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Westminster Hall

Thursday 24 October 2002

[Sir Michael Lord in the Chair]

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Joan Ryan.]

2.30 pm

The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham) : I am delighted to open this debate on the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Obviously, it follows the General Assembly's special session in May, which I attended as head of the United Kingdom delegation. The session was originally planned for September last year, but it would have taken place just after the terrorist attacks in New York.

We were accompanied by two young delegates, who joined me and many other delegates in bilateral meetings with Ministers from other countries. We greatly value the participation of those young people. Indeed, a hallmark of the Government's approach to the convention is our commitment to increasing young people's opportunities to have a voice in and be consulted on policies affecting their lives. I am pleased that we are meeting in Westminster Hall, because we can have a fairly lengthy debate on children's and young people's issues.

I draw hon. Members' attention to the Modernisation Committee report published on 7 September, which the House is due to discuss in the near future. For those who have not read it in detail, it says that

It is perhaps no secret that, as Minister for children and young people, I have pressed for youth affairs to be included in an experimental Question Time, to enable Members from both sides of the House to ask about children's and young people's issues. Who knows, they might be able to ask questions raised by their young constituents as well as ones that they have thought up themselves. I am keen for us to use Parliament to debate such issues.

I should underline the Government's commitment to the convention and to making every effort to apply its principles and spirit to all our work with children and young people. The convention enshrines a broad range of children's rights, which extend to virtually every sphere of society. Our priorities are to ensure that every child has the right to education, health, housing, safety, freedom from poverty and participation in decisions that affect them. The Government can be proud of their record of achievement as regards children and young people over the past five years.

We agree with the UN that every child has the right to a good education. Education is the foundation for social and economic security later in life. There has been significant financial investment since 1997, as well as hard work and a great deal of commitment from

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teachers, and parents and children are now getting a better deal in the classroom. Teaching standards are improving, and national and international data show that standards of student achievement are rising across the schooling system, year on year. In 1997, only 62 per cent. of 11-year-olds reached the expected standard of literacy and numeracy, compared with 73 per cent. today. Ten years ago, only 36.8 per cent. of teenagers got five good GCSEs, compared with 50 per cent. today. The number of teachers has hit a 20-year high. We have come a long way, but we must make further progress, and we are committed to doing that.

School is not the be-all and end-all of a child's world. The UN convention states that we should recognise the right of every child to an adequate standard of living. One of our first priorities on taking office was to begin to reverse the legacy of one of the worst child poverty records in the industrialised world. Child poverty levels in the UK were unacceptable, which is why the Prime Minister made a commitment to eradicate child poverty within a generation. We believe that the only lasting way to tackle poverty is through policies that ensure, wherever possible, that children do not grow up in workless households, that they receive all the essential opportunities to acquire skills for themselves and that they are able to participate fully in society.

By any measure, we are making progress through, for example, the introduction of working families tax credit and the 25 per cent. increase in child benefit since 1997. We have implemented successful programmes to enable lone parents, in particular, to re-enter the labour market, so that their children can be brought up in homes with an income from work. As a result, compared with the situation in 1996–97, almost 1.5 million fewer children are now living in absolute poverty, over 500,000 fewer children are living in relative poverty and 250,000 fewer children are growing up in homes where no one has a job.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): The Minister refers to the reduction in child poverty. Of course, the figure that he quotes—about 500,000—is welcome, but is it not the case that, in the run-up to the last general election, the Chancellor of the Exchequer claimed that some 1.2 million children had been taken out of poverty? In fact, documents published by the Office for National Statistics in April 2002 showed, disappointingly, that the figure was much lower than the Government expected.

Mr. Denham : We have always recognised that there are several measures of poverty, which is why I quoted two—one of absolute poverty and the other of relative poverty. The Chancellor certainly quoted a figure lower than the number of children who were taken out of absolute poverty, so we have nothing to retreat on. In the Government's wider poverty strategy, we believe that it is better to use several different measures rather than to decide that one figure is the sole definition of poverty, because there are so many different ways to consider the issue. Therefore, everyone can see what progress we have made. By any assessment, the Government's record on taking children out of poverty stands pretty good comparison with that of any other country. No other industrialised country has reduced its

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numbers of children living in poverty by so many during the past few years. Indeed, poverty has increased in many countries during that time.

We have continued our commitment to children, and the sure start programme is the cornerstone of the Government's drive to tackle child poverty and social exclusion. It focuses on the under-fives and aims to improve the health and well-being of families and children, both before and from birth, so that children can fully benefit from the programme before they go to school. Sure start programmes are concentrated in neighbourhoods where a high proportion of children live in poverty, and the initiative can help them to succeed by pioneering new ways of working to improve services. By 2004, there will be at least 500 sure start programmes helping up to 400,000 children living in disadvantaged areas, including one third of all under-fours living in poverty.

