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1.1 pm

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge): This debate is important. The Protection of Children Act 1999 introduced me to information which I wish I had never known. It churns my stomach, reduces me to tears and is more than I can cope with on some occasions. "People Like Us"--the Utting report--and the Waterhouse report have shown that we have clearly failed to protect children. They have been abused, attacked and neglected. For far too long, they have been left with nowhere to turn, their voices have not been heard and they have not been believed.

I thank hon. Members who have mentioned the Protection of Children Act and its measures. I had the honour of taking the Bill through the House. As a result I learned exactly where there are gaps in legislation and how very much more needs to be done. As a Back Bencher, I was limited in the amount that I could do, which hugely upset and frustrated me.

In the light of "Lost in Care", there have been many calls in the House and from children's charities for a commissioner for children, which I fully support. This debate has highlighted discussion of which areas the commissioner should cover. There is certainly consensus that care homes should be covered, but how much wider the remit should be is under discussion. There is compelling evidence of the need for a United Kingdom-wide commissioner. I certainly believe that the remit should reach beyond care homes for children.

In responding to my intervention, my hon. Friend the Minister suggested that an English version of the commissioner would be similar and that the matter was one of title. I am not quibbling over matters of title; it is the content that is vital. We need a strong commissioner. I would welcome more thoughts on the matter from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales in his winding-up speech. I should like to know whether he agrees, first, that a UK-wide commissioner, of whatever name, would be an important step in supporting and protecting children, and secondly, that confining a commissioner's role to care homes would be far too restrictive.

I turn briefly to measures regarding leaving care, which have been raised. I welcome the measures in the Children (Leaving Care) Bill. For far too long, children who have no family or parental support have been brought up in care homes and left with little or no support once they leave. It is up to the Government to do something about that. It is to their credit that they are tackling the issue, and I truly welcome the measures taken.

Nevertheless, people working with these young people have told me that they have some concerns. Although they do an excellent job, the resources available to them are limited. They will require support, training and more resources to implement the important and correct innovations proposed in the Children (Leaving Care) Bill. I hope that the Minister is able to offer some reassurances that they will receive that support.

I cannot adequately express to the House how happy I am with some aspects of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill. As I said, the Protection of Children Act

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1999 has great limitations. However, some of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill's provisions will build on and greatly enhance the powers provided in the Act, to help stop those who are identified as unsuitable to work with children from moving with impunity from one type of employment to another. Such provision is vital.

It is my understanding that the Bill will apply to those who work in a wide range of employment, including those working in education, health, social care, accommodation, leisure and sporting activities, religious activities and the criminal justice system.

It is my understanding that the Bill will also provide for a ban on such people working with children regardless of the status of their employment, whether it is paid or unpaid, public or private, or--within the definition--in the voluntary or volunteering sectors. As I have said in the House on a number of occasions, inclusion in legislation of the voluntary and volunteering sector is extremely important. I tried to include it in the Protection of Children Act, but was not able to do so because sanctions could not be applied to it. We have to make such provision, and the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill will tackle the issue. I hugely welcome the Bill, as it will, for the first time, provide an integrated system to cover those who work with children.

However, I am not sure that the provisions of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill will make it a statutory requirement to vet employees in all the spheres that I have just mentioned. In the Protection of Children Act, in certain circumstances, vetting of volunteers is permissible, but it is not a statutory requirement. It is vital that vetting in all those spheres be made a statutory requirement, and I should be very pleased if my hon. Friend the Minister clarified whether the Bill will make it a requirement.

I raised the issue of domestic violence in an earlier intervention, but it is worth raising again. The sad truth is that many children end up in care because of family breakdowns and violence in the family. For too long, the issue of violence in the home has been hidden. Now it is being revealed as a very widespread phenomenon. I welcome the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's full stop campaign.

I also welcome the Daphne project, which, under the auspices of various organisations--including my union, the GMB--is being piloted in the west midlands. It will make violence in the home a workplace issue. I had the honour of launching the pilot scheme, which will train managers and union convenors to recognise the signs of violence in the home and offer help and advice in the workplace. It is a huge step forward that a very large trade union, such as the GMB, and some important businesses in the west midlands have agreed to pilot the scheme, and I thank them for doing so.

I anticipate that the scheme will be a success, as there is much good will behind it. A similar pilot is being conducted in Spain. Should the initiative prove successful, it will be launched Europe wide.

I am proud that we have a Government who are putting children at the heart of their decision making. I welcome my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's endeavours substantially to reduce child poverty, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's sincere pledge to work for

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children. That commitment by the Government is not only enormously important, but hugely complicated. From my experience with the Protection of Children Act, I know that a great deal of interdepartmental co-operation is required to implement such a commitment, and that, even with good will, the job can be immensely difficult.

I should like to tell the House a small anecdote about the Protection of Children Act, to illustrate my point. All the time I was battling for more. Three Departments were primarily concerned with the Bill--the Department of Health, which had the lead responsibility, the Department for Education and Employment and the Home Office. Several other Departments also had significant input. I had large meetings and was frequently told, "Ms Shipley, you can't do that." I said, "Why? This is very important." On occasions I needed to get three Secretaries of State to agree something before it could happen. Perhaps that is right. That interdepartmental co-operation--

Mr. Win Griffiths: What my hon. Friend is saying is interesting. I think that there may be up to 10 Departments involved in some matters relating to children. In Wales we decided to have a Minister for children. I wonder whether my hon. Friend has given any thought to that for England.

