Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-118)

MONDAY 18 NOVEMBER 2002

RT HON JOHN DENHAM MP AND MS ALTHEA EFUNSHILE

Chairman

  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 ratification?
  (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 Plan.

Mr Woodward

  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 issues.

  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 the moment?
  (Mr Denham) Formal in the sense of producing a single document that assesses each one against it—I 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 not—and this is very important; I hope the record will show this—say 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 Children's Commissioner.

  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 against it.

  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.

Baroness Whitaker

  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.

Chairman

  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.





 
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