|Previous Section||Home Page|
Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme) : I heard of a school the other day in which 75 per cent. of the children were having school dinners and in which some of the children were having to be weighed every month to see that they were not losing weight, because those dinners were the only real meals that they had. The school was not in some foreign country ; it was a short distance from this House, here in bustling, thriving London.
If we in this country, part of the affluent western world, do not look after our children, we can imagine how much worse it is for children in poorer countries. Who will care for them? Who will provide for and look after the children of some of the world's other great cities and countries? Children are forced to sleep on the streets, forced to beg, driven to crime and prostitution, exploited and degraded. Who will accept responsibility for the 100 million under-fives who, on present trends, will die in the 1990s? Where is the food for the starving children of the world? Where is the medicine for the sick? Who will accept responsibility for providing it? Who will see that laws are strengthened and implemented to prevent the beating, torture and sexual abuse of children? We in this House must all have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the hearts to feel and the will to change the indescribable suffering of many helpless and dependent children. That is why we must give total support to the United Nations charter on the rights of the child. That charter, which took 10 long years to produce, clearly establishes children's rights in all areas and across all national boundaries, and gives the responsibilities to all of us. Let us hope that, if Governments of all nations also give the charter their support, it will be the beginning of freedom for all children--freedom from pain, fear and want.
What good is freedom if there is no justice? For too long in this country children have been denied the right to give evidence in our courts. I have many letters from distraught parents telling me of the most disgusting and depraved sexual abuse of children by so-called men--men who have been safe in the knowledge that the younger the child, the less chance there is of it being allowed to give evidence against him. Because of the procedure of English and Welsh courts, children under the age of eight are rarely heard and under the age of five, never ; although in Scotland children as young as four are frequently allowed
Column 438to testify in courts. Even when children have been called to give evidence they have frequently broken down in the witness box because of the distress caused by having to describe in detail the terrible things that have been done to them, and cases have often been dismissed.
When I was first elected to the House, the Whips in their great wisdom decided that I should serve on the 1986 Criminal Justice Bill Standing Committee, probably because I had absolutely no knowledge of the law. That was when I first realised the lack of justice in our country for children, and I decided then and there to work hard to change the law in their favour.
I was told at great length by many people that the legal profession would never accept change, that politicians would never vote for it and that I would never be able to change the law in the way that I wanted. I was told again, when serving on the 1987 Criminal Justice Bill Standing Committee, that the amendments that I tabled would never be carried. I was told that I would never bring in video links and video recordings, or change the law on corroboration and competence, or get hearsay evidence accepted. I was told that all these things would never come about.
Those who told me this did not, however, count on the army of people outside Parliament who were crying out for changes in the law to allow children justice and to allow them to give evidence in court. They did not count on the number of organisations and of mothers and fathers who would write letters to put pressure on politicians. They did not count on so many people seeing what we and the legal profession could not see : that the law needed to be changed to give justice to our young people.
After the general election of 1987 I served on the Committee considering the second part of the Criminal Justice Bill of 1987-88, and that Bill brought in some of these changes. It introduced visual links and changes to the law on corroboration. It gave heart to all the people who were crying out for further change.
Today, the report has been published of the advisory group on visual evidence, established by the Home Office as a result of public pressure. That group is chaired by that just and caring man, Judge Thomas Pigot, and its recommendations will change the law and bring justice to children. Everything contained in the report is geared to the stress and strain suffered by children. It advocates that the courts should listen to evidence given by children. How can they receive justice if they cannot be heard?
I hope that, when the House considers that report, right hon. and hon. Members will acknowledge that the time has come when this country, as part of its contribution to the rights of the child, should accept the recommendations in that report, allow children to have their voices heard and to receive justice. I trust that the Home Secretary, too, will say that the House should endorse Judge Thomas Pigot's recommendations.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) : What better time of the year than Christmas to introduce a debate on the rights of the child, as has been done so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle- under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding)? What country could ignore my hon. Friend's eloquent plea for those who should be our particular concern? Section 16 of the convention on the rights of the child should be of most
Column 439concern to right hon. and hon. Members. It states, in effect, that every child has the right not only to protection against abuse but to respect--an objective to which the House can make a valuable contribution.
