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Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): President Mugabe first set this course of action a year ago and, last summer, I first raised the matter with the Foreign Secretary in the House. Why did it take until four weeks ago for the Foreign Secretary to meet the Secretary- General of the Commonwealth to discuss this issue, and why has it taken until today to suspend arms exports to Zimbabwe? Surely, the Foreign Secretary could have acted sooner and could have had a real effect on the situation before it reached the dreadful proportions that we now see.

Mr. Cook: On the question of when I saw the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, I saw him four weeks ago, because he took up his post five weeks ago.

On arms exports, no licences have been granted by this Government for military equipment to Zimbabwe since the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo began. We resumed, under strict conditions, licensing in February this year and we have again suspended it. I have to say that what we did in the period between October 1998 and February this year appeared to have no marked effect on the policy of the Government of Zimbabwe.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): We all recognise how the breakdown of human rights in Zimbabwe affects all its citizens, but those of us with family members in the country are naturally particularly concerned about their safety and their future. Do the Government recognise a responsibility to advise those who have a right of abode in this country as well that, if the point is reached when their safety is threatened, they should come to this country? In the event of such a situation arising, do the Government agree that the first call on taxpayers' money should be not a land reform programme that would finally assimilate those Zimbabwean citizens into their society, but help for those who are forced out of that country

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against their will and who would regrettably have to return to this country? They would need assistance from this Government first.

Mr. Cook: Of course, the British Government take very seriously, and know full well, their responsibility to British citizens wherever they are. However, I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that I can think of nothing more likely to incite President Mugabe further to persecute British citizens than to say that we are ready to take them if the circumstances arise and that we will financially support them. Of course we will carry out our obligations, but I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that we should not use language that President Mugabe will use in a speech tomorrow.

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage): I warmly welcome the Foreign Secretary's statement, but will he continue to ensure that he does whatever he can to avoid enabling President Mugabe to turn this debate and controversy into a battle between Britain and himself, because that may help him in his election?

Mr. Cook: I very much share the hon. Gentleman's objective. In everything that I have said, I have sought to make it clear that, although we have problems with the policies of President Mugabe and in particular with his adherence to the rule of law and democratic process, we are a friend of the people of Zimbabwe. In all that we do, we want to make sure that we assist them.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of the cost of Zimbabwe's external troop deployments, notably in Zaire? Was that matter discussed by Commonwealth Ministers and would it be a material factor in the thinking of the right hon. Gentleman in deciding whether the Government should support--and, if so, to what tune--land reform in Zimbabwe?

Mr. Cook: The cost of the Zimbabwean Government's actions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is substantial. It is a point which we have repeatedly raised, and Britain was the only donor present at the 1998 conference in Harare to express concern about that and to say that the removal of that cost would assist in creating the economic and social conditions necessary for progress in Zimbabwe. I also raised the point with the delegation when it was here last week.

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Point of Order

4.19 pm

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek your guidance on whether Members of Parliament are exempt from the various electoral offences legislation. You will have noted that the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), when asking a question to the Prime Minister, sought to give the House information about an on-going count taking place in her constituency. We read every time that we go to a count that it is an electoral offence to give information about the number of people who voted, or how they voted, until the electoral returning officer has made a declaration. I seek your guidance on whether such information should be made available in the House.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley) rose--

Madam Speaker: Order. It is a point of order for me. Let me deal with it. The comments to which the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) refers were made as part of proceedings in Parliament.

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Children's Rights Commissioner

4.20 pm

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): I beg to move,

Madam Speaker: Order. I believe that the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) did not advise the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) that he was going to raise a point of order that concerned her, although she happened to be in the Chamber at the time. It is usual to tell an hon. Member that he or she will be referred to on a point of order.

Mr. Ian Bruce: Madam Speaker, I have been in my place throughout.

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman might have informed the hon. Lady on another occasion. He usually observes the courtesies of the House, and that is why I remind him of them on this occasion.

Mr. Dawson: On Monday, we had a gang of fools outside the House throwing around hate, obscenities and their weight. They were telling us how radical they are. It was pathetic nonsense. It is the Bill that is properly radical.

The Bill is founded on an understanding of something that all of us as adults are tempted to ignore, and that is that children are powerless and have no voice. It is easy to ignore children and put them aside. At best, we often treat them as objects of concern rather than human beings with rights and a developing sense of who they are and who they want to be.

Children are the hope of the world. There are good people on both sides of the House who care about their well-being and who want to help, but children are still ignored and abused in one of the richest countries on earth. Millions are undone by poverty. They are undermined by restricted opportunities, crummy services and poor and sometimes downright neglectful parenting. As a result, some die. Many prosper and do well, but many more just get by and get through. We could do so much more for all of them and with all of them.

