Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Dawson: Does my hon. Friend accept that that defensiveness often works against the interests of children? It is promoted by powerful external interests--

6 Apr 2001 : Column 659

often the media or the relevant local authority procedures--and children's interests and rights go by the board.

Mr. McCabe: I accept that the sort of defensive mentality that I describe is a direct result of people's anxiety about their own position in the face of external pressures. My point is that the danger inherent in creating an all-powerful commissioner is that, rather than encouraging people to focus on children's real rights and the issues that genuinely affect them, it might encourage individual professionals to focus on self-preservation. My hon. Friend says that other agencies exert such pressure on hard-pressed individuals, but my major concern is about the possibility that the commissioner would have the same effect.

I am concerned about other aspects of the Bill, although I shall not go into the details, which have already been explored. It strikes me that the Bill is extremely wide-reaching. A Bill that focuses more narrowly on protecting existing rights, rather than one that gives the commissioner a roving brief, would be more desirable. There is a danger inherent in the Bill being so open ended: for example, we have no idea how many staff would be appointed, and so no idea of the costs.

Some of the aims set out in the Bill could be achieved without it. In the Bill, Ministers are asked to recognise and pay attention to the rights of children, but I assume that, to some extent, the children and young people's unit has been set up specifically to address such issues. Furthermore, an impact study can always be arranged--we do not need a children's commissioner to enable a Minister to decide to commission an impact study when new legislation is being considered.

I can see how clause 8(3) would make it easier for an individual to make a complaint. It states:

However, when reading that provision--I might have misinterpreted it and if I have I shall be grateful for the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre--the recent, extremely sad case of David Jones came to my mind. He was the manager of Southampton football club; now, happily, he is back in the west midlands with Wolverhampton Wanderers. He lost his job, was subjected to enormous personal stress and put through a terrible experience, but it was finally found that he had not a single stain on his character. I do not want any more cases like that.

I want all children who are in danger or threatened with it to have proper avenues and institutions to enable them to express what is happening to them and ensure that those who abuse them are brought to book, but I do not want any more long, drawn-out cases in which an individual's reputation and career are savaged while that individual has no redress. Given the current wording of the provision, it would be possible for spurious allegations and information to be laid before the commissioner, which would trigger investigations that might have a serious bearing on an individual's reputation and, indeed, his life. At no stage would the individual know either the substance of those allegations or who had made them. The

6 Apr 2001 : Column 660

Bill is concerned about rights, but such provisions could be seen as a serious attack on the rights of individuals--I have some desperate concerns about that.

I have read of the German experience. In Germany, there is a position akin to that of a children's commissioner, but it is in a commission that deals more broadly with the rights of the family, the elderly and various groups. Should we appoint a commissioner only for children's rights? Does that not mean that, in years to come, we shall be making the same arguments in support of commissioners for the elderly, single parents, divorced men or menopausal women? There is no end to the groups who could claim that their rights are infringed. Perhaps we should concentrate more on the rights of the whole population rather than singling out children.

Another danger of the single approach is that we might not learn from previous experience. In this country, we have a welter of experience drawn from inquiries--sadly, mostly into cases of child abuse. We could trace a line from Maria Colwell, to Jasmine Beckford and to Anna Climbie to show what has gone wrong with our system. There are many examples of what is wrong with the system--where it falls down and children are not protected.

The examples of the lack of protection for children are writ large. I am not sure that we need more people to tell us what is wrong. We need to ensure that the existing procedures are properly and rigorously pursued and effectively supervised. That might produce much greater dividends than setting up a whole new apparatus.

Similarly, we can draw on the inquiry into residential homes in north Wales or the Kincora investigation. We know about the nature of the abuse that occurred for a long time in residential institutions. We know about the practices that have caused children such distress. We do not need a commissioner to initiate a new body of research to teach us about that; the evidence already exists--it is writ large. We actually need to show that we are constantly learning from those experiences and that we are doing our best to minimise the chance of them recurring.

