Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Official Visit

Q8. Mr. Steen: If he will make an official visit to White Rock above the River Dart, near Totnes. [15127]

The Prime Minister: I think this is the second time that I have been asked to visit the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I hope that he does not mind if I say that I do not have any plans to do so, although I visit all regions.

Mr. Steen: That answer will be a great relief to my constituents.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that White Rock is just a few miles from the home of the D'Oyly Carte at Coleton Fishacre, and that the D'Oyly Carte opera company may close next month, despite its popularity, simply because the Arts Council operates a cartel which prevents new entrants, however meritorious, from getting on its little list? Surely he does not wish to preside over a Government who will allow one of our great and precious British institutions to collapse when more than £200 million is unspent in the Arts Council's lottery fund.

The Prime Minister: We are continuing the policy of the previous Government. I do not know about the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, but I shall be happy to write to him about it. I will make a deal with him--if I do not go to his constituency, he will not come to mine.

Mr. Gill: I want to return to the question of tobacco sponsorship. Will the exemption of formula one from the ban on tobacco sponsorship affect the financial success of Mr. Ecclestone's long-postponed flotation of Formula One Holdings?

The Prime Minister: I have absolutely no idea about that, but in any event the exemption is right. As I pointed out last week, every other country that runs grand prix either has no sponsorship restrictions or makes special arrangements or grants exemptions for formula one. Australia, Canada, France, Germany and other countries all do that. It is important that we do it as well, because we do not want to lose the industry and the jobs associated with it.

I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that it was his party, when last in government, which blocked the European Union directive. We are trying to ensure that we get the maximum action on advertising in sponsorship to try to reduce the level of smoking--but in a way that does not damage sport or the industry.

Mr. Clapham: Is my right hon. Friend aware that research has shown clearly that white asbestos is a carcinogen? Some countries in Europe have already banned white asbestos and any manufactures that include white asbestos. Is he further aware that the Health and Safety Commission supports a Europewide ban and that there are substitutes for asbestos? Will he seriously examine the case for a United Kingdom ban so that we can protect future generations of workers?

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend, who is right to draw attention to the issue. My understanding is that the Health and Safety Commission has advised Ministers on a mechanism and timetable for introducing

19 Nov 1997 : Column 325

a domestic ban on the import, supply and use of white asbestos. An announcement will be made shortly on how the Government intend to proceed. I know from the work that my hon. Friend has done on this matter over a number of years that he has had a long-standing commitment to a ban. I hope that shortly we will be able to give him the answer that he wants.

Q10. [15130] Mr. Sanders: I refer the right hon. Gentleman to European Union directive 91/439. Is he aware that the directive will affect 350,000 insulin-dependent diabetics by making it illegal for them to drive vehicles in groups C and D? Is he further aware that the decision has not been based on any actuarial evidence? Will he look at the matter urgently before diabetics start to lose their jobs in January because of restrictions on their licences?

The Prime Minister: The problem is that the current legislative position, which was introduced in 1991, reflects the advice of the expert advisory panel on diabetes and driving. To make a change, we would have to be sure that new scientific evidence and advice would justify a change to the original conclusion reached by the previous Government. If such evidence emerges, we would be happy to review the position, but until it does it would be difficult for us to argue the case for changing the directive. If the hon. Gentleman has any further information or if he wishes to draw our attention to different scientific advice from that which we have received, I suggest he submit it to my right hon. and hon. Friends for their consideration.

Solar Energy

Q11. Mrs. Brinton: If he will make a statement on the Government's policy on solar energy. [15131]

The Prime Minister: The Government propose a new and strong drive to develop renewable energy sources in line with our manifesto commitment. The policy review announced by my hon. Friend the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry will consider what will be necessary and practicable in order to achieve 10 per cent. of the United Kingdom's electricity needs from renewables by the year 2010. That is an ambitious target, but we believe that, if we put the right commitment into it, it will be possible. That will obviously make a substantial contribution to the measures that we need for the Kyoto summit.

