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Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Has my right hon. Friend given any thought to the other side of the equation, and the fact that another party will be involved when all that expensive legal advice is taken and legal proceedings are initiated? The other party may be a parent, but it may also be a private charitable organisation that is not so lavishly funded and has to foot its own bill when it is so unfortunate as to be the opposing party in such a dispute.
Mr. Forth: Yes. Potentially, the Bill will set one taxpayer against another, or all of us as taxpayers against each other. It is a very familiar and distressing phenomenon. As the Minister will know, that phenomenon is becoming distressingly frequent in the health service. If the matter involves a public body, taxpayers may end up having to fund both sets of legal representation. That possibility arises under the terms of clause 9.
"(a) the availability of such assistance elsewhere".
(a) prosecute or defend or appear in any legal proceedings".
That provision strikes me as being absurd. It also carries the implication--unless I am told that, nowadays, laymen can appear in a courtroom at will and perform the role of prosecutor or defender--that the commissioner will have to be a legally qualified person.
Mr. Forth: That is what I rather feared. I can only begin to imagine what implications such a provision has for our judicial system. I should have thought--unless I am otherwise advised--that it also suggests, as a matter of practicality if not law, that the commissioner would have to be legally qualified. That would be another constraint that I could add to the ones that I gave earlier, on gender, ethnicity, regionality, expertise, experience, probity and all the other ones. The commissioner will have to be legally qualified. I would bet that the Bill's promoter did not have that in mind when he drew up the Bill.
Mr. Leigh: The commissioner will not have to be legally qualified because he will be able to obtain extremely good and expensive advice from Queen's counsel who will appear for him in the proceedings.
"representations in the interests of children at any public inquiry held".
How far are we being expected to go in the Bill to give the commissioner those types of powers? Are we really suggesting that, starting as we did with the interests of children in the United Nations convention, we should end up with clause 10 with all its implications for powers, budget, money, intrusion, demands, requirements and compliance? Is that really where we want to take ourselves? I think not. The whole Bill is entirely misconceived.
(a) to present a Bill which . . . significantly affects children; or
(b) to make a statutory instrument under any provision of an enactment where that provision significantly affects children
he shall first consult the Commissioner."
Can a Minister say to the commissioner, "Well, I've heard what you've said, old boy, but I'm not going to act on it"? The commissioner will then be out there spinning furiously about how he advised the Minister that this or that measure was inadvisable in the interests of children but was ignored. That puts Ministers in a difficult position--deliberately. I am not sure that it sits comfortably with our constitutional arrangements or the accountability of Ministers to Parliament--not to a commissioner. If clause 11 were interpreted in the wrong way, it would be a novel and alarming development.
All in all, I am not sure that I am persuaded that the Bill is a very good idea. I think that I have detected the odd flaw. Fortunately, we have plenty of time, so I am hoping that, as the day winds on, my hon. Friend the
Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): I do not intend to detain the House for quite as long as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who certainly presented some telling points on amendments that might be made to the Bill. As a supporter of the Bill, I should be interested to hear his thoughts on it in Committee, where we might improve some of the clauses that he is worried about. I do not seek to defend the Bill line by line.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) on promoting the Bill. In his four years in Parliament, he has established a tremendous record as a supporter of children's interests. The Bill is merely a further step in that. I also commend the Government on the many measures that they have taken to assist children: the children's tax credit; the working families tax credit; the child care credit; the substantial increase in child benefit; sure start; record increases in spending on schools; initiatives in pre-school and after-school care; and initiatives to protect children in care.
Probably the most consistent direction of change in the tax and benefit system over the past four years has been towards helping children, and especially children in poverty and those with working parents. That deserves commendation.
It is possible to argue that many of the changes are functional, improving the efficiency of our work force and parents' income, rather than focusing specifically on the well-being of children. They are likely to affect children's well-being, but are not entirely child centred. We need a child-centred strategy focused on an objective analysis of children's needs and on strengthening support for families while recognising the increasingly fractured and fluid nature of our society. We need objective monitoring and advocacy for children, which is what the Bill proposes.
Opposition Members have said that the right guardians for children are either existing public representatives or parents. That goes to the heart of whether we need a commissioner. We must recognise that strategies based largely on the work needs and income of parents neglect the needs of a minority of children--sadly, a minority about whom we hear all too often--who are not their parents' priority.
There was a tragic case in my county--not in my constituency--only recently, of a child murdered by one of her parents. It appalled people locally that that had happened, and that the family were known to social services. It seemed that an error by those concerned with the care of the child had led in part--we must always say that; the people responsible were those who perpetrated the awful crime--to the child's death. We read frequently of such shocking experiences.
Those who talk constantly about the rights of parents--I am a parent myself--must recognise that some parents do not have the well-being of the child at the heart of their relationship or at the centre of their life. We must recognise the need to protect against the extremes and the exceptions as a key facet of public policy.
It is clear that our social services are not always sufficiently resourced or trained to identify abuse and to protect the child. Our historical tolerance, as a society, of assault on the child under the protection of parental discipline makes child protection harder in this country. Distinguishing clearly between the action of a parent in correcting a child and assault on a child is a difficult task and one that is often hard to explain. The matter is clear to me, because I do not believe in assaulting a child in any circumstances. It is harder for our public authorities to carry out their duties when the law in this area is unclear.
