Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Forth: I hope that my hon. Friend will not leave that point too quickly. Has he considered that, in this country, we require children to remain in education until they are 16, which suggests that we have made a judgment that they need education until they reach that age, so as to mature their judgment? Furthermore, we choose not to give them the vote until they are aged 18. Again, that suggests that they are not able to make a judgment--certainly as voters--until they are 18. Is my hon. Friend prepared to accept that those two long-established provisions suggest that, so far, we have made a collective judgment that children, aged under 16 or under 18, are not yet able to make full and mature decisions on a wide variety of matters?

Mr. Leigh: My right hon. Friend is right. There is an element either of hypocrisy or of pick and choose in the movement for children's rights. No one seriously suggests that a child aged 12 should have the right to demand not to go to school or to be educated. As my right hon. Friend points out, no child has the right to vote before they reach the age of 18, so society severely circumscribes the freedom of children.

Mr. Dawson: Does the hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that the work of the children's rights commissioner would be based on the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which--as I have already said--gives children the right to be educated and the right to family life but which certainly gives them no right to opt out of either?

Mr. Leigh: I shall refer to such conventions in a moment to describe how they constantly broaden the parameters. It is important that when we discuss Bills such as this, we have a grown-up argument about those matters and that we do not claim that one side is entirely

6 Apr 2001 : Column 617

right and the other side is entirely wrong; there are grey areas and I shall try to explore them. However, of course the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I accept it.

After my description of the two arguments, it will be obvious--if it was not obvious before--where my views lie, for what they are worth. It is unfortunate that, under the Bill, parents are left out of the commissioner's remit. After all, there have been cases where children have been removed from parents for the wrong reasons. In the Orkney children's scandal in 1991, nine children aged 8 to 15 were taken from their beds by police and social workers.

Before that, there was the Cleveland fiasco, which arose from an excess of zeal on the part of the local authority. Sir William Utting said of that case that

He hoped that view would prevail in future.

There have been cases in which an over-zealous bureaucracy, even equipped with the existing law, which the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre considers inadequate, has over-intervened.

Mr. McCabe: I am following the hon. Gentleman's point with interest. Perhaps the Cleveland case is a rather poor example of over-zealousness. Does the hon. Gentleman not think that, with hindsight, the number of children involved in that inquiry who were subsequently re-admitted to care suggests that it may have been the media attention on Cleveland that was wrong rather than over-zealousness on the part of the key agencies? I do not object to the general thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument, but does he think that Cleveland offers the best example?

Mr. Leigh: Perhaps some of the decisions taken at Cleveland were right, although the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), who is held in high regard in the House, may hold a different point of view from that expressed by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe). I do not claim to be an expert on that case; it might have been right for the local authority to intervene in some instances. However, my point is that there have been desperately sad examples when it was wrong to interfere with the rights of parents.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that children's rights also involve the right of a child to have contact with a parent and that, on occasion, that right is denied? Does he acknowledge that one of the functions of a children's rights commissioner might be to assert that right on behalf of a child, considering the matter solely from the point of view of the parent's rights?

Mr. Leigh: No one in this place has tried harder than me to promote the concept of the desirability of children retaining contact with both their parents--especially after marital breakdown. It is a sad fact of our society that, with the increase of marital breakdown and fathers leaving home, a high proportion of children lose contact with their parents. Of course, I accept that it is entirely desirable that society tries to promote the view that "families need fathers"--to cite the name of that organisation. The debate is on the right way to achieve that. Should it be by consent

6 Apr 2001 : Column 618

and by ensuring that it is encouraged by the practices of the Child Support Agency and the law? Should it be by creating a new post so that a commissioner can intervene--possibly in a heavy-handed way--in a difficult emotional situation, when, for example, the mother believes that the father has an extremely damaging influence on the children? Would the matter be satisfactorily resolved by giving over-arching powers to the commissioner to interfere in those difficult family situations, instead of leaving it to the family courts, which have great experience of such cases? I am a barrister. I have sat in family courts. We sit around a table--there is no question of a courtroom; the magistrate and the judge, even the justice at the High Court, all take those matters extremely seriously. One should not assume that society is not already experienced in dealing with such issues.

For all those reasons, and contrary to the disingenuous reply of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre to my intervention, the Government--as I understand it--do not support the Bill. However, if I am wrong, I shall be happy to give way to the Minister if he wants to assure me of the Government's support for the measure. I think that the Government do not support the Bill--not least because during debates on a similar Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre last year, the Minister said:

If the Minister has changed his view, I shall happily give way to him. However, I suspect that he has not. He expressed the sensible view that the existing arrangements are satisfactory.

There was an interesting debate, which I have looked up, in the Welsh Assembly. I know that not many hon. Members take the trouble to look up the debates in the Welsh Assembly, but it was a perfectly serious debate, in which Mr. David Melding, on behalf of the Conservative Opposition, expressed concern that parents' rights would not be taken into account sufficiently.

I shall briefly quote the amendment that Baroness Young tabled to the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill:

I should be very happy to give way to the Bill's promoter if he would now like to intervene to tell me that he would be prepared to propose that such an amendment should be inserted in his Bill. Sadly, he does not seem to be willing to do so.

We shall see how the Bill progresses, but if it is debated on Report, I will want to move such an amendment. I am afraid that I have to tell the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre that, in all honesty, if on Report he were not prepared to accept such an amendment, I would certainly not be prepared to support the Bill, or to facilitate its passage through Parliament, for the reasons that I have given. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but that happens to be my view.

6 Apr 2001 : Column 619

We are told that the commissioner's role would be to promote the welfare of children, so it seems entirely logical to require the commissioner to work with parents and families. After all, surely the family environment is vital to the child's well-being, and all I urge the commissioner to do, if he becomes a statutory being, is to support parents and encourage them to be responsible for their children.

A series of international conventions and treaties has been mentioned. In 1948, for example, article 26 of the universal declaration of human rights established the "prior right" of parents in relation to educating children. The declaration has been widely cited in the House as the benchmark, the model on which we have created subsequent human rights legislation. In 1959, the declaration of the rights of the child made numerous references to parent-child relationships, including in principles 6 and 7, which state that the child should

For all those reasons, I hope that we can always promote any such legislation in the context of the 1948 universal declaration of human rights, which--this is a very important point--established the prior right of parents.

If hon. Members think that what I suggest will not happen, I remind them that I made numerous interventions and speeches in debates on the Human Rights Act 1998, saying that it might affect the rights of Church schools, for example, but the Government told me not to worry because that would not happen. Yesterday, I picked up the Glasgow Herald, and saw a huge front-page article headlined, "Catholic school system taken to court" and "Parents challenge right to deny a place". It said:

Nathan has been prevented from entering a Catholic school. When we gave all those warnings, we were told, "Don't worry. This is a human rights Bill. It will only affect bad people." I am talking about the heart of the Scottish education system, built up over a century--the right of Catholic schools to insist that Catholics have the prior right to join them--but now the school is taken to court. That is what we worry about.

Worthy Bills are introduced and legislation is enacted, and people use it. These things do not exist in a vacuum, and often people with very limited resources are taken to court. I have mentioned a Catholic school, but it could easily have been an Anglican school or a Jewish school. We live in a society where there are all sorts of different views and people, and we regard some views as completely zany. There was an obituary in The Daily Telegraph this morning of the man who was the chairman of the Flat Earth Society. All his life, he believed that the earth is flat.

Next Section

IndexHome Page