours, and can often communicate 1055 with other children far better than us. We should allow them to vote at 16. More importantly, at every level, in every aspect of their lives, we should ensure that we listen to them, enable them to participate, and sometimes allow them to lead. We should encourage their own organisations, such as the UK Youth Parliament, A National Voice, and Article 12, and we should back them with a bold, fearless, relentless, principled advocate, who is steeped in good communication with children, and who will build an enduring network to ensure that their voices are heard and their rights upheld wherever and whoever they are.
The state of children across England and the UK must improve. Government and Parliament should welcome the prospect of challenge, resource it properly and assure its independence in the knowledge that well-meaning adults need an uncomfortable ally if real change is to come.
There will be a great deal of debate about the commissioner during the Bill. At the moment, thanks to the Hansard society, there is a good online debate taking place among young people from schools across the whole country about what they see as the issues, what sort of person they want, and how they want the commissioner to communicate with them. Every hon. Member can take part in that debate by logging on to www.headsup.org.uk, and we can ensure that our work is improved by using the excellent ideas from there in our discussions in the House.
Some of the views expressed included the following. Someone said that the children's commissioner should be of a similar age to young people, someone whom they could trust, and not someone who would be like one of those politicians who do whatever they like. Someone said that the commissioner should be relaxed, and someone with whom one can have a laugh, as well as taking things seriously. The commissioner should take on important issues such as curfews, drugs, bullying and racism, and, as someone said eloquently, children's fears. I cannot possibly do justice to the hundreds of entries in this short time. However, I strongly and sincerely recommend that all Members look at the consultation, take part in it, and talk to young people from across the country.
As someone who wants a 100 per cent. elected second Chamber, I regret to say that, with one grotesque exception, the other place has done a good job in scrutinising and improving the Bill. We should think carefully before rejecting the wisdom that has come from the earlier debate.
Unfortunately, the Bill contains clause 49. We should recognise that early in the 21st century, countries across the world, not just in Europe, are abolishing what for us is the Victorian concept of reasonable chastisement. Sensible, ordinary parents decide increasingly that there are far more consistent, effective ways to manage their children, and to allow that it may be reasonable to hurt them keeps our tolerance of child abuse high and helps no one but the abuser anxious to cover their tracks. Progress is inexorable in this matter. The country is moving ahead of this House. The reputation of one formerly eminent human rights lawyer is in shreds thanks to his introduction of such a ridiculous and pathetic amendment. In the future, people will look 1056 back on our debates on this issue, and laugh and gape at the attitudes of those who want to remain so far in the past, and so far behind the progressive world.
One change made by the other place that will undoubtedly remain in the Bill will be the requirement that the commissioner must have regard to the UN convention on the rights of the child. That is all very well. However, the UN convention on the rights of the child is the most accepted human rights document in the world because it is so eminently reasonable. It sets out sound principles for children and their parents. It is a matter for international criticism that this country maintains two reservations in respect of children involved in criminal justice and immigration, with the result that our policies in those two areas are an absolute disgrace. We must go much further than what is in clause 2(8), fulfil our obligations to spread knowledge and understanding of the UN convention and ensure that every child, every parent, everyone working with children and every Member of Parliament has the opportunity to become a children's rights advocate too.
Our Prime Minister recognises thatour children are everything to us: our hopes, our ambitions, our future. Our children are cherished and loved.It must therefore be time that we all stopped being afraid of the R-word, and stopped trying to pretend that one can avoid criticism or obligation by ignoring parts of the convention. It must be time that we embraced and employed the UN convention on the rights of the child as a fundamental tool to raise standards and inspire thousands more to work in children's services, and give all children the opportunities that they should enjoy.
We need thousands more to work in children's services. We need people to be better paid and to be recognised for their skills, and we need the same lessons to be applied to the nursing and teaching professions to be applied to the social work profession, to keep able people on the front line.
There is a great deal in this Bill to be welcomed. I welcome the focus on outcomes, salute the establishment of children's services authorities and the new duty of co-operation, and look forward to children's trusts. Having worked for 15 years in social work with children, I am absolutely certain that the drive to centre services around the needs and voices of children, to integrate services, to break down the barriers between authorities, organisations, professions and institutions is of fundamental importance. It will be extremely difficult, however. It goes much further than just appointing someone to run bits of education and social services together. It requires a re-framing of issues. For example, the safety of children on school buses is seen in the House and in local authorities as a transport issue. It is not; it is a children's issue. In fact, given the number of deaths and accidents, the whole question of road safety is a major child protection issue.
The cultural transformation that must be achieved will be difficult and will need to be hard fought on the ground. One thing attracting me away from the House at the next general election is the knowledge that a crucial battle over the best opportunity to transform the lives of children that any of us are likely to see in our working lifetimes will not be fought out here. It will be fought out on the ground.
I welcome the establishment of local safeguarding children's boards and know from discussions that I have had with senior officials in my local authority that they 1057 will be taken up with alacrity. However, one strong message from the front line is that staff would benefit from early dissemination of the regulations, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to take that on board.
While I am on the subject of Lancashire county council, although I accept all the strictures about the disadvantages and delay brought by structural change, there is not the slightest hope of the children of Lancashire benefiting from a first-class children's service from a children's services authority extending across 11 districts and eight primary care trust boundaries without significant devolution.
I welcome the prospect of joint area reviews, but I do not think that too much should be left to the inspectors.
As well as Climbié and Laming, we have had Bristol Royal infirmary and Kennedy. As well as the Bill, we are shortly to have a national service framework. As well as an increased departmental budget for children's services, we have an increased NHS budget. It is vital for that money to be well spent. We must have really effective work across Government as well as at local level. It is a pleasure to see the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), here to wind up the debate. He has a splendid record of support for the social work profession—and I am happy to tell him that I am the first Member of Parliament to obtain registration as a general social care counsellor.
The proposals relating to private fostering would be greatly improved by the deletion of the wholly inadequate notification scheme. No one knows how many privately fostered children there are, and we need a registration scheme. Africans Unite Against Child Abuse will tell us that there are thousands more than the official records suggest. Victoria Climbié was a privately fostered child, and we should serve her memory well by insisting on the obligations of private foster carers. We should also serve 60,000 looked-after children better, and recruit more local authority foster carers with a national system of allowances.
No one should leave the Bill content without considering the duty of the state to care for the child who was locked away and dying last month while most others were enjoying their school holidays. Adam Rickwood, 14, Gavin Myatt, 15, Joseph Scholes, 16, and 12 other children dead in our child prisons while many of us have been in Parliament would have been better served by the raising of the age of criminal responsibility, the abolition of prison for children and, above all, being seen as the desperately needy children they were. We should not dream of passing a Children Bill in this Parliament without trying to ensure that no other child dies locked up by the state.
It is a good thing that we have a Minister responsible for children, young people and families to take through a Bill devoted to children; but it is a colossal mistake that the Department responsible for police and prisons still retains so much responsibility for them. My right hon. Friend has a huge task, but she is doing an excellent job. If we made her job even bigger and gave her responsibility for all children, the Government would 1058 have a much better chance of delivering on the pledge that every child matters. We can make every child matter much more if we develop and improve this Bill.
§ Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC)
My party welcomes large parts of the Bill, certainly the parts relating to Wales. We join in the universal welcome for the proposals for CAFCASS—the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service—in Wales. I know from discussions with its officers of the difficulties it has experienced. It has taken a long time to extract decisions from the centre, and there have been problems with gaining access to the management structure at the appropriate level. The changes that the Government have seen fit to introduce can only be for the good of Welsh children. Would that power had been allocated as appropriately in other parts of the Bill—but more of that later.
I want to register my party's opposition to clause 49, as amended in the other place, and our commitment to equal protection. We support the "Children are Unbeatable!" campaign, and I want that to be a matter of record. I note that the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) is no longer present, but I commend the comments he made earlier, and the passion with which he made them. Nevertheless, my party has serious reservations about parts of the Bill.
The proposals for the children's commissioner, for example, give the distinct impression that the arrangements for Wales were tagged on as an afterthought. How could I have reached that conclusion? Let us look at some simple pointers provided by the Government's apparent underlying assumptions. As far as I can see, Wales is mentioned just twice in the Green Paper "Every Child Matters": on page 16, which deals with the proportion of juvenile males cautioned in England and Wales—that handy little phrase which almost seems like a single word—and on page 95, where Wales appears in a long list along with England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. That is an even longer word!