Mrs. Brinton: I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Does he agree that the solar energy economy requires dispersed forms of energy conversion and supply, rather than the massive centralised power stations of today's electricity industry? Does he agree also that if we

19 Nov 1997 : Column 326

develop and maintain solar energy, we will return power and real autonomy to the regions--not only in the United Kingdom but in the rest of the world?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right, of course--[Hon. Members: "Oh!"] Opposition Members may cavil, but it is a serious problem that the country has to deal with. We believe in increasing the amount of our energy resources that come from renewable energy, and we are encouraged by the growing use of solar energy. The trouble is that solar energy is still very expensive. We are putting more money into research, and we will make progress on it as soon as we possibly can.

Waiting Lists

Q12. Dr. Harris: When he expects the Government's commitment to reduce waiting lists to the levels of 1 May to be achieved. [15132]

The Prime Minister: The appalling situation that we inherited from the previous Government, who consistently undermined the national health service, means that we will have to make progress as quickly as we possibly can. The extra £300 million that will be provided over and above what was allocated by the previous Government will be of enormous assistance in doing so.

Dr. Harris: Although I agree that the health service inherited problems, is the Prime Minister aware what a disappointment his answer will be to sick and elderly people in Oxford, West and Abingdon and elsewhere? Whereas it will take five years to implement an early pledge to cut waiting lists, as a first step, funds seem to be available to achieve the long-term aim of cutting taxes for the well-off. Is it not time that the Government governed, rather than merely acting opportunistically on their pre-election pledges?

The Prime Minister: We will fulfil our pre-election pledge. [Hon. Members: "When?"] Opposition Members shout out, "When?", but they are the people who put up the waiting lists. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] They deny responsibility. It was nothing to do with them, was it? As I told the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), in the next two years, we will put more money into the national health service than the Liberal Democrats wanted us to before the general election.

Waiting lists have increased because of the situation that we inherited. Our pledge is that, at the next general election--when we again stand before the British people--we will have reduced waiting lists by 100,000 or more. We will deliver on that pledge. [Hon. Members: "Go on!"] As for Opposition Members, they are the people who undermined the health service. [Hon. Members: "No."] Yes, they are. This week marks the 100th anniversary of Nye Bevan's birthday. We established the national health service, in the teeth of Tory opposition, and we will rebuild the national health service, after 18 years of Tory disgrace.

19 Nov 1997 : Column 327

Utting Report

3.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Frank Dobson): The House will know that, last year, after the conviction of people in north Wales for sexual and other crimes against children in their care, the previous Government commissioned Sir William Utting to conduct a review of the adequacy of safeguards against the abuse of children living away from home. They also established a judicial tribunal of inquiry, under the Tribunal of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921, into the events that led to those convictions. The north Wales judicial inquiry, chaired by Sir Ronald Waterhouse, continues and is expected to report next summer.

Sir William Utting has now reported to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and to me. Today, we are publishing his report. A comparable review for Scotland is being published today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Sir William's review was necessary because of continuing revelations of widespread sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children living away from home--in particular, in children's homes--over the preceding 20 years. In addition to the convictions in north Wales, there are investigations or prosecutions in progress in the north-west, the north-east, south Wales and some home counties.

The report presents a woeful tale of failure at all levels to provide a secure and decent childhood for some of the most vulnerable children. It covers the lives of children whose home circumstances were so bad that those in authority, to use the jargon, took them into care. The report reveals that, in far too many cases, not enough care was then taken. Elementary safeguards were not in place or not enforced. Many children were harmed rather than helped. The review reveals that those failings were not just the fault of individuals--although individuals were at fault. It reveals the failures of a whole system.

The review team found evidence of good work done by many children's homes despite adverse circumstances. It considers that residential care remains an important option for looking after children in trouble, but that staffing is a chronic problem.

The report reveals a list of major faults. Many children are placed in homes unsuited to their particular needs because there is too little choice, too little planning and too little forethought. Some children go through a damaging succession of placements. Children are at risk in small unregistered homes. More than a third of children in residential care are not receiving an education. Children in foster care can be at risk of abuse, and safeguards intended in the Children Act 1989 are not being uniformly implemented.

There is no requirement for residential maintained special schools to be inspected for welfare purposes. Some children abscond from residential care and become homeless, and some remain untraced. In the past, children who ran away and were traced were often returned to the care of the people who were abusing them.

