Clause 2 - Membership of the Commission

Children Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 8:55 am ar 14 Hydref 2004.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children) 8:55, 14 Hydref 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in

clause 2, page 2, line 31, leave out subsection (7).

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Llafur, Bootle

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 130, in

clause 2, page 2, line 32, after 'is', insert 'desirous of but'.

No. 131, in

clause 2, page 2, line 34, at end insert—

'(7A) Nothing in subsection (7) shall permit assistance to be provided in actions against a responsible adult.

(7B) For the purposes of this Part, ''responsible adult'' includes—

(a) a person having parental responsibility for that child;

(b) a teacher of the child;

(c) any other employee of the child's school;

(d) a person working, whether as a volunteer or employee, for any voluntary organisation of which the child is a member;

(e) the child's social worker; or

(f) such other natural person in a class designated by order, subject to the negative resolution procedure, by the Secretary of State.'.

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

I tabled amendment No. 1, to delete subsection (7), which would empower the commissioner to provide assistance to a child to bring legal proceedings. The subsection is the result of an Opposition amendment tabled in the other place.

We have had a lot of discussion on the issue, Mr. Benton, and you will know that we want the commissioner to have a strategic role in achieving the outcomes that children have defined as important to them, and in ensuring that the system works for children as a whole, rather than making the commissioner spend time on individual cases.

I assure those members of the Committee who may be concerned about what it will mean for individual children that a range of bodies can already provide representation for children, including the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. The Official Solicitor also provides support for children. It makes no sense to duplicate those roles. Deleting subsection (7) does not prevent the commissioner, if called on, from acting as a witness in court proceedings. As part of his general clause 2 functions, he will still be able to look into complaints to ensure that the systems work effectively and are child-friendly.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) tabled amendments Nos. 130 and 131, but I hope that he will agree that if our amendment is adopted his will become unnecessary.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

May I correct the Minister on one thing? I tabled the amendment, and she has hijacked it. It has never happened to me before. Government amendment No. 1, and several others that my hon. Friends and I tabled within minutes of Second Reading now magically have her name at the top. I am delighted to do all the hard work, and for her to take the credit. However, we may have different reasons for supporting the amendment.

Subsection (7) came about as the result of a comprehensive, cross-party revision to clause 2 in the other place. I do not think that it was singled out as a particular addition, but it was agreed on all sides. However, it was added in the interests of putting together an all-encompassing alternative to the clause, to beef up the role of the commissioner—a matter on which we will continue to talk.

I have some problems with subsection (7), but for different reasons than the Minister. I originally tabled the amendment as a probing amendment. I do not seek to take away the right of children to be able to turn to the Children's Commissioner for legal redress as a last resort if their interests are not properly being taken into account—for instance, if a social worker has not been appointed to a looked-after child, or a child's educational entitlements are not being provided for.

The intention behind the subsection is that children whose rights and entitlements are being neglected can ask the commissioner to start legal action to institute those entitlements. That is absolutely right, and I have no problem with it. It will be of some reassurance if the Minister is saying that that can be provided by other means, although the mention of CAFCASS does not fill me with great confidence, as she knows.

I am concerned that the subsection could be used in a vexatious way by a young person seeking to cause annoyance to a parent or, more likely, a teacher. The child could seek legal redress through the commissioner to pursue an unjust legal case because of some vendetta. I am sure that it would happen only in extreme circumstances, but the wording of the subsection could give succour to a person wanting to bring such a vexatious complaint; it would entitle the child to the support and resources of the Children's Commissioner to undertake such action.

That is the only reason why I challenge the inclusion of subsection (7). I do it for different reasons than the Minister, but if she can give me some reassurance that that could not happen, I would be happy to withdraw my amendment—although I cannot, as it is now her amendment, and she will press on with it, which confuses the whole picture.

That is why I and my hon. Friends tabled the amendment, and I would be interested in the Minister's response.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

I am opposed to my right hon. Friend's proposal, for what I think are good reasons. I shall try out an example in order to hear her response.