The Green Paper refers toaccountability and integration—locally, regionally and nationally".Those levels are not defined. Perhaps the authors found them unproblematic, and they might well have been as far as they were concerned, but the real world is rather more complicated. This is not a nationalist whinge; I just want the Government to realise that circumstances are different in Wales as well as in Northern Ireland and Scotland. This is, in fact, a plea for the Government, in the specific case of the children's commissioner, to recognise that good government now requires a recognition of the reality of devolution.
I am inevitably reminded of the infamous entry in the index of a 19th-century encyclopaedia: "For Wales see England". Every example in the Green Paper is from England. That would be fine if the Green Paper were only about arrangements in England, which apparently it is not. England has no monopoly in good practice, and of course I do not allege that the Green Paper's authors thought as much. That simple fact merely confirms my underlying supposition that this was a Green Paper for England, and that Wales was tagged on some time later.
1059 There is, in fact, a reference to the establishment of a children's commissioner on page 79, but there is no reference to that person's being a commissioner for England, for the United Kingdom or for England and Wales. I asked the Minister about that earlier. As far as I can see, the remit is assumed to be for England. If that is so, the Green Paper is faulty, given that much of what it contains applies to Wales. If the whole document is supposed to be about England and Wales, it is faulty because it gives only part of the story—the English part.
As I said earlier, the Minister could clear a little of the fog by answering a simple question: what will the commissioner's title be? I think we are sophisticated enough to realise that names mean something. Establishing the commissioner's title will give a clear indication of what the commissioner is likely to do—the commissioner in England, that is. Are we to have a commissioner for England, for England and Wales, or for England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland? I should be happy to give way to the Minister if she wishes to intervene, as she has had some time to think about the answer to my question. Unfortunately, it appears that she does not wish to intervene. This is not a frivolous point: for many people, the answer would define what the commissioner is about.
The Welsh Affairs Committee conducted two investigations, into the empowerment of children and young people in Wales and the powers of the Children's Commissioner for Wales. Both reached conclusions that were the opposite of those reached by the Government. I was fortunate enough to join the Committee as a new member earlier this year, and had an enlightening opportunity to join questioning of the Minister about the Bill and, in particular, the powers of the commissioner. Both questions and answers were very revealing, and can be read in a document snappily entitled "The Powers of the Children's Commissioner for Wales". It makes interesting reading.
The Minister told us that 4,000 had been consulted, but was unable to assure us that they included children from Wales. She did say that she thought some members of the Funky Dragon, the Welsh young people's parliament, might have been involved when the United Kingdom Youth Parliament was consulted.
In that regard, she rather makes my point for me. Pre-devolution, it might have seemed quite reasonable for the few representatives from Wales on UK bodies to represent the views of people from Wales. However, we are now beyond that—as a result of the Government, of devolution and of the setting up of the Welsh Assembly.
The proper way to consult people in Wales is to talk to them and to the appropriate Welsh body. In this case, it seems that the Government either failed to consult properly, or assumed that others were consulting on their behalf. The Minister mentioned the Welsh Assembly, but rightly or wrongly it is she, not Mr. Rhodri Morgan, who is facing me across the Floor of the House today. Whatever the situation, even if the Welsh Assembly did not consult, it is the Minister's and her Department's responsibility to consult properly. The position eventually arrived at—of not much consultation going on, apparently—is unacceptable when framing legislation for Welsh children. The resulting controversy surrounding the commissioner rather confirms that. He is not controversial himself, and nor are any of these proposals particularly 1060 controversial; indeed, I am sure that we could get over the problems. Rather, we are unhappy with the lack of consultation.
We now know that the Children's Commissioner for Wales, the children's commissioner for Scotland and the children's commissioner for Northern Ireland were not consulted. Inevitably and perhaps unfairly, some people draw the conclusion that in terms of consultation, "every child matters" but some matter more than others. In fact, I asked the Minister seven times and in various ways about consultation with children in Wales. Eventually, I got an answer by letter. She said:
The Committee questioned me about whether children in Wales had been consulted on the proposals in the Green Paper … I answered that, to the best of my knowledge, my Department had not carried out any specific consultation exercises with children in Wales, and I can now confirm that this is indeed the case.I turn to another vexed question—a problem that taxes us in Wales frequently: the role of the Welsh language. It is a vexed question not because of anything to do with the Welsh language itself, but because the Government have given it insufficient consideration, if any at all. Here, there is a contrast with the establishment of the Children's Commissioner for Wales. He runs a proper bilingual service—it was planned from the very first day, rather than after extensive consultation with the Welsh Language Board—and there is proper financing. Provision of service by the commissioner in Welsh or in English is not a problem, therefore; it is entirely normal. As such, it is a model of good language planning.
By contrast, so far as I can tell from the Minister's replies, the Government's proposals ignore the Welsh language at this point, and they seem certain to mire this much-needed Bill in language controversy. At a fundamental level, the reality of bilingualism in Wales requires the planning of services with both languages in mind. Sadly, in her evidence to the Committee the Minister did not give the impression that she has any real idea of the amount of Welsh spoken in Wales. Certainly in my constituency, the language is central to Welsh life, both public and private. Nor, regrettably, was any understanding shown of the Welsh language's legal status under Welsh language legislation of 1983 when compared with other UK languages—apart, of course, from English. The Minister helpfully referred to the 160 languages spoken in her constituency; the Welsh language's status is somewhat different.
We know that the Government intend that the new commissioner will not be involved in individual cases, although I cannot see why, given that the Welsh commissioner does so very successfully and gleans a great deal of information from such contacts. I shall give the House a simple example of the potential pitfalls of working in a bilingual context with only a monolingual mindset. One child says, "Mae fy llysdad yn fy ngharu", and another says, "Mae fy llysdad yn fy nhuro". There is a difference of only two letters, and the two sentences sound similar. However, one child is saying, "My stepfather loves me", and the other is saying, "My stepfather beats me." I have long experience of trying to persuade English colleagues that they cannot work successfully with children in Wales without an appreciation of such subtleties. Indeed, sometimes such differences are not so subtle.
1061 To the dismay of the Committee, the Minister also revealed that she had no contact with the Welsh Language Board, had not considered the Welsh language scheme and had no information on how a service—bilingual or otherwise—for Welsh children would be provided in practice. Significantly, she was also wholly unclear as to the financial resources available to provide a proper bilingual service.
Unfortunately, there is a widespread perception that the English commissioner will not be as independent as the Children's Commissioner for Wales, the children's commissioner for Scotland or the children's commissioner for Northern Ireland. There is an argument to be had on this issue—I do not want to enter into it—but that is the perception. Of course, the Children's Commissioner for Wales can inquire into cases as he sees fit. He has produced work on this issue, and he can require an answer from the Government within three months. He has the power to review proposed legislation and policy for the National Assembly, to consider its potential effects on children, and so on. As I said, the current commissioner has made the direct involvement of children and young people pivotal to the work of his office.
The European network of ombudsmen for children is also concerned about the establishment of a commissioner in England and Wales. They have said that the powers are the weakest available to any existing commissioner in the European network, and they have suggested that the new commissioner would be unable to join the network because of the lack of autonomy. That is not rabble-rousing Opposition politicians speaking; it is the European network of ombudsmen for children. I am afraid that, rightly or wrongly, this perception will hamper the commissioner's work, whether he is working in England or in Wales.
This is not an argument about devolution, as the Minister alleged in her evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee. Indeed, the Prime Minister said as much to me in a letter, after I wrote to him expressing my concern that this worthwhile legislation was likely to be mired in controversy. If I may, I shall briefly quote the words of Earl Howe in the other place:it is odd, to put it at its kindest, that the lines of accountability that the Government are proposing for these two commissioners appear to put legalistic considerations ahead of common sense. Children do not understand devolved and non-devolved powers; they want a simple system. They need to be able to access a single commissioner whom they regard as the champion of their interests across the board."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 4 May 2004; Vol. 660, c. 1066.]I put it more bluntly—or, as some might have said, more obscurely—when I said that if the Children's Commissioner for Wales acted as a proxy for the English children's commissioner, he would then be wearing two hats, each of which would be invisible to the children he was facing, and that his position would be undermined if the lack of independence was real.
