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Mr. Dawson: I am following the right hon. Gentleman's argument, but does he not accept that successive Governments have put considerable resources into making reports to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child on their success in implementing the UN convention? Does he not accept that the point behind having the post that would be created by the Bill is to ensure that the UN convention holds sway and works across this country?
Mr. Forth: No--of course not. Everybody loves to make reports; that is all part of the mutual self-congratulatory process. We all go to these meetings, we all sign the conventions, we have a good meal, we collect our expenses, we come home and we feel good about ourselves. Governments sign up to conventions so that they can say that they have signed up to them, but none of that is relevant.
We are talking about making real law that affects real people in their homes, communities and schools. That is the sort of thing that the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) mentioned a moment ago. What really matters to children is whether their school building is available to them in the evening. What is really important to parents is the extent to which they, in their daily struggle over the breakfast table and in the evening, have to make endless judgments about whether their child has the sufficient maturity and judgment to go out in the evening unsupervised or to go to school on his own. That is the reality--not a United Nations convention.
For goodness sake, what do people in the United Nations know about the problems that parents in Chislehurst, Rother Valley or any other constituency face? Absolutely nothing whatever. Most of the people in the United Nations are not only foreigners but diplomats. If there is one combination that is utterly irrelevant to our daily lives, it is the combination of foreigners and diplomats. Let us put aside United Nations and European Council conventions right from the outset. Let us accept that they have no relevance whatever to parents and children in the United Kingdom.
The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre referred to the next driving force behind the Bill in his opening remarks. It is the modern search for a risk-free society. In our strugglings here, we now seem to want to eliminate risk from every element of our daily lives. The difficulty that I have with that is that it does not recognise the daily judgments that we have to make about balancing risk against reality and against what must inevitably arise in our daily existences. That can take many different forms.
This is only a brief digression, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am often amused by, for example, the argument against boxing as a sport, because of the harm that it may cause to its participants. That ignores the fact that more people die from horse riding, playing rugby or climbing mountains than ever die in the boxing ring. Yet people want to reach immediately for what is easy and visible and say that we should ban something that creates harm or risk.
I could offer to hon. Members a risk-free option, and I ask them to contemplate it. One of the ways of eliminating the risk of someone committing a murder for a second time is to hang or execute him after he has committed the first murder. There is a risk-free option for you. I bet very few Labour Members would sign up to it, because, in their balanced judgment, they would probably say, "I am prepared to accept the risk that someone already convicted of murder might do it again inside prison or if he escapes or is wrongly released rather than take his life." That is a judgment and I respect it even though I do not agree with it.
Most hon. Members here would probably want to sign up to the Bill because the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre said that it might help to reduce or eliminate the risks to children. If one puts the words "risk" and "children" together these days, one gets an apparently almost irresistible force. Well, I am going to resist it, because I do not think that it makes any sense. Of course, we must strike a reasonable balance in society--we always have done for as long as there has been civilised society--between the freedoms that we try to give to people as individuals, parents, family members and as members of groups and societies and the element of risk that may exist. The problem that I have with such a Bill is that it would tip the balance completely the wrong way for a well-motivated, but wrong-headed reason.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre touched on the whole business of listening to and respecting the views of children. I doubt that somehow; I do not that think that we should. Certainly we should listen as parents, as teachers and as people who have direct dealings with children and young people and are responsible for helping to mature, develop and educate them, but we should not listen in the sense that the hon. Gentleman suggested.
We are talking about children and that seems to mean anyone under the age of 18. The Bill does not make clear whether it is talking about three-year-olds, seven-year-olds, 11-year-olds or 17-year-olds, and I would have thought that a sensible distinction should have been made in that regard. However, the Bill does not do that; it talks about children as a generic blob.
Nevertheless, the question that we must ask ourselves is, what value should we place on the views that children express about important issues? Although this is bound to be misconstrued, I shall say it anyway because I am a risk-taking sort of chap. When asked what value should be placed on the views of children, my answer would be very little. By definition, young people are forming, maturing, developing, being educated and being influenced as they grow up. To that extent, their views are of relatively little value. That is why we set the voting
Mr. Dawson: I am slightly amazed, but could the right hon. Gentleman tell me how, when the general elections comes, he will justify to 18-year-olds in his constituency that he may be interested in their views now, but that he could not have cared less about them six or 12 months ago?
Mr. Forth: I would probably make the judgment on the basis of any individual discussion that I had with such a person, or on the basis of any representation that such a person cared to make. I certainly would not make it on a "mass" basis.
I concede, however, that life is full of arbitrary limits, and hurdles that must be leapt. We set the voting age at 18--I am not sure that I entirely agreed with that; I rather liked 21 when it was around--and thus made a judgment: we decided that when people reached the age of 18, regardless of their intelligence, maturity, education or anything else, they should have the vote. A long time ago, we made another judgment: that children should remain in education until they were 16, because until that age they needed to be educated. Those are reasonable judgments, made according to arbitrary limits, which I accept.