The Children's Commissioner will be undertaking all sorts of work on policy issues relating to children. My right hon. Friend suggested on Tuesday that it would be important to consider the position of young people in custody. The Bill already allows the commissioner to take up individual cases that raise issues of public policy. It already gives the commissioner the important opportunity to enter premises and talk to a child in private, if that is what the child wishes. It is therefore entirely possible that, when undertaking an inquiry into the position of children in prison, the commissioner will visit a young offenders institution. He may see a child in private and it may become plain that the child is suicidal.

I have it on good authority that there are suicidal and extremely distressed children in young offenders institutions as we sit here today, and the commissioner is highly likely to come across them. They have often not been well represented; their best interests have certainly not been taken into account in criminal justice proceedings, and there may well be a case for the commissioner to initiate urgent legal proceedings on behalf of individual children. The commissioner might want to seek an emergency protection order or judicial review, or instigate a review of a child's sentence. There may be many other avenues that he could pursue, and he would often want to do so in partnership with the child, the child's parents and legal advisers, CAFCASS and many other bodies. However, the commissioner will need a residual right to bring legal proceedings to assist that individual child in those individual circumstances. What my right hon. Friend suggests is not only a terrible diminution of the commissioner's powers, which the other place

wisely established in statute, but a dangerous step. At its heart, subsection (7) is a child protection measure, and we should keep it in the Bill.

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

I, too, rise to speak against the amendment. As Baroness Walmsley so forcefully said in the other place, subsection (7) is a measure of last resort, and we are talking, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) said so movingly, about the most vulnerable children. The wording of the Bill may not be perfect, but the reference to situations

''where the child is unable to bring legal proceedings'' is fairly clear, and I cannot see it opening the floodgates to many individual cases.

On the comments made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), we are all concerned about vexatious cases. As a former teacher, I am always distressed when people suggest bringing cases because GCSE results have not been as high as expected, but I do not think that we are talking about such cases. We are looking to appoint a special person with defined powers, and subsection (7) goes on to say that the commissioner may provide assistance where

''it appears to the Commissioner reasonable to do so''.

Will that wording not close the gate on vexatious complaints? If the Government do not think that it would be strong enough to do so, I would prefer them to consider strengthening it.

I can only emphasise that the safety net in subsection (7) is one of the most important in the Bill, particularly in the light of such tragic suicide cases. Such cases reflect on us all, given that they are happening in our secure institutions and other places. The words in the Bill may not be quite right and may need strengthening, but I urge the Government to remember that that safety net is very important.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I tabled amendments Nos. 130 and 131 because I wanted to introduce exactly the kind of additional clarity that the hon. Lady mentioned. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that the clause is quite wide. I also broadly agree with the Minister: she says that there are additional means of redress for individuals in such circumstances, and there certainly may be. The problem, of course, is that such means of redress are sometimes not very quick. For example, taking a local authority to an ombudsman does not necessarily provide a remedy. In my constituency, an ombudsman case against the local authority was won by my constituents in the last century, and has still not been resolved by the local authority to the satisfaction of those residents.

We are talking about children having access to an additional means of legal redress, but—and this is my concern—parents and professionals have a difficult job as it is, and I do not wish to see that job made more difficult. That is why I have tabled the amendments in such a form. Amendment No. 131 would prevent assistance being given in actions against individuals, while permitting actions against authorities—a

reasonable balance to draw. Amendment No. 130 states that the child has to be desirous of the course of action pursued, which is also a reasonable requirement.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer PPS (Team PPS), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I want to express some sympathy with the general objectives of the clause as it stands, although I plan to vote for the amendment. The difficulty seems to be that if we open the possibility of the commissioner intervening in individual cases in this way, we will not get the rapid response to which the hon. Gentleman referred. On the contrary, we will have to equip the commissioner with a large staff to deal with cases in a way that will duplicate the methods of other bodies, which would probably not be in the child's interests.

I would have some sympathy with the provision of some kind of opportunity for the commissioner to intervene in cases where he or she considers it to be in the public interest and feels that there has been a systemic breakdown. However, I do not see that in the clause as it stands, and I plan to support the amendment.

