Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-118)|
MONDAY 18 NOVEMBER 2002
MP AND MS
100. Minister, during the Westminster Hall debate
on the Convention on the Rights of the Child in relation to the
option protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and
child pornography, you did say that the Government intended to
ratify the protocol but you went on to say: "We will be in
a position to do so when we have found a way to ensure that our
laws cover internal child trafficking as well as the external
trafficking that will soon be so covered". How soon do you
anticipate sorting out the legislative situation to enable that
(Mr Denham) Unfortunately, I cannot tell the Committee
that we have yet found the parliamentary opportunity to do so.
Personally, I hope as soon as possible but it does depend on parliamentary
time to do so. We have covered, not least through the trafficking
legislation in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, some
of the major gaps that were there in legislation and we are not
fully able to comply but it is an important issue for us.
101. If I may raise a subject which is topically
important in relation to Internet child pornography, we all know
of the case where it appears that up to or probably more than
7,000 British people have been logging on to a web site in the
United States where there is the most appalling child abuse and
assault, and we do know that child protection is not listed as
one of the priorities that the Governments sets for police forces,
so the Committee would like to know whether the National Policing
Plan, which is the first to be made under the Police Reform Act,
will address the issue of Internet child pornography.
(Mr Denham) It will certainly address the issue of
child protection. The National Policing Plan is not that specific
about detailed elements and strategies to tackle the whole range
of different crimes. It has to be a manageable document, but certainly
the issue of child protection and the responsibilities that the
police have in that area will be included in the National Policing
102. Can I begin by asking you, Minister, about
the Welsh Commissioner for Children? How are you going to evaluate
the success or otherwise of the Welsh Commissioner?
(Mr Denham) As the Welsh Commissioner has been established
by statute, I suppose what we will do, or I certainly intend to
do, is to read the reports that he produces on his work. I think
the first is due to be presented to the Welsh Assembly on the
28th of this month and we will obviously want to look at his experience
in establishing his role and the challenges that he has faced.
We will be very much relying on his own assessment of what he
has been able to achieve and obviously we will be looking with
interest at the Welsh Assembly.
103. Have you been in touch with him since he
has been appointed?
(Mr Denham) No, I have not, and it is an area that
we have to be slightly careful about, not wishing to compromise
his independence, but certainly when he has produced a report
and there is a substantive document to discuss then that is certainly
something that we can talk about doing.
104. I should obviously register my own interest:
I have been a trustee of ChildLine for ten years. As a trustee
I have certainly been arguing for commissioners for a long time,
but in respect of this Committee, we have taken evidence from
him and I do not think he found his position compromised in terms
of his independence. There are some people who, listening to your
remarks just now, might feel that the Minister for Young People,
in a period of 18 months, might have found occasion, given the
importance of the Welsh Commissioner for Children, to at least
take some informal consultation and evidence and have a view forming
already as to its success.
(Mr Denham) They might take that view. My own view
is that I have waited to see his role established, to produce
his first annual report, which he will do at the end of the month,
and I think that will feed into our own consideration about these
105. You must be aware that, almost without
exception, there is not a single children's body which supports
the Government's current position in continuing not to have a
children's commissioner for England. It is not as if this is operating
in a neutral place. Out there bodies are arguing very strongly
that the British Government should move and do the same for the
children of England as is being done for the children of Wales.
Are you entirely happy with the position of saying, "We are
going to wait for the first report", and are you going to
continue to let the time flow continue like this?
(Mr Denham) I certainly recognise that we need to
resolve what, if anything, we are going to do in this area before
too long, not least because when we were consulted on the overarching
strategy for children it was an issue raised by quite a lot of
the NGOs in that, and although I do not want to totally commit
myself, there will be some advantages in resolving this matter
when we publish that strategy so people will know where we stand.
