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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I agree with every word that the hon. Gentleman has said. Can he see any logical reason why England is intrinsically different from the other nations of the United Kingdom in this respect? What is the logic behind the Government's position?
Mr. Dawson: I am afraid that I cannot see any logic in the Government's position, and that is the whole gist of my speech. I sincerely hope that the Government will come to the logical conclusion that the Bill must be supported.
Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I do not want to introduce a tone of dissent, but does my hon. Friend accept that the complex and varied legal differences between Scotland and England on the age of consent is a clear distinction that may explain a different approach?
Mr. Dawson: No, I am sorry, but I do not. It is essential to have commissioners for children in those countries, and I applaud what is happening in Wales and what is on the way in Northern Ireland and down the road in Scotland. We plainly need linked offices so that people work together on issues that arise in those countries. As a patriotic person--I am sure there are a few patriots present--I do not think that England should be left behind.
I am mystified by the Government's approach, given that they are profoundly conscious of human rights. They have established the Disability Rights Commission, and have done great work on equal opportunities and race relations. I cannot understand why they are not keener to promote the independent advocacy of children's rights.
I suspect that some Members are worried about the impact of a children's rights commissioner, both on parents and family life. During the debate on the Welsh commissioner here and in the other place, Opposition Members tried to justify support for a children's commissioner who has nothing to do with ordinary families. That is plain daft. We should face that issue and deal with it properly.
Ordinary, decent parents have nothing to fear from a UN convention on the rights of the child that is compatible with the Children Act 1989 and emphasises that all decisions taken in respect of a child should be in the best interests of that child. The convention respects the rights, responsibilities and duties of parents. It expects, as far as possible, children to be cared for by their parents, recognises a right to family relationships, the right not to be separated from parents except by judicial determination and the right to family reunification.
What decent, ordinary parent would wish to deny their child the right to education, to play, or to freedom of expression, thought and religion? What decent, ordinary parent cannot bear to be challenged by the bright, new clamour of their young people who are finding their voice
It would be good, proper, fair and just to support the Bill. It would be the finest thing to give it resounding support in double quick time to get it through all its stages in whatever time we have left in this Parliament. Whether or not the Bill goes much further, support today would send a signal. It would flag up a proposal for the manifesto and would give a clear message not only to 11.3 million children, but to their parents, relatives, friends, carers, teachers, social workers and children's campaigners--all those people with all those lovely votes--that the war of attrition, which is winning the day and will not go away, is at an end. I hope that the Government will establish a profoundly important, exciting, popular and challengingly independent office in the first few months of what the Bill could help to make a great second term. If they do not, we shall carry on fighting. Our cause is right, and it will eventually win the day. I hope that every Member present will support the Bill on Second Reading.
Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton): I shall speak briefly in support of the Bill and of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson). I regret that so many of the Bill's supporters are not here. In my view, they should have been.
I cannot see that electioneering is much of an alibi for the Bill's supporters. We are here to make a difference. Politics is conducted not for its own sake, but for reasons. One such reason should be the effort to make less worse, where we can, the lives of those whom we represent. That includes children. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre and I have seen the conditions in which children live and suffer in many parts of the world, including Burundi. At home, too, however, there is neglect and deprivation. Here, too, children's childhoods are stolen. I see a real need for a children's ombudsman.
Should I decide to seek another term of office in this House, I shall, unfortunately, be opposed by a candidate from the hon. Gentleman's party, but I wish the hon. Gentleman well and hope that he is returned here. I see no possibility of the Bill reaching the statute book at present, but it is a good and worthy cause and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be in the next Parliament to carry it forward.
Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme): I must first declare several interests. I am a trustee of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, of a children's charity called Safe and of a children's fishing charity called Second Chance. Indeed, I had very much hoped to be fishing today: the delay in the election has kept me in the House to speak on this important Bill.
All our children deserve support and help, but some need it more than others, and some need it desperately. Usually, it does not seem nearly 15 years since I came to this House, but when I think of how attitudes towards children have changed, it seems more like a lifetime. Almost my first vote in Parliament was to ban the caning of children in schools. We won it by one vote, and I have often thought that if my by-election had been held a couple of weeks later than it was, children would still be caned in our schools. That was a barbaric practice.
When I came to Parliament, I knew nothing about the law. My Whips, as is their way, naturally put me on the Committee for a criminal justice Bill. It was there that my campaign for justice for children began. I discovered that children had virtually no right to be heard in our courts. In every criminal justice Bill thereafter, we took another step forward--on video links, the use of screens, evidence of absent children, competency, the swearing of the oath, corroboration of evidence and committal hearings. There was so much to change, and so much was changed.
The rights of children to be heard in our courts were hard fought for by many stubbornly determined Members of both Houses of Parliament. As I look back across the years, it seems incredible that we had to fight so hard for things that are accepted these days as only right and just. When we look back in a few years time, might we not think the same about a children's commissioner?
The United Nations convention on the rights of the child, ratified by the United Kingdom in 1991, and the Children Act 1989 are two of the most important statements that affect attitudes towards children. Having made those statements, and highlighted our responsibilities, Parliament has maintained its commitment to improving children's lives. There has been legislation, including the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, the Carers and Disabled Children Act 2000 and the Protection of Children Act 1999. There have been projects such as health action zones and sure start programmes, and money for our schools to improve the education of many neglected children.
There has also been much more cross-departmental co-ordination, and no one can deny the hard work put in by Ministers on the rights of children and on doing something more positive for children than any previous Government have done. The commitment of the Labour party to eliminate child poverty must be welcomed by all, for we all pay the cost of child poverty--the greatest single threat to the health and future well-being of our children.
There is, however, one commitment that we have not yet had from this, or any, Government--a commitment to a children's commissioner. We need a person whose sole duties are to speak out for children and influence legislation that affects them. Some years ago, when I spoke for children on the Opposition Front Bench, I raised many subjects that cut across Departments--children's play in safety, provision for children in hospital, bullying, residential care, child prostitution, runaways, adoption, accidents in the home, diet, food safety, punishment for children and child abuse. There was so much to consider and to report on, but no individual was in charge.
The Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) fills that wide gap. There are many kinds of children's commissioner, and the recently published "Review of Effective Government
Among the many useful jobs that a commissioner could do, one of the most important would be to reach out to children through television, to let children know that he or she was there for them and that their voice, their fears and their hopes were being listened to, not ignored. I like the idea of a warm, friendly, Father Christmas-type commissioner--though we must have him or her all the year round.
The Government--our Government and our children's Government--can make a real and lasting difference to the way in which legislation affects the lives of all our people, now and in future. The Bill shows the way. It deserves our most urgent and total support. I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing it before us.