Select Committee on Health Second Report


CHILDREN LOOKED AFTER BY LOCAL AUTHORITIES

THE VOICE OF THE CHILD

228. We shall briefly mention four other ways in which the voice of the child can be heard. One way is through the activities of voluntary organisations dedicated to children's welfare. We wish particularly to mention the Who Cares? Trust, which does invaluable work in relation to looked-after children. The Trust produces a very readable newsletter which is widely distributed to children and young people in care, it operates a telephone advice service, and is an effective research and campaigning organisation. We commend the work of the Trust, which has been of great assistance to us in the course of our inquiry.

229. We were impressed by the Birmingham Young Persons' Forum. We believe that local authorities should be encouraged to develop such formal or semi-formal mechanisms for consulting children looked after. A great deal can be learned from children looked after and from young adults who have had experience of public care; their experience can be drawn on to improve the care system for the future.

230. Our predecessors in the last Parliament recommended that a Cabinet Sub-Committee on Children and Young People should be set up, with terms of reference modelled on those of the existing Sub-Committee on Women's Issues: "to review, develop and co-ordinate the Government's policy and strategy on issues of special concern to children and young people; to oversee their implementation; and to report as necessary to the Ministerial Committee on Home and Social Affairs".[251] In its reply to the report, the incoming Government told us that it had no plans to set up such a Sub-Committee. The reply added that the Children's Services Strategy Group, which includes representatives of the main Departments dealing with children, takes a leading role in co-ordinating initiatives, and that Ministers are looking at the most effective ways of providing services in the context of the comprehensive spending reviews.[252] Notwithstanding this reply, we repeat our predecessors' recommendation that there should be a Cabinet Sub-Committee on Children and Young People, to ensure that the needs of children—including children looked after—are taken seriously at the heart of Government. We hope that the Government will look afresh at this proposal, particularly in the context of the further proposal in relation to a Children's Rights Commissioner we set out in the following paragraphs.

231. The United Kingdom ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in December 1991, and the Convention entered into force in the UK in January 1992. The DoH was nominated as the lead department for co-ordinating the UK's implementation of the Convention. In pursuance of this role, the DoH drew up a strategy for monitoring the implementation of the Children Act 1989. This included the making of an annual report to Parliament, which the Government described as "a particularly important initiative", demonstrating that "the operation of the Children Act and its effect on children is subject to regular and public scrutiny". That statement was made in the Government's first report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, submitted in 1994.[253] As we have seen, in respect of each of the years since 1994 the DoH has failed to produce this Children Act report for Parliament, in spite of its statutory obligation to do so.[254]

232. This failure on the part of the DoH reinforces our view that the time is ripe for the UK to follow the example of a number of other Western countries (including Germany, Spain, the Scandinavian countries and New Zealand) by creating the post of a Children's Rights Commissioner. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has explicitly recommended the creation of an ombudsman or commissioner in the UK as a means of ensuring that children's rights are promoted more effectively.[255] Such a Commissioner would have the duty of promoting awareness of the rights of children, highlighting ways in which present and proposed policy and practice failed to respect those rights, conducting formal investigations where breaches of children's rights were considered to have taken place (for instance, in cases of abuse in children's homes), seeking to ensure that children had effective means of redress when their rights were disregarded (by, for instance, monitoring children's use of complaints procedures), and carrying out or commissioning research relevant to the safeguarding of children's rights.[256]

233. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Mr Boateng, told us that the last Government had opposed the idea of a Children's Rights Commissioner, but the present Government was re-opening consideration of the proposal. He said that he personally found aspects of the envisaged role of such a Commissioner "very attractive".[257] We recommend that there should be a Children's Rights Commissioner within the UK, with duties and powers along the lines we have set out in the previous paragraph. We urge the Government to introduce the necessary legislation to create the office of Commissioner as soon as possible, preferably in the next Session of Parliament.

ABUSE AND CHILD PROSTITUTION

234. Discussion about "the rights of the child" can have a hollow ring when one considers the numerous cases of physical and sexual abuse of looked-after children which have emerged in recent years. In such cases the rights of children were not merely disregarded but trampled upon. We took evidence in our inquiry during the period in which Sir William Utting was completing his major report on safeguards against abuse, People Like Us, which appeared in November 1997.[258] Another major report on child abuse—looking at the subject in a wider context—had appeared in October 1996, that of the National Commission of Inquiry into the Prevention of Child Abuse, established and funded by the NSPCC under the chairmanship of Lord Williams of Mostyn QC.[259]

235. We did not want to duplicate the work of Sir William Utting and the National Commission. We therefore focused our inquiry primarily on other issues relating to the welfare of looked-after children. For the same reason we have not included an extended section on abuse in this report.

236. Our decisions in this respect do not, of course, indicate that we regard the issue of abuse as being other than critically important. The long-term social and emotional damage done to children by abuse can be enormous, and none of the improvements in the care system which we call for elsewhere in this report are likely to mean very much to children who are being preyed upon by the very people entrusted with their care.

