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Mr. Nicholas Winterton: My hon. Friend mentioned advocacy. Does he share my view that there should be a clear advocate for children--I do not go so far as to ask for a Ministry for children--within Government, on any legislative matter that directly affects them?

Mr. Syms: We should consider that point seriously, but more often the problem for a child in a home is finding someone to talk to who is not part of the institution. In the Health Committee, we heard about children being able to talk to the gardeners, for example. They need someone to talk their life out with, as most children do routinely with their own parents.

The Bill is a step in the right direction. If we get it wrong with these children and fail to give them more educational qualifications and offer them better guidance, society as a whole will pay the price not only in terms of crime but financially for the taxpayer. Sometimes we seem to be penny wise and pound foolish when it comes to looking after our young people. We are all aware of the importance of ensuring that they have the best possible start in life.

There is much consensus, although that does not stop Opposition Members asking hard questions. We are making a lot of progress. I have been pleased to contribute today, and I have learned a great deal.

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1.21 pm

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting): I, too, welcome this debate, which gives us an opportunity to raise issues about the welfare and protection of children. In his opening speech, my hon. Friend the Minister of State touched on a wide range of issues. He was right to point out the commitment that the Government have shown on this very important matter.

Many interrelated factors affect children and young people, including where the family lives, what the environment is like, whether the father or mother is working, what the education system is like, whether the child goes to school and whether there is crime in the area. The evidence shows that if, sadly, the family is living in what is now known as social exclusion, that family will find life very hard indeed and the youngsters will often be deeply affected. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will have that high on his list of commitments in his Budget next week.

We have heard moving speeches from Welsh Members about the abuses in children's homes in north Wales. The report by Sir Ronald Waterhouse clearly showed the lack or the weakness of the policies of organisations that were there to protect the children. Sadly, we know that they failed those youngsters.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State will recall the Adjournment debate that I had on 15 February, when I called for the appointment of a children's commissioner. He referred then, as he did this morning, to the appointment of a children's rights director. We will watch with interest the appointment of the director. I hope that he or she will have wide-ranging powers and, above all, will regularly consult young people and organisations for the protection of children.

I meet regularly with ombudsmen and women and commissioners for children through my work in the Council of Europe. They all speak of their success in building up confidence with children and children's organisations. I hope that, in the coming months, the new director will work on that.

Before I came to this House, I chaired the children's committee of one of the largest London authorities, the London borough of Hammersmith. From my experiences, I know that we need a clear policy on the accountability of Government Departments. Often in local government, the roles of committees overlap and one finds repeatedly that Departments believe that an aspect of legislation is not their responsibility. The Government's proposals must make clear which organisation is responsible.

I hope that the director will encourage children's organisations to co-operate on proposals to strengthen the law as it relates to children's rights. Also, we must get their opinions on legislation on children's rights and protection. We must seek at all times the views of children and young people; sadly, that has not been done often in the past.

I am one of the British delegation from this Parliament to the Council of Europe, where I chair the Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee, which looks at all issues concerning family life, especially those relating to children. Sadly, the work of the Council of Europe--and our opportunities to meet representatives of the 41 member states--is rarely discussed in this Parliament.

I was in Paris on Wednesday chairing the Committee. We had four items on the agenda concerning children, including the role and responsibility of different

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Governments on children. We learned a great deal. The Council of Europe--which has existed for 50 years--was at the forefront in the preparation of the UN convention on the rights of the child, and we have a close involvement with UNICEF. I hope that the Government and the director will work closely with the Council of Europe. We have the opportunity to learn from other member states about the legislation they have introduced and how it works. The House has missed the opportunity of working with the Council of Europe and its Committees for too long.

I have one or two specific issues to raise. First, there has recently been much coverage of the court cases involving paedophiles. Those who abuse children, boys or girls, are dangerous and evil people. They often totally refuse to accept the damage that they have done to children. The Waterhouse report makes that damage clear, and my hon. Friend the Minister mentioned the number of young people who have been abused who take their own lives. All the evidence shows that the rest suffer throughout their lives as a result of the abuse.