Over the past few months, I have asked the Home Office several questions on child abuse because of my concern about the provision of proper assistance. I was worried by some of the answers that I received, even though they may have been extremely well meant. I asked the Prime Minister whether she was prepared to establish a special unit at No. 10 Downing street to deal specifically with the problem of child abuse because it touches on so many different Departments, and because I consider it essential that the subject should be the responsibility of a central co-ordinating body, but the right hon. Lady was not prepared to do that.
Child abuse is as old as mankind--both himself and herself--and it is a condemnation of the House that changes in the law are still being demanded. Last year, the Childline serving my area of north Staffordshire and south Cheshire received 7,000 calls from young people--7,000 frightened and damaged children needing assistance. Two further hotlines were established and it became clear that many of the adults who wanted to help had no clear idea where they could obtain assistance or report any evidence of child abuse.
The Minister of State, Home Office, who is to respond to the debate, has given the matter deep thought, but even he turned down my request for a publicity campaign specifically aimed at instructing children how to protect themselves.
The Minister replied in a written answer that such advice "is best communicated to children through their parents or other responsible adults. It is for this reason that the Home Office crime prevention handbook reproduces advice for parents to give to their children prepared by the Kidscape organisation."--[ Official Report, 15 November 1989 ; Vol. 160, c. 266. ]
The problem with that approach is, if the parent himself or herself is the abuser, how is the child to know to whom he or she can turn for assistance?
The figures of child abuse are growing more and more horrifying. In the Survey of Young Persons Register 1988, younger children were more likely to be included than older children. Its figures also show more girls than boys on the register, with the former numbering 20,500 compared with 18,799 boys.
Boys and girls below the age of five were equally likely to be on the register, but boys and girls older than that began to differ in the likelihood of their being registered. More boys tended to be registered under the category of physical abuse, accounting for 35 per cent. compared with 25 per cent. of girls, whereas 22 per cent. of girls were registered under the category of sexual abuse compared with only 8 per cent. of boys. The percentage in that category increased with age. Only 9 per cent. of the cases of sexual abuse affected girls aged between one and four years, whereas 51 per cent. of girls aged 16 to 18 were the subject of sexual abuse.
There is some evidence of discrimination against girls over the age of 12 in sexual abuse cases, and an example of that bias can be found in Lord Chief Justice Lane's most recent guidelines on incest abuse cases. He implied that older incest victims, aged 13 or more, may be culpable.
Column 440Who are we to make the value judgment that a 13-year-old boy may be culpable in a case of incest? That is evil and unthinking insensitivity.
It is vital that the House should consider practical ways of providing the sexually abused child with support at the time that he or she most needs it. At such times, the child needs to be believed and to have someone to whom he or she can turn for help. The Home Office believes that the existing child abuse register is adequate, but excellent though it is, one cannot expect a child who is frightened and horrified by what is happening to him or her in their own home to know where to find a list of organisations dealing with child abuse.
Why cannot social services departments publicise an easily remembered telephone number on which help and advice is always available? Why cannot local libraries and other places that children may visit also publicise such a service? Why are more positive attempts not made to provide specific training for social workers and those working in education, not only to identify signs of sexual abuse quickly but to take concrete action at the point at which it can really help the child, before he or she is irreparably damaged? Unfortunately, the abused child of today is frequently the abusing parent of tomorrow. We must attempt to break that circle at every opportunity.
I do not want to abuse the time of the House, but I could speak at great length on this subject, about which I feel deeply--as, I am sure, do all right hon. and hon. Members--although I am sometimes tempted to despair of a society in which, in a week in which three of the most brutal child murders ever recorded were committed, I received 25 letters about the deaths of dogs. I am not sure that our country has its priorities right, and the Government have a duty to do something about that state of affairs.
