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House of Commons

Friday 6 April 2001

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock

PRAYERS

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Children's Rights Commissioner Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

9.33 am

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is a privilege to support the Bill. It is not mine--I did not write it--so I can say that I regard it as a great Bill. It is about the protection of children, which is vital in itself, but it is also about our democracy and how we use a great international agreement--the United Nations convention on the rights of the child--and bring it alive in this country.

The Bill invites us to change the way in which we consider children and calls on us to stop viewing them as the passive object of our concern, to invite their participation, to value their point of view, to promote their human rights and to recognise our duties towards them. If anyone should doubt the importance of that, let them contemplate the shocking fact that one or two children are murdered every fortnight in this country, almost always by a close family member.

We need to counter that shocking statistic in all sorts of ways, not least by paying child protection workers a lot more, but the debate is about more than that: it is about whether we need to think about children differently and give them far more prominence. By definition, children are powerless, because they have no vote. Usually, that means that they also have no voice--but the Bill can allow them to be heard and give them a presence where it matters.

The Bill is widely supported. Last year, every Member of Parliament must have felt the power of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children campaign, with thousands of constituents supporting the measure when it was a ten-minute Bill.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I am always curious when an hon. Member claims that a Bill has "wide support". How much support does the hon. Gentleman estimate that the Bill has here today?

Mr. Dawson: I will come to that in a minute.

Any serious observer of the progress of work on children's rights over the four years of this Government, and anyone who participated in the debates on the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill, will be aware of the support for these measures. We regularly see in our post that many people are concerned about this issue.

Mr. Forth: Where are they?

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Mr. Dawson: The Bill has well over 100 Back-Bench supporters in the House, who regularly sign early-day motions.

Mr. Forth: Where are they?

Mr. Dawson: We all know how easily the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill passed through the House only a few weeks ago.

Mr. Forth: Yes, but where are they?

Mr. Dawson: Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman, who is so rudely setting a poor example by his barracking, would like to note the presence in the Gallery of young people from Article 12, the British Youth Council--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) must stop making sedentary interventions--he has made his point, I think--and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) should be aware that we do not refer to people in the Gallery.

Mr. Dawson: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Anyone who wants to join me later to meet some fine young people will be extremely welcome--including the right hon. Gentleman.

Many Members are not here today--let us deal with this point before it is laboured any further--because of unbreakable commitments made when they perhaps thought that the county council elections were going to be high on the agenda. I have had many apologies, in particular from my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), who has supported the concept of a children's rights commissioner for many years. My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley), who came to see the importance of this measure through her private Member's Bill, which became the Protection of Children Act 1999, has also been a good supporter of this measure.

Everyone--with perhaps one solitary exception--knows that this is a good, important, worthy and timely Bill. It is time for children's voices to be heard and their rights recognised. I would like to thank Peter Newell--who wrote the Bill--Unicef, the NSPCC, Save the Children Fund, all the children's organisations that support the Bill, Article 12 and the young people who are here today. There is one young people's organisation that glories in the name Young and Powerful. Who in this House would not want to be young and powerful?

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): The hon. Gentleman said a moment ago that, with one exception, everybody supported the Bill. I am not sure whether that is entirely correct. Will the Government facilitate the passage of the Bill by proposing short speeches to ensure that it gets a Second Reading and rushes through Committee as quickly as possible?

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Mr. Dawson: That is a matter for the Government, rather than me.

Above all, I wish to thank young people from the Lancashire In Care group--lots of whom will be parents themselves now--who, 14 years ago, said to me that a children's rights commissioner was needed to make sure that the UN convention on the rights of the child really worked. That is the whole thing in a nutshell. I could stop speaking now, but I will not. Some young and powerful people have got a lot older waiting for the Bill and it is time we started to put that right.

We should acknowledge that the Government have been good for children. The pledge to end child poverty in a generation is inspiring. The working families tax credit, the children's tax credit, the children's fund and economic and employment policies to help families lift themselves out of poverty will improve the lives of millions. On a smaller scale--but one where needs are perhaps most acute with regard to children in care--there has been major investment, a commitment to children's rights and quality services, new legislation for those leaving care and better fostering and adoption services. The work of the Government is transforming what was a shoddy and sometimes horrific disgrace of a system into a decent and proper system for children living away from home.

So much more could be described, but one other initiative should be emphasised. Last July, the Government announced their decision to establish a Cabinet Committee on children and young people's services and a children and young people's unit, as well as the appointment of a Minister for young people. In November, we had the launch of the children and young person's unit, whose remit includes developing, refining and communicating the Government's overarching strategy for children and young people. That is first class; it is joined-up policy for all the 11.3 million children under 18 in England. Good joined-up policy for those children is exactly what the children's rights commissioner will be setting out to promote.

I am sorry to say this because it will appear rude, and I certainly do not wish to be rude to the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton). I am second to no one in my admiration of my hon. Friend's work; he has ably and determinedly piloted fine legislation to establish a children's rights director for 58,000 children in care and many others living away from home. However, he is not the Minister with responsibility for 11.3 million children living in England; he is not the Minister with responsibility for young people; and he is definitely not the Minister of State, Home Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng). The absence of the Minister with responsibility for young people from a debate that is essentially about assessing the impact of policy on all young people, and about involving all young people in developing the overarching framework for all young people, points to the real problem in what I anticipate will be the response to today's debate.