In that respect, we could take some practical steps. We could re-examine the training of certain key professionals who work with children. We could consider why there is not more joint training. As I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre will acknowledge, one of the commonest difficulties experienced in child abuse or child protection inquiries is dealing with the different cultures, procedures and training backgrounds of the professionals who have to work together on such cases. Often that inhibits the work and progress of the inquiry. We could practically address the existing system and try to make professions and institutions work more closely together--to bind them in a helpful way.

Instead of being obsessed with the idea that children's rights in our society are a form of regulation or an intrusion on civil life by the state, perhaps we should address the whole environment and our attitudes to children. Other societies are much more child centred and child friendly. That may account for the fact that they experience fewer cases of child abuse--or at least reported cases.

I shall give a simple example. When my daughter was six-weeks-old, I went on holiday to Ireland, where, of course, all the pubs, restaurants and similar establishments

6 Apr 2001 : Column 661

made it clear that it was perfectly acceptable for the customers to have their children with them. Shortly after that holiday, I strolled into a local pub in Birmingham on a nice summer's day and was confronted by a barmaid who said, "You can't come in here with a child." A society in which the attitude is that children must be kept apart, hidden away and separated from main events questions the existence of children's rights.

Similarly, if people went out for a stroll on a summer's evening in Italy, they would not be at all surprised to see whole families strolling along hand in hand, with the children very much part of what was happening, but such occurrences are increasingly rare in our society. Our society deliberately segments and separates children from a great deal of normal activity. In my judgment, the fact that we hide children away at times makes abuse possible in the first place. More could be done about that in a more open and child-friendly society.

In passing, it is probably worth saying that we could do some basic things in the House. It fair to say that it is strange that we put greater weight on the need for space for a gun club than we do for a creche, or that we have a family room that resembles a doctor's surgery, rather than being child friendly. If we are really concerned about children's rights, perhaps we need to make some basic changes to the culture and the environment in which children are forced to grow up. We need to encourage a change of attitude, so that it is much harder for individuals to abuse children's rights. I wonder whether that would be a more effective way to address some of the concerns rather than that proposed in the Bill.

The children's rights director will have powers to deal with those children in care and those who are at risk, and it is right that an overseeing body should exist. However, if we are to provide a further body, we are effectively saying that we do not have much confidence in the existing procedures, that there is no aspect of private life that cannot be subject to regulation and that the only way to guarantee and protect children's rights is to have a overlord, a policing figure, who will regulate every aspect of our dealings with children. That is not the right starting point.

I was struck by the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre spoke about the meetings that the United Nations sponsors held in schools--the "Put it to your MP" campaign. I took part in one of those meetings, and was struck by the ideas that young people can contribute and the number of issues about which they have very strong and definite opinions. Contrary to the views of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, listening to young people can be informative and helpful to those of us who tend to see the world through a narrower age perspective. It can be useful to consider the views of young people.

As I said, I was struck by the positive comments that young people can make and the strong and clear views that they have on many subjects, but those views will be nourished and encouraged only if we create the right atmosphere--the permissive atmosphere--to make that possible in this country. I am not convinced that the way to guarantee greater respect for children's rights is to create a new policing apparatus. That is the fundamental danger. The Bill's intentions are good--the desire to respect children's rights; to give children a much greater voice; and not to see them simply as passive objects--and should be welcomed.

6 Apr 2001 : Column 662

The question is whether we should achieve that by creating a massive, over-arching regulatory framework with the power to intrude at will in all aspects of life in what would sometimes be a contradictory fashion. I seriously doubt that that is the best way forward. I am not suggesting that my hon. Friend's Bill should not proceed to a Committee for consideration, but we would make more progress if we could pare it down and focus on areas where there is clear evidence of abuse, rather than creating unnecessarily wide powers in the expectation of discovering other problems in future.

I am always worried when I find myself agreeing with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, but in this case he is right. The Bill is ambitious--it anticipates problems--and unnecessarily intrusive. I should prefer a shorter, sharper Bill that tackles specific problems. We should emphasise the need to create a permissive environment for children so that we do not need to be obsessed with policing society.

Next Section

IndexHome Page