I could cite several other quotes from the other place. For example, Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, Lord Thomas of Gresford and Lord Prys-Davis made similar comments. I will end, however, with a quote from a Scottish colleague, Professor Marshall, who said in giving evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee: 1062I think it is a question of whether you fit the children into devolution or whether you fit the government structures to meet the needs of children.As an ex-social worker, I, too, start with the client—the children. That is where the emphasis should be: we should fit the system to the way that children see the world and how they organise their lives. We do not need two commissioners for children in Wales: we need one with proper powers. We already have a Comisiynydd Plant Cymru—and he is quite good enough for me.
§ Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab)
I start by emphasising the importance of having regard to the interests of all children. In the United Kingdom, that means 14 million individuals—11 million in England—which is more than one fifth of the entire population. I say that not because children are entitled to a due proportion of our time befitting the proportion of the population that they represent, but for the good reasons enumerated by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson).
Children matter in so many different ways. They matter because they need others to enable them to have their say and be listened to and for actions to follow. Because of their special vulnerability, they need others to ensure that they are protected. I believe that they need people like us to ensure that we give free rein to the talents, ambitions and optimism that they have for the future of the society that they will take over from us.
It is therefore right to begin by looking at the overall protection and promotion of children and their interests. For example, when the Government set a target to eradicate childhood poverty within a generation, it benefits every child and all parts of our society. When the Government divert greater resources towards early years provision—free nursery places, Sure Start centres, children's centres in every town and city—that, too, benefits all children and all parts of society.
It is also important to consider parents and support what parents do. The first lesson of life for all of us ought to be that children's rate of learning—their capacity to learn and their speed of learning—is greatest between the years nought and three, long before any formal education such as Sure Start takes place. Every parent is not only a creator, provider and protector of children, but their first teacher. That may sound simple and obvious, but when I spoke to home start volunteers about the sort of families they supported in their own time for free, they described the homes that they went into as having no books at all. They described going into book shops to buy books with their own money to take into those homes. That brings home to us the fact that not everyone has yet got that important starting message.
It is the same when we think about what parents are for. It seems so simple and everyone says that they know it, but my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) mentioned how, when he became a parent, he had not the slightest idea about where to start. The starting point should be the message that if all children were brought up in the sure knowledge that they were loved and wanted, many of the social problems that we witness today would be matters of history within a generation.
1063 Every parent matters as well as every child, so it is important to have universal services for parents. When they need information, advice or even greater support through parenting programmes, those services should be available to them when and how they want them. I am not talking about a nanny state stepping in, because I am talking about parents who ask for help and it is right that it should be there when they need it.
The same goes for detecting abuse and neglect. Clearly, not every child is a victim of abuse and neglect, but I believe that the range of risks is out there among all children. That is why, when the Government talk about having a database that is broad and not narrow, they are right and their opponents are wrong.
There are dangers in setting up large databases and we might end up subject to the law of unintended consequences. Children's confidentiality might be breached and, as hon. Members have pointed out, another danger is that, if professionals can log vague expressions of concern, an important piece of information might be lost among the verbiage when it is logged. Another danger is mentioned in the Women's Aid briefing—an excellent briefing that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) drew to the House's attention. If a wider range of people are allowed access to the database, abusers might be able to use it to track down their victims. That is a serious concern.
I join other hon. Members in praising the Bill in its present form on the appointment of a children's commissioner for England. All the points that I have just made about all children in all parts of society would form part of the role of the children's commissioner. It follows, therefore, that I approve of the broader role given to the commissioner by the amendments in the House of Lords rather than that envisaged by the Government. That will create challenges later, when we come to vote.
I have talked about all children, but I shall move on to the issue of some children—those without parents to care for them, perhaps because of death, mental illness, abuse or many other reasons. Some people would say that it is the job of local authorities to step in and that the children should become looked after. However, I ask everybody to stop and think about the rest of the family. Other family members such as grandparents should be asked whether they could care for children whose parents cannot care for them. It is in the checklist in the Children Act 1989 that grandparents should be considered, but that does not always happen. Indeed, in practice, obstacles are often set up—legal and financial—that stop the people who would do the best job being the carers for children. I hope that we will have the time to consider that point in the passage of the Bill.
When children are looked after by local authorities, it is not necessarily in children's homes. The majority are looked after by foster carers and we need to support foster carers who do fantastic work. Some 50 per cent. receive less than the recommended amounts in allowances for the cost of looking after children. In cases of private foster care—and Victoria Climbié was in such care—I see no difficulty in a system of registration to aid parents in choosing safe foster carers. After all, we already have a registration system for childminders who look after children for shorter periods than do foster carers.
1064 Local authorities are directly responsible for looking after some 59,000 children in England. The Bill rightly places councils at the heart of the new arrangements for safeguarding and protecting children's interests in the future. I welcome, as many hon. Members have already done, the duty that will be imposed on councils to promote the educational achievement of looked-after children. We might have some interesting debates during the progress of the Bill about how to ensure that local authorities and schools work in partnership to raise the academic achievements of children in care.
I also wish to consider the situation of those children whose parents part. I do not know the numbers in cases where the parents are unmarried, although I praise the change in the law last year that enabled both parents to attend to register the birth of a child and thereby acquire parental responsibility. That has made an important difference, as I heard when I visited the local registration officer in Stafford recently.
A huge number of married parents separate and divorce—about 150,000 a year—and dependent children are affected in more than two thirds of those divorces.
Apart from cases where continuing contact is impossible, due to death, or problematic, due to abuse, the welfare of the child usually means that separating parents should co-operate to maintain contact of both parents with their children. Most parents achieve that without outside intervention, but we must ensure that all parents understand the importance of contact. In cases where parents continue not to co-operate about contact, we must intervene early and nip problems in the bud.
In the Green Paper published in July, the Government turned their attention to what more needed to be done in the smaller number of cases involving a small group of obdurate parents, as Mrs. Justice Bracewell described them in the case of V v. V in May 2004. In that case, Mrs. Justice Bracewell made public in open court her concerns about the difficulty for the courts in ensuring that contact takes place. As she said, there is limited room for procedural change in court practice to assist; what is needed is new legislation. Bleakly, The Daily Telegraph report of her comments ended:No such legislation is being brought forward".That conclusion is probably unkind, given the consultation paper, and it is probably too much to think that the Bill could incorporate the type of legislation that the judge wanted. However, I hope that, during the Bill's passage, the Government can give us a commitment that the legislation that has been shown to be necessary, both by the judge's comments and by the responses to the Green Paper, will be put on to the statute book.
Finally, I echo the comments made by many Members about the UN convention on the rights of the child and the aspects in which this country is not compliant. The convention sets out reasonable standards to which most decent people would sign up. Indeed, a previous British Government signed up to the convention. We are, however, still deficient on the treatment of young children in the criminal justice system and in nationality and immigration issues and on the defence of reasonable chastisement. The 10th report in the 2002–03 Session of the Joint Committee on 1065 Human Rights was on the UN convention, and I recommend that we look at the report and the Committee's comments on those three matters.
The report recommended a children's commissioner for England. The Bill provides that and I hope that, by the time it reaches the statute book, it will meet the other recommendations in the report.
§ Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton)(Con)
The aim of the Bill is twofold: to raise national standards, which is vital, and to right the wrongs so ably expressed by Lord Laming.
It is worrying that 30,000 children nationally are registered as at risk of abuse. To put that at the level of the House, there are 50 such children in each constituency. Each week, at least one child will die as a result of cruelty. It is especially chilling that a quarter of all rape victims are children.
I welcome the Bill and the enabling tone of the legislation. It is very positive indeed. I have two main concerns, however. First, as we have heard, far too much of the detail about the information-sharing schemes is still missing. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, the database seems to be about ticking boxes—as though merely to appear on it will address the child's needs. That is obviously not the case. Barnardo's has picked up that concern and has said that the clause means that the database will
fail to contribute to better outcomes".Secondly, where will the staff to implement the Bill's provisions come from? Who will knock on doors to investigate the abuse of children and work with others to root out that abuse? As we are probably all aware, social work staff are on low pay; they are poorly trained, opportunities are few and far between; and they suffer from inadequate resources. It would appear that those staff are in a worse position than the average housing officer, and it is lamentable that they will be the vanguard for many of the young children who will be looked after, we hope, under the Bill.