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

Let me deal with what the commissioner can do, because I hope that that will give some comfort to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) and others. The commissioner can and will look at complaints systems, so that if, in the course of his work, he finds that a particular system is not working in the interests of children in general—that will come out of specific cases—he can make appropriate recommendations. Where there is systemic failure, one would expect him to review the workings of a particular complaints mechanism.

Listening hard to the views expressed by Members in the House of Lords, we introduced clause 4, which will give the commissioner the power to pursue an individual case where he believes that that case has wider public policy ramifications and to pursue it would not be duplicating work done elsewhere. In such particular instances, there are sufficient safeguards in the system so that if systems are failing, or a case emerges with wider public interests, the commissioner will be able to intervene.

I come to the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre and the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke). The matter goes to the heart of where we may disagree. We are establishing a commissioner whose prime purpose will be not the policing of individual complaints but to consider all areas of interest to children across the public, private and voluntary sectors, and central and local government, to see whether children's interests are promoted in relation to the five outcomes that we have translated into a legislative form in the Bill.

The commissioner is not a repository of last resort. We deliberately set the Bill up so that he or she did not fulfil that function. Again, I will take the hon. Lady's example of the suicide cases. The Bill's purpose is to provide what I describe as the legislative spine to ensure that those working with children work better

together around the needs of the child and intervene earlier. Time will tell how well the Bill and other reforms work, but if we are successful, one result will be fewer suicides and tragedies such as those that have occurred in the past. That is the purpose of what we are doing. It is a question not of investigating or acting when there have been suicides but of providing the infrastructure to ensure that they do not occur.

I want now to deal with the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre. I recently visited Feltham because of a discussion about whether an additional service should be provided to the young offenders held there. The thing that struck me in my visit was that many of the young people there have a huge range of professionals concerned with them. Each young person probably has an educational welfare officer, because they have probably truanted. They may have a drug problem so someone from a drug action team may be working with them. Someone from the youth justice system will certainly work them, as might someone from the education service. They probably also have a social worker because they are in care or at risk or there is a potential for harm.

It is not a question of there not being sufficient professionals already working with such children with the purpose of protecting them and promoting their best interests. Adding yet another layer and yet another individual with those responsibilities will not improve the quality of the work that is undertaken by the existing professionals working with those young people. We should put our focus on the existing professionals to ensure that tragedies do not occur, not simply add another layer.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre 9:15, 14 Hydref 2004

I accept everything that my right hon. Friend says. Of course a wide variety of professionals work with young people in young offenders institutions. However, as she could check today with the chair of the Youth Justice Board, the fact is that some young people within the youth justice system fall into the gaps between the Prison Service, the health service and social services. There are exceptionally needy children in those situations, and they are precisely the children whose sometimes extremely complex needs are not met. That is why we need a power in the Bill as expressed in subsection (7).

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

I have huge respect for my hon. Friend, but I disagree with that. The purpose of the powers that we are putting in clauses 7 and 8 is precisely to strengthen the co-operation between all the professionals working with children and young people and to strengthen the duties placed on them. It is that that should better prevent young people from falling through the net. It will not always do that, but it will work better than simply saying that there is final recourse to yet another system.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Is not the problem that so many professionals are involved but no individual takes responsibility? Is the right hon. Lady clear that an individual professional is taking lead responsibility for a child in such circumstances?

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

There appears to be a consensus here. One problem is that in many past instances there has not been a lead professional. There are several elements of the reforms, and two are relevant in this case. First, we should try to develop a common assessment framework so that all professionals who work with a child or young person do so within the same context and with the same information—specialist information if necessary. Secondly, there ought to be a lead professional for each child or young person with needs. Those are two elements of our reform agenda that are not necessarily encompassed in legislation but that I have often spoken about in the past.