What I think is worth doing is saying two things. One is that
we want to look at the emerging experience from other countries
and, secondly, we need to have some clarity or we will need ourselves
to bring some clarity to the different roles that people want
when they talk about a children's commissioner. There is a huge
variety of roles, just to give you some idea. Some people seem
to propose what essentially would be an ombudsman model, taking
up individual cases and then perhaps occasionally, like the Pensions
Ombudsman, throw in some conclusions about it. Some at the other
end of the spectrum want it to be a rights commissioner focused
very heavily on the UN Convention and checking whether we have
established those rights or giving a view on that. Some want a
broader ranging children's champion, able to pick up issues and
go off and investigate them, and yet others seem to propose a
model that is more akin to a permanent committee of inquiry into
failures in children's services. One thing which is fairly clear
which is that it is quite difficult within sensible resources
to fulfil all of those roles easily, and one of the things we
are interested in hearing from other countries is what processes
they have made around that. We have not resolved this matter at
the moment; that is the truth of it.
106. What work is your Department doing to evaluate
those different roles that the children's commissioner is playing
in different countries? Where have you got to in terms of asking
for work on that to be done?
(Mr Denham) Certainly officials from the CYPU are
in contact with the Commissioner's office in Wales, in touch with
what is going on in Scotland and Northern Ireland. People have
met with people from other countries that have children's commissioners.
I myself have met with the Swedish Children's Minister and they
have a children's commissioner in that country, so work is in
hand to draw together the different strands.
107. But is there a formal evaluation of all
those children's commissioners and their roles taking place at
(Mr Denham) Formal in the sense of producing a single
document that assesses each one against itI do not think
there is a formal evaluation of that sort.
(Ms Efunshile) Not formal in the sense of something
which is systematically evaluating each of those models against
a set of common criteria, but certainly we are, as the Minister
has outlined, in touch with the other devolved administrations
across the UK and with other parts of Europe as well. We have
been meeting with officials at various fora and so we are picking
up information and gaining feedback from those countries which
we are then able to report back. Some of these models, the Welsh
model that you have focused on, for example, are relatively new
so the first year has been spent very much setting up an office
and there is some time to be taken to establish actually what
the difference in outcomes for children and young people might
be and also what difference it would make if such a model were
applied to this country given the difference in scale, for example,
in terms of population.
108. One of the things that we have found is
that the Welsh Commissioner already has been able to say that
there is a lot that the role can do. He has talked about complaints
about public authorities and representing children's interests
there, access to health and medical records, special needs education
provision, suitability of foster placement. Indeed, in the recent
Adoption Bill it would have been quite interesting to have had
the voice of a commissioner for children on that Bill as well
as the Government's view which may or may not have been different.
That leads me to an observation that one of the young people that
Baroness Whitaker referred to earlier made to us by a member of
the Youth Parliament about possible conflicts of interest between
your job as representing Minister for young People and your job
within the Department. If I might just pick up four areas to test
that on, you said, for example, about the area of reasonable chastisement,
that when you talk to young people they are very interested in
being the victims of crime; there is no question of that, but
of course a child who is hit is a victim of crime; a child who
is physically abused is a victim of crime; a child that is sexually
abused is a victim of crime. I remember in the early days of setting
up ChildLine there were the established charities which did not
much want ChildLine around, not least because they thought they
were doing the job, and yet ChildLine has now listened to a million
children. Most of those are the victims of crime. I find myself
listening to you when you say that this is what children are telling
you about why they may not want intervention on the issue of reasonable
chastisement or smacking, but actually what formal evidence are
you gathering from bodies like ChildLine in your capacity as Minister
for Young People to represent and gather what they are saying?
It brings me back again to this question of here you have got
all these bodies saying to you, "We need a children's commissioner
for England", but you are in the difficult position of on
the one hand representing young people but also being in a department
that at the moment has a policy which says,"Wait and see".