The Government are also committed to ending the scandal of families and children who are homeless or living in temporary accommodation. This year, we will invest about £125 million to ensure that, by 2004, no child, or their family, is placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, except in an emergency. This year alone, between April and June, more than 30,000 households were accepted for rehousing, including many families with children and others, including a pregnant mother.

Since taking office, we have managed to reduce the number of rough sleepers, many of whom are young people, by more than two thirds. We shall focus on giving our children more protection through the social exclusion unit's ongoing review of young rough sleepers and runaways.

I hope now to set out fairly the achievements of the past few years. However, I do not intend to imply that the work is done or that further progress does not need be made. I hope that we can approach the debate in a balanced way, recognising real achievements, but redoubling our commitment to do more. As Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety, I also do a lot of work with children and young people, and I am aware of their concerns about their personal safety and protection. Issues of which we are all aware—for example, fear of being assaulted in public places—are as real for young people as they are for older people, which is why reducing and preventing youth crime and reforming the youth justice system are a major part of the Government's efforts to build safer communities and to tackle social exclusion of children.

For example, the youth inclusion programme ensures that some 3,500 13 to 16-year-olds engage in a variety of purposeful and challenging educational and recreational activities, which can radically reduce the risk of their turning to crime, and that 375 holiday schemes ran during the summer, which meant that 60,000 to 70,000 10 to 17-year-olds were able to participate in stimulating activities in safe places. Early results show that there was a significant impact on crime and antisocial behaviour in those areas during the summer.

We have worked hard to speed through the youth justice system the young people who are already in it—for their own benefit and for that of the community—by

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halving the time from arrest to sentence for persistent young offenders. In some cases we have no option but to detain young people, so we are improving the conditions for young people in custody. For example, facilities at Feltham have been upgraded, educational facilities are being improved and the guaranteed periods of education in young offender institutions will be extended significantly next year.

One benefit of the many things that we have done on young offenders through the youth opportunity programme, the youth inclusion programmes and the work in young offender institutions is a 14.6 per cent. reduction in reconviction rates for young people in the past two years. The Government set themselves a target of reducing reconviction rates by 5 per cent. by 2004, so to have managed nearly three times that two years early is a significant achievement by the police, social services, probation and other services involved in youth offending teams. I emphasise the point because, while the Government have made it clear that we will not tolerate youth crime, those figures show that neither will we tolerate writing off young people and not working with them to ensure that they do not continue with a life of crime. I hope that everybody welcomes the achievements of the past two years on reconviction rates.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): The Minister might be planning to come to this point shortly. The concluding comments and recommendations of the report of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child note the Government's reservations in respect of article 37(c), which concerns the separation of detained children from adults in prisons, and observe that that appears to be due solely to resource considerations. Have the Government reconsidered? Have additional resources been made available through the comprehensive spending review so that the reservations do not apply?

Mr. Denham : We are certainly increasing the availability of spaces in purpose-built or dedicated young offenders institutions, which will help to move us in the direction in which we all want to go. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that we are not in a position today to promise a date on which we can remove that reservation, but we are making progress.

Mr. Grieve : That is a difficult issue. The Minister will be aware that at least one adult prison—High Down—has recently had a wing dedicated to young offenders as a result of the extent to which the young offenders institution system has been overburdened. Is that a satisfactory long-term solution or merely a temporary measure?

Mr. Denham : I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point. I do not want to predict the contents of the Queen's Speech, but when a new criminal justice Bill is presented, whether in the distant or the not-too-distant future, we shall introduce measures for a more sensible approach to sentencing. Those will affect young and adult offenders.

One way in which we need to manage both the young and the adult prison population is by adopting a more rational approach to sentencing, particularly through

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avoiding the current, largely unproductive state of affairs whereby short sentences are given to large numbers of people. We could have better community-based supervision, which would help us to manage the prison population and, whatever the size of the prison estate, give us more flexibility and increase our ability to provide dedicated facilities for young offenders.

We are also keen to extend the range of community-based punishments available for young people. I am thinking particularly of the quite rapid extension of intensive surveillance and supervision programmes, which usually combine a measure of curfew and electronic tagging with structured, 30-hour programmes each week. For some young people concerned, such programmes represent the first time for many years that someone has brought 30 hours of structure to their lives, and they are already producing positive results. We are all, I think, committed to a vision of detaining only those young people who must be detained for the protection of the wider public. As we expand intensive supervision and surveillance programmes, a wider range of options will be available to the courts to enable young people to be kept from offending, to reduce their chance of offending again, as we have already been doing, and to avoid the need for young people to be placed in custody.