We are discussing with local authorities and other agencies situations in which, as the hon. Gentleman said, it would be better to have a lead professional. I always give the example of a recent case when I visited in her home an eight or nine-year-old girl with severe physical disabilities. She was being educated in a mainstream school, and much of the system was working well for her, but her mother told me that she had had 18 separate assessments—18 different people had come to see her in the previous three months. The mother, who was her main carer, was spending more time managing the assessments and the professionals than focusing on the most important thing, which is supporting her young child.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I am very grateful for that response, but one problem is that that leadership role of a single individual is not, as the Minister says, in the Bill.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I am clear that an individual can take responsibility despite the fact that it is not a legal requirement, but I am not sure how they can be required to do so.

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

We are placing in the framework of the Bill duties to co-operate and to protect and safeguard. The Bill will also require local authorities to establish the new post of director of children's services to bring together services in local government that meet children's needs. We are developing a common assessment framework for those who work with children to use. When we—

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Llafur, Bootle

Order. I suggest to the Minister that we are moving into the territory of social services. Can I try and bring the debate back to subsection (7)?

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

You are absolutely correct, Mr. Benton. I will be happy to pursue that conversation with the hon. Gentleman outside the Committee if he shows an interest.

May I deal with the issue of vexatious complaints? One cannot assess what is a legitimate or a vexatious complaint until it has been made and considered. As hon. Members will be aware, if a complaint proves to be vexatious, it can be struck out during the complaints process or legal and judicial processes. There is no way of legislating to prevent vexatious complaints without intervening in the right of individuals to pursue complaints that could be

legitimate. In all instances, we are trying to find proper and appropriate support for professionals involved and to speed up the system so that distress and anxiety are mitigated as much as possible. It is difficult to balance the right of individuals to pursue complaints with the fact that a few individuals will abuse that right and pursue vexatious complaints.

I hope that the Government amendment can be agreed and the others can be left.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 14, Noes 3.

Rhif adran 3 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 2 - Membership of the Commission

Ie: 14 MPs

Na: 3 MPs

Ie: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Na: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Question accordingly agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 173, in

clause 2, page 2, line 36, leave out 'rights and'.—[Margaret Hodge.]

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

I beg to move amendment No. 56, in

clause 2, page 2, line 41, leave out from '1989' to end of line 43.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Llafur, Bootle

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 8—Promotion of awareness of UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

'Each Children's Service Authority in England must make arrangements to ensure that the principles and provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child are widely known to—

(a) members and staff of the authority;

(b) members and staff of the authority's relevant partners; and

(c) all children and parents living within the authority's area.'.

New clause 13—Consistency of legislation with the UNCRC and children's well-being—

'(1) A Minister of the Crown in charge of a Bill in either House of Parliament must, before Second Reading of the Bill—

(a) make a statement to the effect that the provisions of the Bill have been assessed for their compatibility with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and their contribution to the well-being of children, relating to the aspects specified in subsection (7)(a) to (e), and that, in his view, the provisions of the Bill do not act to the detriment of any child or group of children in respect of those aspects; and

(b) make available in each Library of the Houses of Parliament a copy of the assessment made under subsection (1)(a), or

(c) make a statement to the effect that although he is unable to make a statement under subsection (1)(a) the Government nevertheless wishes the House to proceed with the Bill.

(2) The statement must be in writing and be published in such manner as the Minister making it considers appropriate.

(3) For the purposes of subsection (1)(a), the aspects of children's well-being are—

(a) physical and mental health;

(b) protection from harm and neglect;

(c) education training and recreation;

(d) the contribution made by them to society;

(e) emotional, social and economic well-being.'.

New clause 15—Children's services in Wales: principles—

'In the delivery of children's services in Wales, Children's Services Authorities and their relevant partners specified in section 21 shall have regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.'.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

The amendment is designed to make the point that the Children's Commissioner should concern himself with the whole of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child rather than the abbreviated version to which, unfortunately, successive United Kingdom Governments have subscribed. To this day, the Government maintain two reservations with regard to the convention: in respect of immigration and citizenship, and in respect of children in the criminal justice system. Such children are plainly without the remit of the Minister for Children, Young People and Families.

