HL Deb 06 March 1997 vol 578 cc1961-3

Lord Northbourne asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many government departments take decisions which particularly affect the lives of children.

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

My Lords, all government departments are involved in decision-making when it affects children's lives but chiefly the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Employment, the Department of Social Security, HM Treasury, the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Department for National Heritage and the territorial departments.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that helpful Answer. Is she aware of the recent report published by the Gulbenkian Foundation entitled Effective Government Structures for Children, a copy of which I intend to deposit in the Library of the House immediately after Question Time? That identifies the fact that there is widespread concern in the country that government structures are failing children. Does she agree that children form an important group of the population who are without power, without voice and without vote? Will the Government, if re-elected, undertake to appoint an ombudsman for children along the model which is already working well in Norway and Sweden, and as recommended in the Gulbenkian report?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, first, I contest the statement that the Government are failing our children. I do not believe that to be the case. Our children are healthier, heavier, better educated and are achieving greater educational attainments. I do not believe that we are failing them in any way. Of course, they are an important part of the country's future. The Government have considered the issue of whether to appoint an ombudsman. At this moment, the Government have not agreed to that. We feel that it is important to have co-ordination among government departments, but we do not think that one person will make all the difference or, indeed, that structures are all-important.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, do the Government share the concern of the HSE and the National Children's Home Action for Children, about the rising trend in accidents in schools, which are now running at over 11,000 per year? Will she confirm that last year local authorities told the Government that they needed £1.9 billion for essential repairs and maintenance of schools, and were in fact accorded less than one-quarter of that? If that is so, will the Minister say that there might be a connection between those two sets of figures?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, it is interesting, because if we look overall at children's accidents, they are on the decline. With regard to schools, that is a matter for the education authorities, the governors, and the teachers involved.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend about great improvements because of immunisation, and so forth; but does she agree with me that there is nothing so important to children as good parents and a caring home?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, yes, of course my noble friend is right. It is parental responsibility, and the love, care and discipline that parents exercise which are all-important to the child's well-being.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will the Minister say who co-ordinates the UK's response to criticisms made of our performance under the UK Convention on the Rights of the Child, and what outstanding criticisms still have to be dealt with by the Government?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, children's services on the whole are co-ordinated by the Department of Health. My honourable friend Mr. Simon Burns is the Minister responsible for children's services. The Children Act is a marvellous example of interdepartmental working. As noble Lords may know, we have just set up the Children's Services Strategy Group, which co-ordinates services between the statutory sector and the voluntary sector.

Baroness David

My Lords, is not the Minister's answer perhaps a trifle complacent, in that there are 14 departments which have some responsibility for children? It is difficult to believe that that works extremely well. Has she read the Gulbenkian report? That proposes a new structure: there should not be a Minister for children with his own department, who might not be entirely successful in pulling enough weight and having enough punch, but instead there should be a Cabinet committee responsible, with a Minister therein. The Gulbenkian report is a well-researched document. It thinks that that would be the best way forward. Will she please take note of that?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, yes, I am aware of the Gulbenkian report. I have it in my hand. It proposes a whole lot of bureaucratic structures. There have been many suggestions: we should have a Minister for children; a children's commissioner; a children's ombudsman; a Cabinet committee, or an office for children in the Cabinet Office. We do not believe that those bureaucratic processes are the answer. We believe that it is up to parents, teachers and those who are responsible for children to ensure that their welfare is well looked after and promoted.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the Minister is dismissive of structures; but among the panoply of Ministers mentioned in her first reply, who, within the Government, is responsible for assessing the impact of the fact that poverty among children has trebled since 1979, and that 4.3 million children now live in poverty? Who assesses the effects on their health, education and welfare? Is it not important that we listen to the concerns of voluntary organisations and others because we do not have a focus for children in this area? If she will not listen to the voluntary organisations, will she at least listen to the words of the health Select Committee in another place, chaired by her honourable friend Mrs. Marion Roe? They said: Fragmentation within services appears common, detracts from cost effectiveness, and urgent attention must be given to the present fragmentation of provision within the NHS in combination"—

Noble Lords


Lord Graham of Edmonton

Grow up!

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am reading so that I quote the Select Committee accurately. The House would not want me to make up what it said. Yesterday noble Lords opposite were dismissive about spending time talking about young people and their alienation from the political process; today they do not want to talk about children. Those are important subjects. Will the Government address the remarks of the Select Committee on Health in another place?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, as yet the Health Committee has not submitted its final report. Once it does so, the Government will consider it in detail. I do not agree with the noble Baroness's definition of poverty. She will remember that only about 10 days ago we had a full debate in your Lordships' House which was promoted by the Cross-Benches. About 24 speakers took part, and in the whole debate there was no definition of poverty upon which people would agree.

The other point I wish to address is the noble Baroness's comment that we do not listen to voluntary organisations. The Children's Services Strategy Group, which we set up in the autumn and which has its third meeting this month, is for that very purpose. It has been widely welcomed by the voluntary organisations concerned.

Baroness Young

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the causes of child poverty is the high divorce rate and the incidence of many single mothers who have to bring up children in very difficult circumstances?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, yes; perhaps we should be addressing the issues concerning adults as well as children.

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