HL Deb 20 December 2004 vol 667 cc1525-7

Baroness Walmsley asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to the Children's Rights Alliance report State of Children's Rights in England 2004.

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, the Government are considering this very detailed and comprehensive report. Several of the issues raised in the report were extensively debated during the passage of the Children Bill and many are being addressed through the Change for Children programme.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply, but may I ask her about two points within the report? Does she agree that the fact that the Children and Young People's Unit has been disbanded and that on the DfES web pages of the Children, Young People and Families Directorate there is no mention of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child indicate that neither do the Government have any programme to inform children of their rights? Do these facts indicate that the Government are not really serious about implementing their duties under the convention? Further, does she agree that the Youth Justice Board's target of a 10 per cent reduction in the number of children in custody is both arbitrary and inadequate?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, the change with regard to the Children and Young People's Unit was an organisational change. The functions of that unit have been expanded and developed with a wider policy remit through the Children, Young People and Families Directorate, so there has certainly been no loss of interest or competence. I take the point about the website; I shall take that back to the department. We are very serious about following the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In fact, most of our laws go further than the UN convention, which is one of the reasons that we are content not to ratify it as we have made further progress in many areas. As regards the YJB target of 10 per cent, we are very serious about reducing the numbers of children in custody. The emphasis we are placing on non-custodial sentences and community intervention are evidence of that along with a very much more positive programme of appropriate sentencing for young people.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, is the Minister aware that while 10 per cent of children entering care have had involvement with the criminal justice system, 50 per cent of children in custody have had experience of care? Does this not suggest to the Minister that if yet more attention were given to supporting, training and properly remunerating foster carers and residential childcare workers, some of the concerns raised in the State of children's Rights in England report would be met as regards children in custody at least?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, I agree with that. It is absolutely true that there is a very serious relationship between the number of children in custody and those who have been in care. It is something that we are very serious about addressing. We are looking at supporting training and fostering, as the noble Earl knows. In fact, we are increasing fostering allowances, as he also knows, which will bring forward more foster care parents. We are also putting significantly more money into education regarding custodial arrangements. For example, this year an additional £13 million will be put into training, learning and skills co-ordinators and into provision in general. Therefore, we are beginning to make progress in these areas.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon

My Lords, exactly how will children be involved in the appointment of the new Children's Commissioner for England, and when will the appointment be made?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, we are thoroughly committed to working with children in the process of creating this new appointment. We made that clear on the face of the Bill and we were very happy to do so. As I understand it, children will do two things. They will assess the candidates' ability to understand the problems facing children and help them to think innovatively about how to tackle them. They will also assess the candidates' ability to relate to children. I think we all agree that those are two very essential elements. The candidates will undergo a written exercise. It sounds like a very hard test to me. The involvement of children will ensure that we have a commissioner who is very much in tune with the way in which children think and feel.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, what about the rights of the child in regard to handling financial matters? I hoped to give a small gift to my grandchildren but was very surprised to be told that if they were aged over seven they must sign everything themselves. That is difficult to reconcile with my belief that they would not be responsible if there was anything wrong. I thought that no criminal responsibility applied at the age of seven. That seems to me very strange and yet the building society—it was one of the very big building societies—was most insistent on that point. Do children have the right fully to take over their financial affairs? I believe that historically they used to have a guardian in that regard until they reached a certain age.

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, I have extensive briefing but it does not cover that point. I thought that I had prepared for most eventualities. My impression is that children of seven are extremely sophisticated financially. I believe I have read that building societies are requiring some form of personal responsibility. However, I shall be pleased to look at the matter and write to the noble Baroness.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, is the Minister aware that earlier this year the Minister in the other place, Paul Goggins, stated that the average amount of education per week provided in young offender institutions was 7.1 hours? Does the Minister think that that is an adequate number?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, I believe that the figure of 7.1 hours, to which the noble Baroness referred, concerned the figure for education for all under-21s. The most recent figure for this year that we have from the Youth Justice Board is that the average amount of education for 15 to 18 year-olds is 24.5 hours a week. The target for under-15s in secure training centres and local authority secure children's homes is 30 hours a week. As I said to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, we are putting a lot more investment into education, particularly directed at numeracy and literacy, which is the right thing to do. It is having a positive impact on volume and quality; we can see that in some of the prison reports that are coming out now.

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