I welcome the register of sex offenders, but I hope that we will make it clear that when such people are released from prison, as some will be, they will never work with children again. Wandsworth prison, in my constituency, has one of the biggest rule 43 units in the country. It contains men who have committed offences against children, and some who have been convicted of rape. When one meets those men, one soon learns that they have no regrets about what they have done to children and young people. If they are released from prison--and I am not one to say that they should never be released--we should have effective safeguards in place to ensure that they never work with children or young people again. It is the duty of the Government and local authorities to ensure that. I accept that it is not always easy to prevent sex offenders from working with children--people can move to different areas and adopt new identities. However, we must make it clear that we will not tolerate offenders being allowed to work with children again.

My second point concerns pornography. Our society has changed enormously and many of the things that we now see on television would have deeply shocked people just a few years ago. They would not even have been allowed to be shown on television. I am deeply concerned about the growth of pornography. Often, we read that the only type of pornography that individuals want is that which involves young people and children.

A case was reported in the national press only this week of a head teacher who was sent to prison for five months. I wonder whether a sentence of five months for someone who has been involved in child pornography is long enough. I would like to know much more about the case because the sentence seems inadequate. The House must remember that the person involved was a primary school head teacher.

Some people claim that although their interest is in child pornography, they are very different from people who trade in such material. I see no difference at all--young people are abused to make that material. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, who will wind up the debate, will assure the House that the courts will not accept that there is a difference between users of such material and traders in it, and that those users will not be treated more leniently.

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Finally, I come to the question of refugees, especially those who are children. The debate is entitled "Safeguards for Children". In recent weeks, there have been many press stories about women begging with young children. That is a regular sight in my constituency. The begging is frightening and aggressive, and it arouses hostility in decent men and women who are usually generous towards people who have come to this country to escape religious or political persecution at home. It is time something was done.

I have received many complaints from constituents on this matter, and on 7 February I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary asking what action the Government proposed. The reply from the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), outlined the existing legislation and the measures that the Government intend to introduce. I have told my local police that I hope that they will enforce the existing legislation.

On 6 March, I asked the Home Office another question about the numbers of asylum seekers being housed in Greater London. The Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), replied on 13 March. She said that the number of asylum seekers in Greater London area came to 59,350. I shall give the House some examples of the numbers in individual boroughs. There are 570 refugees living in Sutton, 2,540 in Barking and Dagenham, 5,040 in Haringey, and 5,870 in Newham. In my borough of Wandsworth, there are 980 refugees. In her reply, my hon. Friend said that those figures included 3,320 unaccompanied minors under 17. Those youngsters were allowed into the United Kingdom unaccompanied. I make no comment on whether they should have been allowed in, but we have a right to know what kind of welfare and supervision exists for them. For example, who was informed when they came here? Which organisations are looking after them? I do not know the age span of those youngsters because that information was not included in my hon. Friend's reply, but I know that they are under 17.

When we see these very young children taken by, one assumes, their mother on begging expeditions, we have a right to ask whether they go to school, because some of them are of school age. Do we know where they live? Do we know how they live? The responsibilities of Government Departments often overlap, as do those of local authority departments. Surely the welfare and protection of young refugee children is the responsibility of the Department of Health. I hope that if my hon. Friend the Minister cannot tell me today what supervision his Department seeks to enforce on the welfare of these youngsters, he will write to me about it.

The number of refugees living in London is of great concern to many Members of Parliament representing London constituencies, but it is a separate issue from the welfare and protection of these young children. Who is responsible for that? As other hon. Members have said, we are talking about the welfare and protection of all children and young people. We do not mean certain children who come from a different kind of background. The welfare of all children is crucial. I pay tribute again to the work that the Government have been doing. My hon. Friend the Minister of State outlined in his speech the legislation that will be introduced in the coming months.

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We have had an excellent debate in which the Waterhouse report has figured prominently. However, I would like to have more debates on this kind of issue. Members on both sides of the House have mentioned adoption. The Committee that I chair in Europe produced a report on adoption which contained some horrendous findings about the problems and abuse that youngsters can face even when they are adopted. We should have the opportunity to discuss that.

I asked a parliamentary question last week about the number of youngsters held in secure training centres. The reply on 9 March said that 103 youngsters between the ages of 12 and 14 were being held in secure training centres. We never have debates in the House about the system adopted in those centres. That is something else that we should have an opportunity to discuss.

I am glad to have had this opportunity to speak. I have heard interesting and deeply moving speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House. No matter which side we sit on, all hon. Members must be committed to the welfare and protection of children.

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