My answer to the hon. Gentleman's question about the mythical 18-year-old is that I would have that discussion and make those points. The person concerned would either accept or not accept what I said, and would then decide whether or not to vote for me. I have no problem with that.
Mr. McCabe: I have been thinking about that wonderful image of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), in his younger days, addressing the Conservative party conference. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that that was a totally worthless event, which we should utterly disregard?
Mr. Forth: I do not remember being swayed much by what he said, that is for sure. In that sense, I would not differentiate between that and any other political event--but the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I rather agree with him.
Let me now deal with the role of commissioners. That is a concept of which we as a body politic seem to have become rather fond. It is odd, when we think back: do those of us who received their political education back in the 1960s and 1970s remember the commissars in the Soviet Union, or some of the more dictatorial states, of whom we were so critical--figures of power and influence who were able to intrude on people's daily lives? Whether a commissioner is very different from a commissar is an interesting question for debate and consideration, but we are now rushing headlong down a route towards having a commissioner for everything. We
I shall not delay my analysis of the Bill much further--for these are just my preliminary observations: I shall come on to the Bill in a moment, and then I shall really get stuck in. This is just my softening-up process. I want, however, to make a general comment about the concept of commissioners, which has bothered me considerably for some time.
Despite the wording of the Bill, with which I shall deal shortly, commissioners are largely unaccountable. They have enormous powers--the Bill seeks to give this commissioner substantial powers--and very large budgets. I shall dilate on the budget when I discuss the Bill itself.
I am worried about these people. I am not comforted by the fact that we are allowing commissioners to proliferate in our society, and in our legal and statutory framework; I worry about it. I will resist the introduction of more and more commissioners, however well-meaning and well-motivated they may be and however much they appear to be constrained by the statutory framework that seeks to establish them. I remain to be convinced that commissioners add to the sum of human joy and benefit, rather than doing the opposite.
My final preliminary point was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, whose knowledge of the law is vastly superior to mine. In this country we have, and are proud of having, an enormous body of statute law, common law, precedent, conventions and traditions that--the recorded versions, certainly--stretch back for the best part of 1,000 years. They serve us very well, and have been the envy of large parts of the world. Hon. Members familiar with Commonwealth countries, in particular, will know that the countries that have the honour and pleasure of being part of the Commonwealth--and have largely chosen to continue the tradition that we handed on to them, in a benign way--consider that combination of statute, common law and precedent to be beneficial and, in most cases, worth retaining.
The hon. Member for Rother Valley said that we must develop the arrangements and review them. That, indeed, is what parliamentarians are here to do, and--as Members know--I participate in the process as much as I can. I do not think that the position should be static; I merely say that as well as moving forward, I would like occasionally to move back. I would like to turn back the clock occasionally. I would like us to enact more repeals, rather than adding more and more to our body of law. I would like that to happen, in its place and where it is justified.
Rather than adding constantly to what is there, I should like us to take away from what is there. Perhaps we could get rid of some of these commissioners, instead of having more and more of them. There is a thought. Perhaps more private Members' Bills should be repeal Bills, rather than continually increasing the burdens of regulation and intervention. I live in hope.
I then think that I may find some comfort in the text--that perhaps when I get into the Bill, it will not be as bad as I expected. When I start reading it, however, I realise that it is worse than my worst nightmare--for the Bill is a nightmare: it is the worst that one could expect.
The starting point is, I suppose, fairly logical: the appointment of the commissioner by the Secretary of State. Bills such as this always have to start with the Secretary of State, and usually finish with the Secretary of State as well. Perhaps that is inevitable; certainly it was the case when I was in government. I worked for a number of Secretaries of State, who were, of course, giants of infinite patience and infinite judgment.
But the position is worse than that. Anyone who has had the privilege of being in government for any time at all knows that the word "consult" and the process of "consultation", which have entered our political vocabulary relatively recently, are in a sense rather false. How often were the Conservatives, when in government, accused by those who are now in government of engaging in a sham consultation process? Had we asked anyone at all? Who did we ask? When we asked them, did we listen? Did we pay any attention? Did the consultation process make any difference to what we were going to do anyway?
Apart from any other consideration, the number of people who would qualify to do a job such as this is probably fairly limited. In that sense, the consultation process is in itself almost predetermined. The Minister will know, and others will probably be aware, that nowadays anyone setting out to identify an appropriate commissioner or public sector body must immediately be concerned with gender, ethnicity, regionality, experience, relevance and so on.
Moreover, I suspect--we will come to this later--that the appropriate person would have to have legal qualifications. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough suggested, it is difficult to see how the commissioner could fulfil the requirements of clause 10(a) without being legally qualified.
We can already see, then, that there will be severe constraints on the nature of a person who could come anywhere near qualifying for the job. It is in that context that I ask how relevant consultation would be, given that the matter would be severely constrained from the start.