The Government should continue to pursue that positive strategy. I am not able to say when we might be able to raise the reservation, but, equally, I expect that the House will accept that we are doing the right things to avoid detaining young people who do not need to be detained.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): As my right hon. Friend pursues his current line of argument, will he consider the views expressed recently at a meeting in the House by Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons? She said that inspectors try to pay close attention to the requirements of the Children Act 1989 when inspecting young offenders institutions. Given the intention to continue to keep children and young people in prison custody, is not it time to ensure that all the protections provided by that Act are applied to young people, who are vulnerable in those difficult situations?

Mr. Denham : First, I pay tribute to the work of Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons, who, like her predecessors, does an important job in inspecting the Prison Service and drawing issues to the Government's attention. I assure my hon. Friend that, whether or not the Children Act applies to young people in the relevant institutions, the welfare, care and needs of young people in young offenders institutions are central to what the Government want to achieve.

One way to fulfil the requirements of the UN convention would be to spend very large amounts of money building more young offenders institutions. I prefer to balance a necessary increase in places with an increase in the type of non-custodial sentences that we are, increasingly, making available. That means pursuing a strategy of trying to minimise our dependence on the use of young offenders institutions. No doubt my hon. Friend will try to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, with a view to expanding on the points that he made, which I can return to in my winding-up speech. I do not want to take too much of the Chamber's time with my opening remarks.

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I want to mention a few other key points, beginning with participation. Article 12 of the convention accords to

As Minister for children and young people, I am committed to enabling them to participate in the development of Government policies and services. About this time last year, we published core principles for involving children and young people in government. Eleven Departments have developed and published plans showing how they would involve children and young people when designing and implementing policies. It will take a little time for the culture of every Department fully to take on board all those principles. Many Departments are not used to such consultation. I can assure the House, however, of my and my fellow Ministers' commitment to ensuring that those principles are turned into action. We should do that because it will make a difference to the quality of services that the Government deliver.

The quality protects programme, which was launched a few years ago, is a prime example of a project in which children's participation has brought a significant change to, and improvement in, Government policy for looked-after young people. Many issues and targets in that programme arose from the consultation undertaken with young people. Listening to the views of young people in care is a central part of the quality protects programme, in which we have invested about £885 million so far.

We will continue to ensure that Departments live up to their promise to consult young people on major policy issues. The Home Office, for example, recently worked with the Children's Rights Alliance to publish a young people's consultation on the entitlement card. Hon. Members will remember that the Home Office published a discussion paper on the entitlement card last summer. We have deliberately ensured that young people can participate in that discussion, and there will be many more such examples.

There are probably two main points of interest—last summer's General Assembly session and the report published a couple of weeks ago by the UN observers on our compliance with the UN convention. I turn to the comments of the UN committee. We are pleased that the committee recognises the considerable advances made by the UK since the last report in 1995—an acknowledgement that a lot has been achieved by this Government since 1997. The Government have introduced most of the initiatives of which I have spoken.

The observers praised the changes in the machinery of government, acknowledging, for example, that we have set up the children and young people's unit, which supports me as Minister responsible for children and young people. They also praised the development of child-focused structures across government and the development of participation. They praised, too, several new pieces of legislation, including the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000.

The Government are committed to the spirit of the convention, and we do not believe that anything in UK legislation contradicts any of its provisions. There are, though, elements of the convention that the UK has

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interpreted differently from the committee. Smacking is one example. The Government are absolutely opposed to child abuse and violence against children. The law allows only what is reasonable in terms of the physical punishment of children—it does not permit child abuse. We do not believe that Government policy contravenes the UN convention, which refers to the protection of children from physical violence and maltreatment. The Government are satisfied that UK law accords with that.

It is not only wrong, but dangerous, to link smacking, in the sense in which many parents would understand the term, with child abuse, as it diverts attention and resources from those children in genuine danger who most need our protection. Parenting can be difficult, but we must avoid bringing the police and criminal law into family life. The Government's approach to reducing dependence on smacking is to help parents to do so by promoting positive parenting, through programmes such as sure start, the work of the children's fund and organisations such as Parentline and the National Family and Parenting Institute.

No doubt interest will be expressed during the debate in the concept of a children's commissioner. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each take different approaches to the idea of a children's commissioner. There is, in fact, no definitive model of a children's commissioner, either in this country or abroad. Those who exist cover the whole gamut, from a legally-based organisation, or a concept much closer to a children's ombudsman, to a system that is almost like a permanent standing commission of inquiry into things that have gone wrong.

There are many issues on which the public would certainly not be content to allow a person such as a commissioner to define the strict interpretation of the UN convention, and thus to define policy on issues such as smacking. On some of those issues, it is properly the right of elected Members of the House to determine legislation and its interpretation. It is worth noting, however, that we have many structures in place to promote children's rights.

In our manifesto, we gave a commitment to support a national children's rights director to act as champion for children in need and, in May 2002, Roger Morgan took up the role as part of the National Care Standards Commission. We shall continue to listen to the debate on a children's commissioner, and I look forward to hearing comments on that matter, but we need to be convinced that a new structure would add value to the existing mechanisms for addressing children's concerns.