The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) mentioned how impressed he is with Sure Start, and the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) also said that parents must have a say, but neither of them picked up the fact that that already exists in a charity called Home-Start—not Sure Start, but Home-Start—which is volunteer driven and professionally organised. I have met the local Home-Start team in my constituency, and the lady who runs it, managing 30 or so volunteers, was previously a social worker. She said that she had initially been extremely sceptical about Home-Start, but she experienced a conversion to its importance because she could see that it was about prevention rather than cure. She said that today's social workers are striving and moving from crisis to crisis. That cannot be right: we cannot allow social workers to do what needs to be done under the Bill if that is what is happening to them.
To put it starkly, with £1,000 a year, Home-Start can deliver what is needed during a child's life to help parents be good parents. For those families, £1,000 a 1066 year can probably mean safeguarding spending the £1,000 a week that it would cost if that child went into care. So there are real lessons. The whole of Home-Start in Taunton costs £60,000 a year—admittedly, some of that is funded by Sure Start, but that sum represents the cost of looking after one child in care in Taunton. That is a very powerful, stark statistic.
In Somerset, probably as in every area, the education authority and social services are undertaking a big review, but I get the impression from speaking to David Taylor, the officer in charge who has been tasked with putting together a plan for Somerset, that the Government just want to wave a wand and make everything happen in all those areas. Things probably will not just happen.
The emphasis that those in Somerset have to place on a reform agenda to put children at the heart of their policies, protecting children at risk and those with needs, will create huge ructions in my constituency and the other constituencies in Somerset. They are intensely aware of the need to make improvements in other areas where children are involved, such as children's mental health care, which is currently being poorly delivered in Somerset, even on their own admission. They hope to remove the barriers to achievement, but they have to be mindful that they do not go too far in pushing the principle of inclusion. So there are concerns in Somerset—very much so—in trying to implement such a Bill.
The possible costs have hardly been touched on in the debate. It has cost Hertfordshire more than £7 million to implement such proposals, and I am told that those involved are considering change again. In Somerset, the first year of full implementation is expected to cost £1 million, with another £1 million in year two. To put that into perspective, we are looking at a budget of about £60 million.
Engaging schools will be very difficult. That is obvious and important, but it will not be particularly easy to get school governors to take up this issue, with all its complexity, and their efforts will go into all the other bits of paper that they finally have to get round to looking at. The pace of change is therefore at some risk. Somerset will want to implement the Bill by 2006, but the impression I get is that it has until 2008, and it will not be a huge problem if it has to take that time. I do not think that is what Lord Laming envisaged when he suggested that these things should be implemented quickly, within two years of the date of his inquiry report.
There are problems involved with linking the Bill to the health agenda. There is no requirement for a health authority to do anything whatever. We will not be able to rely on Action for Somerset Health, which is made up of representatives of the county council and other individuals interested in health getting together, to push things forward, because it seems to lack teeth at the moment, as do the patient forums—perhaps because they have not been around for long enough. However, we expect them to take up cudgels under the Bill and work with social services and the education authority. I 1067 am told that the national service framework contains no specific targets for children, so it is extremely difficult to know how we will measure progress.
§ Dr. Ladyman
I cannot let the hon. Gentleman get away with that. The national service framework for children will be mandatory on the national health service in its entirely throughout the 10-year life span.
§ Mr. Flook
I thank the Minister for his intervention, but I am only reporting the way in which senior officers in a well respected county council perceive the situation. They think that there are currently no targets for children, so they do not know how to plan how they will go forward next year.
There will be a complex process of change in even a reasonably small authority such as Somerset county council, and it will not be easy to point 700 staff in the right direction. After the niggling worries about the children's fund earlier this year, when budgets could be set yet slashed in the future, a lot of people who were once bitten will be twice shy. That means that change could be delayed beyond "as soon as possible"—although that is what we all want—which would be a shame and a pity not only for the way in which people regard the laws that we make but for the children who will suffer as a consequence.
§ Mr. Martin Caton (Gower)(Lab)
I shall be brief because I know that several hon. Members wish to contribute to this important debate. I shall focus the main thrust of my remarks on the Bill's impact on Wales and Welsh children, but before I do so I must mention other issues that have been raised in the debate.
I welcome the Bill, which comes as a direct result of the horrifying treatment and tragic death of Victoria Climbié. The approach in large parts of the Bill is exactly right because it tries to establish integrated children's services; extends the duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children; improves information sharing within and among responsible agencies; provides for better regulation of private fostering; and introduces a new duty on local authorities to promote the educational attainment of looked-after children. All that good stuff is important.
Like other hon. Members, however, I believe that there are gaps in the Bill, and areas of policy on which we are not going far enough. I, too, received the briefing on the Bill from the Refugee Children's Consortium, which makes a powerful case for specific provisions to ensure that refugee children are better protected. Like the consortium and my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), I do not know of a good reason to omit agencies with responsibility for immigration and asylum from the list of agencies in clause 8 with a duty to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children when discharging their normal functions. If we really mean that every child matters, surely those who are responsible for immigration removal centres, the National Asylum Support Service and those who deal with refugee children at ports of entry should be included on the list.
Despite Lord Lester's amendment in the other place, the Bill does not take the opportunity that we should grasp to deal with the physical punishment of children. 1068 If we start with the knowledge that physical punishment is an ineffective and counterproductive method of disciplining children, as we should; consider research from Save the Children and others showing the physical and emotional damage to children that such punishment causes; recognise, as we all can, the essential inequality of letting only one group of human beings—the most vulnerable group, which is our children—be beaten; consider our international responsibilities, especially under the UN convention on the rights of the child, which protects children from all forms of physical violence; and examine the actual experience of European countries that have removed the legal defence for the physical chastisement of children, we must conclude that now is the right time to do the right thing and completely abolish the 1860 defence of reasonable chastisement.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), I believe that we should have a free vote on this issue.
I am worried about how well the new children's commissioner for England will be able to function. While her or his powers have been improved as a result of Lords amendments, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children made it clear that she wants to take a different approach to the commissioner from the one adopted in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and will seek to reverse the changes made by the Lords. If she maintains that approach, there is a serious danger that the children of England will get a second-class service from their commissioner. As I represent a Welsh constituency, perhaps I should leave it to Members representing English constituencies to explore the issue further.
I shall concentrate on the ramifications for Wales and Welsh children if the role of the children's commissioner for England is established as the Government intend. First, however, I accept that most of the Bill—which, as my right hon. Friend the Minister pointed out, includes many provisions that apply to Wales—is very good and deserves our support. I particularly welcome the transfer of responsibilities from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service to the National Assembly for Wales, which is sensible and will facilitate joined-up government on children's policy and services in Wales.
The position of the new commissioner is a little unclear. In the original Bill, she or he was meant to encourage people engaged in children's activities to take account of children's views, advise the Secretary of State on those views, consider and research the operation of complaints procedures affecting children and any other matters relating to the interests of children. They would not initiate their own investigations, but could be required to undertake such investigations by the Secretary of State. In the other place, the commissioner's powers were beefed up so that they could initiate inquiries. Even if that power is allowed to remain, the commissioner can still be directed by the Secretary of State, which raises a serious question about their independence. In the original Bill, the English commissioner was intended to act as UK commissioner on non-devolved matters, but an amendment was accepted in the other place to remove that responsibility. Amendments to extend the existing powers of the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland commissioners to 1069 cover non-devolved matters, however, were not accepted. We are therefore in limbo, but I assume from my right hon. Friend's opening remarks that the Government intend to introduce an amendment to reinstate their original position so that the English commissioner will have a UK-wide remit on non-devolved matters.
I hope that the Government can be persuaded not to introduce such an amendment, and will take the alternative route of extending the powers of the other commissioners to cover all matters affecting children in their country. The problem with the Government's approach, especially for us in Wales, is that it will lead to confusion for our children, and will threaten the independence of the Welsh commissioner, which was a central tenet in the creation of that post. How will children know which commissioner is responsible for which policy area in Wales? The Government want to provide the English commissioner with a role in Wales on non-devolved matters, but they do not intend to establish an office there. It has been suggested again today that the Welsh commissioner should act as an agent for the English commissioner on non-devolved matters, and a memorandum of understanding was mentioned by my right hon. Friend. Leaving aside the question of independence, to which I shall return in a minute, even if that were achievable, the situation remains confused. On some matters, the Welsh commissioner could act on a child's behalf, but on others they could not do so unless the English commissioner thought that the child's problem had a wider significance.
