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Mr. Forth: I am familiar with the phenomenon that the hon. Gentleman is describing, but surely he agrees that we already have mechanisms for dealing with such matters. I think of school governing bodies, which have parental representatives, and local authorities, which we elect and which are accountable to us. Community by community, they are capable of making the decisions that he rightly highlights. Where does the commissioner come into all that?

Mr. Barron: People would be able to take their grievances and put their case to the commissioner. The right hon. Gentleman is right to mention the role of local authorities and school governing bodies. In my constituency, activities outside the usual school role of educating children take place in only a minority of schools. Access to schools is made difficult by the costs and the fact that they are cordoned off. Rotherham metropolitan borough council has just agreed a massive project under the private finance initiative to rebuild a large number of schools. It is in its second phase and I hope that the architects will design them so that those parts of the school that are used for educational purposes can be secured and locked up at 4 pm while other parts are available for use.

Young people need functional buildings to be available to them. Most, if not all, purpose-built youth and community buildings in my constituency are not open for young people to use on Saturday and Sunday nights. People write about young people hanging around on the streets and so on. I would not want to encourage them to be up at 10 pm if they have school the next morning, but Saturday night is different, and taxpayers' money has been used on buildings that are locked up. That makes no sense. Young people would love to use those buildings on a Saturday night when they have nothing else to do. Their views are often disregarded. I know that such arrangements would mean that people might have to work weekends, but people in industry have done that for years.

We need to consider the attitude to children in our society and their enfranchisement. They need to get a good start in life, because they are not getting it now.

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Child poverty is a major issue throughout the world. I am pleased to be on the Labour Benches supporting a Government who are doing so much more than the previous Government to aid and develop children's rights and to attack child poverty in different parts of the world. I am also pleased that I can support a Government who do that at home. An announcement was made yesterday about the children's tax credit, and how it will apply from 1 April. Families who do not have people in work will not benefit from that, but more than 11,000 families in my constituency will. The Government are doing a great deal. The major problems with child development relate to child poverty.

We have also done well on child benefit, which received its single biggest increase two years ago. That has had a positive impact on families suffering from child poverty. We could do no better than to keep thinking about the issue. The other side of the coin is the link between poverty and health. The South Yorkshire Coalfields health action zone covers the boroughs of Doncaster and Barnsley as well as my borough.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am hesitant to stop the hon. Gentleman, but he is straying wide of the subject.

Mr. Barron: I accept that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. All I am trying to do is put the commissioner in the context of how we treat children in society. A commissioner would be there when things broke down. Anyone who has been a Member of Parliament for two years will know about the problems that people who are responsible for children in their families encounter in doing that job well. In particular, children in care are not getting the assistance that they should.

The commissioner would be the voice for children and would ensure that Governments respond to vulnerable people in society. That is what commissioners throughout the world are doing. Children are very vulnerable--sometimes within the family, and we have heard examples of that. They are also vulnerable as a group in society, which is why I mentioned the way in which they interact with us and society as a whole. They are disadvantaged. The commissioner would not necessarily take direct action. There are some aspects of the Bill that I need convincing about, but the commissioner would ensure that legislators or those who deal with public expenditure for health action zones, for example, always bear it in mind that children have rights. We need to ensure that legislation takes that into account.

I am concerned about clause 10, which gives effective legal powers to the commissioner. That seems to conflict with other legal powers for protecting children. Giving him that power rather than just a voice might clash with the role of other law enforcement organisations. No doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre will consider that.

No matter what people say about the rights of parents, the history of child abuse shows that it has usually been committed by a close associate of the family. We cannot continue to satisfy ourselves that the family or society always look after the interests of children, because often they do not. We can all cite examples of how children are getting more of a voice, but we could give many more that show that they are still disadvantaged.

By introducing the Bill, my hon. Friend is furthering the debate on the development of our democracy and how it can be more inclusive for children. Although the

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Government might not be entirely in favour of it, as the debate progresses in the next few weeks they might find that we are laying the grounds for ensuring that children get the protection and enhanced rights that they deserve. I am pleased to be here this morning to support the Bill.

10.58 am

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): And I am very pleased to be here this morning to oppose the Bill most vigorously. It is an unfortunate example of the modern phenomenon of motherhood and apple-pie legislation in which high-minded and good thoughts, aspirations and wishes are brought before the House in a spirit of good will. I always carry with me a quote from Sir Winston Churchill. I have shared it with the House before, and it is relevant to this debate. In addressing the Select Committee on Procedure in the House in 1931, Sir Winston said:

I am guided by those words by no less a figure than Sir Winston in my approach to private Members' Bills, of which this is a very good example.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Will the right hon. Gentleman be kind enough to advise me which particular child-oriented legislation he has supported during his time here as a Member?

Mr. Forth: I have probably inadvertently supported quite a lot if it were introduced by my Government, of whom I was a modest member for about nine years. Certainly, as a Minister for five years in what is now the Department for Education and Employment, I probably did not introduce any legislation in the sense that the hon. Lady means. I was largely responsible for the special educational needs code of practice, and that would have had a bearing on children and their welfare. Therefore, I am not ignorant of the matter. However, I certainly would not have supported such a Bill, and I am about to explain why.

The first problem with the Bill is that it seems to rely heavily on a United Nations convention. I believe that United Nations conventions are largely irrelevant to this country, to our society and to our legal structure. I spent five years as Member of the European Parliament--not something that I often admit to in public--and I cannot deny that. As a Member of the European Parliament, operating mainly in Strasbourg--which I enjoyed very much--and in Brussels, I became used to the rather foreign concept of aspirational legislation. The United Nations is a past master at that. At strange international forums, such as the European Parliament and the United Nations, many well-meaning and usually rather highly paid people get together in a rather congenial atmosphere, have good meals and wind one another up to pass declarations on this, that or something else. Those declarations usually take the form of conventions that express very high-flown views indeed.

The problem with the European context and the global international context of the United Nations is that the declarations are rarely carried forward into reality,

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because they rely inevitably on each individual member state, each sovereign country and each nation state--something in which I believe with great passion--carrying through the aspirations into reality. Something like a United Nations convention--which is obviously much favoured by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) and the Bill's supporters--has no relevance to this country unless we decide that it should have. Simply to argue that we signed the United Nations convention is not sufficient; of course, we signed it because we did not want to look like the bad guys. Successive Governments sign up to all sorts of conventions without any thought as to their relevance to our society and our way of life.

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