By any measure, we must agree that children who are subject to immigration legislation and those within the criminal justice system—tragically, during the summer, we experienced the death of the youngest person in modern penal history—are among the most vulnerable in society. Scandalously, this House has recently agreed that children of failed asylum seekers can be made destitute. It is imperative that the Children's Commissioner should have a fundamental role in relation to children in respect of whom the Government have withdrawn from the United Nations convention on the rights of the child.

New clause 8 simply stipulates that the work should be done by more than just one person in this country. We have had a lot of discussion about the fact that the Children's Commissioner should not be obliged to take on roles that should be fulfilled by other bodies. If this country takes the United Nations convention on the rights of the child as seriously as it should do, it should ensure that children's services authorities promote the convention to children, parents and their own staff.

The United Nations convention is a vital tool in assisting people to work with children, and in cases in which people within public bodies feel that they are not serving children well—they are unhappy about the policy that they have been required to follow or the actions of others, perhaps superiors, in their workplaces—it can be a vital comfort and support. It can encourage them to assert the rights of children and to blow the whistle when something goes wrong. I can see nothing wrong with promoting the convention. In fact, article 42 of the convention requires that the Government should promote it much more widely, rather than saying that one person in the country must have regard to it.

Finally, the Bill, like all others, contains a statement on the front about the impact in terms of the Human Rights Act 1998. It is extremely important that Parliament considers the impact of every Bill on children, whatever it is. One might think, on the face of it, that some Bills had very little to do with the rights of children, but those are precisely the measures that serve children's needs and interests particularly badly. I do not know how often children's rights and interests are raised in discussions on planning and transport legislation. However, such matters are fundamentally important in a country where more children die on the roads than from any other cause, and where children are so often excluded from public provision and play space and ignored in the planning of new housing estates and developments in our towns and cities.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 9:30, 14 Hydref 2004

I support the amendment and the new clauses, but there are two issues. The amendment is significant, because removing the reservations in question will amount to a statement from the Government that every child does matter. We have rehearsed many times the arguments about the tragedy of how we treat the children of some immigrants and asylum seekers, and children in custody generally. I would like the Minister to consider the matter seriously.

My second point is about the impact statement about children in all legislation. Again, we have a real opportunity here. The issue does not cross over into the rights agenda, in the way that I know concerns the Minister, but the proposals would put the interests of children—not necessarily the rights—at the heart of government.

Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Llafur, Gogledd Caerdydd

I have a great deal of sympathy with the amendment, which concerns the most vulnerable children in society. Having recently met asylum seekers in Cardiff who fall outside the remit of the welfare state, I am enormously concerned about the children who are being left in such a vulnerable situation. I hope that when my right hon. Friend replies, she will say why she, the Minister responsible for children, has been unable to address the needs of such vulnerable children.

On new clause 15, we have already discussed the UNCRC, so I do not propose to go into that in detail. The purpose of the new clause is to place an obligation on all public services and local authorities in Wales to show that they are working in accordance with the convention, which is important. The UK and Wales have already signed up—Westminster is a signatory and the Assembly has passed a resolution binding itself to the convention. The purpose of the new clause is to introduce, clearly and directly, the same obligation for local authorities and other bodies. I am sure that all local authorities would say that they had regard to the convention, but putting that requirement in the Bill would give users the comfort of legislative force.

The same change was proposed in the Lords by Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, who is my constituent. She withdrew the amendment because she was assured that the Government were in discussion with the

Assembly over the practical implications of the Assembly's stated policy of translating the UNCRC into several core policy aims. Will my right hon. Friend update us on the progress of those discussions? Some fairly complex legal issues are involved but the aim of the new clause is to highlight how important it is for this matter to be in the Bill.

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

I want to emphasise that, despite what my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre thinks, the Government are committed to the aims and the principles of the UN convention. I hope that he would agree that our acceptance of the amendment in the House of Lords that the Children's Commissioner must, rather than may, have regard to the UNCRC demonstrates our support for the convention as a framework for the commissioner's operations.