Mr. John P. Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) : I am grateful for this opportunity to contribute to the Adjournment debate introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding), because I have a particular constituency interest in the subject of the rights of the child, relating specifically to the rights of severely mentally and physically handicapped children.
I draw the attention of right hon. and hon. Members to the preamble to the convention. It states
"that the family should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community."
The preamble continues :
"Recognizing that the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding". I stress the importance of those last few words.
I am sure that few hon. Members do not share the sentiments expressed in the convention, and no doubt we all agree that they should apply as much to children who are severely handicapped, mentally or physically, as to those who are healthy and able-bodied. That is why I am so distressed that that right was nearly denied to the loving and caring family of a young constituent of mine called Carys Saif, and I fear that many other children and their families may also be denied it.
Just over 12 months ago, Carys Saif tragically fell ill and suffered serious brain damage. As hon. Members can imagine, her parents, Alan and Jane Saif, were devastated.
Column 441Carys immediately underwent National Health Service treatment consisting of heavy medication along with some physiotherapy, but it was eventually decided that there was no chance of her recovery. Because of their love for their daughter and their commitment to her, the parents became dissatisfied with the treatment after a time and began--as, I believe, have many other parents--to seek alternative treatment of the kind that is provided for the children whom our Health Service writes off from time to time. I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) refer earlier to the work of the Peto Institute in Hungary, and I am pleased to learn that the Government have allocated funding to it : the institute provides one of the forms of alternative treatment available to physically and mentally handicapped children whose parents will accept any opportunity that may offer some hope.
Mr. and Mrs. Saif approached the Kerland foundation, which is based in Bridgwater, Somerset. With the assistance of the community of Barry, they raised a considerable sum to finance the expensive alternative treatment offered by the foundation. Like many of this country's communities, the town proved extremely generous, and the child began a course of treatment in June this year.
While the treatment was under way, however, the parents were still obliged to take the child for regular NHS check-ups. Unbelievably, on 6 December they were asked to attend the clinic at the University hospital of Wales to meet the medical social worker and the consultant paediatric neurologist. They had expected just another medical examination, but they were effectively told that unless they ceased to receive the foundation's treatment, particularly the drug reduction treatment, there was a possibility that their child would be taken into care. Mrs. Saif was told that a case conference would be held in 72 hours, and that the Kerland foundation would not be involved.
Apparently, the consultant neurologist at the Heath hospital was not interested in the course of treatment that Carys was receiving, and as a result she and the social worker were prepared to recommend in the case conference that the child should be taken into care. Carys's mother was told that, if the conference went against the parents, the child could be taken from them within 24 hours, on the grounds of medical negligence or the possibility of her life being endangered.
That is outrageous. The parents had already suffered the devastation of their child being damaged for life ; just over a year later--again, just before Christmas--their lives were devastated once more, out of the blue, when they were told that the child might be taken from them. I intervened to prevent that, I am glad to say, but I am extremely concerned about how the circumstances arose in the first place.
Carys Saif is one of three young children in the town of Barry alone who are currently receiving alternative medical treatment in private clinics-- financed, incidentally, by the community, thanks to some tremendous fund- raising work. I am afraid that dozens, if not hundreds, of parents throughout the country may also have turned to alternative treatment, and that they may find themselves in the same position as the Saif family.
Column 442There is a danger that their lives, too, may be devasted. Although we managed to stop Carys being taken into care, as her parents were effectively forced to readminister the drugs prescribed by the NHS, her seven or eight months of treatment by the Kerland foundation was severely undermined, as was the hope and commitment of the parents. I do not profess to be qualified to judge which was the right form of treatment--that offered by the NHS or the alternative offered by the Kerland foundation. That, however, is not the point at issue : the point is that there was clearly a conflict of view among the professionals, and that the child and her family were the victims. I have a sneaking feeling that the same thing is happening elsewhere, and that is why I, along with my hon. Friends, ask the Government to sign the convention as soon as possible, and to offer protection not just to the children of this country and the world but to their families.