One consequence was spelled out by Peter Clarke, the Children's Commissioner for Wales, who gave the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs a telling example:Not all children are able to receive an equal service from the Children's Commissioner for Wales despite similar circumstances. This may even be the case where they are receiving services from the same provider. For example, two children from the same street, but resident in Hillside secure accommodation in Neath, might be affected by this anomaly. One might be placed by the local authority, and the other via the youth justice system. The [Welsh] Commissioner has extensive powers in respect of the child placed by the local authority, but only the power to make representations via the National Assembly in respect of the other child. The establishment of the new 'UK' Children's Commissioner as set out in Part 1 of the Bill offers such a child or young person no greater support or protection than at present, because of the role's limited powers.Surely the simple, straightforward way to eliminate that differential treatment is to extend the powers of the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland commissioners to non-devolved matters.
The other main reason for doing that is to honour the determination of this Parliament and of the National Assembly for Wales to have a completely independent Children's Commissioner for Wales. I cannot see how that is possible if the Welsh commissioner ends up acting as a sort of agent for the English commissioner on non-devolved matters. As has been pointed out, the English commissioner can be directed by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to undertake inquiries. The result will be the Welsh commissioner, previously wholly independent of any political direction, including that of the Welsh Assembly, doing the bidding of the 1070 British Government. We do not have to do it that way. It would be much better and much more straightforward and understandable for the children who our commissioners are created to champion simply to make each commissioner in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland responsible for all policy areas that have an impact on children.
The Bill is a valuable and important measure. Let us use the next stages of its consideration to make it even better.
§ 9.1 pm
§ Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)(Con)
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I offer profuse apologies to the Minister for Children—I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), will pass them on to her—and to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for my late arrival as a result of an unavoidable commitment, of which I had informed Mr. Speaker. I thank my office team for recording faithfully every comment made by the right hon. Lady and my hon. Friend, so that I could have the benefit of their wise words.
I pay tribute to the army of extraordinarily impressive charities that we have in this country that are concerned with children. I am thinking of the quality of their briefings, their campaigns and their commitment to improving the well-being of children. It is a privilege to work with them. I should declare my interest as one who spends her time bringing talented people in to run public services and many of our leading charities, so that the policy that we debate here can be turned into the reality of change on the ground. When talking about the Climbié case and the need for change, Herbert Laming did not quarrel with the basic elements of the legislation to which the hon. Member—I almost said my hon. Friend—for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) referred, the Children Act 1989, which I had the privilege to implement and which established the paramountcy of the welfare of the child. Lord Laming focused on the tragedy, the horror, and the lack of proper management and leadership and of effective implementation in the Climbié case. That was shameful for all of us.
I was the Minister who signed the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, so I have enjoyed the many comments about it in the debate. At the time, I was agnostic about the role of a children's commissioner and whether it was the right time to introduce one, but I am delighted that the Bill contains a commitment to establish a children's commissioner for England. I share with others the strong belief that the Government should hold true to the principles established in another place. I give particular credit to my noble Friend Earl Howe, but many others worked with him to ensure that the changes were made.
The deliberate killing of or cruelty to a child is an obscene and disgraceful event. I speak not only of Victoria Climbié, but of the hundreds of children killed during the appalling events in Beslan in Russia last week. However, we should not let our minds be clouded to the enormity of the suffering of many other children who are neglected, but whose cases do not give rise to sensational public headlines or shock us to such an 1071 extent. Millions of children are dying in Darfur in Sudan, but closer to home we must face the appalling fact of 80 children each year being killed by their parents or carers, and almost 200 children each year being killed in road traffic accidents.
The point of real concern, which many here will share with me, is that around 200 children each year take their own lives. I welcome the comment there has been about the disgraceful state of affairs in our young offender institutions. If I had to be frank, I would say that the only time during my 20 years in this place when I was unhappy about the steps taken by my party and my Government was when we introduced secure training centres. My disappointment when Labour came to power in 1997 was that the Government accelerated that programme rather than reversing it. I do not think it right that a prison institution and its officers should care for children. I am deeply concerned about the state of the criminal justice system, and we should do much more through this Bill and in many other ways to rectify the balance.
The greatest threat to the health of our generation, according to the World Health Organisation, is adolescent mental health. We cannot debate the Bill without taking more seriously what is happening to the emotional and mental health of our adolescents. Only today, a preliminary report of an article to be produced in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry—a journal in which I published a number of articles long ago when I had a proper job—describes the deteriorating mental health of many of our adolescents. Holland has not seen that deterioration, and in the United States it was arrested. Here, we have seen, year after year, numbers of children with nervous disorders—not just suicide and self-harm but a great range of conditions.
I ask the Under-Secretary of State for Health to say what he is doing to ensure that child and adolescent mental health services are given the proper priority and recognition by primary care trusts. We all appreciate what has happened in the health service: if a thing is not targeted, it does not count; if it is not a waiting time or one of the key priorities, it is of pretty peripheral significance. How will the Minister ensure that, at a time when only 5 per cent. of spending on mental health services is on children, we can make a reality of the aims and aspirations of the Bill? How will he deliver that on the ground and in practice?
There is similar concern about the challenges and dilemma of parenting. I am delighted that so many hon. Members have referred to Home-Start. The late Lord Joseph made his original speech about the cycle of deprivation at a pre-school playgroup annual meeting in about 1973. I was there as the Child Poverty Action Group representative, I am pleased to say. Lord Joseph was the great champion of Home-Start as an organisation to befriend vulnerable parents. I ask Members to think about the dilemma that parents face. They are supposed now almost to be techno-managers. They, too, have the target culture as they ask whether their children will survive tests at school and achieve under all the different criteria. Is there space, still, just for nurture and parenting?
The Government speak much about the steps that they have taken to promote children and family life. They stand accused of behaving aggressively in their 1072 early years in government towards mothers who wished to stay at home. Single mothers may have an awful lot to contend with, but, almost coercively, they were expected to go out to work, and that caused a great deal of distress and worry in many groups who believe that parenting should be valued, difficult as it is and unsuccessful as many of us have been in surviving the task, without having had to deal with the workplace.
I should like to speak briefly about the progress that Surrey has made in taking forward its policies. The director of education there has become the director of children's services. He is one of the most highly regarded officers in that county council. How delighted I am that he has taken that step.
What steps will Ministers take to monitor the quality of people who take over as directors of children's services? Surrey has a particularly impressive record, both in education and in social service delivery, and I am impressed with the decision that the council has made, but I am concerned that in authorities where the director of social services is appointed, and where the educational support services and psychological services support the director of children's services, there may be a greater polarity between the culture of testing attainment in schools and the more nurturing culture in social services and social care.
The House should be under no illusion about the clash of cultures between the social care models, the education models, the health model and the criminal justice models. Professionals in all those areas have trained separately and work separately. Often, their budgets are separate. We can speak fine words about collaboration and co-ordination, but it is extremely difficult to achieve. I do not seek to undermine the aims and objectives of the Bill, but simply describing a structure is not sufficient to ensure that we get the psychology and the relationships right to deliver the change for which we are all hoping.
Perhaps the Minister can tell us what has happened to the chief nursing officer's review of the health visiting, nursing and midwifery contribution to this crucial work. For a young family, one of the most acceptable professionals on the doorstep is the health visitor. The health visitor has licence to see the child with no clothes on, and licence to ask all sorts of personal questions. Would that the training of health visitors included a little more on the emotional and relationship side. Nevertheless, health visitors are a crucial element. I am sure the Minister has taken to heart the concern about shortages of social work staff and many others.
Will the Minister also respond briefly to last week's report by Baroness Helena Kennedy about paediatric pathologists? Tragically, parents do kill their children, but it is equally appalling wrongly to accuse parents of damaging their children. The evidence is that there are fewer and fewer expert paediatricians who want to be expert witnesses, and a real lack of paediatric pathologists as a result of the present circumstances.
There are all manner of other points that I should have liked to address, but there is no time if my hon. Friends are to make a contribution. On reasonable chastisement, I apologise to my children and grandchildren if, on occasions, I have unreasonably chastised them. I do not want to translate into law a measure that might criminalise my hon. Friend the 1073 Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) or, while she lasts, the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey. I can only say to my children and grandchildren—all four of them—in mitigation for the moments of unreasonable chastisement that sometimes a smack is preferable to cruel, harsh words. When one hears the lengths that parents who never smack their children sometimes go to, one feels that a smack would be less cruel than the ongoing programme of rebuke and humiliation. I may be persuaded otherwise as the years go by, perhaps in time for my great-grandchildren.