The National Assembly for Wales, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) pointed out, fully recognises the importance of the UNCRC and has formally adopted the convention as the basis for all its work for children and young people. It has translated the convention rights into seven core aims to act as a basis for planning, for setting priorities and for developing measures of the impact of service provision.

Amendment No. 56 is a standard legal statement, which describes the legal position as it is. Any reference to the UNCRC in UK legislation must be subject to the way in which it is interpreted and accepted in this country. The wording of subsection (9) is therefore essential, but does not constrain any developments in the UK position and leaves the situation totally flexible. Were our reservations to be lifted at some future date, the current wording of subsection (9) could still stand.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

Does the part of the clause that I seek to delete in any way constrain the work of the Children's Commissioner?

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

The commissioner, in having regard to the UNCRC, would have regard to it with the reservations that are in place in the UK. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North, I have many asylum-seeking families in my constituency. A family in this country is covered by all the Children Act provisions and will be protected and safeguarded by all the provisions in the Bill. The question about immigration here is how the authorities implement immigration legislation and what is the prime function and purpose of that role. That does not in any way diminish the power of the authorities and the duties of social services departments and others in the UK to implement the Children Act as it stands and this Bill when it is enacted.

On new clause 8, we are keen for children and those who care for them to learn about the convention. We have therefore created a departmental website to inform children of their rights under the convention, which we hope will soon be operational. If children's

services authorities choose to do something similar, so much the better. As I have said before, the aim of the Bill is to focus on outcomes, not rights.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre will accept that the tragedies that led to the Laming inquiry and hence to this Bill were invariably due to systemic failure and not to a lack of knowledge of rights. Although we would encourage awareness of rights, I do not think that it should have a statutory basis. We do not want the focus to shift from concern about the principles. We want those who work with children to focus on processes and outcomes.

On new clause 13, Ministers are required to state that legislation is compatible with the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporates the European convention on human rights into UK law. Children and young people are therefore already covered by that assurance, so the requirement to comply with the 1998 Act covers the childproofing element of all our legislation. Both my job and the task of the commissioner, once that post is established, is to provide further assurance that legislation on planning, housing or whatever has the interests of children at heart.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North, who tabled new clause 15, knows that we are working with the Assembly to find a way of writing that into the Bill. The Assembly, however, has yet to find a way in which they can change the law so that it would work in practice. The policy is utterly devolved, so it is totally open to the Assembly to come back to us, which it can do even on Report if it manages to devise a mechanism. We would then willingly incorporate the new clause into the Bill.

I therefore hope that Members will not press their amendments and new clauses to a vote.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

We have both clarified our positions, and in the interests of making progress, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed, No. 57, in

clause 2, page 2, line 44, leave out subsection (10).—[Margaret Hodge.]

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Llafur, Bootle

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendment No. 184.

Government new clause 31—Care leavers and young persons with learning disabilities.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

I support the amendment, or are the Government supporting my amendment? I am not sure who tabled it first. I support at least the initial amendment to remove subsection (10), simply because children are internationally defined as being under the age of 18. The Committee has spent a lot of time talking about the wide-ranging remit of the Children's Commissioner and trying not to duplicate the work of others. The amendment, however, seems to do precisely that. It is vital that the Children's Rights Director—a post that was established under the Care Standards Act 2000—has a role in relation to children and young adults who have left care.

Although the needs of young adults in prison are of enormous concern, they should not be dealt with by someone whose remit covers children. I am absolutely opposed to bringing young adults with learning disabilities back within the remit of the Children's Commissioner. That is an extraordinarily patronising thing to do. These people are adults, not children, and they should not be dealt with by the Children's Commissioner. There is a Disability Rights Commissioner. It is sometimes vital to tell young adults with learning disabilities that they are not children, but adults, and it is often important to reinforce that point to their parents. I see absolutely no reason to patronise, even demean, young adults with learning disabilities by including them within the remit of the Children's Commissioner.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children) 9:45, 14 Hydref 2004

Let me respond to the two issues. I shall deal first with children with learning disabilities. I had the privilege of being the Minister with responsibility for disabled people and spent some time taking through much of the legislation, of which this Labour Government are very proud. The reality for anyone working with children and young people with learning disabilities is that one of the key difficulties that they all face is the period of transition from children's to adult services. The whole purpose of the amendment is to support young people as they move into adulthood through those services. That involves everything from education, social care and housing.

