HL Deb 23 April 2002 vol 634 cc117-9
Baroness Walmsley

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether a children's commissioner will be appointed in all parts of the United Kingdom.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, a children's commissioner was appointed in Wales in March 2001. A Scottish parliamentary committee recently proposed the establishment of a children's commissioner. A Bill is being drafted in Northern Ireland to establish a children's commissioner. The Government are considering whether lessons might be learned for England given its different structures for children and young people and their manifesto commitment to consider whether to develop and extend the role of the Children's Rights Director.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I wish her a happy St. George's Day. Does she accept that it is an appropriate day to focus on the discrepancies in protection for children in England compared to those in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? Can she confirm that the powers of the Children's Rights Director are not the same as those of the Children's Commissioner for Wales? He is not an advocate for children in the same way and he does not go around actively seeking the views of children and basing his priorities on those views. Is the Minister aware that the children's charities are so convinced of the need for such an advocate that they have used their budgets to establish an office of children's rights in London, which acts as a de facto commissioner although it receives no support from the Government? Can she give a timetable for the establishment of a children's commissioner for England?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am aware of the work of the children's charities within London and the setting up of a children's rights commissioner. I am also aware of the children's commissioner's role within Wales. As I said, that is one of the reasons why we are examining how the work is carried out in Wales. However, I should draw the noble Baroness's attention to the different ways in which we have approached this issue in England. For example, we have a Minister for Children and Young People; we have a Cabinet committee on children and young people's services chaired by the Chancellor of the Exchequer; we have the Children's Fund, which has £450 million for preventive work; and we have the children and young people's unit, the role of which is to co-ordinate policies. 1t is in the context of that ongoing work that we wish to look and see, and celebrate with our colleagues in different parts of the United Kingdom, what exactly would work best for England.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, will the Minister consider persuading her right honourable colleague in another place to accept an amendment to be proposed to the Education Bill which seeks to strengthen protection for children throughout all the public services—education, social services, criminal departments, law and order and so on? That will be a golden opportunity to protect children in this country pending the decision about a commissioner.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, we are deeply concerned to ensure that children are protected so far as possible. It is in that context that we will examine carefully the proposed amendment to the Education Bill.

Baroness Gale

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that devolution in Wales has been an outstanding success and that part of the reason for that success is the unique appointment of the Children's Commissioner for Wales? Does she further agree that the commissioner, Mr Peter Clarke, is an excellent voice for and a champion of the children of Wales? Does she also agree that it would be beneficial for the children of England and the rest of the United Kingdom if they had a similar voice to speak up for them?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, Mr Peter Clark is doing an excellent job. His role is to safeguard and promote the rights and welfare of children. He is what is described as a "corporation sole"—that is, an independent appointment—and, as such, with his budget of £963,000 a year, he is able to work on behalf of children. He is working to ensure that children's rights are respected through the monitoring and oversight of complaints and whistle-blowing procedures; he is examining particular cases; he will be assisting children in making complaints and representations; and he will be publishing reports. As I said, we look forward with interest to watching the progress of Mr Clark and the work that is going on in Scotland and Northern Ireland and making our decisions in the light of that.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that there is some danger that the appointment of a children's commissioner is a way of salving the conscience of people in this country? Does she further agree that it would be right to have a full inquiry into the problems of children involving a number of departments of government?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the role of the children and young people's unit and the work of the Cabinet Committee are designed to work across government, to strengthen what is done in each individual department and to pull that together into a government response. It is in that context that we need to look at whether the way forward for England is to have a children's commissioner. I do not want noble Lords to have any view other than that the Government are committed to supporting and protecting all our children in all circumstances.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that parents have an important role to play in securing the welfare of children, particularly younger children? Obtaining the views of, say, a three year-old would not necessarily give useful information.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I can think of a number of three year-olds, including my own at that age—they were very capable of telling me precisely what they thought on a wide range of issues and continue to do so—whose views would be useful. The noble Lord makes a very important point. We do not wish to get in the way of the rights and responsibilities of parents. It is for parents to take responsibility for their children. However, as a government—and, I am sure, as a House—we wish to make sure that where those responsibilities are not taken, or cannot be taken, we act in a way that supports our children.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, if commissioners are appointed, will the Government try to prevent their being known as "czars", as that is likely to mislead the public and frighten the children?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I have heard of no proposal to call them "czars". I shall, however, take on board the noble Lord's comment.

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