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Mr. Hutton: I thought that the hon. Gentleman would be flattered. Fortunately for children, however, this is the 21st century, and I am glad to say that we have made a good deal of progress since the time to which the hon. Gentleman presumably harks back.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) made sensible comments about the way in which policy needs to evolve over a period. As I have tried to make clear, we need to keep the issue under review. Like many others, he also asked about some of the practical details of the Bill. I tend to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) that now is not the time to go into those details--this is Second Reading, not Committee--but I think that we need to consider carefully, especially in relation to clause 10,
Unfortunately, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is also absent. I shall not say that he lowered the tone of our proceedings, for I do not think that he did. We heard the familiar rant about foreigners, which many of us find deeply distasteful, regrettable and rather immature for a Member of Parliament--but I think that the right hon. Gentleman should find an agent, because he would go down a storm if he did a turn at Cemetery Cottages working men's club in my constituency, where such comic turns are always appreciated. However, I found his general attitude to the Bill and to children's issues as a whole rather regrettable. One aspect in particular stuck in my mind--oh, good: the right hon. Gentleman has arrived as well.
Mr. Hutton: I am never rude about the right hon. Gentleman, although he and I probably agree on absolutely nothing. I am sure he is glad to hear that. I took strong objection to the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about the importance of listening to children. He is wrong. His remarks were made in the context of a wider objection to the Bill. I am sure that he does not personally take that view on listening to children, or trying to understand what they want to say to us.
One thing has always stuck in my mind as a Member of Parliament. Soon after I was elected in 1992, I went to a primary school in my constituency and met a group of 10 and 11-year-olds. I asked them a question that, in subsequent years, I have always asked: if we could make a new law in this place, what should it be? One little lad stuck up his hand and said, "Can I answer that question?" I said, "Of course. Tell me what you think we should do." He said, "We should pass a law that my dad can get a proper job. He lost his job in a shipyard 10 years ago and he has not worked since." When we listen to such children, they come up with a good deal of common sense. Perhaps we cannot pass a law to ensure that his dad works, but as a matter of public policy what the child said was important. Full employment is an important social and economic policy. The view that that young person expressed is, I think, the view of the vast majority of mainstream opinion. It would be a mistake if we ever thought that we could disregard their views.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire spoke well about the need to support the role of parents in bringing up children. That should be the main focus in all the work. We have certainly tried to make that the main priority for our programme of work. I agree that we need great clarity on how to improve the well-being of children in our society. I am sure that he would be the first to welcome some of the measures that we have put in place since 1997.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), who, I understand, cannot be with us, referred to the needs of children with learning difficulties. I am sure that she and others will be aware of the Government's White Paper "Valuing People", which we published only last week, and of our commitment to improve public services for children with learning disabilities and to improve research in that area.
I shall outline some of the structural changes that we are making to the way in which the Government seek to meet the needs of children and young people. There have been five strands to our work. First, from next April, under the Care Standards Act 2000--many hon. Members have referred to this--there will be a new children's rights director for England. Working within the new National Care Standards Commission, the director will, I hope, be able to act as a powerful champion for some of the most vulnerable children in our society.
Although the precise role and functions of the director are not set out in that Act--I am sure that the hon. Member for New Forest, West will remember this--provision is made in schedule 1 to the Act for the post's functions to be prescribed by regulation. The Government plan to publish draft regulations covering the work, key tasks and responsibilities of the director and put them out for public consultation in the near future.
I am pleased to say that the children's rights director will be in his or her post by the end of this year. Although we are still shaping the role, it is likely that the key responsibilities of the postholder will include setting and monitoring the registration and inspection arrangements for regulated services for children; monitoring and reviewing the operation of the national minimum standards for children's services and recommending possible changes; ensuring that the National Care Standards Commission gives full and effective coverage of children's rights in its statutory responsibilities for regulated children's services; ensuring that the views of children for whom regulated services are provided are given proper weight by the commission; and reviewing and monitoring the effectiveness of complaints and whistleblowing procedures operated by regulated providers. Those are some of the director's key functions, which address many of the issues and concerns that my hon. Friends have raised.
It might sound like a long list of tasks, but it signals real change for children who need the additional protection that a powerful children's rights director can offer. Our challenge is to rebuild the confidence and faith of vulnerable children in a system that has failed them for far too long.
In appointing an individual to that key post, we will look for someone with a proven track record in promoting child care practice and children's rights; experience in managing children's services at a senior level; and a strong professional background in child care social work. In short, we are looking for a powerful champion of children's rights--someone who can represent the interests of the most vulnerable children in our society; ensure that the commission uses its regulatory powers to protect vulnerable children; ensure that the commission's inspection programme serves to protect children; and ensure that children living away from home in a variety of settings are properly protected.
Secondly, hon. Members will be aware that in August last year we set out new arrangements for how the Government will improve the way in which they deal with issues concerning children and young people. Changes that we have made include establishing a new Minister for young people--that role will be fulfilled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng)--
Of course, an extra £450 million of further funding through a new children's fund will focus on preventive programmes to reduce child poverty. Furthermore, we have established a new children and young persons unit, which will operate across government, to, among other things, co-ordinate policies supporting the Prime Minister's pledge to halve child poverty in 10 years.
