HL Deb 02 March 1995 vol 561 cc1577-9

Baroness Williams of Crosby asked Her Majesty's Government:

What response they have made to the United Nations report criticising government policy with regard to the rights and welfare of children.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege)

My Lords, there is no obligation under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child for the United Kingdom Government to respond to the observations of the United Nations committee, and we have no plans to do so.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, it is a most disturbing one. The report of the United Nations children's committee, in an examination of 35 other countries as well as ours, drew attention both to the good things the Government have done—in respect, for example, of adoption policy—and also to things which disturbed it, in particular secure provision for children and some aspects of the treatment of immigrant and ethnic minority children. Will the Minister reconsider what she has told the House? It is a matter which I should have thought the two Houses of Parliament and non-governmental organisations had every right to discuss in the interests of the children of this country.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, we are waiting to see the record of the sessions of the committee. Although part of the record is available, it is not yet forthcoming in its entirety. When we have seen the whole record, we shall consider whether to place a copy in the Library.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the purpose of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and of the committee set up under it, is to improve the conditions and prospects of children throughout the world? Does the Minister further agree that it is the intention of the committee to engage in constructive dialogue, not negative criticism, and that some of the newspaper reports about the committee's activities in relation to this country appear to be somewhat unbalanced? Therefore, will the Minister please reconsider the matter?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, it is for that very reason that we wish to await the full record before we decide what to do with the results. We believe that the committee was not totally fair in the way it conducted its review. In fact, members of the committee did not visit this country prior to producing the report. They took evidence from the Government on a Tuesday and a Wednesday morning and published their report on the Friday, having spent the Wednesday afternoon listening to further evidence from another country. We think that it would be fair if we published all the proceedings and not just the report from the committee.

Lord Carr of Hadley

My Lords, I have one particular question for my noble friend the Minister. Will she satisfy herself that it is in order, and within the obligations that we have voluntarily undertaken internationally, for girls aged 12 to 14 to be held in secure custody in the same institutions as boys of the same age? I understand that that is the position in our proposed secure training centres.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I am afraid that I am not aware of the relevant facts. However, I shall certainly look into the matter and refer back to my noble friend.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, although certain of the criticisms may be out of place, some are of fundamental importance? I have in mind the allegation of breaches of the spirit of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; the reference to the number of children in poverty; and the reference to the age of criminality. When the time comes to respond to the report, will the Minister confirm that it will be accorded the gravity that a reply to the UN's report deserves?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, the issues the committee was examining included the plight of street children, child victims of drug-related terrorism, child labour in mines, social cleansing campaigns, and arbitrary arrest. Our children in this country have a better start to life than they have ever had. We have almost eradicated childhood diseases. Moreover, there are fewer children in care and of those who are, more are cared for within a family—either adopted or fostered. We have the Children Act which safeguards the rights of children while parents now have more choice over their children's education and are involved in schools. I believe that our children have never had it so good. They are taller, they are fitter, and they are better educated. I really think that the committee should have taken those factors into account.

The Lord Bishop of Bristol

My Lords, despite the criticisms made of the United Nations report, issues have nonetheless been raised concerning the proposed secure training units. Will Her Majesty's Government reconsider the creation of such units in favour of community alternatives, some of which have proven to be effective?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, the issue has been widely debated in both Houses of Parliament. We have come to our conclusions. It is a last resort for those children. Within the training centres, the children will receive advice and help with discipline, education, health and hygiene—all those aspects of life which are usually instilled by parents when bringing up their children but which such children have lost out on. It is right that they should receive the help we can give them.

Noble Lords

Front Bench!

Lord Rea

My Lords, the report of the United Nations committee on the rights of the child, in response to the Government's report on the children's convention, is critical of the Government, but it also offers some constructive suggestions covering a very wide area—from the reduction of child poverty, as discussed in yesterday's debate, to the reform of the child judicial system, not simply restricted to secure centres. Can we expect an equally constructive response from the Government to this authoritative document? I agree that we have to await the full report. Can we expect the Government to respond to it constructively? Is the noble Baroness aware that the report suggests that its contents be brought before Parliament and that the suggestions for action be followed by the Government?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, there is no obligation to do so. It is interesting to see the number of nations who send people to this country to consider the welfare we provide for our children, the protection we give them, and the care we give them. They beat a path to our door to see how the Children Act operates. We are the world leaders in the field.

Lord Elton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that even those of us who share my noble friend's anxiety about secure training orders regard the provisions of the Children Act 1989 as an impeccable credential of the status the Government give to children in society, endorsed now by the Children (Scotland) Bill? Does she agree that we can hold our heads up high in the international community?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. I share his views.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, if the Government's case is so strong, why does the noble Baroness feel that the report cannot be put before Parliament and the non-governmental organisations, as it suggests in its final paragraph?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I have explained that there are two sides to this debate. We want to put both sides. When we have had the results of the interviews that took place, where the Government gave evidence, we shall be prepared to reconsider our view.

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