I do not know what my hon. Friend's experience is, but there are young people in my constituency who find it extremely hard, for example, to move out of education in the school system to education in the adult system, because of the difficulties of finding placements. The amendment would provide support through that transition, when they may well still be accessing children's services; it is, interestingly enough, in order to promote the rights of young people with learning disabilities that we have deliberately included this in the Bill. It is incredibly important if we want to build a society where equality has meaning.

Amendment agreed to.

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

The reality of the matter is that the clause 2 that we shall end up with, courtesy of a good deal of Government amendments, is vastly different from the one we started with. It resembles more the clause that was in the Bill before its progress through the upper House. I cannot understand why the Government did not just delete the whole clause and submit a new one, rather than fiddling around with a load of little amendments. That appears to disguise the fact that they have completely emasculated the whole purpose of the strengthened clause 2, which had cross-party support in the upper House.

I do not know whether the officials are paid on the basis of the number of amendments that they are able to get the Minister to submit, but it is rather odd. What

we are left with seems to echo the comments made by the commissioner campaign co-ordinating group, which said:

''We are deeply concerned that the Government is reneging on its Green Paper promise to create 'a children's champion independent of Government'.''

That is the key consideration that we have had all along.

Let us now be clear about what has happened to the clause. It now leaves out rights; it is not about promoting rights, but about promoting awareness of views. As I described it, a glorified children's television presenter could, on the face of it, do the same job. Children will, in effect, have no rights in this Bill. It is a rights-light and rights-free Bill. Consider how patronising and feeble—the Minister should appreciate this—the Disability Rights Commission would appear if its general function were simply to promote awareness of the views of disabled people. The same would be true of the Commission for Racial Equality or the Equal Opportunities Commission.

The Minister has rightly mentioned her own role in relation to the Disability Rights Commission, and she might like to comment on that. We can argue over whether animals have rights, or whether we have duties towards their welfare, but surely that does not apply to children. The amendments have now diluted the review and report powers, removing the advocacy and whistleblowing arrangements that we debated earlier. The clause no longer beefs up the Children's Commissioner's obligations to make children aware that they can consult him. It restores the Government's limited checklist of what sort of children's views and interests—not rights—he can take notice of. It reinforces his inability to launch inquiries into individual cases, even when there are big implications for children generally. As the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre mentioned in his amendment, it weakens some of the UN convention considerations.

The ninth report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights states:

''Existing arrangements . . . are insufficiently independent from Government to ensure that the rights and interests of all children in England are fully protected'' and that

''independence is the key value that a Children's Commissioner would add to existing mechanisms.''

It also states that the Committee favours a commissioner who is

''independent from but working closely with central government and other agencies.''

Those extracts were also quoted in the House of Lords on 4 May 2004, at column 1039.

The Children's Commissioner is one tsar of whom we can approve, if he or she helps to protect and promote the welfare of children. In another place, Lord Elton used as an example Judge Stephen Tumim—the chief inspector of prisons who was a thorn in the Government's side. That is also the role of the Children's Commissioner if he or she thinks that the Government are not properly standing up for children. When the original version of the clause was debated in the Lords, the commissioner's role was

described as ''discriminatory'', ''castrated'', and a ''glorified public relations consultant''. The Government claim that it is what the children want, but I have seen no evidence of that.

In applying constructive opposition to parts of the Bill, particularly part 1, I have based our amendments and debate on five principles. They are that the commissioner should be independent of Government and a real children's champion; be powerful enough to do his job properly, regardless of the latest Government schemes or funding shortfalls; be fully engaged with children and young people, and have their confidence that he can do the job—Baroness Ashton of Upholland said that in the upper House on 4 May 2004, at column 1043; have a clear status in the context of other UK commissioners, agencies and other interested parties; and be accountable to all the above considerations. Those are the principles that we apply to the Children's Commissioner, but I fear that they are not met by the clause now that it has been completely rehashed and emasculated by the Government. On that basis, I urge hon. Members to vote against the clause.