I also believe that the Government should seriously consider the possibility of introducing legislation that would provide a framework to regulate the relationship between professionals, to ensure that parents and, in particular, children are not caught in the middle ; and to ensure that no one else need go through the horrifying experience undergone by Alan, Jane, Rhianna and little Carys Saif on 6 December this year.
Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) on raising this issue. I admit to some disappointment, as I gaze across the vast expanse of empty green leather seats this evening. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said, this year we have seen the most callous, brutal cases of child cruelty, widespread publicity given to child abuse and the public response to children in Ethiopia and at home. We are also beginning to understand how many children are missing. I sometimes wonder whether we have our priorities right, when I consider the number of hon. Members who attend debates on this subject, but we have an obligation to debate it.
The House likes to look upon itself as a great forum for the nation. We like to think that we represent the various sections of British society, and that we can do that because they are represented here. We discuss the problems of old-age pensioners. I have no doubt that we do it better because there are one or two in House. We discuss the problems of the unemployed, and the sceptics say that we do that better because we have our fair share of them in the House. We discuss the problems of the disabled, and hon. Members such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on- Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) bring their expertise to that debate because of their handicap and the difficulties they face.
One section of British society cannot raise its interests in the House--the children. We have a greater obligation towards that section of the community than towards any other, because they cannot be here to speak for themselves.
Later, my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) will cover an extensive range of the items referred to in the convention on the rights of the child, if she manages to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
To elucidate and inform the House, I shall quote from article 32.1. of the draft convention which states :
Column 443"Parties recognise the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development."
Article 32(2) states :
"Parties shall take legislative, administrative, social and eucational measures to ensure the implementation of this article." I honestly believe that the Government are in no position to implement that article in a manner that is commensurate with the spirit of the convention.
The present law on child employment in Britain is a hotch-potch of national laws that, in some cases, date back 50 or 60 years, and of local government byelaws. It is poorly enforced, easily misunderstood and widely abused.
The Government cannot plead ignorance. They must be aware that children continue to play a significant, if hidden, role in the British work force. As with many other problems, there are no official statistics on truancy or on the number of missing children. It is worth noting that we have a list of missing dogs in Britain, but no official statistics on missing children. Similarly, there is a chronic lack of centralised, accurate information about children in the work force. Because of the lack of statistics, it is difficult to assess accurately the number of children who are illegally employed. Fortunately, despite the lack of official national statistics, we can make an educated guess at the extent of the problem. The estimates make grim reading. Surveys from the Low Pay Unit, the latest covering 1982-83, suggest that as many as one in three children between the ages of 11 and 15 work outside school hours. A more staggering statistic is that, of those who work, no fewer than 80 per cent.--four out of five--are thought to be illegally employed. That is a staggering figure because it shows that between 1 million and 2 million children between the ages of 11 and 15 are illegally employed in Britain. Children are the most vulnerable and exploitable source of cheap labour in Britain, and they are being harnessed in pursuit of private profit.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is the fact that illegal and exploitative child employment is becoming institutionalised in many families as children from poorer households are more likely to be employed than anyone else in the family. Poverty and family unemployment force the integration of the child's income as a standard unit in the family budget of some of the poorest households. The exploitation of child labour on the scale that I have described is not so much a blot on the collective conscience of the nation--it is nothing short of a national scandal. The effects are at best the arrestment of a child's educational and social development. At worst, their lives are endangered.
The Low Pay Unit survey bears grim testimony to the damaging consequences of illegal child employment on school performance and in a child's social life. Educational welfare officers, teachers and head teachers testify that truancy, tiredness and behavioural difficulties are all associated with out -of-school work and, in many cases, illegal out-of-school work.