(Mr Denham) The first thing I need to stress is that
we have not resolved the issue of whether or not there should
be a children's commissioner and what sort it should be. I hope
that the fact that I was able to sketch out a number of different
models, which are only a few of those I have discussed with the
officials from CYPU, will indicate that this is not, as some people
might have suggested, an issue that the Government is not thinking
about. It is not a resolved issue and we have not taken decisions
on it. Secondly, if we take the issue of smacking, it is not a
Home Office policy. The lead in this area is with the Department
of Health; they lead the consultation. It is quite right that
in my time as the Minister in this area we have not re-visited
the consultation that the Government carried out in the year 2000
and I think it is reasonable to say that we cannot constantly
be re-visiting every piece of policy all the time, although, as
I indicated earlier, my reflection on the UN Committee response
is to say that the Government has had a major consultation, which
ChildLine and everybody else were able to participate in, and
I will frankly have to look back at the history to see whether
they did have a major consultation and took the decision. However,
if you get a report from the UN Committee it makes you re-visit
it and that is why I indicated that I have been looking at the
extent to which our existing policies are aimed to reduce smacking.
On the question of listening to young people, the point that I
was making earlier is that that is precisely what we have been
doing and I did notand this is very important; I hope the
record will show thissay that young people had no views
on or were disinterested in smacking or those sorts of issues.
I was talking about the priority which young people gave to crime
issues in their own lives which tended to be issues much more
about violence on the streets, their own safety in getting about.
I am drawing there on some of the work we did as part of the overarching
strategy for children and young people. I would not like to be
characterised as saying there is only type of crime that is relevant
to children. Is there a fundamental contradiction between having
any departmental minister being a Minister for Children and Young
People? I do not think that there is. I think that there are strengths
in the arrangement. I think the strength is that if you have a
departmental minister it is probably easier to exercise some weight
in government with your colleagues than if you are a minister
with a unit and a very small budget and no locus on anything.
I think you can argue it both ways. I have always said this publicly.
It is the Prime Minister's decision; you can argue it both ways.
I have never felt that my job as a Home Office Minister has led
to a conflict of interest between if you like Home Office policy
and my responsibilities as Minister for Children and Young People.
109. I think the point that the children's charities
were making here though was that it does not necessarily mean
that if you have a children's commissioner you do not have a minister
with responsibility for these areas in government. You do not
have a choice between one or the other. It is a question of whether
or not we benefit our children by not having an independent voice.
The example that springs to mind is over bullying which is an
issue which comes to ChildLine's attention a great deal. If you
take Ofsted's position, for example, their inspectors are required
to talk to people about their life in school and the work they
are doing. It does not make any provision for systematic consultation
on the issue of bullying. When it comes to bullying, for example,
as Minister for Children, what systematic consultation have you
conducted with children's charities about one of the biggest problems
they perceive young people face in schools? What systematic consultation
have you conducted in the last year and what recommendations have
you made on the subject of bullying?
(Mr Denham) I think it is quite important to be clear
that I do not personally have the job of undertaking every single
consultation that takes place with young people. Indeed, I think
that would be the wrong thing to do. We are looking to the Department
for Transport to consult with young people about transport issues,
the DfES to consult with young people about education issues and
so on. I actually think that if we hived it off to the Minister
for Children and Young People to do consultations we would have
less influence on departmental policy. What has happened though
in the area of bullying is that the DfES have responded to these
concerns by producing new guidance on bullying. Ofsted is now
looking at ways in which it can build consultation with young
people into its inspections in ways that have not happened in
the past. That should I think strengthen in this particular area
the policies but DfES's ongoing commitment as part of their signing
up to the principles of participation and consultation last year
should be in practice to keep these important issues constantly
under review. The aim of having a commitment to participation
is that departments are not all able to avoid these issues. That
is what we are trying to achieve.
110. But as Minister for Young People are you
satisfied that enough is being done?
(Mr Denham) If you look at the work on participation
at the moment, it is at very early stages. It is not yet ingrained
in every government department that affects young people that
they should be consulting with young people on those issues. That
is work that we started a year ago with the principles of participation.
The Department only published their documents about how they were
going to do it in the summer and again I have said publicly that
it will be a period of some years, I think, before this becomes
second nature to policy makers.
111. I am speaking specifically about bullying
and really what I am getting to here, Minister, is that you deal
with a lot of issues and government departments are dealing with
a lot of issues in relation to young people, but we already know
from children's charities the scale of the problem of bullying.