The fact that the reply will come from the Department of Health, rather than from the children and young people's unit, points to a crucial misunderstanding of something that we need to get right. The independent

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office of children's rights commissioner is a service for all children, not just those especially needy children who are looked after by the state.

Mr. Forth: Does the hon. Gentleman think that the absence of the Minister of State, Home Office might give us a clue as to the enthusiasm or otherwise of the Government for the Bill? What does he propose to do to try to persuade the Government to support his Bill? Has he had any contact with the Government to establish their attitude to the Bill?

Mr. Dawson: I am well aware of the right hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for children's rights, democracy and citizenship. If he bears his impatience for a little longer, he will hear my answer to his questions.

No one will ever convince me that the Government, who are so good on so many things, are good at presentation. One of the more bonkers assertions of the Conservative party is that new Labour is all spin and no substance. In the Children's Commissioner for Wales, we see a post that even this week is beginning more and more to resemble the one set out in this Bill. Even in the wake of the Waterhouse report, the Government initially set themselves against the key recommendations to establish a children's commissioner arguing that it was enough to have a children's rights director for children living away from home.

Subsequently, we had the most welcome proposals for the Children's Commissioner for Wales. However, all through every stage of the legislation in the Commons, the Government resisted calls to ensure that the Welsh commissioner should have a remit that included all services for children and which brought in all children receiving services. Last Tuesday, in Committee in another place, the Government agreed to table amendments to extend the role of the commissioner in ways advocated by others for months. Wales now has a substantial post, but we are left with the feeling that this has been dragged from the Government little by little, when they could have done it properly in the first place and, with some justification, milked the applause for the last 12 months. That is a substantial achievement but, frankly, it is hopeless public relations.

We should take a careful look at the Bill, which appears to make Ministers and their civil servants so timid. The independent children's rights commissioner for England would be known, at least by face, name and contact details, to every child in England. The commissioner would be the backstop, sweeper or guarantor when systems designed to protect children went wrong. He would not replace child protection procedures, but could be approached if they were not working. He would not remove the responsibility of local education authorities and schools to have effective anti-bullying policies, but could be involved if problems arose. He would not take work from the ombudsman--or any ombudsman--but would probably increase that work because he would make that person work better for children.

The commissioner certainly would not take away the need for organisations such as Childline; he would probably have to link effectively with Childline to provide a good telephone service and, no doubt, to develop a good e-mail service. He would not provide some bureaucratic, centralised complaints service, but would pass problems

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efficiently to someone who could help. Who could deny the importance of that role? The gaps between existing services and the places where no one is listening to children are where they can literally die.

The independent commissioner would promote the participation of children in the issues that affect their lives--in school councils, young people's forums, advocacy groups, community groups, and groups at a regional and national level. There is a requirement on the recently established children's fund to support projects that originate from young people.

This proposal is a basic matter of citizenship. Listening to young people and enabling them to take action for themselves should be a key requirement on anyone who works with children. That is part of our international commitment under article 12 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Some people may deny the importance of listening to children and young people, but surely not the Department of Health, which has pioneered the involvement of young people in working parties and in the work of Whitehall and surely not anyone in the House who has met young people at the all-party group for children in care, who has been involved in the establishment of a United Kingdom Youth Parliament, who supports the Government's investment in a national voice for looked-after children, or who has taken part in Unicef's annual "Put it to your MP" day. They will have learned what I was well taught by young people 14 years ago: that children and young people know what they are talking about. They have knowledge of issues that Members of Parliament do not have, because they are closer to the problems or on the receiving end. They have a fresh perspective and insights that are to be valued and used.

The roof of the House has not yet fallen in, despite the fact that I have often echoed those sentiments, and nor will it if I contend that the real problem for Governments, of any persuasion, and their civil servants is that a children's rights commissioner for England would be an independent and challenging post. As the commissioner would have contact with the new voices of children and young people, and would give a voice to the powerless, they might just be radical, independent, challenging and at the heart of government and Whitehall. The walls are still not collapsing around us, and I do not think that they will.

The powerful post of commissioner would be at the heart of policy making, in regular contact with children and young people, working to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, producing an annual report on the state of England's children, preparing statements on the possible impact of new legislation on children, investigating matters of serious concern, reporting on the impact of policy on children, linking with other commissioners in the UK and abroad, and reporting to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. The person would challenge even a good Government over some policies, such as those that give children less legal protection from physical assault than adults, or deny looked-after children the benefits of new leaving care legislation because they happen to be unaccompanied asylum seekers and their position is not yet resolved.

This has been a good Government for children, but they will be an even greater one if they dare to embrace the establishment of an independent children's rights

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commissioner, linking with the Children's Commissioner for Wales and with the commissioners who are on their way in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Devolution is fine, but if we are not careful we will get left behind as those countries develop their own children's rights provision.


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