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10.8 am

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): It is a convention of the House that one should congratulate an hon. Member on coming high in the ballot, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) not only on that but on his commitment to his Bill and on his Second Reading speech.

I am afraid, however, that I cannot support the Bill. I hope that hon. Members will accept that, as a father, I am totally committed to looking after children properly. They should be loved and cared for. I hold in profound contempt, those who abuse and mistreat children and I strongly believe that they should be subject to the full rigour of the law. I served for a year on the child care commission convened by the right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). I listened to the arguments--with, I hope, an open mind--and tried to move the debate forward so that we could help children in a consensual way.

None the less, I have grave doubts about the Bill, which I shall share with the House. It is too blunt an instrument, which is why, I suspect, the Government are worried about it. The House should be aware of four aspects in particular. First, contrary to what the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre said when he attempted to address the point, there is a possibility that the Bill will infringe the rights of parents. Those rights were discussed in the other place on 3 April, during consideration in Committee of the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill. Lady Young and many others made passing reference to such issues. I know that if the present Bill goes into Standing Committee, the details can be considered and amended, but I am worried that, as drafted, it does not state that particular regard should be given to the rights or responsibilities of any parent or guardian who is affected by the actions of the commissioner. That is an important matter.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): Would the hon. Gentleman be kind enough to state in which clause the rights of parents are specifically ignored?

Mr. Leigh: The rights of parents are not specifically ignored by the Bill. As the hon. Member for Lancaster

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and Wyre made clear, no one would introduce a Bill that stated specifically that the rights of parents would be ignored. I fully accept that a commissioner would not, on day one, invade the rights of good parents--that point is well taken. However, the fact is that there are infinite grey areas and in the unlikely event of the Bill becoming law, I fear that cases would arise that caused a commissioner, for any one of several reasons, to start to interfere in family life. I believe that if the Bill becomes law, an amendment must be made that is similar to the one that was proposed in the House of Lords to the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill, which would specifically ensure that particular regard was accorded to the rights and responsibilities of parents.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): Will the hon. Gentleman give an example of what he means by interference in the rights of parents and families?

Mr. Leigh: There is a good example. Let us say that a parent believes that he has the right to chastise his child, which is a controversial matter--many Members of Parliament believe that parents should not be able to slap their children--and that it becomes a more pressing issue. If the Bill were passed, the commissioner would be able to intervene in the case of a parent who chastised his child. I agree that the issue is controversial and I accept that there might come a time when Parliament, on a free vote, decides to prevent children from being slapped by their parents. I would not vote for it, but I recognise that there are some who might promote such a Bill, and if Parliament in its wisdom so decides--as it decided, against my wishes and despite my voting against it, to end corporal punishment in schools--I would accept that decision as one that had been freely taken by a free Parliament. However, I would not accept the creation of the post of a commissioner who could try to advance that process, which I believe will become a real possibility if the Bill is passed as drafted.

The hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) asked for an example and I have given one of the first of four areas that cause me and many others concern. If a serious proposal is made to get the Bill or one like it on the statute book, we have to get it right. The Minister must give an assurance that his support for the Bill, either now or in future, is conditional on our having a serious debate on the rights of parents.

My second concern is that the taxpayer might be asked to fund the children's rights movement through the provision of a commissioner. The Bill is supported by a long list of organisations, including Epoch--End Physical Punishment of Children--the National Children's Bureau, Antidote, the Campaign for Emotional Literacy, the Council for Education in World Citizenship, the International Association for the Child's Rights to Play, Barnardos, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Stonewall. The Bill makes provision in clause 9(1)(d) for the commissioner to hand out taxpayers' money to

It is common for children's rights groups to promote their agenda by setting up groups that are said to be run by children for children. Some such groups may be worth while and others may promote views that I would not

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support--but I am not persuaded that we should pass a Bill that would open the door to a considerable increase in public funding of those lobbying groups.

My third concern is about the power to litigate. The House should be aware that the Bill is wide-ranging and has the potential to make a considerable impact. It is not just some little Friday-morning Bill of the sort that often wends its way gradually through the legislative process, which most people think is fairly harmless, and which is opposed by few--perhaps only by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). It is a serious and important Bill that provides a power to litigate. Clause 10 gives the commissioner an extraordinarily wide power to interfere

Clause 9(1)(b) empowers the commissioner to arrange legal representation on behalf of a child. Together, those powers raise the prospect of wide-scale legal interference, potentially with parental rights. Other bodies concerned with children, especially schools, might also find themselves on the receiving end of litigation that is conducted or financed by the commissioner at taxpayers' expense.

Mr. Dawson: Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that in the Children Act 1989, the Government of whom he was a member abolished the concept of parental rights and replaced it with that of parental responsibility?

Mr. Leigh: To be honest, I was not aware of that, but I cannot believe that anything done by the Conservative Government whom I supported would have seriously compromised the rights and responsibilities of parents.

A series of Acts dating back more than 100 years has ensured--naturally enough--that parents do not have complete authority over their children. If a parent burns his child, inflicts cruelty on him, sexually abuses him, or treats him badly in other ways, that parent will be brought to court. Governments in civilised societies have rightly established a legal framework that ensures that there are no such things as absolute rights of parents. However, a balance has to be struck.

No one is suggesting that there is anything profoundly wrong or evil in the Bill--everybody accepts that the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre has produced his Bill with the best of motives. Our point is that such Bills gradually extend the boundaries. One moment one lives in a society in which every sensible person accepts that parents hold ultimate responsibility and are in charge; then, almost without realising that a change has occurred, one suddenly finds that the emphasis has shifted from parental rights and responsibilities to the rights of the child, and that the latter have become superior to the former. That might not be what the hon. Gentleman intends, but the Bill has that potential, and that causes us concern.

My fourth area of concern is the power of legislative scrutiny. The Bill requires Ministers to have regard to the views of the commissioner on any legislation that affects children. That would give extraordinary power to an unelected official--the commissioner would be unelected--and provide vast opportunities for children's

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rights advocates to meddle, via the commissioner, in the drafting of family law and education law, among other things. The Government would have to have regard to the commissioner's views on any legislation concerning children. That is an extremely wide provision.

I shall paraphrase some of the points made by Lady Young and others in the other place on 3 April. The matter was summed up sensibly in the observation that, in the past, we lived in a society where the main justification for protecting children was that they were different from adults--they were obviously immature and vulnerable and therefore needed parental protection. Parents had to educate their children, supervise them and correct them if necessary, so that when the children grew up and became adults they, too, would be able to continue that tradition of looking after the most vulnerable people in society. That was the traditional point of view and I suppose everybody accepted it.

One cannot deny that there has been a switch--it can be seen in conventions, in Bills such as this and in points of view expressed in Parliament--from the traditional point of view to a theory based on the assumption that children are individuals and have a right to exercise their own choice and to have self-determination in all aspects of their life. That view is put forward by a number of people. I shall not get into that debate, but I note those conflicting points of view.

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