The Bill is important. There are a great number of matters to be discussed in Committee and I wish it well. We have the lowest birth rate that we have ever had in this country. We owe it to those fewer children to do our very best to protect and safeguard them.
§ Liz Blackman (Erewash)(Lab)
I shall be brief. Like every other hon. Member, I congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill which, by putting the needs of children at its heart, represents a step change. Its timing should be set in context. It builds upon a huge commitment to meet children's needs, both through the amount of investment and funding that my Government have put into children's services and support services since 1997, and through innovative programmes that are admired on both sides of the House, such as Sure Start and quality protects.
The Bill builds on structures at a local level and provides for new ways of working and for changing cultures. Many gaps still exist, so the legislation is timely. The Bill creates a statutory framework of co-operation between local authorities and relevant partners, so that universal and specialist services can work together.
I was extremely pleased by the wideness of the consultation, which included at its heart not only statutory and voluntary bodies, but children themselves. It is also worth noting, as many hon. Members have, that when the Bill was in the other place, both sides adopted a spirit of co-operation, which explains the extent to which the Bill was amended before it came here.
I welcome the commissioner's role, which is a huge strategic position promoting and safeguarding the rights and interests of children and representing their views. I am pleased that the commissioner's focus of accountability to Parliament is set against outcomes, which is crucial, and am also pleased that the commissioner will be free to engage with all sectors and to investigate and report on all areas of children's lives.
Like many hon. Members, I believe that the commissioner's role should not be investigative or casework-based, which would detract from the commissioner's opportunities to listen to children, but to ensure that services are responsive and acceptable and to influence policy making accordingly. That model will be far more effective than an investigative approach. A Lords amendment means that the commissioner can investigate cases that raise wider issues of public policy, and I look forward with interest to the amendments to clause 2.
1074 On clause 7, which concerns co-operation to improve well-being, it is logical that the local authority is the lead body with responsibility for promoting co-operation between itself and its partners. Clause 7 also promotes the development of children's trusts. That will put decision making in the hands of local partnerships, which will be able to commission services. Crucially, it will also enable budgets to be pooled, creating flexibility to meet local needs.
On clause 8, I am concerned that schools and general practitioners are not included on the face of the Bill. I look forward to the Minister explaining how schools can be drawn into that chain of responsibility and accountability without their being included in the Bill.
Clause 9 provoked much debate in the other place and many hon. Members have stressed that it is crucial for all children, because it will help professionals identify those children who do not access appropriate services. It is not intended exclusively to support children at risk of harm, which is right because other children in the system, such as children with disabilities, trauma or learning difficulties, also need to be picked up. Clause 9 is central to protecting children from harm, and the Local Government Association, the NHS Confederation and the Association of Directors of Social Services—social services are often at the sharp end of criticism on child protection—fully support it.
All the cases that I know of child abuse that resulted in murder are characterised by professionals holding some information but not sharing it. In the Victoria Climbié case, two housing departments, four social services departments, two child protection teams from the Met, a specialist centre run by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and two hospitals, where she was admitted and harm was suspected, were involved, but did not share the information.
Three years ago, Chelsea Brown, a two-year-old girl in my constituency, was murdered by her father. Information was held by social services and by health services, but it was not shared.
I agree with the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) that it is crucial that the clause allow us to reach a conclusion on who has access to the database. I am pleased that the Lords accepted the amendment on what information is to go on to the database. The issue is going out to consultation and there will be affirmation in Parliament once the guidance is presented. It is crucial to share information, because in all these dreadful cases the evidence is there to see. Although it is not a substitute for action, it will enhance and make robust the system, save lives, and support children.
Sharing information is a good thing. However, as chair of the all-party group on autism, I want to point out, as has the National Autistic Society, that some behaviours associated with autism can lead professionals, especially those with a low awareness of autism, mistakenly to believe that a child is showing signs of abuse. Indeed, until the 1960s autism was known as refrigerator mother syndrome. I thank the Minister for assuring me that regulations relating to the database will be carefully scrutinised and that the Department will continue to be alert to ensure that such misdiagnosis is avoided.
1075 On clause 14, the director of children's services is a key role and I agree with the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley) that it is essential that directors' performance be properly monitored. The appointment of such key people should be made as open as possible in terms of criteria, job specification and reasons for choice, as well as follow-up monitoring. The lead council member for children is important in ensuring a high profile at political level. I note that most directors will be in place by 2006 and a few more by 2008. Why will it take two extra years to put the final pegs in the hole?
I shall finish to allow other Members to have their say. This is an excellent Bill that offers us huge opportunities to do things better, but it is not a substitute for good professional judgment and practice or for high-quality management and the continued development of capacity and services. We must do both. Bills do not replace people; it is talented, committed professionals who will, together with the provisions in the Bill, make a difference to children's lives.
§ Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire)(LD)
I shall be brief. I support the general thrust of the Bill, but I urge the Minister to take account of the amendments that were made in another place, which I believe add to the measure and make it more effective.
I want to comment on the Children's Commissioner for Wales. The Minister is putting legislation before Welsh children's interests. Much has been said about children's interests being paramount, but I agree with Baroness Finlay, who said:I must ask whether the bureaucracy of the devolution settlement is getting in the way of the arrangements that would serve children best."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 March 2004; Vol. 659, c. 1245.]Let me give one example. As I understand the Bill, the children's commissioner in England would not have the ability to take up individual cases brought by children but could only deal with the wider national interest. Let us imagine the position of a child who, believing that he or she had suffered an injustice, would have to consider first whether the matter was devolved or reserved, and secondly whether it affected them as an individual or had a wider national interest. All that would be at a time when the child was under great stress because of the injustice that he or she believed had been suffered.
The only way out is to do as the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) suggested and use the opportunity that the Bill affords to extend the powers of the Children's Commissioner for Wales, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People and the Commissioner for Children and Young People in Scotland.
I make one last comment as the Minister returns to her seat. She has done what I believed was impossible: she has united the body politic in Wales on this matter. All Welsh Members of Parliament, all Assembly Members and all local authorities and nongovernmental organisations believe that the power of the Children's Commissioner for Wales should be extended. I hope that the Minister can do that.
§ Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)(Lab)
I shall be brief. I want to make three points. I congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill, which is an excellent measure. I especially welcome some of the proposals for Wales. It is excellent that the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service is being devolved to Wales. It is right that it is under the jurisdiction of the Minister for Children in England, and it should be under that of the Minister with responsibility for children in Wales. It has always been difficult for CAFCASS Cymru and some of the issues that relate to Wales to be understood in London. That body's devolution to Wales means that it will be possible to examine the issues that are relevant to Wales, especially the Welsh language, and that the voices of children in Wales will be heard more clearly in CAFCASS. I strongly support that provision.
Secondly, I want to consider the children's commissioner, about whom we have had many discussions. The Children's Commissioner for Wales has had a strong impact. He was appointed as a result of the Waterhouse inquiry, which showed that children in Wales had no rights and no proper complaints system. Children in Wales were seen and not heard. The office of the Children's Commissioner for Wales has given authority, credibility and recognition to children's rights in Wales. It has made a huge difference. The commissioner has published two full annual reports. One was on child poverty, which had implications in the Assembly and led to its establishing an action programme. The second report, which has been mentioned today, was on child and adolescent services. Consequently, there is more funding from the Welsh Assembly Government for such work.
There is no doubt that the Children's Commissioner for Wales has substantially influenced policy in the Assembly. Although he is funded by the Assembly, he and his office are totally independent and able to be very critical. They have been critical of the Welsh Assembly Government and of Westminster. We should welcome that, because we want an independent body that can be critical. Some elements of the post of English children's commissioner need to be considered because it is essential that the Secretary of State should not have power of direction over the commissioner.
I regret that there was not more consultation with the Children's Commissioner for Wales before the Bill was framed because we could have learned a lot from each other. The importance of devolution is that sometimes we do things differently but it is vital to learn from the experiences in the devolved bodies. I therefore regret that there was not more consultation, but I am pleased that the Government accepted the amendment that provided for the children's commissioner in England to take account of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. I hope that that will be maintained.
The Children's Commissioner in Wales takes up individual cases. That is important, because if we are to be open to the voices of children in Wales, we need to be able to take up the cases that those children bring to us. I am also pleased that children will be involved in the appointment of the English children's commissioner. That happened in Wales, and it is important to involve 1077 children from all parts of society, including disabled children and children from ethnic minorities, in these appointments.