The children's charities have pointed out the shortcomings in
this area. Are you satisfied, as Minister for Young People, that
enough is being done in the areas that have already been identified
as a problem of bullying in our schools?
(Mr Denham) I think that a significant start has been
made, but I do not think I could be satisfied because I do not
think I have got evidence that bullying has stopped. I have got
evidence that DfES have responded to the concerns of young people.
I know that DfES's commitment to having an advisory group for
young people, to have open sessions with young people at which
they can raise issues about schools policy, will help to ensure
that issues like bullying are very much kept on the agenda. We
are trying to change this government machine so that it does actually
listen to the young people whose lives are being affected, and
I think you can point across government to areas like bullying
where it is undoubtedly the case that the Government has responded
to the concerns expressed directly by children as well as by children's
charities, but there is some way to go yet before we can say that
we have actually had any impact on the problem. The question then
is: do we have the structures that enable us to make sure that
does not drop off the agenda, that this was not just a one-off
piece of guidance that somebody then shoved on the shelf and said,
"We did bullying two years ago"? That is partly a matter
of getting the participation structures right; it is obviously
one of the issues that has to be addressed in looking at a potential
112. This brings me to my final question because,
as you rightly say, it is around structures. We know, for example,
if we take the Government's policy on the euro, that in principle
it is committed. It just wants to see whether we pass the tests.
There are a lot of children's charities out there who would welcome
from the Government a view about the principle here, which is
that they accept the principle that children need an independent
commissioner. The children in England are no different from Wales.
The Welsh have realised it, the Scots have realised it, they realised
it in Northern Ireland, but for some reason in England we think
we may have a different case because our children might be different.
If we take what the NSPCC have said, never has there been a greater
need for a children's commissioner. If we take what the somewhat
well-known President of Barnardo's says, "Unless and until
the UK Government recognises the whole concept of the rights of
a child, it will remain rightly criticised as being only half-hearted
about the rights of a child." That President recognised that
a children's commissioner would begin very clearly to remedy the
situation. I suppose really what I am saying is that all these
children's charities, without exception, are saying, "Let
us have the principle". You do have a point in saying, "How
would it specifically work out?", but why not treat our children
in England the same? Give them a Commissioner, say we need a time
frame to work it out specifically, but what is the real benefit
now of holding out on the principle?
(Mr Denham) That is not the way that I have approached
the problem. I know that there are numerous contesting expectations
of what a children's commissioner will do that it would not be
possible to fulfil all in one office. What I have been trying
to do and, as I have indicated, I personally would like to draw
it to some conclusion, is to look at different models and say,
"Would this add value? Would this really make a difference?
Is there the danger that people are loading all their expectations
on to this one office and ignoring vital issues that we are pursuing
in government about how we ensure that young people are listened
to right across government?" We have not reached conclusions
about that at the moment. I suppose as a politician I should have
thought about approaching it this way, which is to announce that
we are going to do it and then tell people five years later what
it is going to look like. That is not the way I work. I think
we have to say, how would it add value, would it add value, would
it make a difference to young people's lives in this country?
That surely has to be the test that we apply. I am slightly worried
that it is almost becoming the universal answer to every problem
and that could be a danger if it does not enable us to change
the way government itself operates.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill
113. Minister, without prolonging this discussion
between yourself and Mr Woodward unduly, could I ask you a short
question? I understand exactly what you are telling us about the
different expectations and how they cannot all be satisfied, but
could you summarise very briefly for us what is the case against
having a children's rights commissioner of any kind rather than
a particular kind? That I do not understand so far.
(Mr Denham) The argument against having a children's
commissioner would be that its role was confused, that it did
not add value, it did not have the resources to match up to the
expectations and that it was able to deal with such a small part
of the problem that it was not helping to achieve change but it
enabled a number of other people to feel that they did not have
to match up to their responsibilities. That would be the potential
danger. If you created an ineffective body clearly it might not
help the work that I am trying to push through which is a change
in the way the machinery of government itself works and the respect
they have for the views of young people. That would be an argument
114. But you would not make that argument against
the Equal Opportunities Commission or the Commission for Racial
Equality or the Disability Rights Commission, all of which make
a real difference, do they not?