Even worse than the arrestment of a child's social and educational development are the risks to life and limb associated with illegal child employment. We already know of serious injuries caused by machinery and sharp knives, but some children are exposed to chemicals and
Column 444other harmful or dangerous substances. Still others are employed in agriculture and building, which are among the most hazardous occupations even for adults.
The Government can no longer evade their responsibilities in this matter. Given the scale and nature of the problem the need for urgent Government action should be self-evident. I do not want to be over-critical as it is difficult to believe that any hon. Member would condone economic exploitation of children. As a politician said some years ago, to remain silent and inactive in the face of such evil or exploitation is to condone and encourage it in effect if not in theory. It is tragic that that seems to be the Government's stance. On 11 July, my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) asked the Secretary of State for Employment
"when he intends to bring into force the Employment of Children Act 1973."
Not 1983 or 1988, but 1973. The Minister replied :
"I have been asked to reply.
The Government have no plans to implement the Employment of Children Act 1973."--[ Official Report, 11 July 1989 ; Vol. 156, c. 462. ]
It is a disgrace that, despite all-party support for it, the Employment of Children Act 1973 has sat idle on the statute book for 16 years and still awaits the signature of the Secretary of State to give it effect. There can be no greater sign of the Government's dereliction of duty in this regard. They will pay for that, because those who do not take seriously the trust of the country's future will in due course be rewarded by the people whom they have neglected. No Government who failed adequately to protect children can have any faith in the future, and no people can have any faith in that Government.
Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) for choosing this subject for debate. Like others, I regret that only a small number of hon. Members are present, but I understand why that is so. It is important, especially at this time of year, to consider the convention on the rights of the child and what is happening to children in Britain.
On 23 November, I wrote to the Prime Minister following reports in the national press that the Government might have difficulty in implementing all the convention on the rights of the child because of the problems of family reunification and immigration. A day or two later I received a reply saying that my letter had been passed to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but I still have not received a reply to my detailed question. I found that rather strange because it occurred to me that the Prime Minister's office considered that the convention on the rights of the child had no domestic application in Britain. I was talking about families in Britain and the need for them to have the greatest possible unity under present-day law. It is important to remember that many of the discussions about the convention on the rights of the child--I have attended a considerable number in the past 10 years--have been on children in Third- world countries. Those of us who have travelled extensively in many parts of the world know that in many Third-world countries children are militarised, starving, hungry, degraded and exploited. It is a very sad picture. Some of it is caused by
Column 445natural disasters, some by inadequate investment in aid programmes and some by sheer poverty which forces people to do things because of their circumstances.
I wish to concentrate on children in Britain. As we move into 1990, we should not believe or allow it to be thought that we are a shining example to the rest of the world and that all is well in Britain in 1989.
It is 10 years since the discussion on the convention started and since the Conservative Government took office. Christmas is approaching and many of us have spent a great deal of money on our children ; we see on television all the wonderful things that are available to them but not to all children. I do not expect answers to all the questions that I intend to raise this evening as they require further thought, but they concern the children who will not be included in the great family festival that we all enjoy.
How many people under 18 will spend Christmas on remand in adult prisons? The figures published recently should be a source of great shame to all of us. The Children's Society recently reported that 98, 000 children go missing every year. It is true that many of them turn up, having run away because of a domestic upheaval, but many are never found or, if they are, they cannot return home.
We have no national register of missing children--the figures to which I refer were compiled by the Children's Society in conjunction with certain police authorities--so Government sources do not tell us the reasons why children run away or disappear. We have to find out from other sources. I pay tribute to many agencies which do excellent work. Some children run away from unhappy homes because unfortunately not all children have loving and caring parents. Many of them run away from local authority care.
