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Mr. Dawson: I am completely confused. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the convention, the signing of which, in contrast to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, he has lauded, is not binding on anyone other than the agencies of Government?

Mr. Swayne: Precisely. The commissioner's role is in respect of statutory bodies. A wide-ranging commissioner should not have the power to interfere with individuals. We have the law to constrain the behaviour of individuals and we must not create some arbitrary power that gives rise to all sorts of expense and investigation and is accountable to no one--certainly not to us. That is where I see a huge danger in the Bill.

Mr. McCabe: This is not a view that I would take, but if the object of the commissioner is to guarantee children's rights, would it not be absurd to extend redress only to rights in respect of particular organisations while ignoring the abuse of rights that might occur within the family or in private organisations? Is that not the most partial availability of rights of which we could ever conceive?

Mr. Swayne: No. It strikes me as a fundamental guarantee against arbitrary Government. It is the law that governs families and private individuals and organisations. We cannot have a free-roving administrative official calling them to account outside the provisions of the ordinary law.

Mr. McCabe: Let me have another go. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, if I have a fundamental right that is guaranteed by a commissioner, that right must be the same whether it is a public body or a private individual who seeks to deny it?

Mr. Swayne: In some circumstances, if the law is framed in that way, that is true. If one has a right not to be discriminated against in employment on grounds of religion or colour, of course that right is enforceable in the courts in respect of anyone who would seek to deny it, but the Bill gives very wide powers--in addition to the judicial powers--to a roving official to call individuals to account outwith the provisions of the courts. That is where I see a grave danger. It is entirely appropriate for public bodies to be accountable in that way--although I am not sure that even the Government would go quite as far as the Bill does in respect of public authorities, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's views on that--but I would certainly not want private individuals to be swept in.

Mr. Barron: Much of what is now deemed to be public life and representation is carried out in partnership between local authorities and many charitable and voluntary organisations within communities. Is the hon. Gentleman arguing that those organisations should not be brought to task in terms of their service delivery, but that those with statutory responsibilities should?

Mr. Swayne: That is precisely the point I am making. It is quite appropriate that private organisations that work

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in association or partnership with local authorities should be accountable, but not to a commissioner with the wide-ranging powers specified in the Bill. That does not mean that they should not be accountable, or that they should not be subject to the ordinary provisions that already exist to ensure their accountability.

We are talking about a wide-ranging new power to hold all sorts of people to account. I would view with more equanimity the thought that the commissioner might hold Ministers of the Crown to account, and I would be interested to see what the Minister has to say on that. But I am sceptical about the provisions in so far as they affect private individuals. Clause 4(3) says:

The "person" might be a father or a mother--a private individual. It is quite outrageous that a new official that we might create under the Bill could act in this way. Those families have rights, and have not signed up to the UN convention. There are, after all, all sorts of things that could come out of the convention, which contains 54 articles. I have quoted from two. The last thing I want is the creation of a new commissioner with the ability to hold to account any person whom he deems fit with respect to their adherence to the 54 different articles.

I have huge reservations about the powers that we are proposing in the Bill, and much of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said was entirely accurate. After my right hon. Friend spoke, the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd)--who is most reasonable in these respects--said that he had to agree with much of my right hon. Friend's analysis.

Clause 5(5) states that there is a power to

It strikes me that there is every potential here for creating a new self-financing public authority. The commissioner will be able to issue notices of non-compliance, demand reports and information and then charge private individuals, organisations, Government departments or local authorities for that service. That is unacceptable and any sensible Parliament would not pass such a measure.

Clause 6(3) states:

In other words, we are effectively setting up a power so that an administrative official will enjoy, in effect, the legal status of a High Court judge. That is not acceptable.

I wonder what the Minister has to say about clause 7, which states:

Ministers are properly accountable to Parliament and not to a commissioner with a roving brief.

Clause 7(3) states that

If the Minister shall comply with it, it is not a request: it is an order. Given the way in which the Bill is written, it seems to establish a children's rights inquisition. The fact

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that it seems that way to me may be because my reading of it is inadequate or inexperienced, but no self-respecting Parliament would give such enormous, unaccountable and potentially arbitrary powers to an official. I cannot ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the Bill unless the Standing Committee emasculates it.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre has put an enormous amount of work into this issue. In this Parliament, he has introduced two ten-minute Bills as well as this Bill. Why did he not introduce a Bill that we could all have supported?