237. An appreciation of the dangers and extent of abuse, particularly sexual abuse, has been slow to emerge. The Social Services Committee, in their 1984 report, commented that little thought at that time had been given to the prevention of sexual abuse. Sir William Utting, who was Chief Inspector of Social Service during the period when some of the worst cases of abuse were taking place, was commendably frank when we asked him why the steps he now advocates were not taken when he was directly responsible for overseeing social services:

"I think the crude answer to that question would be ignorance. ... The subject of sex abuse of children in institutions did not really become an issue until the early 1980s. ... There were tremendous pressures, I think, on everybody in the system at that time to deny that those of us working in the system and accepted by the community as being devoted to the interests of children were in fact exploiting them and abusing them. So there was a period of ignorance and a period of denial and then the very painful process of the revelation of these awful things that had gone on for a long time."[260]

238. That process of revelation is now well under way. Further evidence of past abuse is likely to continue to emerge for some time to come. The true extent both of past and present abuse is very difficult to establish. As with other forms of crime, it is probably impossible to eliminate abuse altogether, but it can be minimised. It seems likely that steps taken over the past 10 years have already significantly reduced the incidence of abuse.

239. Sir William Utting's report contains a comprehensive analysis of the causes and nature of abuse, not just in residential homes but in other settings where children are looked after away from their families. We wish to endorse his main findings. In particular we wish to support the following proposals:

    (1)  The recommendations about recruiting and selecting staff in the Warner Report of 1992 should be fully implemented by all local authorities (most have already done so), and they should be applied in all settings in which children live away from home. Conformity should be a condition of registration and approval of children's homes.

    (2)  All organisations which care for children living away from home should provide parents with full information about their arrangements for keeping children safe.

    (3)  The Government should extend the legal protection of employers in respect of communicating information about people unfit to work with children, and the new system for criminal record checks should access other approved lists as part of its own checks.

    (4)  Staff should be required to communicate concerns about the conduct of other staff towards children and be afforded full legal and employment protection when acting in good faith.

    (5)  The Government should undertake a comprehensive review of the arrangements for prosecuting offences against children in order to make them more effective.

240. An additional issue raised by Sir William is of particular concern to us. That is the issue of child prostitution. We also received memoranda on this subject from both Barnardo's and the Children's Society. They both contain thoughtfully written and harrowing accounts of how children, many of them from a care background, are lured into a life of prostitution from which they find it enormously difficult to extricate themselves. The criminal justice system at present offers very little assistance to such children. The law treats children working in prostitution as criminals rather than victims.

241. It is unlawful for girls under 16 in England to have sexual intercourse, although by doing so the girls are not committing a criminal offence. It is illegal for adults to have sex with a child under 16, and such adults are committing a criminal offence. Although prostitution in itself is not illegal, charges of loitering and soliciting may be brought. After two cautions girls and women are deemed to be "common prostitutes" and the cautions remain on their record for eight years. Boys can be prosecuted for importuning. Pimps can be prosecuted for "living off immoral earnings".

242. Barnardo's commented that "it does seem a legal absurdity that a young woman under 16 years of age can be convicted of soliciting and labelled a 'common prostitute' when she is not old enough to give consent to sexual intercourse". They added that terms such as "young prostitute" or "child prostitute" disguise the reality of a child who is being abused.[261]

243. In its consultation paper on child protection, issued last February, the Government states that it

"believes that children who become involved in prostitution should be seen primarily as children in need of welfare services and in many instances protection under the Children Act. We propose to encourage Area Child Protection Committees to take an active interest in the problem of children who have become involved in prostitution in their area, and to develop a protocol for handling this type of situation at an individual and a policy level. Close co-operation between all agencies, but in particular the police and SSDs, will be important."[262]

244. We welcome these comments by the Government. We recommend that prostitution involving children under the age of 16 should be recognised as a child protection issue. Pimps and those who seek out children for paid or unpaid sexual gratification should be treated as child sex offenders. We call on the Government to bring forward proposals for amending the law, if necessary, and issue guidelines for police and prosecutors accordingly.

245. Elsewhere in this report we refer to and support other recommendations made by Sir William Utting in relation to the registration and inspection of private foster carers (paragraph 136 above), abuse in foster care (paragraph 143 above), the need for increased capacity in residential homes (paragraph 170 above), and appropriate targets for training of residential workers (paragraph 195 above).

246. We urge the Ministerial Task Force now considering the way forward to acknowledge that People Like Us is a report which should be implemented, notwithstanding the resource implications.


251  HC (1996-97) 314-I, para 144. Back

252  Cm 3793, pp 32-33. Back

253  The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: The UK's First Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (HMSO, 1994), pp 4-5. A second report to the UN Committee is due to be submitted at the end of 1998: see Official Report, 11 May 1998, col. 39; and CLA 5K, pp 2-3. Back

254  See paragraph 30 above. Back

255  Children's Rights Office, Proposal for an Office of Children's Rights Commissioner (1997). Back

256  Ibid. Back

257  Q889-90. Back

258  Sir William Utting et al., People Like Us: The Report of the Review of the Safeguards for Children Living Away From Home (TSO, 1997). Back

259  Childhood Matters: Report of the National Commission of Inquiry into the Prevention of Child Abuse (TSO, 1996). Back

260  Q799. Back

261  Barnardo's, Children Abused Through Prostitution: Report for Parliamentary All-Party Group on Children (January 1998), p 8 (not printed). Back

262  DoH consultation paper, Working Together to Safeguard Children: New Government Proposals for Inter-Agency Co-operation (1998), p 46. Back


 
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