We must also resolve the issue of non-devolved matters and how they are dealt with. It is important that there should be one voice in Wales, and the easiest and most effective solution to this issue is for the Children's Commissioner in Wales to have the power to take up the non-devolved matters. I know that that is what the commissioner himself is suggesting, with the support of the commissioners in Scotland and Northern Ireland. That would be the most sensible and effective way forward, and it would ensure that the voice of the children would clearly be heard. For those reasons, I believe that the Bill should be amended.
On the physical punishment of children, I believe that they should have the same protection from assault as adults do. It would be a terrible shame if the Bill went through without our having taken this issue forward. I do not support clause 49, which was passed in another place. In fact, I think that it would make the situation worse. We would be better off without it, because it appears to condone some form of physical punishment. I do not see how we can support the idea of a fully grown adult hitting a small child, and it is essential that we do something about this issue.
§ Mrs. Betty Williams
Can my hon. Friend give me one good reason why we cannot have a piece of legislation in this country similar to the ones that have proved themselves in countries such as Sweden for many years?
§ Julie Morgan
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have heard today about the examples of other countries that have gone forward in this way, and we should do so as well. I am dismayed that the Government are not going to give Members a free vote on this important issue of conscience. I hope that, by the time we reach Report and Third Reading, they will at least agree that we should be able to exercise our conscience on an issue on which we would traditionally expect to have a free vote. I feel strongly that we should have a free vote, and I hope that the Government will reconsider this issue and think about their duty to children, the most vulnerable members of our society, and get rid of the defence of reasonable chastisement.
§ Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)(Lab)
I very much welcome the Bill, and I just want to make a few remarks on one specific point relating to housing on which it is unclear. Clause 7(2)(a) to (e) contains five categories that are supposed to cover all the needs of a child. There is specific reference to health and education, but no explicit reference to housing. It is assumed that the Children Act 1989 contains an obligation on social services to ensure that the housing needs of children are met, but this has recently been interpreted by the courts as ensuring that the housing needs of children in an area are met generally, rather than ensuring that the specific needs of an individual child are met. That is a whole different ball game. Homeless families are therefore told that they can go to social services, but that their children might be taken into care. This virtually takes us back to 1078 "Cathy Come Home", and it illustrates the need to tackle homelessness, to keep families together and to house children with their parents when that is appropriate for them.
The importance of housing for children was well recognised in "Every Child Matters", in which homelessness was identified as the factor second most closely associated with poor outcomes for children. Unfortunately, this recognition was not carried through to the various structures and procedures needed to overcome the risks involved. The Green Paper was not explicit about that; nor is the Bill. That will leave a major gap in the services needed to protect the welfare of children. I have discussed this a number of times with my right hon. Friend the Minister, along with some of the cases that I have dealt with in my constituency that have resulted in children living in appalling conditions, including that of a woman with three small children who was the victim of domestic violence. She was rejected for housing, declared intentionally homeless and has had to live in two tiny rooms in a refuge for more than 15 months.
There is clear evidence that the number of families being turned down for housing on the grounds of being intentionally homeless is on the increase. Intentionality was cited as a reason for refusing housing in 5,000 cases in 1997–98. In March this year, the figure leapt to 13,000, and in my region, the figures almost trebled from 250 to 700 over the same period. Clearly, something needs to happen for families to be refused such housing, be it antisocial behaviour or rent arrears. There is a clear desire not to drive a coach and horses through local authorities' housing powers, but the fact is that those families do not go away, and some way must be found to protect children from the consequences of their parents' homelessness, other than taking them into care.
I therefore ask my right hon. Friend to consider three issues. First, will she make sure that priority is given to homelessness as a risk to the well-being of children; that "Every Child Matters" is made a reality in the legislation; and that she considers some of the proposals to do that, including those that have come forward from Shelter? Secondly, will she work with colleagues across government to ensure that there is provision, possibly in the form of special accommodation, and possibly through support services, to enable antisocial families to rehabilitate themselves and sustain independent tenancies, as in the special projects in Dundee, Manchester and north Wales? Thirdly, will she make sure that the possibly unintended consequences for children of other aspects of Government policy are fully understood, so that if more families are being declared intentionally homeless, or evicted from their accommodation, careful consideration is given to what happens to the children? Perhaps when there are two parents in the family, and when one parent works, they have more options. It seems likely, however, that single parents, who have less income and fewer options, will end up in a complete housing dead end, with devastating consequences for their children.
The provision of decent-quality, secure housing is one of the basics for the welfare of children. In many of the appalling child abuse scandals that we have seen, insecure housing has been a factor. As I said, the role of housing is well recognised in the Green Paper, but many children still do not have the housing protection that 1079 they need, unless they are taken away from their parents and placed in care, when the outcomes for them are often worse. The legislation will not introduce the measures that are needed to get to grips with that, and I ask my right hon. Friend to make sure that the opportunities provided by this legislation are taken to put that right for children.
§ Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)(Con)
This has been a good-natured and amicable debate, most unusually. We have a general consensus that, as the Minister said at the beginning of her remarks, every child matters. We all agree on that, and it has been instructive to listen to contributions from both sides of the House this evening. I pay tribute to Lord Laming, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnado's, Women's Aid and many other excellent voluntary organisations, whose work, not only recently but for a long time, has informed our debate. We welcome all the help and support that they gave us on practical matters.
We agree with the two principles that the Minister expressed in her speech—the importance of putting children first and the essential necessity of early intervention. Our arguments have been constructive and designed to improve the Bill, which I hope that the Minister will appreciate. I have never doubted that her intentions are good. As we examine the practicalities, however, we will suggest some better ways of proceeding, all with the very best of intentions, and putting every child first.
The hon. Members for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) and for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) and various other Members have given us the benefit of their valuable experience in Wales, which already has a Children's Commissioner. I am certain that we will all pay attention to their contributions when we discuss these matters in Committee.
§ The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband)
The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) is watching you!
§ Mrs. Laing
I do not care if he is. That is all right with me.
The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) made wide-ranging points about many aspects of children's lives, but I should say to her that it is essential for us now to concentrate on the key aims that the Bill can achieve. We must not dilute it by looking too widely.
Not for the first time, the hon. Members for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) and for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) spoke at length about Sure Start. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford will be disappointed to hear me say that he is absolutely right. Many aspects of Sure Start are working well, and we will build on them when we return to government.
§ Jonathan Shaw
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning my remarks about Sure Start. I have challenged her on past occasions by asking why, given her praise for Sure Start—which I welcome—she did not vote for the money that pays for it.
§ Mrs. Laing
We have guaranteed the funding of Sure Start. I know that the hon. Gentleman will be 1080 disappointed to hear me say that, because he wants to paint me as the wicked witch who does not care about children, but I am afraid that I do care about them. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I hope I am not disappointing my hon. Friends.
The hon. Member for Wakefield will, I hope, forgive me for having left the Chamber during his speech. Just as he was saying—quite rightly—that the most important influence on a child's development was his or her home life with his or her parents, I realised that it was 3 minutes to 7 and that my own three-year-old son was about to go to bed, which he could not happily do until I had phoned to say good night. I hope I shall be forgiven for my absence from the Chamber for what I consider to be my most important duty.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) is right to defend clause 2 in its present form. To be effective, a commissioner must be independent, responsible not to a politically partisan Secretary of State but to Parliament.
Both my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) and the hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) spoke about the database. I share my hon. Friend's concern. If a database is overloaded with the names of some 11 million children, the vast majority of whom are not at risk, it is likely that the relevant names of those who actually are at risk will be overlooked. It is a bit like trying to find the relevant e-mails among all the spam that comes to all of us every day. I hope that "spam" is parliamentary language, Mr. Speaker.
The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) made his usual thoughtful speech. I pay tribute to him for his many years' experience in this area. Amazingly, I agree with him on two important points. The first rule for an MP should indeed be to ask himself, "Is what we are about to do good enough for my own child?" The answer to that question must always be yes, if the measure deserves to be passed by the House. I also agree that this is the most important Bill that the House will consider this week. That is not what the media will say—they prefer foxhunting—but those of us who are here this evening know that it is on what happens to families and children that the future of our society depends, not on the sporting habits of part of the population.
The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) is right about separated parents. The welfare of a child is usually best served by the maintaining of contact with both parents. Only in unusual circumstances—where criminal or unreasonable behaviour has occurred—is that not the case. I take issue with the Minister when she says that it is not possible to have a rebuttable presumption of equal parenting while also putting the child first. Of course it is possible to do both those things—indeed, we must do so in order to preserve the coherence and importance of families. In fact, is not only possible; it is also right.