It is a good Bill, but I had no hand in its creation. It was drafted by Peter Newell, a leading advocate for the human rights of children. Thanks to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and 100 children's organisations which support it, I am able to claim that this is the best supported ten-minute Bill of this Parliament, and perhaps of many previous Parliaments.

Thousands of people have contacted hon. Members about the Bill. Every hon. Member must have received at least one letter from a constituent asking him or her to support it. Its time has truly come. The Government have great ambitions for children and I believe that they could bring things about. This is a year of terrific progress because we now know what the Government are going to do in Wales. That is good for Wales, the Welsh Assembly and for Sir Ronald Waterhouse.

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I am delighted that the Government have said that they are to bring forward an amendment to the Care Standards Bill and introduce further legislation to ensure that all children in Wales have access to a commissioner for children. However, the issue is fundamental and of overwhelming importance to all children in the United Kingdom, as well as to the concepts of citizenship that the Government and every Member of this place should be keen to promote.

We shall fail all the 13.2 million children in the United Kingdom if we do not understand that rights and the necessity for an independent body to promote those rights are as important in relation to children as they are in relation to race, equal opportunities and disability.

Children are powerless by definition because they have no vote. The one simple message from the grim succession of child abuse inquiries is that children have no voice. Until we truly hear what children are saying to us and until we have a children's champion--a commissioner for children's rights--we shall continue disregarding them and repeating the mistakes of past.

As a social worker with children, I supported the proposal for many years and have continued to pursue the matter since arriving in the House of Commons three years ago. I am humbly aware that colleagues--many of whom are in the Chamber and have been here much longer than I have--have been assiduous in pursuing the matter over the past decade. The 1992 Labour manifesto proposed having a commissioner, and the post has been recommended by successive Health Committee reports, most recently in 1998. Whenever they can, colleagues on both sides of the House raise the matter.

The proposal for a children's rights commissioner is the epitome of joined-up Government and would be a proper foundation for modern services for children based on our commitment to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. The commissioner would promote the participation of children and young people in society in future. He would analyse the impact of Government policies on children and would provide the ultimate backstop to ensure that systems designed to protect children do not let them down.

The commissioner would need real power to investigate and undertake public inquiries, produce his own reports and require that he is consulted. He would also need power to insist that Departments and other bodies issue child impact statements on policy proposals and to ensure that he is involved in the reporting obligations of Government under the UN convention on the rights of the child.

I have heard only one Government criticism of the proposal, which is that it would be bureaucratic. On the contrary, the post of children's rights commissioner would be exciting, challenging, enabling and empowering.

Ideally, a children's rights commissioner for England would have linked offices in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. The post would be statutory and would have good links with Government at Westminster and in devolved areas. The commissioner would, above all, be known to every child in the land, and he would commission surveys and research and listen to children. He would help to develop structures at every level to enable children to participate in decision making.

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He would represent their views at the highest level, scrutinise the impact of proposed policies on children, consult them and ensure that their voices are heard.

The commissioner would have a small staff. It would be impossible and, indeed, inappropriate for him to take on the problems of every troubled child. However, he would have a crucial role in ensuring that existing systems work and that children do not fall through the net. He would have a good link to organisations such as Childline and could use his position as a figurehead to ensure that children who turned to him got the appropriate help at the proper level.

I congratulate the Government on the establishment in the Care Standards Bill of a children's rights director, who will have responsibility for the 55,000 children in local authority care and the 150,000 living away from home in residential and boarding schools. That is an important step, and the director will perform a vital role which, however, should not be confused with that of a commissioner for all children. Indeed, it should not be characterised as such.

All children need to be listened to and have their rights protected. That is not an attack on parents, all of whom should be firm advocates of children's right to question how we look at the world and assert their ideas of how things should be.

The Care Standards Bill will soon come before the House and, along with the necessary amendments and subsequent legislation, will ensure that children in Wales will be on a par with children in Austria, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Australia, British Columbia, New Zealand and South Africa. Why cannot that be the case in England and the rest of the United Kingdom?

A children's rights commissioner could help to change how we relate to children and engage with them properly as citizens of tomorrow rather than the passive objects of our concern. The Government have vision, and commitment to fundamental change would be praised by all those NSPCC letter writers, all the supporters of the 100 child care organisations throughout the land and millions of decent people across the United Kingdom. Even more important, it would be praised by those adults of the future who, having grown up with a children's rights commissioner, would look back on its creation as a great reform--one that equipped them to express themselves more articulately and to challenge more effectively than Monday's mob outside.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Hilton Dawson, Mrs. Llin Golding, Mr. Alan Simpson, Mr. David Drew, Mr. Paul Burstow, Angela Smith, Mrs. Betty Williams, Mr. Mark Todd, Mr. Ian Stewart, Mr. Russell Brown, Ms Julie Morgan and Charlotte Atkins.

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