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1.41 pm

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): I do not want to dwell on the detail of the Bill because this is a Second Reading debate and we should consider the principles behind it. In any event, right hon. and hon. Members have pointed out that several of their concerns can be dealt with in Committee, where it will be possible to pare the Bill and make it more sharply focused, so we should do that instead of preventing the Bill from proceeding.

I listened carefully to the debate. Two Members, in particular, have root and branch objections not only to the Bill, but to the very idea of a commissioner. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), having occupied a position of great statesmanship in the previous Government, has adroitly repositioned himself as a small mosquito seeking to draw a little blood from the exposed parts of the body politic. Interestingly, the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) has moved in the other direction--from mosquito to statesman in one bound.

The position now occupied by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst means that he has given himself licence to use intemperate language and imagery that other Members would find difficult to get away with. However, his view that all foreigners are not to be trusted opens up a new discussion. He will not appreciate the fact that a children's commissioner or someone of similar status is pretty common in foreign countries, both in Europe and elsewhere. I think of Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Israel, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden. The role does not have exactly the same functions in every country, and each has a different way of doing things, but the principle enunciated by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson)--whom I congratulate on introducing the Bill--has been established in those countries.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst must ask himself whether all those people are wrong. Has their society collapsed? Are children running rampant in the streets, disobeying their parents and lacking respect for their elders? Is it that foreigners do not have children or, if they do, they have them in such a monstrously different way that we do not recognise their concerns as

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being the same as ours? I suggest, politely, that that is not the case. It is worth considering arrangements in other countries, which, in general, work well.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for listening to what I said, and he is doing me the courtesy of responding to it. However, for the sake of clarity, my experience of international and multinational bodies in which foreigners are represented has taught me that what they do need not be imported into this country. We should make law for ourselves and our circumstances through our elected representatives. We do not need to import foreign material.

Dr. Whitehead: When we make laws we should, of course, have regard to what is right for the circumstances in our country. I am not saying that we should not do that. However, we should not shut our eyes to what is happening elsewhere. From my observation of the way in which many other countries do their duty by their children, it is clear that they have similar worries. It is at least worth having a look at countries where children's commissioners or similar arrangements are in place to see whether they have the dire effects that have been suggested.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said that the commissioner would be a commissar. I have been reading Robert Service's excellent biography of Lenin. He knew how to appoint commissars, and the commissioner would not be one. The person who had a considerable hand in influencing some of the ideas behind the Bill set out the commissioner's role as:

That does not describe a commissar who can go into every corner of society and demand access to what people are doing in the privacy of their own homes. It is a measured approach to draw together strands of public policy that seem to be fractured and separate and which sometimes fail our children when they have few advocates and few civil rights. We could do with establishing a body to consider how society works out its relationship with children, from a public and private perspective.

The other main concern about the principle behind the Bill is how it would affect private responsibilities, which was raised by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). The argument is that it would undermine parents' rights, but we cannot live in a black-and-white world in which each parent has complete rights over children or children have complete rights over parents. The real world is not like that. Parents do, and should, have a considerable say in how their children are brought up and what happens to them as they become adults. Children are not the property of parents who can do what they wish. Part of the essence of a civilised society is that we place boundaries on what people can do to their children and to those with whom they interact on a private basis.

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It is part of the contract of being a member of society that one recognises the obligation to behave reasonably, decently and honourably towards people who are often helplessly in one's care. As a contracted member of society, one cannot divorce oneself from the norms and reasonable expectations of that society and say that, once the front door is shut, "I can do whatever I like, and no one has a right to tell me what to do." That would be an ill-advised definition of what it is to be a parent.

In circumstances in which parents' rights are circumscribed by their responsibilities towards society, it is right to consider how public policy develops. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) pointed out that one simply cannot apply the parenting model in some circumstances, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) provided several examples. In cases of child prostitution, child labour, runaway children, children committing crime and, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire mentioned, in cases where we try to ensure that the children of travelling families receive education, to what extent do we say that we should simply refer the matter back to the parents and that everything will be okay? In many cases, that is the last thing that one should do to protect the welfare of a child.

Notwithstanding the detail of the Bill, a matter of principle suggests that we should adopt the approach proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre and give the Bill its Second Reading. Even if it does not make it all the way to the statute book--I suspect that it might not--it gives us an opportunity to move forward our appreciation of the issues. We have moved beyond the idea that children should be placed in the background and be seen but not heard. I sympathise with the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe), who said that we are a society that still wishes to proceed with its daily business while keeping children at a distance for our own safety and convenience.

The issue is one of changing attitudes and changing the way we do things. If the debate has helped in that, and if the Government think carefully about how we proceed on the issue of children's welfare, this Bill will have performed a great service.

1.53 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): This has been a wide-ranging debate, in which right hon. and hon. Members have made their arguments very persuasively and with great skill. We have heard speeches for and against the Bill--and then there was the speech of the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne). I could not quite make out whether he was in favour of the Bill. However, I shall come to his remarks shortly.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) on bringing the issue of a children's rights commissioner to the attention of the House once again. I commend him for his committed and valuable work on children's issues and the tenacity with which he presented his arguments. The Bill is identical to those introduced by my hon. Friend and others on at least two previous occasions, and I should perhaps reassure him and all those in favour of the Bill that the Government are continuing to consider carefully the arguments that he and others are making. I agree that it is an important issue that we should keep under review.

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On what my hon. Friends the Members for Lancaster and Wyre and for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) said, we have considered carefully, and continue to study, the different models of commission that exist around the world. We are taking a particular interest in the proposals emerging from Wales, and the consultation exercise planned for Northern Ireland later in the year. We are always willing to consider whether we need to make further improvements in the existing arrangements for safeguarding the well-being and protection of children in England.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre will know, we are currently implementing what I consider to be a substantial programme of new measures to improve safeguards for children. We are making those practical improvements the initial focus of our work. As I have said, we will continue to think about how the measures can be improved in future, but I think it right for our first priority always to be the safety of those at the greatest risk of harm. It is in that regard that the most immediate need for additional protection has been most apparent.

I shall go into more detail shortly, but first I want to comment on some of the speeches that have been made. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) is not present, because she spoke with a great deal of conviction, as she always does. Throughout her time in the House she has taken children's issues very seriously, and has also worked to secure positive changes in both legislation and practice. She has a great record on this subject, and many of us will miss her counsels in the future.

It was clear from the speech of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh)--who, unfortunately, is not present either--that he had intended to speak for a long time, and he succeeded in doing so. He read out a long list of quotations--one was from one of my speeches, and I am grateful to him for that--but, most important, he expressed his opposition to the Bill on philosophical grounds. He also expressed clear opposition to the very concept of children's rights.

The hon. Gentleman's speech probably generated more heat than light. His comments had a distinctive 19th century flavour. I see that he has now arrived. I am sorry that he missed what I said about his speech, but he will probably be flattered by my observation that it had a distinctive 19th century flavour.

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