Children Bill [Lords]

– in a Public Bill Committee am ar 12 Hydref 2004.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children) 9:25, 12 Hydref 2004

I beg to move

That—

(1) during proceedings on the Children Bill [Lords] the Standing Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting on Tuesday 12th October at 9.25 am) meet on—

(a) Tuesday 12th October at 2.30 pm,

(b) Thursday 14th October at 8.55 am and 2.30pm,

(c) Tuesday 19th October at 8.55 am and 2.30 pm,

(d) Thursday 21st October at 8.55 am and 2.30 pm.

(2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following Order—

Clause 1, Schedule 1, Clauses 2 to 14, Schedule 2, Clauses 15 to 34, Schedule 3, Clauses 35 to 41, Schedule 4, Clauses 42 to 56, New Clauses and new Schedules, Remaining proceedings on the Bill.

(3) the proceedings on the Bill shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 5.00 pm on Thursday 21st October.

I am delighted, Mr. Benton, that we shall be serving under your fair, calm, sagacious and good-humoured chairmanship, and we look forward to long debates. I worked with you as a member of the Select Committee on Education and Employment, and we had some good visits—I remember our visit to Switzerland. I know you to be a fair and honest chairman, and I am sure that all of us on the Committee look forward to working with you.

Several members of the Committee have expertise in the issues before us. I am particularly delighted to see the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) opposite me; he has probably sat through more children's Bills than any other member of the Committee. He will undoubtedly bring the experience of his past deliberations to bear on the detail of the Bill. I am also delighted that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) is speaking on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. I noticed, looking through her CV yesterday, that she and I attended the same university; I am sure that she got more out of it than I did, although I certainly had a good time there, and remember it with joy.

Many members of the Committee have extensive experience of children's issues, and spent time in their professional lives before joining the House working with children in a number of ways. I should particularly like to draw attention to my Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn), who has done absolutely sterling work in supporting me, and whose experience in social services I value enormously. She always brings a pragmatic and practical element to our formal discussions about difficult policy decisions. I should also like to draw attention to my hon. Friend

the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), for whom this will be a great moment in his time as a Member of Parliament. We shall miss him when he goes. We were saying before he arrived in the Committee Room that so cleverly has he tabled his amendments that he will find himself moving the lead amendment in many of the groups, so he will have the opportunity to open and close debates on issues that are of concern to him.

The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) also have experience of working in social care. The hon. Members for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) and for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) have spent time in teaching, which is relevant to what we will be discussing.

In common with several members of the Committee, I grew impatient as this small but very important Bill wended its way through the House of Lords. It now comes to the Commons for our input, and all hon. Members look forward to making it the landmark Bill that I believe it will be. When our successors reflect on the measure, I think that they will recognise, as I have said elsewhere, that it provides the legislative spine on which we can build a complete transformation of children's services, thereby securing a step change in outcomes, not just for some children but for every child. Hon. Members are anxious to debate some vital issues, and I look forward to our discussions being constructive and good-humoured.

I am genuinely grateful for the support for the Bill from Members on both sides of the House. To date, the debate has been very constructive and extremely helpful. I hope that hon. Members will agree that many of the amendments made in the House of Lords, and others which will be debated in Committee, reflect our response to the concerns and priorities that have been expressed across the political spectrum.

The amendments that I have tabled will deliver further on the commitments that we made in the House of Lords. Hon. Members are inundated with bits of paper and I apologise to the Committee for having been unable to table the amendments before the recess. However, I hope that all Committee members received copies before the end of last week and that they have been able to reflect on them.

I look forward to a constructive debate that will lead to momentous change of which I hope we will all be proud when, in years to come, we reflect on our time in the House of Commons.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Without repeating the Minister's superlatives in appearing to buy your favours, Mr. Benton, I echo her sentiments in saying how delighted I am to serve under your chairmanship, which I have not done before.

As the right hon. Lady said, this important Bill, which has cross-party support, provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get the legislation right, in the interests of all children. I echo her comments that the constructive engagement of hon. Members on both sides of this House and the House of Lords will help to get the measure right.

I will not give a profile of every member of the Committee, but I am delighted to have the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), who has considerable knowledge of family matters and who speaks for our party on women's affairs. Other colleagues, too, have participated in debates on the Bill.

I agree with the Minister's comments that we will miss the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre enormously. He never shirks from balancing his comments about why measures are appropriate and should be supported with attacks on the past record of the Conservatives, and, especially, on my approach to matters; no doubt he will make similar contributions in his swansong in the coming days. He brings enormous knowledge to the House from his previous experience and from his activities with the all-party children's group, which has been so engaged in the Bill.

On the programming resolution, we are concerned about the length of time that has been allocated to the Bill. We would have liked more Committee sittings, particularly as the number of amendments and new clauses to consider has mushroomed in the past few days. I take the Minister's points about that, and she was good enough to contact me last week ahead of tabling the amendments, but the Government have tabled 13 new clauses, one new schedule and at least 55 new amendments, and it is a shame that we will not have more time to consider them. The outside bodies that are interested in the Bill and have engaged in its development, of which there are many, have also been given little time to respond.

I remind the Committee that the Lords started their Committee consideration on 4 May—some five months ago—so the Government have had a lot of time. I am also not aware that we have had new explanatory notes for any of the new clauses. The notes that accompany the Bill are dated 19 July, which was when the Bill received its First Reading in the Commons. There have been no new explanatory notes other than the rough description of the amendments that accompanied the Minister's letter to the Committee, and we have had no formal notes going into the detail of what some of the new clauses, in particular, will involve. I hope that as the Committee progresses, the Minister will as a matter of urgency provide us with more detailed notes on the amendments, so that we can consider them properly.