Since 1997, we have made significant strides to improve children's lives. We are gathering much of that work into the overarching strategy for children and young people on which we began consulting at the end of last year and which we are finalising at the moment. We must bring together our achievements since 1997 and set out our vision for all our children and young people for the next 10 years. The overarching strategy will take the convention on the rights of the child as part of its framework and use the convention's principles to inform all our future work with children.

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I hope that the overarching strategy sets out for the people of this country, the Government, local authorities, families, communities, the voluntary sector and business our vision of what we want to achieve for our children. I hope that it also plays the role of an action plan on implementing the rights of the child, which was one proposal made at the General Assembly last May. I hope that bringing all the issues together in an overall strategy for young people, rather than a separate free-standing document, makes sense to the House and that people can see how the issues fit together.

2.56 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I welcome the opportunity for this debate, which allows us to make a wide-ranging survey of children's issues. As I want to leave an opportunity for others to speak, I do not intend to take up too much of the Chamber's time.

I hope the Minister will forgive me for what I am about to say. Perfectly properly, he painted a reasonably optimistic picture, with which I would not on the whole disagree. The standards for children in this country, and the environment in which they develop, are far better than for children in many other parts of the world. Despite the problems that children have in this country, they are offered an opportunity at birth of a fulfilling life, which is greater in its duration, expectation and opportunities than for many others in the world.

One must compare the Minister's words with the NSPCC's statistics on child abuse in Britain, however; the bare facts are worth repeating. At least one child a week dies as a result of an adult's cruelty. A quarter of all rape victims are children, and abuse is often committed by someone whom the child knows and trusts. Three quarters of sexually abused children do not tell anyone at the time when the abuse is happening. More than 30,000 children are on the child protection register and some 600 children are added to that register every week. A recent NSPCC survey of 2,800 children suggested that one in 10 suffers serious abuse or neglect in childhood.

It is an interesting feature of the Minister's job—I commend him for his approach to it in his speech—that he speaks with two hats on, as Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety, and also as Minister for children and young people. I am sure that he will agree that a causal link exists between the level of child criminality and the level of neglect and deprivation. The evidence appears overwhelming to my party and me. One need only go to places such as Camberwell, where one would see the Kids Company project, to be aware of the extent of the problem. There an ad hoc organisation, charitably supported, deals with some 200 children and young people who come to its premises. Most of them have no efficient parenting structure and exhibit clear signs of deprivation, sometimes of abuse and often of drug addiction. Those young people commit many of the crimes that make that community difficult for others to live in.

Mr. Dawson : The hon. Gentleman is making some important points, and properly using information from the NSPCC. Do he and his party also support the NSPCC's campaign to end the use of the Victorian

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concept of reasonable chastisement, which there is good evidence to suppose that abusers of children can hide behind?

Mr. Grieve : The short answer is no, broadly for the reasons given by the Minister. I intend to deal with that subject a little later, but now I shall return to the basic theme.

I sympathise with what the Government seek to achieve. Nevertheless, a serious crisis remains in relation to a percentage of young people in this country who move through a cycle of deprivation and abuse, and proceed to be the young criminals who will cause problems in future. That will also lead to the overcrowding of young offenders institutions, which were commented on in an earlier intervention, and in turn to adult prisons having to be adapted and wings turned over to accommodate those young people.

The challenges are serious. I do not want to consider all the detailed solutions in such a broad debate, but rather one or two aspects on which the House and the Government might do well to concentrate. The first problem with abuse, deprivation and crime is that they are cyclical in nature. The problem of one generation is moved on to the next. As I visit projects for children and young people, the point is made again and again that the lack of parenting input appears to be a key factor in leading to those children's problems. In turn, that leads to those children producing another generation that has serious difficulties.

We must try to break that cycle if we are to continue to aspire to all that is set out in the UN convention. Like most conventions, it is rather like motherhood and apple pie. It has some mutually contradictive clauses, which could be dealt with. However, its intentions are honourable and good, and we would seek to match its aspirations.

I want to take the Minister up on what is being done now. I should say at the outset—I hope that he will accept it—that I have no problem with the Government's good intentions on the issues. I think that I understand their strategy for breaking the cycle. They have set out the sure start scheme to try to achieve change. I accept that it is rather early to make a good audit of its impact, some of which may not be manifest for 10 or 15 years. I do not blame the Government for that, but the ability to identify correctly the groups of children—and, potentially, the parents—who need support, and to provide the service universally and consistently, must be the key to the success of the intiative.

The Minister will know that the subject has been of concern to my party. Indeed, although they follow similar lines in trying to achieve the same as sure start, recent papers produced by the party on early years intervention suggest that we should be a little more focused when trying to identify the areas of problem behaviour in young children that will be a serious handicap for them in their future lives, and a serious problem for the communities in which they live.