Mr. Dawson: Not the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst.

Mr. Swayne: Well, that the majority of us could have supported. I have tried to show--the record of our performance in Standing Committees bears me out--that there is something in the Bill and in the hon. Gentleman's agenda that we could have supported. I do not know whether it is right to describe the Bill as left-wing claptrap, but I agree with my right hon. Friend when he characterised it as the children's rights commissar Bill. That is certainly my reading of it.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre may argue that he was not trying to gain the Opposition's support--that he has his own agenda, so it does not matter to him whether he has our support. However, the Opposition's support is more important than it might otherwise be, because we are coming to the wash-up end of the Parliament when negotiations take place on what Bills will get through in the remaining days. If there had been a Bill that we could all have supported, it could have been a testimony to the hon. Gentleman, but I am afraid that it is not the Bill before us today.

Given the way in which the Bill has been written, I cannot ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to support it. I fear that it may be a lost opportunity.

1.18 pm

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I do not think any hon. Member doubts the sincerity of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) in introducing the Bill. I agree with the sentiments and intentions of the variety of organisations that have supported the Bill. Having said that, I fear that I may be a lone, sceptical or dissenting voice on the Labour Benches. I shall explain my position.

I, too, have some experience of working with children, educating those who work with children and regulating the training of social workers--that may explain why they get such a bad press. I take the matter seriously, but I have some doubts about how the Bill has been constructed, and I wonder whether its intention would be reflected if it were enacted.

The more I listened to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the more I thought that, if his speech could have been stripped of the unique hyperbole and rich libertarian rhetoric that is increasingly the trademark of his contributions, he would have made some valuable criticisms of the Bill. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman's view was a lot more consistent and clear than that offered by the official Opposition Front-Bench spokesman. I do not know about left-wing claptrap, but he gave us right-wing muddle.

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My first doubt about the Bill arises from the fact that I am no great fan of tsars, regulators and overlords. In approaching a problem, there may be a danger in thinking always that the solution is to create a new overlord. I am not sure that the evidence to date proves that to be true. Indeed, some evidence suggests that, whatever our intentions, previous travels down that route may, rather than tackling the problem, have created greater bureaucracy and regulation for its own sake.

We must strike a difficult balance when we extend the rights of some and curb the rights of others, as has been acknowledged in some of the remarks that we have heard today on the rights of parents. Whether or not we agree with all the arguments made about parents, it is clear that hon. Members are worried about the balance of rights.

The key issue, particularly for those who work with or represent children, is that we need to be clearer about communications structures and lines of command. Often, inquiries into events that have gone wrong identify communications or the line of command as a source of problems. We need to pay more attention to existing procedures, and to ensuring that they are followed. Supervision of those who work with children and inspection of the processes involved are crucial. I should like greater encouragement of whistleblowing where things are going wrong.

Many years ago, shortly after I left school, I worked briefly as a nursing auxiliary in a hospital. It would then have been described as a hospital for people with a mental handicap, or for mentally defective people--we use much better terminology these days. I cannot say that I witnessed abuse, but I saw a number of activities that struck me as not being entirely fair. I had no idea, however, how to raise those matters so that something could be done. I suspect that much of the historic abuse that is now coming to light can be partly explained by the fact that people did not then know how to complain. The environment did not encourage whistleblowing, and I should like to see more of that.

We must pay more attention to what children say, particularly about child abuse. We must take their comments seriously. If we approached abuse in that way, our existing structures might allow us to do more to emphasise the rights of children and ensure that they are respected. For that reason, I am anxious about setting up more committees, proformas and reports, which might simply create far more paperwork without necessarily attacking the problem. In addition, encouraging a defensive mentality among the professionals who work with children might prove a downside of the Bill.

The phenomenon known as defensive medicine is well recognised in the United States and to an increasing extent in this country. So concerned are professionals about the risk of litigation that they allow self-protection rather than the case in hand to govern their activities. There is some evidence of that attitude creeping into both social work and teaching. Setting up an all-powerful overlord to peer over people's shoulders, able at any time to wield immense powers of intervention, might encourage that defensive mentality.

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