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Mr. Dawson: I find what the hon. Gentleman is saying extremely helpful. He rightly says, as did I, that the United Nations convention on the rights of the child refers frequently to the importance of family relationships and the roles, rights and responsibilities of parents. What is there for the hon. Gentleman to worry about? Why does he feel that, in implementing the convention, the commissioner will infringe the rights of parents? That is what he has said, and that is what the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) said earlier.
Mr. Swayne: I want to be absolutely sure that the commissioner does not infringe those rights, and I want any Bill to contain provisions that ensure that he does not. It is for parents to speak for their children, to look after them and to protect their rights. Many children, however, have no such parents to do that on their behalf. It strikes me that there is a proper role for a commissioner to do that for them, which must be distinct from the role performed for children who do have families. However, there seems to be a role for a commissioner to co-ordinate all the Government's policy with respect to children, as distinct from specifically looking after administrative arrangements for looked-after children.
Mr. Dawson: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, in what can be ostensibly well-ordered and thoroughly respectable families, the most horrific physical and sexual abuse can take place and that the distinction that he is trying to draw is impossible?
Mr. Swayne: No, because there are already procedures and proper roles for the public authorities to deal with those tragic, undesirable occurrences. As a consequence, a child may properly move from being in a family to being a looked-after child in the care of the local authority. It would be proper for them to have recourse at some stage to the services of a commissioner, but it is a point that I hope to develop or to clarify as I move on.
Our intention in moving the new clauses and the new schedule at the 18th sitting of the Committee that considered the Care Standards Bill was twofold. Sir Ronald Waterhouse recommended an independent commissioner. In the Bill, the Government's children's rights director for England was an employee, a member of the National Care Standards Commission. The Government's amendments with respect to creating the Children's Commissioner for Wales made him very much an independent commissioner, in line with the report's findings and the desires of the National Assembly. We sought to amend the Bill to create the same independence for the commissioner in England as for the Welsh commissioner.
I honestly do not believe that, had Sir Ronald's investigation related to events taking place in England, it is likely that he would have recommended anything other than an independent commissioner for children. It is disingenuous to suggest that the recommendations relate specifically to particular events that took place in Wales and that we should not extrapolate to England. Therefore, our agenda was to create precisely the same form of independence for the commissioner in England as for the commissioner in Wales.
Mr. McCabe: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the decision to establish a Children's Commissioner for Wales must be seen in the context of the inquiry into abuse in north Wales? Had a similar inquiry occurred in England, the recommendation may have been the same. The reality is that we have not had such an inquiry in England. Undoubtedly, the demands for a commissioner in Wales were heavily influenced by the fact that there was an inquiry into abuse in children's homes and the statutory sector there.
Mr. Swayne: In one way, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, but in another I do. I agree that the events in Wales influenced the demand, but we had a Bill that dealt with the creation of a commissioner in Wales and a children's rights director in England. Given that we were examining in one piece of legislation those two positions, one could have extrapolated from the experience in Wales and said, "Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander." We have devolution and different administrative arrangements, but I would have thought that there would be no logic to different arrangements in this respect.
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): The hon. Gentleman said that the measures that his party moved during proceedings on the Care Standards Bill were designed to incorporate provision similar to that for Wales. However, he will be aware that a Bill to establish the Welsh commissioner had not been published at that time.
Mr. Swayne: New schedule 1, which the Government tabled for the 18th sitting, set out the arrangements for the Welsh commissioner. The Bill that we discussed in the House only last month develops that role, but the establishment of the Welsh commissioner was based on the measure introduced by the Government. Our new schedule 2 was identical in every respect to the Government's new schedule 1, save only that it would have created a commissioner for England rather than one for Wales.
All along, the Government's position was that the children's rights director would have sufficient independence as a consequence of the way in which the National Care Standards Commission was constituted. That argument had some force, although we disagreed with it. We would have preferred to have provided the same independence as appeared to have been afforded to the Welsh commissioner. That battle was fought in the Committee and, unfortunately, we lost.
Our next concern was that we wanted to go further than the Government in terms of the remit of the children's rights director. Here, I share part of the agenda of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre. Sir Ronald wanted a commissioner for all children, but the Government
We take a two-pronged approach, and the primary role is undoubtedly with respect to looked-after children. Out of the failure of the state as a parent sprang the reports of Sir William and Sir Ronald. Last Friday, we debated the Adoption Bill. The previous Monday, we discussed the Government's Adoption and Children Bill. All the Members who spoke showed how comprehensively the state has failed, over many years, to protect looked-after children in its care.
Again and again, we heard that, at any one time, between 50,000 and 100,000 children are being looked after by the state. That figure represents less than 1 per cent. of the age group, but those children are hugely and disproportionately over-represented in every single measure of deprivation, be they among the homeless; those in prison; those with poor health, particularly poor mental health; or those with a poor education and no qualifications. Fully three quarters of children emerging from care have no educational qualification at all and they lack many of the most basic life skills. One in seven young women leaving care is either already a mother or pregnant. That is a shocking statistic. What sort of chance does the child of a young woman leaving care have, apart from perpetuating the cycle of deprivation?
My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) told the House of the case of a young woman who had had 60 local authority placements in care. Although I think that such cases are clearly the exception, there are very many children who, by their 10th birthday, have had 10 local authority placements in care since their fifth birthday.
We regard creating a primary role for a children's commissioner as part of an attempt to ginger up the services available to looked-after children. Just last Friday, when dealing with clause 2 of her Adoption Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) proposed a way of involving a children's rights director in an appeals process against local authorities' decisions and delays. I thought that she made that case particularly well. We may be able to give her Bill further consideration, perhaps when the Government's Adoption and Children Bill is in Committee. We see the case for establishing the role of a children's rights director, but we would go further.
We take seriously the fact that we signed up to the 1989 convention--it was, after all, Baroness Thatcher's Government who signed up to it--and we see the case for giving the commissioner a cross-departmental role to walk the corridors of power and ensure that children's interests are taken properly into account. The Children Act 1989 was a great step forward in that it changed the focus of legislation better to reflect the child's point of view. However, we believe that further progress can be made.
I accept hon. Members' point that children do not participate directly in the democratic process but are affected profoundly by regulations and legislation. It follows that there could quite properly be an independent person who has a remit to examine legislative proposals across Departments and represent the interests of children who will be affected by those proposals. In that way, children's interests will be taken properly into account in the working of Government and the legislative process. I therefore hope that I have demonstrated to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre that we support the theme that runs through his Bill.
I would have favoured the House with a full analysis of the Bill, but I have been spared from doing so by the forensic analysis provided by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. Although my analysis of the Bill is slightly more charitable than his, his arguments had great force and I found myself agreeing with most of what he said. I did, however, disagree on one or two specific points.
(a) to protect the rights and interests of children".