The Minister may be able to touch on the subject in his closing remarks, but to what extent does he feel that sure start is fulfilling its expectations? Anecdotally, one hears that the schemes may be somewhat variable; indeed, it is suggested that some people have been

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deterred from taking them up by a degree of bureaucracy in the way in which they are offered. I would be grateful to hear his comments.

Mr. Denham : I invite the hon. Gentleman to come to the sure start project in Weston in my constituency and, with me, knock at random on the doors of some of the people in the tower blocks who have used the programme. Hand on heart, I can say that it has changed people's lives and given to parents who would otherwise have nowhere else to meet, a space to meet others. Programmes may vary in quality, but that is my personal experience.

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Opposition would move away from the current basis of most sure start projects, which are based on geographical areas, to smaller groups of children? That would radically change the nature of the programme from one that supports the children of an entire community to one that supports only a few.

Mr. Grieve : First, I would welcome the opportunity of such a visit. I hope to have a further opportunity to visit such programmes, and I will continue to do so. I have seen many examples of excellence. The problem is that although Governments come up with ideas and set them in motion, delivery is not within a Minister's day-to-day control. Indeed, if the Minister were to tell me that he was trying to control things like that, I would have to tell him that he was wrong. He should take such criticisms in good part.

My party believes that there should be universal provision, and that the scheme should not be restricted to certain geographical areas. There may be a degree of difference in our approach; although I accept that as our ideas develop they are open to response and thus to change, we believe that there are some clinically proven methods of dealing with problem behaviour in young children, both in the nursery and in the first years of primary school, which needs to be tackled as a priority. All kitties are finite, so the allocation of resources must be carefully considered.

It is, of course, desirable that entire communities should be supported, but the key issue is whether we are succeeding in getting to the children and parents most in need of support. Otherwise, although the wider benefits may be good in certain communities, there will be big holes where needs are not being met. That does not necessarily seem a huge difference between us, but we would not be doing our job as an Opposition if we did not express our concern that there remain huge areas of unmet need, and that schemes of proven clinical evidence appear capable of addressing them.

The Minister did not say much about the future funding position of the sure start programme. There appears to be slight uncertainty about that, and he may be able to provide reassurance. He may agree with me that a three-year pump-priming programme will not solve the problems of a scheme targeted towards young children showing serious behavioural problems. The Government will have to be willing to provide a sustained programme, either themselves or through the voluntary sector—the voluntary sector would be better—to try to make an impact.

Uncertainty about the future funding of successful programmes may ultimately be a source of demoralisation and failure, as we have seen before. The

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Minister will be aware of our schemes, which suggest that the Government should set up a universal programme targeted at a narrower group than sure start, and should also be prepared to sustain it. If he has views on that, I would be happy to hear them.

I am conscious of the time, and the fact that I am taking longer than I intended, because I have taken interventions, but the Minister also touched on the issue of older children with problems, such as drug addiction in their teens. They may come within his orbit in that they are young offenders and they often come from precisely the backgrounds that we have identified.

The Minister mentioned the rough sleepers initiative. Given that, as I have seen for myself, many rough sleepers have drug addiction problems, what is being done to ensure that there is an adequate number of places for drug rehabilitation? It is said, and it is true, that in Britain today if someone is wealthy or in a custodial environment they can get drug rehabilitation, but that outside that the number of places is fairly restricted.

Let us compare ourselves with Sweden, for instance. I think that we would have to provide 10 times as many places to achieve the Swedish number of treatment and rehabilitation places available per 1,000 head of population. That is quite a big challenge. It may be slightly outside the Minister's remit, but given that his remit is so wide in this debate, it would be helpful to know whether he has any views on that.

Mr. Denham : We are doubling the number of treatment places for drug offenders over the coming years. I accept that we must ensure that they are accessible to younger people as well as older people, but there is a significant expansion in the number of places.

Mr. Grieve : I am pleased to hear about the Government's commitment, but I still say that if we are to tackle the problem of hard drugs and hard drug addiction in the young, we may need rather more places, and to be willing to invest to achieve that.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): I understand the attractions of the Swedish model for the hon. Gentleman, but if he reconsiders the statistics he will see that despite the capital expenditure, which is laudable, the amount of diversion and prevention of return to addiction is very low. The Swedish model looks good but is, sadly, not very effective in terms of numbers.

Mr. Grieve : That raises an interesting issue, but I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. My information and impression was that the Swedish model had been remarkably successful compared to those of other western European countries in achieving reductions in long-term drug addiction. We will have to have further debate, but I am afraid that I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's basic factual premise.

When talking about children in a custodial environment, the Minister emphasised the need for a greater range of community-based punishments. We agree with him, and it is widely accepted, that with young offenders it is vital to break the cycle of reoffending.