Thirdly, we have established a children's taskforce to drive forward all aspects of the NHS plan that relate to children. Fourthly, we have just announced that there will be a new national service framework for children. We envisage that it will cover the broad spectrum of services that children need to ensure that they start and continue life well and grow into healthy adults ready to play a full part in society.
The national service framework will deal with some important cross-cutting themes such as tackling inequalities, supporting children with disabilities and special needs and involving children and parents. It will revisit key NHS plan themes of modernisation, breaking down professional boundaries and partnership between key agencies.
On Government policies that affect the health, well-being and status of children, many hon. Members referred to the need to improve co-ordination across Departments. The Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre includes a provision designed to achieve just that. I take the view that those are the responsibilities of the Government. It is for the Government to take action to ensure that their policies are effective and well co-ordinated, and the changes that I have outlined will take us forward substantially in that direction.
The House will be aware that, last year, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office announced a consultation on the outcome of a review of the work of the public sector ombudsmen in England--the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the health service commissioner and the three local administration commissioners. However, no hon. Member referred to it in the debate. The review was initiated in response to proposals made by the ombudsmen themselves and was carried forward as part of the wide range of action that we put in hand to bring government and public services generally into the 21st century.
With that in mind, the review of the ombudsmen was intended to consider the current arrangements against the background of increasingly integrated public services. We wanted to find ways to improve access to the ombudsmen and ways to improve the efficiency of the ombudsmen and their ability to investigate complaints involving different services.
The review was published last year, and its main conclusion was that legislative provision for the ombudsmen needed to be overhauled in response to the reshaping of government and that a new collegiate structure should be put in place. Clearly, that will require new primary legislation. The new structure, with all ombudsmen able to cover the complete jurisdiction, would ensure that the ombudsmen could respond to developments in the way in which public sector services are delivered to the public, including children.
The review also recommended changes to the ombudsmen's working practices and the way in which they connect with the general public, including young people and children. The consultation on the review's conclusions and recommendations was completed towards the end of last year and an announcement on how we will take that work forward will be made soon.
As we are committed to the modernisation of government and public services generally, so we are committed to the modernisation of the ombudsmen system. We recognise that things can and do go wrong from time to time. We also recognise that it serves no good purpose for the public, whether adults or children, to find it difficult to raise concerns when they are not happy about the way with which their complaints about public services have been dealt. We acknowledge that a single complaint may identify much wider lessons that need to be learned and point to action that needs to be taken to improve the delivery of the services concerned.
The structural changes that I have described are part of our long-term agenda to achieve real change for the most vulnerable children--children who are fearful and abandoned and who rely on us to make their lives better. In addition to the practical and positive measures that we have already taken, we have set in train important changes to the machinery of government that relate to children's issues. Those changes have been made since my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre introduced a previous Bill on a children's commissioner.
The changes will lead to an improved recognition across government of the needs of children, as well as an increased ability to monitor the practical impact of a wide range of policies affecting children. It is fair to say that one of the motives for my hon. Friend's Bill is a desire to improve the way in which we formulate and implement policy on children's issues in England. I strongly agree with that. The Government have, however, made important progress on those issues since we last debated them. Better public policy making on issues affecting children will contribute substantially to achieving the goals that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre and I share. I hope that he will welcome the changes that we have made in that sphere.
My hon. Friend and other hon. Members will be aware of some of the other changes in the statutory framework governing the protection of children. We have the Care Standards Act 2000, the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, the Protection of Children Act 1999 and the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000. All of those are substantial advances and will provide much better safeguards and protection for vulnerable children.
Hon. Members will also be aware that the Government are supporting major investment in new children's services, including £885 million in a new special grant for children's services run by local authorities. We are also investing substantially in the new sure start programme, which is promoting pre-school development. Our aim since taking office has been to introduce practical measures that will really help children. We want to encourage councillors to embrace the role of corporate parent and encourage all agencies to listen to children and to children's views.
In improving safeguards for children, we have concentrated on the most vulnerable children-- the ones who need our help most urgently. As many hon. Members pointed out today, the Waterhouse report provides clear evidence that those children have not been properly protected in the past. It is right to make them the immediate priority, and we have done so. I believe that our programme of change will lead to a transformation in the availability of safeguards for the most vulnerable children.
It is against that background that we have to consider the case for a commissioner for all children in England. We have to be clear about how a commissioner would increase the safeguards against abuse and exploitation. Consequently, we have to examine carefully the case for and the potential role of a children's commissioner, including consideration of links with existing structures.
We have to think carefully about how my hon. Friend's proposals for a new commissioner--who, in the Bill, would have the power to pursue individual complaints--would fit in with the current continuing review of the role and work of the various ombudsmen. I believe that there is a strong case for considering, in a properly joined-up way, the issue of complaints about the delivery of public services. However, although we certainly accept the need to improve public services and for those services to be responsive to criticism--that applies as much to children's services as to any other services--I am not sure that legislation removed from the context of the review of ombudsmen is currently the best way forward.
Therefore, as my hon. Friend will know, because we have discussed the matter, I am not able today to lend Government support to his Bill. However, I assure him that we are keeping the issue of a commissioner for all children under very careful review. As both I and the Minister of State, Home Office, have made clear in the past, we need to consider carefully the Welsh experience to see whether there are any other lessons that we can learn in England that could help to provide better safeguards for children. We intend to do that, and we still believe that that is the best way to proceed.