Disabled children, children with emotional and behavioural difficulties and young children are at higher risk of abuse or harm when living away from home. Bullying and sexual abuse by other foster children

19 Nov 1997 : Column 328

is encountered. Bullying appeared to be ignored in some children's homes. The mix of fearsome children and vulnerable children amounts to abuse by the system that is supposed to provide protection.

Vetting child care staff and foster parents must be improved. Unacceptable delays arise in checking criminal records. Staff who suspect child abuse can be deterred from coming forward for fear of victimisation by other staff or managers. Some directors of social services say that they are reluctant to dismiss staff, as their decisions can be overturned on appeal.

The criminal justice system is ineffective in deterring offences against children and in securing convictions. Its failures are most marked where the victims are most vulnerable--the very young and the disabled.

Prison Service policy to keep children in separate accommodation is not being achieved. As a result, there is suicide, self-harm and endemic bullying. Boys aged 15 to 16 are still being remanded to prison because there is not enough secure accommodation.

The report concludes that, although there are no grounds for complacency--and, by God, there should not be--the repetition of abuse in children's homes on the scale that has occurred in the past is now unlikely.

The report makes 20 principal recommendations designed to improve safeguards in foster and residential care, in schools and in the penal system to provide more effective safeguards and checks to deter abusers from working with children, more effective avenues of complaint and independent advocates to whom children should have access, more vigilant management, effective disciplinary and criminal procedures and effective systems of communication between agencies about known abusers. The report also calls for changes to ensure that the criminal justice system provides children with better protection from abusers.

I thank those who produced the report. The situation that it describes cannot be allowed to recur or--where it continues--continue any further. It must provide a spur to all concerned to ensure that, in future, children living away from home for long periods get a safe, decent and positive upbringing.

This is a most serious report, and the Government are taking it most seriously. We have set in train the following action. Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons has today published a report on young prisoners which reaches many of the same conclusions as Sir William Utting. The Home Office is ensuring that standards to safeguard young people in prison, which are being developed by the Prison Service, incorporate the welfare aims recommended in the report.

My right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Education and Employment and for Wales will be making improvements to the welfare safeguards for children in maintained boarding schools and will be working with the education service to achieve that. The chief inspector of social services in England is assessing local authorities' compliance with essential management and staffing safeguards which are supposed to be in place already. The Welsh Office is implementing with determination the Adrienne Jones report on child care and protection.

The Department of Health and the Welsh Officeare already committed to two important changes recommended by the report: the creation of a statutory

19 Nov 1997 : Column 329

general social care council to regulate standards of conduct and practice by social services personnel, and the statutory regulation and inspection of small children's homes.

We are actively reviewing the way in which the courts treat children and other vulnerable witnesses. We are preparing a White Paper on social services that will set out detailed proposals for improvements in the regulation of social services. With the encouragement of the Prime Minister, we are setting up a ministerial task force--to be led by me--involving Ministers from all relevant Departments and a small number of expert advisers from outside the Government. Its first job will be to prepare the full, comprehensive Government response to the report.

We will be consulting widely and carefully with all the public and voluntary agencies concerned before giving that detailed and comprehensive response. The report acknowledges that the review panel was not able to assess the costs of implementing its recommendations or what the spending levels on children's services should be. It also emphasises that any extra resources must be matched by managerial and professional effort to improve performance.

The recommendations made in the report will be considered as part of the comprehensive spending review, covering the whole range of services for children, including social services, juvenile and criminal justice and education. After careful consideration and consultation, we will put forward a full programme of policy and management changes to deliver the safer environment to which children living away from home are entitled. The programme will be clear, affordable and enforceable. It will ensure that high standards are set and that whatever standards are set will be met.

Finally, I should make it clear that many dedicated people are doing a good job looking after vulnerable children living away from home. It is never an easy task, and they deserve our thanks. We owe it to them and to the children they look after to root out and punish the wrongdoers and to put into place a system that helps rather than hinders their efforts. Vulnerable children living away from home are the responsibility of us all. Many of them have been badly let down. This Government will ensure that in future they are looked after better.

Next Section

IndexHome Page