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If the Government are having some success in lowering the reoffending rates, and if that can be sustained, that is enormously welcome. However, we have anxieties about whether we are using the best methods to achieve that. The Minister will know from several representations that there are several models and programmes in England and Wales, such as C-FAR in Devon, which we believe have remarkable success rates. Their reoffending rates appear to us rather lower than the overall statistics, yet they do not receive Government funding. They receive funding from the European social fund, local authorities and charities, but they do not receive direct support from the Government. The Government even seem to be slightly hostile to them, yet here is a programme that takes young offenders out of young offenders institutions and gives them an 11-week residential programme, and mentoring. As I have seen so often all over the country, it is ultimately the human contact with young people that seems to be the best hope, whether that happens through mentoring or through projects such as the Camberwell project, Kids Company. I hope that the Government will reconsider that idea.

I could go on at great length, but I want to conclude my remarks. I promised that I would discuss smacking, so before I sit down I will do so. It is noteworthy that the convention places great emphasis on the need for the state to respect the rights of individual families and communities in providing guidance to children. Ultimately, the best hope for the future of our children is in the quality of the parenting that they receive. This is national parenting week. There have been a great many debates in this House about that, and I welcome the initiatives that have been taken to promote it.

Early years intervention is not some abstract state function: it seeks to involve the parents in providing a better future for their children and giving them the skills that they need. In those circumstances, the state would be barmy to start to intervene and tell parents that they are in a straitjacket as to how they guide and discipline children—provided, of course, that that discipline is not abusive. I must tell the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), who raised the issue, that criminalizing smacking would not reduce the amount of child abuse one iota, but would make parents increasingly unwilling to take the necessary steps to provide that guidance. If anything characterises the malaise of modern society, it is our unwillingness as individuals not to smack but to intervene to provide guidance to children. We have almost entirely given up intervening in public spaces—with serious consequences—and there is a danger that we shall give up intervening in our own families.

Mr. Dawson : Will the hon. Gentleman accept that he is tilting at windmills? All that anyone is proposing is the removal of the old defence of "reasonable chastisement" and nothing more? Does he also accept that in countries that have introduced laws against the physical punishment of children, there have been none of the consequences that he suggested?

Mr. Grieve : I simply repeat that I do not accept that it is necessary to outlaw reasonable chastisement to achieve the end, which I believe the hon. Gentleman wants, of preventing child abuse. One is not a corollary

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of the other. The outlawing of reasonable chastisement is a form of state interference in parental decision taking. I do not accept that the consequences of ordinary smacking will be seriously harmful to the child, so I cannot support him.

I am grateful to the Minister for providing the House with an opportunity to debate these important issues. Much more needs to be done. The Opposition will continue both to scrutinise the Government and to put forward our own ideas.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Peter Pike (in the Chair): About half a dozen Members want to speak. We shall sit until 5.30 pm and we usually allow those on the Front Bench a winding-up speech towards the end. Several experts on the subject before us want to contribute, so I hope that they will be mindful of the need to allow ample time for everyone to speak in the debate.

3.20 pm

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): Thank you, Mr. Pike.

That phrase, which I noticed on a board outside a school that I recently visited, summarises the importance of the UN convention on the rights of the child. Children are the future and their experiences as children will have a fundamental impact not only on them as individuals but on the future of us all and the society in which we live over the next 20 to 30 years. The experiences of our early years—whether we receive enough to eat or enough love, the level of schooling that we receive and whether we are protected from violence, abuse and exploitation—make huge differences to our life chances and the people we become.

The UN convention not only sets out the basic human rights that children should enjoy without discrimination, but sets standards whereby the dignity of children should be ensured and their development promoted.

I am proud that my party in government has given priority to many children's needs, has appointed a Minister for children and established a children and young people's unit. That recognition of the importance of children and young people at the heart of Government, and the value given to considering their needs across Departments, must be warmly welcomed.

The need to tackle child poverty has been given a welcome and unprecedented high profile with the Government setting a target to halve child poverty within 10 years and abolish it within a generation. It came as a shock to find that in one ward in my constituency 70 per cent. of children are currently deemed to be living in poverty. The Government's commitment cannot be realised too soon.

I especially welcome measures to help parents into work, the significant increase in child benefit, initiatives such as sure start, which was discussed earlier, and the investment in child care, enabling more parents to work. Those are crucial building blocks in helping families out of poverty.

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Quite rightly, the convention sets out the rights of all children without discrimination. I want to talk briefly about children in the care system who, having been subject to abuse and neglect and living apart from their family of origin, are often the most vulnerable children in our society. The life chances of children in care are usually significantly worse than those of other children. Many of them leave school with few or no qualifications, and they suffer from a high incidence of homelessness and unemployment and an increased risk of mental health problems or even imprisonment.