It must be stressed, too, that many children who run away are not reported missing. Only 39 per cent. of the children in a London refuge centre last year had been reported missing, so the figures must be greater than we know. The children there were aged between 14 and 16 and the youngest was seven. One in five of those children had run away because of sexual abuse or the threat of sexual abuse. I am very glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for
Newcastle-under-Lyme raised that issue, because we are all beginning to recognise that it has been under-estimated in Britain and we still do not know its extent.
In 1979 the Council of Europe recommended that member states should have a national register of missing children so that some information could be made available. Unfortunately, that still does not exist in Britain. We have to add to that sad saga the number of 16 and 17-year-olds who may be called runaways and who do not receive the benefits and allowances which should be available to them. Many answers have been given about that group. We have been told that they should be at home or working on youth training schemes. The tragedy is that many young people are unable to live at home for a variety of reasons. Unless we examine violence and sexual abuse within the family, it is useless saying, "It is better that you go home." We must find out what causes young people to run away.
Column 446As the House knows, children who run away, sleep out and lead a hand-to-mouth existence are easy meat for evil people who are on the lookout for the vulnerable. Many become involved in crime and prostitution. The Salvation Army reported that, of 1,500 teenagers in the Centre Point refuge in 1988, one in three had been approached for prostitution--that applied to boys and girls alike--and many get involved in the vicious circle of drug abuse.
Recently, other issues affecting children have come to our notice ; I am glad that they have, because some of us have been worried about them for a long time. National figures for truancy are not available. I am aware of the difficulties in obtaining them, but other countries manage to do so. I know from concerned agencies that truancy is increasing in primary schools. As it is difficult to obtain national figures, we do not know how children spend their time or what happens to them. According to work that has been done on this, many of them hang around slot machines and amusement arcades day in and day out until it is time to go home. Some register at school but then disappear.
Certain conferences have asked children, "Why are you not at school? What is the problem?" The reply that many of them give relates to another subject that we must do much more work on in the House--bullying. Bullying at school appears much higher on the agenda than it did before. Parents say to their children, "You must stand up for yourself," but the child would not be bullied if it was capable of doing that. Many people believe that we have under-estimated the amount of bullying at school. Some children bully for reasons of which hon. Members will be aware, but others do so for money or because of fear and intimidation. If we are concerned about what is happening to our children as we approach the 1990s, education authorities must pay more attention to what goes on in the playground.
Articles 26 and 27 of the convention refer to the rights of the child to health, good housing and nutrition. Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) mentioned free school meals and the difficulty of ensuring that a child has a proper diet.
Child benefit has been frozen for the third year in succession, which has pushed many children back into poverty. In my area of Salford, where people are not rich, the Child Poverty Action Group has estimated that £4 million is owed to Salford's children because child benefit has not been increased by as much as we were led to believe it would be by the Tory manifesto and by past good practice. That is a lot of money, and the result of the freeze is that many children will spend this Christmas in poverty-- ill-clothed, ill-fed, ill-housed and without the basic attractions which make Christmas the festivity that we all enjoy.
In 1986, five of the 15 intensive care units at Saint Mary's hospital in Manchester were taken out of service. In 1987, Hope hospital in my constituency reported that 65 of 198 infants who required intensive care could not be accepted--they had to shop around and find somewhere else to go. We must ask, are the lives of our babies to rely on "Blue Peter" appeals for used cans? However great British people are about charity and donations--we know they are from what they have done in the Third world and for Children in Need in this country--it is not good enough to say, "We are cutting down the services but if you want them please collect cans and we will provide them." As someone whose grandchild was in an intensive
Column 447care unit a few months ago, where the care was remarkable, I find it unbearable to think that that care could be denied to other children or that they have to be taken somewhere else for it. That is disgraceful in a country which claims to have done so well economically for its people.
The National Carers Association recently reported that 10,000 children under the age of 18 are the main carers for a sick or disabled relative who may be a parent or a child. Their lives hardly conform to the ideals of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Their access to education and their rights to play and to develop are denied them. Again, the lack of services in this country means that children are being used to provide them. That is disgraceful and something that we should be examining.