(Mr Denham) They do, and they are backing up an area
of very specific legislation in each of those spheres and derive
their authority from specific legislation. It is not the area
that we have taken in children's rights. We had the earlier discussion
about the suitability or otherwise of the Convention as a legal
basis for their activity.
115. There is one issue I would like to press
you on as an example of your approach. Romany children, our oldest
native minority, are always at the bottom of the list. There is
no shortage of their being included. For example, there is an
education policy for Romany children, there is a health policy,
but year after year there they are at the bottom of the list.
I think in Northern Ireland travelling children under the age
of ten are ten times more likely to die than children from the
settled population and I think that figure has hardly improved
over more than a decade. Would they not do better if they had
an independent voice just to push the issue higher up the agenda
so that measures that were taken were actually effective? You
yourself referred to outcomes.
(Mr Denham) Yes. It is possible but not certain because
government already responds to pressure to deal with the needs
of particular groups of vulnerable young people, for example,
the Social Exclusion Unit at the moment is close to finalising
a report on young runaways and improving the services to prevent
persistent running away of very young people and the dangers that
come with that. There is ample evidence that government does respond.
116. In this one case though.
(Mr Denham) The point that I am making is that government
does respond to cases made by pressure groups, by NGOs, by reports
and evidence that are being put forward. That would be true in
the area of child prostitution, it is certainly true in the area
of young runaways and has been in the past true in the area of
Romany children or travellers' children. One of my concerns is
that the belief that simply the creation of an independent voice
would automatically lead to policy changing or being better in
certain areas when it is quite clear that the Government does
take up already issues raised by a whole variety of NGOs, albeit
there is not a children's commissioner as such. One of the arguments
which you have to assess is, would such a post make a material
difference to the quality of what government does? I accept entirely
that that is the argument but I just do not take it as the automatic
given that everybody is saying it is at the moment, but we have
not resolved our position on this.
117. Minister, we are aware of the Government's
reservation on Article 22 with regard to the rights of asylum
seeking children. Do you think you can give the Committee an example
of how the withdrawal of the reservation would do mischief to
our asylum system?
(Mr Denham) The feeling in layman's terms rather than
legal terms is that if we did not have the reservation and were
the Convention to be given perhaps greater weight in law or in
court judgments than it has been given so far in the court cases
you could end up with a position where an unaccompanied young
asylum seeker who gets to this country is able to say under the
Convention, "You should not be able to apply any asylum legislation
to me because you are looking at me as a child under the Convention",
and, further than that, because of the rights of the Convention
for a child to be re-united with its parents their parents would
also have the right to come to this country. The difficulty is
to see how that would be compatible with running any type of asylum
or immigration system at all. It is for the reason of the concern
that at some point in the future the Convention could be interpreted
that way that the Government has entered its reservation and has
re-considered it within the last year and decided that the reservation
should still stand.
118. Some of my colleagues have made reference
to questions that were referred to us by the Youth Parliament.
Some of them have been put to you. One of them I thought was very
interesting which was the question of what measures are in place
to provide independent advice for young people if their rights
have been breached?
(Mr Denham) In terms of the Convention itself I would
suspect at the moment that outside a number of quite specialist
NGOs there are probably very few local sources of Convention rights
advice; that would be my guess. I think it would be recognised
as good practice in many areas, and certainly it is the case in
my own city of Southampton, of quite a well developed network
of informal drop-in based advice to young people about their legal,
social and welfare rights, and I commend those organisations.
I think that agencies that are able to deal with the whole range
of issues that young people might bring to them about personal
relationships, about jobs, about education, about benefits, family
matters or whatever, in the round are probably providing the service
that young people would primarily need rather than a service which
was very narrowly based on the UN Convention.
Chairman: Minister, thank you very much for
appearing before us and for dealing so comprehensively and directly
with the questions that the Committee has put to you. Thank you
for coming to help us on these issues.