I worked in social services for nearly 20 years before entering Parliament, and I know that these issues were not accorded the priority that they deserved until the Labour Government were elected in 1997. In 1998, the then Secretary of State for Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), seriously grasped the problem. He wrote to all councillors demanding that they take responsibility for these children. He told them that they should know what the council's children were doing in the same way that they should know what their own children were doing. He said that they should know how they were doing at school and what their health was like, but that the reality was that most—probably all—councillors did not. He demanded that they should receive the same level of care and support as other children and that they should be given extra help and support to try to compensate for the problems that they had experienced and significantly improve their life chances.

By putting in place the quality protects programme with additional funding, the Government recognised that the rights of children in care had not been given sufficient priority, and they were determined that the situation should improve. Although there continues to be a need for further progress, the early improvements for many children and young people in care are warmly welcomed. Young people are starting to succeed in school, and their successes are being celebrated. They are engaging in work, perhaps even being given work by the very councils who are legally their parents. They feel valued by those who care for them, rather than feeling increasingly marginalised, which was the situation previously.

I especially welcome the Government's inclusion in the Education Act 2002 of a requirement to consult children and young people in the school. That complies with article 12 of the convention, by allowing children to express their views on matters affecting them, and I firmly believe that it will be beneficial to schools, and in the long run to the whole of society. Schools that have mechanisms in place for consulting children and for involving them in decision taking generally experience less disruptive behaviour and the children perform better academically. I met school councils at Meersbrook Bank, a school in my constituency, and spoke to children who had mechanisms to raise their concerns. Surprisingly, they found ways of resolving some of those concerns, which was an enriching experience. Ensuring that children have such experiences will enable them to become better citizens. They will understand the processes that they need to go through in order to have their grievances considered, and that must be supported.

However, despite the considerable and welcome progress in promoting the welfare of children and their rights, changes are still required in some areas. The

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convention on the rights of the child recognises that children are different from adults—they require support and protection during their childhood while their characters are developing—so I cannot accept that it is right for newspapers to be allowed to name children and young people who are subject to antisocial behaviour orders. The purpose of such orders is to seek an improvement in behaviour and the rehabilitation of the young person concerned. Naming the young person in the press is likely to inhibit rather than encourage that process. Today of all days we see all too clearly what the pressure of the media does to adults; we should protect children from that. The young person may feel that they have to play up to the image while the label will, in itself, put off other people who might otherwise assist in ensuring that the young person has a meaningful education or work.

I, too, am disappointed that the Government do not intend to change the law and will retain the defence of reasonable chastisement for parents who assault their children. It is important for the Government to have a clear position that the physical punishment of children is something to be avoided and that there should be an emphasis on more positive, non-violent forms of discipline.

We live in a society where almost every week someone is murdered by someone they know: often a husband or ex-husband kills his wife and sometimes also their children. We urgently need to promote a less violent society. How can we teach our children not to hit out if we continue to say that there is a defence of reasonable chastisement? How can we even teach them not to hit their friends if we continue to support physical punishment of children by adults?

I want to raise the issue of children and young people in prison. However it is done, it is time to move to separating children from adults. While we are doing that, we must ensure that the proper protections are in place for those children and young people who find themselves in prison. That was not the case a few years ago and I seek the Minister's reassurance that, where there are children in prison, those prisons have proper child protection policies, and a link to the local child protection agencies. In that way, any concerns about bullying or violence, particularly by adults in the prison environment, can be properly dealt with.

Mr. Grieve : Far be it from me to speak up for the Government, but I do not believe that the hon. Lady will find instances of young people being held in adult prisons without special facilities having been provided for them. Can the Minister enlighten us further on that?

Ms Munn : In my experience, it is not just a matter of providing special facilities, but of the whole way in which the prison is managed.

It is difficult, especially within small environments—I have experience of New Hall prison in Wakefield, which is relatively small—to keep young people entirely separate from adults. Even when young people are held separately from adults, it is possible for older or bigger young people to abuse others. We need to be clear that proper child protection policies and procedures are in

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place while we move to the situation—outlined by the Minister—of either placing children in secure accommodation or, more desirably, applying interventions that take place within the community.

The UK Government have been criticised by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child for not engaging sufficiently with the children's rights agenda. I believe that, in many aspects of legislation and budgetary spending, the Government clearly demonstrate a commitment to the welfare of children not only in this country but overseas. We are in a good position to build on that by improving public awareness of children's rights. I would like to see greater exploration of the possibility of appointing children's rights commissioners in whatever form they might take, to promote that agenda. I believe that the Government are committed to that agenda.

It is encouraging that we are increasingly beginning to recognise the value of children's voices. That has happened at school level in school councils, and in towns and cities, where local authorities are engaging with young people about their views on local services. It has also happened at national level, through initiatives such as the UK Youth Parliament, and through the young people who attended the UN special session in New York, in May.