The Bill proposes several key steps, including the publication of an annual report. I listened with amusement to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst--it is always worth listening to his thoughts--on the subject of annual reports; to be honest, I recognised the picture he drew of them. However, some critical analysis of the views of the children of our country about the services that they enjoy--their well-being, how services work and how effective they are--would be of value to us. Assembling the various items of information relating to children's services into one publication that we could all understand and read, and which we could monitor over a period of time, would be of assistance. I recognise that it could be said that we could collect all that information from a variety of other publications, but we would not then get the comparative picture or the total strategic vision that we require to consider how services for children operate.
I do not take the dismissive view of the UN convention--or, indeed, of all UN conventions--held by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. I heard his remarks about foreigners. I presume that there are no foreigners in Bromley and Chislehurst. If there are, we can assume only that the right hon. Gentleman does not feel the need to listen too hard to their opinions. Clearly, they do not have votes; except in local elections, obviously, if they are citizens of the EU or of Ireland. We note his thoughts on that.
I believe that if Her Majesty's Government sign up to a convention, they do not do so because they would look like the bad guys of the world if they did not. I believe that they are demonstrating some degree of commitment to those goals. We have an obligation to try to live up to the commitments that we have made--and, dare I say it, the commitments that we have encouraged others to make.
I take the view that other countries look carefully at the record of this country and of its Ministers and attempt to listen to what we have to say. If we make commitments, they look to us to keep them--just as we would expect others to keep to commitments that we had encouraged them to make. It is reasonable for us to take those responsibilities seriously.
The commissioner is to be given investigatory powers. Some valid points were made by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst about how those should be exercised, with what brief and with what limits. It may surprise the right hon. Gentleman, but I listened with interest and agreement to some of his thoughts about risk,
The last issue is the joining-up of the arms of government. We have not heard my hon. Friend the Minister yet, and I am sure that he will give a thoughtful response. However, one of the defences offered in this matter is to say that all these activities are currently carried out by various arms of government; why do we need another agency to seek to force others to do what they are supposed to be doing themselves? There are already people who are supposed to be doing that work, including councillors or Members of Parliament, through their influence on Government. Why do we need a commissioner--an unelected individual--to do that task?
My answer is based on four years of experience here, but perhaps just as significantly, on my years of experience as an ordinary citizen, a councillor and a business man. Our civil service structure and the mechanism of government in our country is not focused on the needs of individual citizens of groups of citizens, in this case, children. Instead, it tends to be internally focused and driven by the agenda of a particular Department and its strategies. That produces lacunae--areas that we miss and do not explore, or weak areas where two or three public agencies consistently fail to produce a joint response.
The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst made a legitimate remark about the handling of the foot and mouth crisis, which could also apply to this area. It is difficult to get various public agencies to join together to defeat a common enemy. We should think carefully about strategies to deal with that inadequacy, and not merely dismiss the problem and say that nothing can be done and that we will have to live with the fact of departmental silos into which matters of public policy conveniently fit. We should not say that if citizens have to deal with an issue that crosses several Departments that is their hard luck, and that we must live with the gaps. That lack of interest in the delivery of modern government services serves us ill.
I have been asked where I think we are failing. I shall pick three examples where it strikes me that services to children are imperfect, and which require joined-up thinking and the actions of an individual to prompt that process. The first example is the children of travellers. I have two legal sites for travellers in my constituency, although other, less welcome individuals sometimes use them. The difficulty of ensuring that the children have access to appropriate health care, education and social services support is a challenge for any agency, especially as they may move on to another part of the country in pursuit of their legal activities. I believe that we currently carry out that task imperfectly.
The second example is the children of asylum seekers. It is unfashionable to be sympathetic towards that group. In rare cases, children are themselves asylum seekers. Do we respond adequately by providing them with timely advice and support, placing them in circumstances in which we would expect our own children to be placed if
The third example is children who are forced to leave the parental home at the age of 15 or 16, and have to live off their wits. They have to find accommodation and deal with the benefits system, which discriminates against young people in delivering their housing needs, in order to bias their choice in favour of staying at home with their parents. I would want that always to be the choice of any child, especially my own child, but we must face the fact that in extreme circumstances children leave the family home out of fear and out of a need to find a comfortable and safe place to go. We are currently failing those young people, and have not yet worked out the appropriate benefits system and housing obligations to respond to their needs.
I thought of those three examples while I was listening with care to the right hon. Gentleman's speech. I did not spend a great deal of time researching them, but they struck me when I considered what I would ask the commissioner to address at an early stage in his task.
I do not think that our public services act with a unity of purpose focused on a particular citizen or group. They tend to neglect those who are powerless, including children, who are unrepresented and have no vote. It is part of our culture that children's interests should be reflected through the interests of their parents, but we must recognise that that sometimes fails children.
We have an opportunity to take a step that would help children to have their voices heard. I have listened carefully to the points made about children not being entitled to vote or undertake various forms of activity. It is suggested that society therefore regards children as unable freely to exercise choice, and that is an understandable argument. Any opinion offered by a child must be taken in the context in which it is given; I listen carefully to the views of my eight-year-old, but I do not expect him to be able to advise me on complicated technical subjects.
I expect the commissioner to edge society's attitudes to children towards a willingness to listen, when appropriate, to what children have to say. He or she should link the arms of our Government more efficiently so that we can better deliver support. Our experience could lead us to emulate the other nations of the United Kingdom in taking that step. I shall listen with interest to the Minister's response to the legitimate view that what appears to be right for the other nations appears to be wrong for England. The logic of that argument loses me entirely, although the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst would doubtless tell me that the other nations have simply taken the wrong decision. Those actions have been taken elsewhere, by my party in Scotland and by the Government themselves in Wales. I should be interested to hear how that apparent inconsistency is addressed.