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1.45 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): We have rightly had a sober debate about a subject that demanded it. We are discussing safeguards for children, the most vulnerable people in our society whether they are in foster care, adoption or even boarding school. There are 13 million children in the United Kingdom. Many of those of whom we have spoken have special needs, making them even more vulnerable.

The Minister of State, Department of Health said that 32 police inquiries are going on into child abuse--a chilling statistic. The Waterhouse report is one of the most disturbing documents that I have ever read. The prospect of its being the tip of the iceberg should make us all feel cold. We are talking about sexual, physical and mental abuse. Children in our care must have proper protection, the best that we can afford them. We must put strategies in place to ensure sufficient detection and prosecution.

As the Minister said, no one who reads the report can fail to be shocked. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), as Secretary of State for Wales, began the judicial review into the care of children in 70 homes in Clwyd and Gwynedd from 1974 onwards. The review began in 1997--it was a long time in coming. Waterhouse has made 72 recommendations across a comprehensive range including training, care planning, fostering breakdown, staff recruitment, the duty to report abuse and vitally important whistleblowing procedures.

The role of elected members is also mentioned at page 224. I was a West Glamorgan county councillor for six years, and I do not think that sufficient stress was laid on what my duties should be in regard to children in our care. That recommendation must be fully implemented, and councillors must be given sufficient advice and training in what to look for. I was a young councillor, and even if I had been told what to look for, I am not sure that I would have had the tools and wisdom to see it. Councillors have a vital role, and I am disturbed that the Government's response to the report seems to be slipping. I hope that the Minister will reassure us on when the Government will respond. I heard what the Secretary of State for Wales had to say in the St. David's day debate--on 2 March--and was grateful for it.

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Several hon. Members have discussed the need for more foster care, as the Minister did when he opened the debate. He said that there are 32,000 foster carers, and that he wants more. We welcome that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) has set up a commission to consider fostering and adoption. The Minister will welcome all the advice he can get when he considers how to persuade more youngsters into foster care or adoption.

Education is important. A constituent of mine who is a foster parent has a statemented child with special needs. We must ensure that there is proper provision for that child within the area where he or she happens to be. It is not appropriate to put a child on a bus, or in a taxi, to travel to school many miles outside the area, when schools are available locally. That child was offered 10 hours education a week. That is not suitable; I hope that the local authorities will ensure that there is proper provision for children who are being fostered, as such situations will continue to arise.

The roles of the children's commissioner and the children's rights director have been mentioned. The precise title of that person does not bother me, as long as the duties are such that they ensure the proper protection of children. I am sure that the Minister is fully aware of the request by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children that the commissioner should operate throughout the country. The commissioner should be fully independent, but should have a wide remit that does not only cover children in care.

The Minister will also know that the NSPCC's call is supported by several reputable organisations, including Barnardos, Childline, UNICEF UK and Oxfam. In opinion polls on an independent office for children, 85 per cent. of those responding said yes. It is obviously a matter that we must consider carefully.

The Minister mentioned the beacon councils of Suffolk, Wakefield, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster. We applaud the good work that they are doing and look forward to the time when the best practice in those areas rolls around to the rest of the country.

The hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and several other hon. Members mentioned recommendation 71 of the Waterhouse report, which deals with Jillings. It is right that that recommendation be taken on board. It deals with the problem of advice from lawyers acting on behalf of local authorities. We should examine the role played by insurance companies during that time to ensure that reports, such as Jillings, will never be suppressed in future. Had that report become public earlier, several children who were abused would not have suffered in that way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) referred to the measures on which the Government have already embarked. We welcome that. They are building on legislation that was introduced by the Conservative Government and we support what they are doing. However, my hon. Friend is right to question some aspects of those measures. He referred to the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill; the ink is hardly dry on some of the Government's proposals. However, we shall support any common-sense measures proposed by the Government to try to eradicate the abuses that we have been discussing.

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The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Mr. Ruane) spoke eloquently on the Waterhouse report; he showed great knowledge of the subject--of the problems of abuse and of the number of inquiries that are currently under way. When people realise how many police inquiries and internal inquiries have been set up, they will scratch their heads and wonder why we are holding the debate and why action was not taken sooner to ensure that some of the problems were sorted out. The hon. Gentleman also referred to the wider implications of the Waterhouse report.

The right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), whose reputation on this matter precedes him, talked about the urgency of adopting the Waterhouse recommendations. He was right to do so. He too referred to recommendations 71 and 72 and to the string of previous reports.

The hon. Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) spoke about the cover-ups over previous reports. That too relates to recommendation 71. It is disturbing that a cover-up could take place, as is the fact that people in positions of responsibility were involved in abuse. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and his hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd, that there is no reason why we should not make public the names of those who have admitted carrying out abuse. However, the hon. Member for Clwyd, South will also know that another reason why such names should be made public is to exonerate innocent people who have been under suspicion. If the names are not published, suspicion might always linger around those people. It is right that people who have been involved in abuse be properly investigated, and I hope that I correctly understood the hon. Gentleman to say that they should be properly investigated and that those who have not yet been brought to justice should be brought to justice as soon as possible.

