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Mr. Forth: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but the Government's position on the commissioner is peculiarly consistent with their view that it is justifiable to have a Parliament in Scotland, an Assembly in Wales and an Assembly in Northern Ireland when there is nothing to represent the views of the people of England. I rather resent that, as I support an English Parliament,
Mr. Todd: I take that point, although I vigorously defend the argument that the individual nations must make their own legislative arrangements. I should like to hear an intellectual exchange comparing best practice, so that we could decide whether the actions of one nation should be replicated elsewhere. If the Minister makes a persuasive argument that circumstances in England are clearly different from those in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, I shall accept it. It may be so. I do not necessarily take the view that arrangements should be the same in all countries, but I want to test the arguments so that I may work out whether those arrangements should be replicated in England.
I am a realist, so I know that we will have no opportunity to pass the Bill into law during the current Parliament. We can, however, set an important pointer regarding the direction that public policy towards children should take. I hope that we shall take that step today, and that the Government will include a commitment of this kind when, in due course, they construct a manifesto for the people of this country.
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): It gives me great pleasure to speak in the support of the Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson). As many of us know, he has diligently fought the case for children since his election to Parliament, and I speak for many parents and children who are grateful for his continuing commitment. I shall focus on clauses 9, 10 and 12, even though clause 9 has already been discussed at length by Opposition Members and some reference has been made to clauses 10 and 12.
I bitterly regret that we have not yet been able to establish a commissioner for England. I warmly applaud our action to establish a commissioner for Wales, although I recognise that that was a manifesto commitment of our party in Wales. The establishment of a commissioner for England would be a suitable manifesto commitment with which to go to the country.
Like many hon. Members, I recently received an excellent document from Mencap--its manifesto for the next election. It mentions equal rights and a series of other issues that affect people with learning disabilities. Mencap cites the fact that nine out of 10 people with learning difficulties have experienced bullying and harassment in the past year. I declare an interest as the mother of a daughter with severe learning difficulty, the sister of a person with learning difficulties, and the daughter of a mother who suffered quadriplegia.
I find information of the sort that Mencap quotes extremely interesting. However, there is no reference to, nor was Mencap able to draw my attention easily to, the source of that information, with the result that many would dismiss it because it appears to be anecdotal. I feel that there is significant merit in the assertion, but insufficient substance to enable me to argue on Mencap's behalf for better regulation.
There is in my community a child for whom I have sought justice for many years. That person has now passed into adulthood, which presents a series of different problems because when a child turns 18, different legislation starts to apply, but let us ignore that for now. To obtain justice for that child, who has been abused, I have had to hold discussions with the health authority, several police authorities, several social services departments in more than one county, several councillors, several other Members of Parliament and the parliamentary ombudsman--the list is infinite.
I despair of the fact that, after so many years, we have made no significant progress. In such cases, people who cannot defend themselves and will never be able to do so have to rely exclusively on the interest of an individual who is neither related, nor paid to advocate on their behalf. Even with the incredible commitment shown over the years by the person I described, we have been unable to ensure that justice was done. That is because although a plethora of bodies are involved with children, they are accountable to no central organisation.
I have supported my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre in his crusade for the establishment of a children's commissioner because of that case. A children's commissioner would help enormously. I do not think that the clauses would provide individuals with a great liberty that they would abuse or misuse--rather they would offer children who cannot speak for themselves an opportunity to obtain justice that is currently not available to them.
As an aside, I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend welcomes the appointment of a Minister with responsibility for children. I was delighted about that, and have invited the Minister of State, Home Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), to visit my constituency in a couple of weeks.
A commissioner for children would be useful in youth disturbance cases. There cannot be a constituency that is not troubled by young people--if there is, I should certainly like to talk to the hon. Member who represents it. However, perhaps young people become troublesome only when we cease to be young ourselves. When I was
That may be a minor example, but young people represent a threat to many people in my community and we have tried to tackle the problem. Penalties are not necessary for such children--incarceration is certainly not necessary; we need constructive responses. A commissioner would be extremely helpful in that regard.
