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Children's Ombudsman

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Allen.]

1.11 am

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting): I am a member of the British parliamentary delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe--a Parliamentary Assembly of 41 member states. I chair the social, health and family affairs committee of that Assembly and I am the rapporteur for the European strategy for children. The committee that I chair has produced many major reports, especially on issues that concern the welfare and protection of children, such as child abuse, international adoption, the effects of social exclusion, child labour, sexual abuse, child soldiers and refugee children. I work very closely with the United Nations Children's Fund on children's matters.

The aim of my debate tonight is to seek the appointment of an ombudsperson for children--or as some countries say, a commissioner for children. Within the Council of Europe a number of member states, such as Norway, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg and Iceland, already have such an ombudsperson or similar organisation to consult with children and to protect children's interests. Many countries in other parts of the world--Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Costa Rica and Guatemala--have either an ombudsperson or a commissioner. Other European countries are at present considering such an appointment. The role of the ombudsperson is to work with children, to listen to their concerns, to ensure that their rights are safeguarded and developed and to work and co-ordinate with children's organisations on issues of concern.

I have spoken many times to the people who perform the role of ombudsperson. They speak in support of that role, and describe the confidence of young people in contacting them on issues of concern. We can point to examples of European countries where an ombudsperson has been successful in developing the rights of the young and protecting their interests and welfare.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister would be the first to agree that one of the major achievements on the protection and welfare of children was the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Sadly, the Committee that I chair at the Council of Europe knows that children's interests are still often totally disregarded. In the United Kingdom, no independent body is responsible for promoting children's rights in this country. There are many excellent child care organisations and they do excellent work in the interests of young people, but I do not think that anyone would dispute that there is far too much duplication and overlapping of their work.

An ombudsperson would be there to consolidate the views of various children's organisations. There is clear evidence that that is what such organisations want. That is what they tell me, as I shall confirm later in my speech. I am often told that paper commitments are not enough and that what Governments say they will do and what they actually do are not always the same thing.

We know some of what has been done regarding our systems. Inadequate measures are in existence to enable children's views to be listened to when decisions about them are made. I regularly speak to youngsters attending

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junior schools in my constituency and, in the past two weeks, I have visited St. Mary's Church of England and Ravenstone junior school, both in Balham. The youngsters to whom I speak are knowledgeable, intelligent and want to ask many questions. They repeatedly ask, "Why don't they listen to us, Mr. Cox?" They are right. Why do we not listen to the views that youngsters want to express?

We know that not enough attention is given to the importance of respecting the best interests of children in legislation. There is no independent system of monitoring how legislation works for the benefit of youngsters. Despite Government initiatives, there is very deep concern about the welfare and protection of young children in this country. One has only to ask child care organisations for their views.

How can youngsters make their views known to a Government Department or a Minister? Do we have press or television campaigns saying that the Government are considering changing the law or introducing a new one that will concern young people and do we say to them, "We want to hear what you think about it"? We know that young people need people to pursue their rights. What independent body exists in this country with the responsibility to monitor or, indeed, promote children's rights here? If there is one, I hope that my hon. will tell the House about it.

That is surely just the role for which an ombudsperson would be responsible. I ask the Minister to check the role and work of the ombudsperson in those countries that have such a post and consider the trust, the respect and the achievements that have been made. We know that young people have views, concerns and needs, but where are their rights? We talk about human rights, but when do we talk about or develop systems in which children's rights are promoted or even talked about?

We often hear of the most appalling cases of child abuse--either sexual or physical. In last Sunday's Sunday Express, there was an article on the report that has now been published by Sir Ronald Waterhouse, who headed the inquiry into sexual abuse at children's homes in north Wales where 650 allegations of abuse were made. In that article, the child protection director of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Neil Hunt, said of the inquiry:

Yesterday, The Times published a letter from the NSPCC's chief executive and the president of the Association of Directors of Social Services, which was headed, "Abused children need a champion". It said:

    "The NSPCC and the ADSS are united in calling for the Government to appoint an independent Children's Commissioner to champion the needs of UK children".

Today the House heard the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales on that report. The comments that I have read out, including those made by the leader of the inquiry, set out the role that an ombudsman would play.

I fully support the introduction in recent years of bodies to promote the interests of women and disabled people, such as the Equal Opportunities Commission and the

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Disability Rights Commission, and the Commission for Racial Equality. However, there is still nothing for children.

The Minister may well tell me about the provisions for the children's director in the Care Standards Bill, but many organisations that work with children have expressed clear reservations about that appointment. They think that the terms of reference are too narrow and they remain committed to the establishment of an independent ombudsman. There is no great support in this country for the appointment of a children's director.

We all know that children have no vote, no political power, and often no formal way of making their views known. What influence do they have in any lobby or institution that informs political change? We know that when children's issues are determined, whether at a national or local government level, the responsibilities for children's services are often split between different departments and there is poor communication or collaboration between them.

We should think of the appalling, brutal cases of child abuse with which we are familiar. In many of those cases, children died as a result of the abuse that they suffered. The point that is repeatedly made in the inquiries that follow those cases is that there was a lack of co-ordination between the agencies that were supposedly involved in securing the welfare of the abused children.

The committee on the rights of the child, which was established to monitor the implementation of the United Nations convention, said that without an independent role to monitor progress, children's rights are rarely given the priority and scrutiny that they require. The committee clearly recommended the appointment of an ombudsman or a commissioner in the United Kingdom.

I have spoken of the contact that I have with schools in my constituency, and I am sure that all Members have such contact. I suggest to my hon. Friend an ombudsman would be the best way to seek young people's views; to ask them to become involved in projects; to make them aware of the distribution in schools of leaflets and reports on children's rights; and to inform them of issues under discussion which concern them. Indeed, in countries where the post of ombudsperson or commissioner has been established, it has given young children their first opportunity to have direct access, to make their views known, and to be listened to. That is what I want this country to do.

I have already mentioned the views of organisations that work with children in various roles. I have a list of more than 100 such organisations in the UK, all of which support the appointment of an ombudsperson or a commissioner for children. I shall give a short list: the Child Poverty Action Group, Barnardos, the Association of Directors of Social Services, Gingerbread, Family Welfare Association, the Association of Lawyers for Children, the Local Government Association, the National Association for Maternal and Child Welfare, the National Children's Centre, Save the Children, the Council for Disabled Children, the National Children's Bureau, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Royal College of Nursing, UNICEF UK and Oxfam UK. That is an impressive list.

There is also wide support in the country for the appointment of an ombudsperson or commissioner for children. A UK opinion poll held in December 1996 gave

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the following results: 85 per cent. of the people asked said that there should be an ombudsperson; 13 per cent. said that there should not; and 2 per cent. said that they did not know. There is clear and overwhelming support for such an appointment.

In those countries that already have ombudspersons or commissioners, their achievements, the respect they command and the way in which young people relate to them are known. I suggest that it is time for this country to move forward and appoint such a person to promote awareness of children's rights; to analyse and comment on proposed Government legislation or policies in respect of their effect on children and young people; to examine failures to practice and follow guidelines on children's rights; to undertake or commission research relevant to children's rights and interests; and, above all, to establish a system in which children and young people can contact with confidence someone they know will listen to them, in the knowledge that their rights and interests will not be ignored. Many organisations and the vast majority of the general public in this country believe that that would be achieved by the appointment of an ombudsperson.

I, with others, will listen with great interest to the Minister's reply. I hope that what I seek will link with the proposals of the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly for the welfare and protection of young children.

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