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

We, too, will vote against the clause as amended. It is an enormous disappointment to many Members and, of course, to the wide range of organisations that supported the amendments in the Lords. A great deal of credit was given to the tremendous cross-party working that achieved a model for the type of commissioner that many people want.

It is clear from the debate that we have different lines of thinking that do not cross, so I will not speak at great length. I foresee that we will end up with a commissioner who will do many laudable things and produce wide-ranging reports, but that English children will not get the same service as Welsh children, whose rights will be given greater consideration. I am concerned that there will be a basic inequality between what English children and children in other parts of the UK can achieve through their commissioner.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

But the hon. Lady's party is an advocate not only of devolution in Wales and Scotland but of regional government. Surely she appreciates that one consequence of devolution is inequality of service delivery in different parts of the UK. I accept her line—although I think that she is wrong—that provisions in England should be the same, and that children in England should benefit from the same services, but I do not accept that inequality is an argument.

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

I would be failing in my duty as an English MP if I did not fight for the rights of English children. Devolution may bring different outcomes, but that does not meant that one should just sit back. Surely, if we think something is right for our part of the UK, we should fight for it. I am perfectly entitled to make those points.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons)

I rise to support my hon. Friend. She is certainly right to fight for the interests of children in England. I say to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight that devolution is not about isolation, and that it is producing a better result for the whole United Kingdom and provides an opportunity for other areas and regions to learn best practice. The lesson that we are learning from this legislation—

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Llafur, Bootle

Order. We will not go down the line of discussing the merits of devolution. I ask hon. Members to return to clause 2 as amended.

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

I thank my hon. Friend. Much attention has indeed been paid to the roles of the previously established commissioners in the UK, and it is always good to learn from other patterns and experiences. What concerns me is whether the issue now comes down to funding: providing the same type of service as in Wales and at the same time taking a broad-brush approach would cost more money. I am beginning to feel that funding may now be of the essence, which is a tragedy. I believe that, fundamentally, children's rights should be at the heart of the Children's Commissioner's work. The Minister and I will not agree on this issue, but everything else follows from that. All the criteria that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham mentioned would be met if children's rights were at the heart of the commissioner's functions.

I shall be disappointed to vote against the clause, but I hope that through the vote we can at least express the strength of feeling on the issue and the view that this is not the end of the line. We need to come together and try to work out a better solution for the commissioner for England.

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

I shall reply to the debate only briefly, because there is a danger that we will go over the same ground time and again. I am informed that the advice of the parliamentary draftsmen is that each element of the clause that we changed had to be changed in that way so as not to lose the whole. The draftsmen advised us that that was the appropriate process.

I look forward to having a debate in perhaps a year or 18 months' time on how the first English commissioner works in practice. I expect the commissioner to be a thorn in the side not only of Government but, probably, of every parliamentarian and a number of other institutions and bodies throughout the UK. That is why we are establishing the post. Rights will remain the foundation of his or her work, but he or she will have ambitions that go beyond that and focus on outcomes.

I also look forward to both Government and Opposition Members reflecting in a couple of years' time on how the commissioner is working, and joining me in celebrating the establishment for the first time in England of a commissioner who will champion the cause of children and ensure that the things that matter to them, and not to the professional activists' lobby, are the focus of his or her work. I hear about the things that matter to children in the classrooms, playgroups

and youth clubs that I visit up and down the country. The commissioner should use his or her office to promote better outcomes for children. I am sure that the post will work and that in two years' time we will all celebrate its success. Indeed, I am not sure what the commissioner would be doing if his or her functions were not as laid out in clause 2.

Question put, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 12, Noes 5.

Rhif adran 4 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 2 - Membership of the Commission

Ie: 12 MPs

Na: 5 MPs

Ie: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Na: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 2, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.