The Minister's mistake is that she is concerned with rights—with the view, "This is mine; this is what I want"—rather than with duties and responsibilities. Rights exist only if there are corresponding duties and responsibilities to give those rights. Parents have responsibilities to their children before they have rights 1081 over them. This is about not a conflict of rights, but a sharing of responsibilities that we should try to achieve for future generations.
§ Mr. Dawson
Does the hon. Lady not accept that it was her colleague, the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley), who abolished the concept of parental rights in 1989?
§ Mrs. Laing
I understand that while we have been debating this important Bill, a man dressed as Batman has climbed on to Buckingham palace. [Interruption.] I agree that that seems to be a security breach. The man appears to represent a group called Fathers 4 Justice, but he is doing no service to the many separated fathers who are trying to do their best for their children. Unfortunately, his irresponsible behaviour tarnishes the reputation of the many organisations that are well meaning and responsible in their efforts to achieve equal parenting for children, where that is the right thing to do.
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook) spoke with passion, as ever, about the lessons from his own constituency. The hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) is absolutely right to demand a free vote on the defence of reasonable chastisement and the whole issue of smacking. I do not want tabloid coverage of the key aims of this vital Bill to be swept away by an over-concentration on the issue of smacking. But the very fact that we are discussing this issue tonight will itself help to open up the public debate and raise awareness of the problems arising from physical chastisement.
What our society and vulnerable children in particular need is not changes to the criminal law, fine words and more rules and regulations imposed from above. Rather, what is needed is a complete change in attitude, which can come about only through a consensus of public opinion and a change from within. So let us hope that the newspapers are right about this issue, but not in a jocular, silly or oppressive way. We need to say that physical chastisement is never the best way to exert discipline on a child. A small amount might sometimes be justified, but we have to draw the line at a very low threshold. The right way to do that is not by changing the criminal law.
My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley) made a very important contribution to the debate, and I pay tribute to the many achievements for which she was responsible when in government. I agree with what the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) said about homelessness and the need for housing. I hope that we will be able to discuss these matters in greater detail in Committee, and I can assure the Minister that when we do, we will co-operate to the best of our ability. We commend the Bill and thoroughly support it, and we are glad to see it at last before this House.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Dr. Stephen Ladyman)
We have heard, as I expected we would, about a number of cases in which 1082 children were let down, sometimes with terrible consequences. It is crucial that we learn the lessons of those cases. The Government and all their partners, including the voluntary, community and private sectors, have a responsibility to work together and with children and families to do so. We must ensure that we provide services for children and young people that are built around a proper understanding of their needs. It is particularly important for the most vulnerable that services focus on prevention and that there are clear lines of accountability.
The Bill will play a key role in achieving that. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children said, the legislative measures that we are debating today are only a small part of our wider programme of change for children, building on the vision set out in "Every Child Matters". They are vitally important none the less.
One of the things that we must all work on is more effective joint working between different disciplines at every level of the system, including central Government, which is why a Health Minister is winding up the debate. The Department of Health continues to have responsibility for children's health. That means that my right hon. Friend and I have to work very closely and set an example from the top.
At the centre of the programme for change are the outcomes set out in "Every Child Matters"—being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution and economic well-being. The outcomes are derived from extensive consultation with children and young people themselves. Central to our agenda is ensuring that the outcomes, rather than process or the bureaucracy, become the focus of policy making, planning, commissioning and delivery of all children's services.
Good health in its fullest sense is essential to well-being. It is crucial that we ensure that health agencies and professionals work with their colleagues in education, social care, youth justice agencies and those in the private and voluntary sectors. There must be shared understanding and effective multi-disciplinary working at every level, and we must ensure that the legal framework and the messages sent out from central Government support that process. That means that the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills must be jointly responsible for ensuring that the children's trust approach works. That approach encourages health agencies and their local partners to find new and innovative ways to improve services for children, including preventive services.
The Government are continuing to drive the development of good practice in this area, with provision being built around the needs of children and their families. Measures in the Bill will enable and incentivise partnership and integration. In particular, the Bill requires local agencies, including health partners, to co-operate to improve well-being and remove barriers to the pooling of budgets and resources. It will also strengthen safeguarding arrangements and ensure that they are properly co-ordinated across local agencies.
Let me emphasise at this point that health services will not be allowed to stand remote from this agenda. For many children, general practitioners provide the entry point into children's service provision. They are a 1083 universal service with the potential to impact on the well-being of all children registered with them. GPs and other primary care professionals operate under contract to primary care trusts. PCTs are subject to the duties in the Bill to co-operate to improve the well-being of children and to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote their welfare.
§ Dr. Ladyman
I am afraid I will not. If I do not make progress, I will not be able to answer the right hon. Lady's points.
We are working with PCTs, GPs and the key national representative organisations to ensure that GPs are appropriately tied into these arrangements. However, what is perhaps more crucial is to ensure that GPs are supported in engaging in child-focused, multi-agency or co-located working arrangements and effective sharing of information, where appropriate.
My right hon. Friend and I have also been working closely together on the preparation of the national service framework for children, young people and maternity services, which will be published this week. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) in congratulating Professor Aynsley-Green on his inclusive approach to producing the new national service framework. The NSF will establish national standards for children's health and social care for the first time in this country—and, to the best of my belief, for the first time in any country. During the 10-year span of the NSF, we will see a step-change in service quality for children. It will play an important role in driving cultural change within health services for children and young people at all levels. At its heart is a fundamental change in the way we think. It will promote a move towards services that are designed around the needs of children and their families, not organisations.
I turn to some of the comments made in the debate, and I shall start with those made by the hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and for Taunton (Mr. Flook) and, in a similar vein, by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson). I very much enjoyed the speech by my hon. Friend, as I normally do, and I can tell him that he will be sadly missed when he leaves this place. All three mentioned the importance of social workers and the need to recruit them. I am happy to say that there are signs that the number of applications for social work training is increasing, but I spotted an important difference between my hon. Friend and the Opposition Members I mentioned. All three willed the ends, but only my hon. Friend joins the Government in willing the means. It is only by increasing the budgets for social services that we will increase the recruitment of social workers. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) said that the Conservatives would preserve spending on Sure Start, but the shadow Chancellor has committed his party only to preserving spending on schools and health, not on social care or social services.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley) mentioned the importance of parents. As someone who lost his father a fortnight ago, I know the benefits of having great 1084 parents. Sometimes we take them for granted, but it is only when everybody has great parents that we will start to achieve the changes that we are looking for. That means providing parents with the support that they need. The right hon. Lady asked specific questions about expert witnesses and the report that came out last week. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and I pre-empted that report by asking the chief medical officer to review the recruitment and training of expert witnesses. We hope that that review will lead to a way forward. The right hon. Lady also asked about the chief nursing officer's report, and I confirm that that was published on 10 August.
My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) was alone in raising the important issue of housing and homelessness, and I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend has heard what she said. Several hon. Members, including those for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and for East Worthing and Shoreham, and my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) and for Gower (Mr. Caton), mentioned the Lords amendments to clause 2. We do not believe that the current wording would help the commissioner to discharge the strategic role that we intend and we will table amendments in Committee to reverse most of the changes introduced by the amendments made in the Lords. We believe that the commissioner's role should be a strategic one. He should have the opportunity to investigate issues widely and we do not want him to become bogged down in individual cases, as other commissioners sometimes have. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre made the point that transport is a children's issue, and I agree. The commissioner that we intend to introduce would be able to write a strategic report about the impact of transport on children because he would not get bogged down in day-to-day issues. The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) mentioned the fact that the Children's Commissioner for Wales has written two reports. I make no criticism of that commissioner, but had he not put most of his resources into individual cases and then taken the more strategic approach that we propose, he might have been able to produce more than two such reports.
The hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham, for Taunton and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke), and my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman), raised the issue of engaging schools. It will not be possible to deliver on our aim to provide coherent support for children unless we get schools playing a central role. We have many good examples of how extended schools are working well with local partners to do that already and many have been the inspiration for what we are doing. We intend to ensure that schools play a full part.
Unfortunately, time will not allow me to address all the points that were raised in the debate. However, let me just say that the Bill is one part of the major infrastructure that we are putting in place for children. It will dramatically improve the quality of care for children and I commend it to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.