Any of us who have attended international conventions and conferences dealing with children's rights have come up against international concerns, one of which is drugs. Drugs are an international problem and the children using drugs are becoming younger. I was recently in Jamaica with a number of hon. Members from both sides of the House. We had a long discussion with a drugs expert about drugs, young people in Jamaica, the way in which drugs are coming into Europe and the age at which children are using them. The illegal trafficking and adoption of children is also of international concern. Reports from the Council of Europe and other sources show that some children are illegally taken across borders and brought to Europe. There have even been one or two cases of them being admitted to this country. I do not blame the Government for that, but there needs to be international action if children are not to be bought and sold on the market like cattle. That is what it amounts to. If one has the money and knows where to go, one can buy a child. The people who buy those children may have been turned down by adoption agencies and have certainly never been vetted in any way. It is appalling that we do not pay more attention to the sort of lives that many of our own children are likely to lead.
There are also reports of satanic rituals and sadistic practices involving children in pornography, in this country and in many other parts of the world. It is not a pretty picture. The convention on the rights of the child is an attempt to apply international standards to which we can all work and through which we can bring some benefit to children as time goes on.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) mentioned child sexual abuse. I did some work on that subject when I was temporarily resting and was not a Member of Parliament, between 1983 and 1987, and I share her concern. She also mentioned the problem which arises when some children--not all--who have been sexually abused turn into abusers. Many of them manage to lead satisfactory lives despite the horrendous things that have happened to them. Society is again in a dilemma. We have sympathy for the child victim, but when that victim becomes the assailant, our understanding vanishes. We need to do a great deal more work to find out what causes it and what we can do to help children and young people who have been thus abused.
Many of us have learnt in recent years that social workers and doctors are in an almost impossible position when dealing with sexual abuse or violence against children. In the Cleveland affair, the doctors and social workers were accused of being too decisive, too sure,
Column 448acting too quickly and not waiting. In the case of children who have died recently--I am thinking particularly of a little girl beaten to death, but there have been others--social workers were accused of dilly-dallying, of not taking action, not moving quickly enough and of not having the foresight to see what was going to happen. Society cannot have it both ways. We cannot condemn people who move because they are afraid of what may happen and take precautions and at the same time condemn them if they do not move but say, "Let us wait and see--it may not be as bad as we think." We do not hear about the successes of social workers--only about their failures. They walk a tightrope. We must decide whether we want people to be more decisive and perhaps make mistakes rather than condemn a child to slow murder, brutality and abuse because we thought that we might be wrong and that we could wait a little longer.
There is no clear answer to these problems, and I do not pretend that there is one. However, we cannot have it both ways. There are enormous problems of judgment in trying to understand the way in which other people live. I am sorry that more training for social workers has not been forthcoming. The social workers wanted it and it would have helped us all.
A small problem at the moment, but one that is likely to grow--although I hope that I am wrong in that assumption--is that of children born with AIDS or born HIV-positive. A few years ago, society did not want to discuss child sexual abuse and it was kept very quiet. We could not believe it then and many people cannot believe it now, but we had to face up to it. The same applies to AIDS.
In 1989, 34 children under the age of 14 had been born with AIDS and 309 were HIV-positive. I hope that some of the recent information about a possible cure for AIDS is right. I hope that we can stem the flow. At the moment, however, the problem is expected to increase. In America, the spread of AIDS among women and children has leapt ahead of the capacity of the services to cope with it.
We have some time to prepare here. We must consider seriously the fact that many children will be orphaned or live short lives because of AIDS. Only a small number of children may be affected in that way, but that is not the point. Children have the right to expect to be given long-term support and that the agencies involved ensure that those children have access to education, help and everything else that any child in this country has a right to expect. We must do much more preventive work in all areas connected with sexual activity, with our children and with parenting, if we are to overcome some of the problems to which I have referred.