We tabled our amendments after Second Reading back in September, which has given the Government plenty of time to consider them. It has also allowed other Committee members to see what other amendments might need to be tabled and, in many cases, to add their names to our amendments. I might say therefore that we have been better prepared. I am concerned that we will not have sufficient time to consider many of the long-standing amendments that we and other Members have tabled to reflect some outstanding concerns of the upper House. Furthermore, I do not think that I have served on a Bill Committee that has had to consider so many new clauses. I hope that in the confines of the time available, there will be sufficient time to discuss them.

I am concerned also about clause 2, which we are due to debate later this morning. Clause 2 was completely revised in the House of Lords with all-party support. We agreed that the new version strengthened enormously the role of the Children's Commissioner, which was much more in keeping with the original intentions of Ministers, the Green Paper and all who want to see enhanced protection. It is a great sadness that the commissioner's powers are to be diluted again by a series of Government amendments.

Given the timings, it is also strange that the Government tabled a range of amendments on clause 2, when a more efficient way would surely have been to delete clause 2 and replace it with a new one. They seem to have tabled the amendments to mask the fact that they are destroying the clause, because in fact they will completely undermine the improvements made in the upper House. It is a retrograde step and has been described as creating a commissioner who will have the fewest teeth of all those in the United Kingdom and as one who will be all ears but no teeth.

We also have serious questions about the relationship between the England/UK commissioner and the other commissioners for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We want clarification of how they will work, which may take up a lot of time in Committee. Another big subject on which we hope the Minister will provide far more detail is clause 9 and the database and information sharing. I believe that the provisions are a mess, and we will elaborate on that in speaking to our amendments and those tabled by other Members. It is clear that the Government have not completed their thinking. The Minister said that she hoped that further amendments to clarify the detail of regulations would be available by the Committee stage, but it is one of the few clauses on which the swamp of new amendments tabled by the Government last week has no effect. We want much more reassurance from the Minister before we can agree to clause 9. I know that other members of the Committee share those concerns.

There are many other issues to be raised, but I shall not go into the detail of them now, because we want to get on with the debate on individual clauses. However, I am slightly confused by the ordering of the amendments, although I am sure that that has been done quite properly and with extraordinary logic by the Clerks responsible for the Bill. I am not entirely sure, for example, why an amendment that I tabled to the last clause will be considered in relation to clause 1.

Last night, I embarked on what I thought would be an easy exercise of marking out who was responsible for which amendment. However, it required all my highlighter pens to come up with a colour-coded chart of who does what, and I am still baffled by the matter. I hope, Mr. Benton, that you will take the proceedings gently, or you may end up being as confused as some of the other members of the Committee. On second thoughts, however, I am sure that you will not, because otherwise you would not have been selected as Chairman of this august Committee.

I end by reiterating something that I said on Second Reading. The Bill is worth while, and it is a suitable response to the Victoria Climbie tragedy and to all the other tragedies that we are aware of, but which do not receive such a high profile. We all want to see many important measures in the Bill enacted as soon as possible. However, I fear that during the Bill's consideration in the House of Lords the overriding concern of the media and the outside world was the issue of smacking. Smacking is an important subject, on which we all have different views. The Conservatives have allowed a free vote on the matter, so we do not experience the same problems as other parties, but it is an important issue that was not originally in the Bill. I fear that the subject will completely overshadow and dominate all our proceedings on Report, but I am relieved that it has not entered into the Committee stage, thereby giving us more time to consider the important details of the Bill. I hope that hon. Members will respect that, and will not try to sneak in amendments during the Committee proceedings which could sidetrack our deliberations.

I look forward to considering the Bill. We must get it right, and we shall engage constructively and positively with other members of the Committee to ensure that the Bill that leaves the Committee is an improved version of the one—already greatly improved in another place—that came to it. I believe that we can improve it still further.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I, too, Mr. Benton, welcome you to the chairmanship of this important Committee. I also apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams); hon. Members may have noticed that he has secured an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall, and is currently speaking there. He will participate fully later sittings.

We, too, want to place on record our wish to make a constructive contribution to this important Bill. We welcome the Bill and have much to say about it, although I shall not go into detail because there will be plenty of time to do so later in our discussions. Our greatest disappointment concerns the amendment tabled by the Government which reverses the tremendous improvements made in the House of Lords. We will therefore dwell on that amendment at great length, and I hope that we will have a good debate on the basic principles as well as the details.

I, too, am looking forward to working on the Committee with people who have such a wide range of relevant skills to contribute. I often tell people that one of my most enjoyable parliamentary experiences was considering the Sexual Offences Bill, which raises a few eyebrows in my constituency. Some hon. Members present also served on the Committee scrutinising that Bill and we had some excellent debates. One left that Committee feeling that one was making a real contribution to the future of our society. I hope that we

will all walk away from this Committee knowing that we have done something positive for the start of the century.

I share the concerns about lack of time. I hope that, throughout the proceedings, we will be able to assess the progress that is being made. No one is here to waste time or to prevent us getting through the business. There is a genuine commitment to make progress, but many issues need detailed consideration during the debate. That is our one caveat this morning; otherwise we look forward to constructive debates.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Llafur, Bootle 9:45, 12 Hydref 2004

May I remind the Committee that a money resolution is connected to the Bill? Copies are available in the Room.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

I want to clarify that for the remaining morning sessions of the Committee, we will meet at 8.55 am. Is that on the programme resolution?

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Llafur, Bootle

Yes. It is included. I can confirm that that will be the future starting time. I should also remind hon. Members that adequate notice should be given of amendments. As a general rule I do not intend to call starred amendments, including any starred amendments that may be reached during an afternoon sitting of the Committee. I also remind hon. Members to switch off their mobile phones.Clause 1 Establishment