In our attempt to address the difficulties generated in my community by young people--some of whom are exercising the legitimate right to meet and to congregate, although others are intent on making mischief and, in many cases, cause substantial damage--we have involved a series of organisations: the local authorities; the local youth offender team; the youth team; the health service; the police; local councillors; Members of Parliament; the Department of Health; the Department for Education and Employment; social services departments; the Prison Service; and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. If I had more time, I could think of many others.
All those organisations have an explicit mandate to intervene and support the promotion of healthy practices and good communities and to encourage children to do well and realise their potential. However, there are serious communication difficulties between those organisations. It would have been of enormous help to my colleagues and me if we could have approached one individual to ask for help in the difficulties that we faced. I fear that, although we may arrive at a workable solution in my community that could be grafted on to other areas, there is no framework whereby we can disseminate that information and make it known. Clause 9(1)(a) and (b) are therefore very important to the establishment of a repository for information and the provision of research services.
As a parent of a daughter with a learning difficulty, I do not know whether I could organise appropriate advice and services for her, because the amount of information available on specific organisations and individuals who work exclusively in that specialty is, again, very fragmented. So the establishment of a commissioner, who can oversee and provide guidance on legal advice and representation for children, is extremely important.
I am in favour of clauses 10 and 11. With specific reference to clause 11, I believe that, for too long, many measures that primarily affect children have been passed without the impact on children being specifically defined.
Many hon. Members have worked in local authorities and they will be aware that the introduction of an environmental impact assessment was greeted with some joy, and trepidation, especially by those of us responsible for executing the assessments. Under that provision, all local authority policies must refer specifically to the likely impact on the environment. I regarded that as an onerous task when I worked in local authorities. Nevertheless, I understood why it was a useful exercise; it informed the individuals who drafted new local regulations and allowed them to be mindful of the wider picture when seeking to introduce measures to resolve what appeared to them to be a very small problem. The same is true for any legislation that can have an impact on children.
Furthermore, I believe that the commissioner would have an active role in relation to parents' rights and, importantly, children's rights. I was very saddened to hear that so many people still think that beating children is an effective means of promoting good behaviour. I suspect like many other hon. Members, my parents thought that physical punishment was very positive. In fact, physical punishment is not a positive way to treat children. I am still puzzled by the fact that we have so many laws to protect adults who are physically abused, but the same protection is not afforded to children. A commissioner would act as a focal point for organisations seeking to address the anomaly that provides people aged 18 and one day with significant protection and those aged 18 minus one day with very little.
I am particularly interested in clause 12, which deals with the code of consultation, because it relates to aspects of clause 9, which I have talked about at length, and the development of statistics and an information base. Consultation is imperative, and we have only recently begun to develop consultation in this country. I am involved in a constant round of consultation with my community. People welcome involvement. A meeting was held in my constituency recently to discuss the problems associated with young people, and more than 200 people attended. In the past, decisions about the management of young people in the community were made not by those who would be affected by them, but by the local authority and the police. I am delighted to be part of an Administration who have brought about a sea change in community relationships. I am disheartened to hear that some hon. Members would never consider consulting children.
I hold regular children's surgeries, and I often wish that the wisdom that children bring to those surgeries could be imparted to some of the adults who come to see me. Children seem to have a much kinder view of the world and some of their solutions seem to be eminently rational. That rationality seems to diminish with time.
I hope that hon. Members will indulge me while I share with them a discussion I had recently with an eight-year-old. She asked me whether we were going to do anything about smacking, and I said that I did not think
A commissioner would be very interested in children's views and would give them the respect and dignity that they deserve. I have learned a great deal from the children whom I represent. I am conscious of the fact that they will shape my world. I want to make sure that they are treated with respect, that their human rights are acknowledged and that they are championed by individuals.