We will hear much more about children in this country over the next few months and years because we have only just begun to open the door on some of the horrors that many of us did not want to see. Those horrors may apply to a small number of children, but they apply to more than we had thought. We must address the problems.
My plea today is that when we consider the convention on the rights of the child we should not be too lofty and too confident that we have it right. Instead of pointing the finger at other countries and saying that they should be like us--in terms of some of the services that we offer, it would be great if they were like us--we must also consider the children in our society, babies and older, who fall
Column 449through the net and are victims of abusers, sometimes of cruelty and also, I am afraid, of a country which has not yet made the provision for children that it should.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten) : This has been a very wide-ranging and interesting debate and I hope to deal with some of the major themes, if not with every detail, raised by the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor). It is good to speak after the hon. Lady, and I congratulate her on her recent appointment to the Opposition Front Bench. I am sure that this will not be the last occasion that she will have an opportunity to debate these matters. I was most interested to hear what she had to say.
I join the hon. Member for Eccles in congratulating the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) on her good fortune in securing this debate and on the way in which she introduced it. It is the second excellent and moving speech that I have heard her make in the past two weeks. The last one was made during the war crimes debate last week. I had only six minutes in which to reply to that debate, so I was unable to do proper justice to her speech. Once again, we have seen the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme demonstrate not only her care but her deep knowledge of these issues, which she displayed also in successive sittings of the Standing Committee that considered the Criminal Justice Bills in 1987 and 1988. Perhaps that is enough praise, even at Christmas time. I do not want to damage the hon. Lady's standing with her general management committee.
The convention was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly exactly a month ago today. It is now open for signature and ratification. The Government will examine it to see on what terms we may be able to ratify. I cannot say this evening, nor do I honestly believe that hon. Members would expect me to, how long that will take. Nor would it be right for me, at this early stage in the necessary examination of the convention against our law and practice, to try to give any indications of provisions against which the United Kingdom might have reservations, for example. It will be quite a complex business looking at the convention and testing it against our laws and practice. However, I can say plainly that the Government welcome the convention and are utterly committed to its broad thrust. We will give it most careful examination.
The convention comprises about 40 articles, and it ranges widely over the rights of the child. It pays particular attention to a child's right to life and development. It covers his or her name and nationality. It has regard, as it should, to parents' rights and duties in relation to the child. I hope and believe that it incorporates provisions that would be generally applicable to people of all ages, such as freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom from maltreatment, and protection from cruelty. They are matters from which we hope that people of whatever age in whatever country would always be protected. The convention covers health, welfare and education, and there are provisions dealing with economic exploitation.
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) drew attention to article 16 of the convention,
Column 450and the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) drew attention to article 32 and to allegations about the economic exploitation of children and young persons. I shall certainly draw his speech to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment who has responsibility for such matters.
The convention is directed to the full gamut of member states of the United Nations. Of course, they have widely differing social and economic conditions, but I certainly would not wish to suggest that Her Majesty's Government regard the convention as an instrument for pressing less- developed countries to improve their standards. I agree with the hon. Member for Eccles. It is right that fortunate countries such as ours should also examine what more they can do to protect, foster and improve children's rights. This is not simply a mechanism for trying to get other countries up to western European or north American standards.
The theme of prevention has run through the debate. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich has a deep interest in these issues--in the past year I have answered enough parliamentary questions from her to learn that--and is concerned about prevention and trying to inform children who may be open to abuse of where they can turn. She believes, too, that there should be a central authority charged with the responsibility of tackling child abuse. The police have clear responsibility for investigating all allegations of child abuse that are put to them. They do so with increasing sensitivity, just as they try better to treat women who have been raped or subjected to domestic violence.
The police involve social service departments, education departments and the Churches, all of which need to be involved. One would have to demonstrate clearly that the police were failing in their duty--which I know that those concerned do not wish to do--or that they were simply unable to carry out that task before the Government would want to go down the road that the hon. Lady has suggested.