Ms Shipley: How right my hon. Friend is. He anticipates the direction of my thoughts. The arcane structures of the House worked in my favour, because during a Division I was able to find three Secretaries of State in the Lobby with me. I could rush up to each of them, grab their elbow and say, "Look, this is really important."

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: Very important.

Ms Shipley: I hear supportive words from Conservative Members. Excellent though that facility was on that occasion, it is surely wrong that chance should play a part in such an important aspect of legislation.

There is a need for one person to be responsible for children's issues and to co-ordinate all the varying and very tangled strands relating to children. I received great good will on my Bill from all the Departments involved, but even so it was difficult to bring about the measures that everybody wanted. That is not good enough. The time has come for a Minister for children at least. I have given the matter a good deal of consideration and I believe that it is time for an entire Department for children, because they are a huge and very important topic. Every time we take a little step in the right direction, we find that there is a huge amount more to be done. There is currently nobody responsible for pulling together those strands. Without someone, we shall carry on failing our children.

1.13 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), who, for 17 years, did excellent work on Select Committees on topics such as this. He had two excellent years as the Chairman of the Health Committee before he was the victim of a putsch, which was one of the most short-sighted deeds of the previous Parliament.

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My hon. Friend always says things as he sees them, and if we had more Members of Parliament like him people would have more respect for the House.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) for the Protection of Children Act 1999, which she piloted through the House. It is an excellent Act, but very technical and complex and it will be difficult to get it fully operational. The hon. Lady acknowledges that there are one or two holes in it. We may have to revisit the issue. However, it is one of her major achievements in this Parliament.

The fact that she happened to be in the Division Lobby and was able to grab two or three Ministers is a good thing. The way in which we vote is excellent, because it enables Back Benchers to talk to Ministers, even for only a minute or two, to mention their concerns. No electronic system could substitute for that. I know that people sometimes regret the current system on hot, sweaty evenings, but it is a good system.

I serve on the Health Committee. One of the most harrowing investigations that we have done in this Parliament was on child migrants. This country had a history of sending young children to the colonies. In the 1950s and 1960s--I think until 1972--we sent young people to Australia.

The Select Committee went to Australia to talk to people who had come from children's homes in Liverpool, Bristol and Coventry and had ended up in children's homes in the outback, 500 miles from Perth. Many of them had suffered abuse. On meeting those people, who are now in their 50s and 60s, we were struck by the collateral damage that they had suffered. Many of them had experienced divorce, prison or mental hospital and all sorts of other personal problems which stemmed from their dreadful upbringing and the abuse that they had undergone. Many speeches today have referred to the consequences of abuse, which can be a ticking time bomb for many years afterwards.

Safeguarding children is extremely important. As my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield said, perhaps the House does not spend enough time on it and today's debate is welcome. I agree with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) that the best place for children is in a traditional loving family. Our job is to look after those who unfortunately do not have that advantage.

I should like to touch on a few points. We are all aware that we are not doing as well as we would like in respect of adoption. It can take five years for a child over five to find a family. That is far too long. We have to redouble our efforts to place children. Many people would like to adopt. I know that sufficient checks have to be made, but bureaucracy sometimes gets in the way of children finding loving homes.

The unsung heroes of children are the 32,000 foster carers in Britain. We all know many people in our constituencies who foster children for precious little reward. They sometimes have concerns and difficulties with children who may have been damaged, yet they continue to care, and do so good humouredly. They and their families put a great deal into supporting those children. We have to consider whether the rewards are adequate. Some local authorities do not reward foster carers as well as private agencies do and people are

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tempted to come off the local authority list. That is wrong because foster carers are a tremendous resource that we should value.

The Health Committee also considered looked-after children and the relationship between local authorities and children. That inquiry took place at about the same time as the William Utting report "People Like Us". Many of us were shocked by the way in which the system operated and the fact that children have to leave children's homes at 16, which is very early. Children living at home with their parents usually decide when they want to leave. Quite often it is when they are beyond their teens, but they still have their bedrooms at home. Sometimes even when one gets married one can go back to one's parents, look at the toys in the cupboard and feel that there is a refuge.

For many 16-year-olds who have only ever lived in a children's home, the moment they go out the door their posters come down and their bed is allocated to someone else. In many cases they are discouraged from returning to the home. It is considered that the job has been done and they have to leave. In 1993, 33 per cent. of 16-year-olds had left care. The figure has now gone up to 46 per cent., and 75 per cent. of them leave homes with no educational qualifications. We should be greatly concerned by that.

The Children (Leaving Care) Bill is a good Bill that deserves all our support. It is very much in line with the proposals of the Health Committee to encourage children to stay at home until they are 18. We were hoping for 21, but it is a good start. Pathway plans for young people up to 21 covering education, training and careers and providing support is also a good idea. Young person advisers are also a step in the right direction. We found that many young people need advice and someone to act as an advocate. That is a good way forward. The points in the Bill about vocational support--at university, for instance--education and training are very good.

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