Mr. Martyn Jones: That is precisely what I was saying, but I was also trying to say that people should be named only if they have not been properly investigated, for the sole purpose of bringing their names into the public domain to protect children from potential abuse.

Mr. Evans: I also assume that all the people under suspicion in cases described in the Waterhouse report would have been properly investigated before the report came anywhere near us. I can only hope that the Minister will give us some assurance that all those names have been properly investigated.

The hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) spoke about the need for better strategies and the involvement of the voluntary sector. I agree with her on that.

The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd spoke feelingly about some anecdotal evidence of abuse. The nine suicides that he mentioned are chilling indeed. He also asked the Minister that the parents of Craig Wilson be given information about the death of their son. I find it astonishing that that information has not previously been given. We add our support to the request that the parents be given information as to what happened leading up to the death of their son.

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) spoke, also with passion, about the restoration of the years of innocence; we can only agree with him on that. It seems as though children become

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adults suddenly at the age of three or four, which is rather sad. Therefore, I believe that we could all support the restoration of the years of innocence. My hon. Friend also spoke with great knowledge, with his experience on the Select Committee on Social Services and the Select Committee on Health, about the stress and trauma experienced by professionals involved in abuse cases. We too easily forget the stress and trauma that must build up in people who are involved in such cases. The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) gave a prelude to that when she spoke about her involvement in the passage of the Protection of Children Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield also spoke about the businesses that have become involved in what might be described as a twinning arrangement with children's homes. We should encourage many businesses to form such links, to afford opportunities to youngsters who otherwise would not get them.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stourbridge on the work that she has done in steering the Protection of Children Bill through the House; it is now the Protection of Children Act 1999. She spoke with great passion about the knowledge that she gained--the learning experience of steering the Bill through the House--and suggestions that she now has to improve on the 1999 Act. The Government should listen carefully to her calls for a strong United Kingdom commissioner for children. The hon. Lady also spoke about the fact that the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill will build on the 1999 Act. We applaud that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), who also has experience on the Health Committee, spoke about the abuses of migrants from the UK to Australia as children. He also spoke with emotion about the fact that he can still go to his parents' house and play with his toys. [Hon. Members: "How often?"] Probably on a regular basis. We were all heartened by that, but of course he is saying something important about the fact that youngsters in care do not have the same sort of building blocks that the rest of have--the security that we all have from knowing that we can always go home to our parents. He also spoke about the vital need for the pathway plans for those up to the age of 21.

The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) has enormous experience in considering these issues at the Council of Europe. I wish that more were done with the Council of Europe's reports. Perhaps more debates on its recommendations could take place in the House, but I congratulate him on the hard work that he has done. He spoke with passion about the evils of paedophilia, and I do not suspect that anyone in the House would disagree with a single word that he said about that.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke with feeling--I am glad that he did--about the problems with asylum seekers. We are debating the welfare of children and that means all the children who reside in this country. Social services have a serious role in that, and the Government have a duty to take a strong position on the way in which children and babies are used as tools for begging on the streets and on the tube by, in the main, eastern European refugees. Children and babies should not be used in that way.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of the fact that children wander about on their own, begging. I have seen youngsters as young as 12 or 13 carrying younger children with them. That is quite appalling. It is totally wrong for

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youngsters to spend hours on the underground or on the streets and to carry even younger children with them in the attempt to shame people into giving money. That must be stopped as a matter of urgency. A strategy must be put in place for refugees and their children while they are in this country. The Government must not turn a blind eye to a growing and appalling practice.

I applaud the work of charities, such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which do so much work. This week, I met representatives of the NSPCC who told me that, last year, they were called into 82 investigations because of their knowledge of working with children and in children's homes. Local authorities use the NSPCC as an independent source to investigate particular problems and I have already said that it has called for an independent children's commissioner.

Conservative Members believe that much has already been done in the legislation that we introduced and since the inquiry that was set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks. We passed several pieces of legislation when we were in government and we have supported this Government's legislation on this issue since 1997. It is right that we consider and scrutinise such legislation carefully to ensure that it is right and proper and does the job that we want. Too many people will read this debate and wonder why more was not done in the past by both Governments and by social services under the political direction of all parties.

The system has let down the children, and this debate is about them. They do not have a voice other than through us here. That is why we must redouble our efforts to ensure that we introduce the right measures to protect them. It has been said--and I can only agree--that we shall not fully eliminate the problem, but that should not stop us trying. We cannot prevent individual cases from happening, but we must ensure that the wholesale abuse that was revealed in the Waterhouse report and other inquires never again happens to children in care. The Government will always receive the support of the official Opposition for any common-sense measures that will help to prevent the most corrosive and squalid practices from happening in our society.

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