I welcome this debate. It is high time that we talked more about children and young people, and listened more to them as well. I endorse the work that is being done by the Minister, and I urge the Government to take that work further by addressing the concerns highlighted by the UN committee.

The children of today are our future. As Nelson Mandela said:

3.33 pm

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Thank you, Mr. Pike, for the opportunity to take part in this profoundly important debate.

The way we treat children is a measure of the quality of our society. It is important that we use the debate to celebrate children and young people, and I associate myself with the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) about how children and young people are now using the greater opportunities available to them to influence the world around them, whether locally or nationally. It is also important to recognise that children from even the most awful circumstances, who have endured appalling experiences that, often, bring them into care, can surmount those experiences.

I have said it before, and I will continue to say it: once a month, all hon. Members have the opportunity to attend the all-party group on children and young people in care, where they may often meet young people with substantial experience of the care system. Last Wednesday, we were addressed by a young woman who spent much time in foster care and who has just obtained a doctorate. The meeting was attended by a number of young people who are working in highly responsible positions with national organisations and who are in higher education. In emphasising the issues of children and young people and the difficulties that some of them

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experience, we should not overlook the fact that they are a huge asset to the country, and we should celebrate their achievements.

I do not propose to reiterate all the facts about children in the United Kingdom or to read the conclusions of the UN committee into the record. They are well set out, and other hon. Members have made important points about some of the circumstances of children in this country. Nor will I go over this Government's achievements on children's policy. Without doubt, we have a good Government for children. We could have a great one, however. We have a thumping Labour majority, which is reflected in this afternoon's attendance, as there are only two brave souls on the Opposition Benches. If we miss the opportunity that that majority and a major UN report provide to transform for ever how our society deals with its children, we will have failed not just a generation, but ourselves.

It was said a couple of weeks ago that we are at our best when at our boldest. We need to take those words to heart. While we have a very good Government for children, in some ways we have not advanced the cause of children enough because we have been far too timid. We know what to do. Early-day motion 4 of the Session that will soon draw to an end was tabled on 20 June 2001, only days after the general election. It says:

I want my right hon. Friend the Minister to enjoy some justified acclaim, so I hope that he announces later today, or very soon, that he is at his best when at his boldest. I also hope that he acknowledges that this debate is about not simply the implementation of a list of worthy measures, but the need for a cultural change that accepts and incorporates children's rights within our national life.

Some of us have grown accustomed to and welcomed the linking of rights and responsibilities, which we have discussed today. For children, responsibility is acquired as they grow older. It is a function of developing maturity, not something to be forced on them too young. After all, children should be allowed their childhood.

The position on adult responsibility is much clearer. Parental responsibility, not parental right, is enshrined in the Children Act 1989. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley paid tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), who set out the corporate responsibility of local government for children in care in a stunning

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speech only a few years ago. The Government's responsibility to some 13 million children in the United Kingdom is the subject of this debate.

Only when we base our approach to children's lives on children's rights as set out in the UN convention on the rights of the child will we achieve the required transformation in our attitude to children. Living free from poverty is every child's right. Having access to first-class education and health care is every child's right. Participating in the decisions that affect their life is every child's right. Being protected is every child's right. Being part of a society where policy, legislation, procedures and practice operate in the best interests of every child is every child's right.

The excellent concluding observations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child point the way forward to what we should do if we are bold enough. We must cast aside the sad dross of appeals to a common sense that, if evaluated, is not that common and contains little sense and no logic. We should stand up to the rubbish in the media that sanctifies some poor bairns and vilifies others, and challenge the parts of our society that do not like children. A truly great Government, which I believe ours can become, would listen to what the UN committee is saying. They would use the UN convention on the rights of the child and incorporate it in UK law.

That convention should become as widely known and used as the highway code. The Government should recognise, as the UN committee does, that we need a central mechanism such as an easily identifiable and permanent body to achieve a comprehensive and coherent children's rights policy. We need a developed Ministry for children. It is a good that we have a Minister with responsibility for children and young people, but, with respect, I have to say that he should not also be Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety. Furthermore, children's services should not be divided among the Home Office, the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills, the Lord Chancellor's Department and other arms of government.

We should give the welcome innovation of the children and young people's unit real teeth and give the wonderful developments and proposals for children's trusts real backing. The organisational ethos of children's groups should be child centred and the necessary dividing lines between organisations and functions should be drawn at the recognisable, verifiable, understandable and common-sense age of 18.

Those who have no vote used to have no voice. Under this Government, they have a quiet voice, but we must recognise that it can often be stifled. We need to introduce children's rights commissioners—an independent human rights institution, as the UN says—in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. We need, also, to strengthen the voice of children and young people and use organisations such as the UK Youth Parliament. We should take further steps to promote the systematic and meaningful participation of all groups of children in society.

We need to recognise that parenting children well is a hard task that requires learning and support and that working with children is an honourable profession—it should be properly rewarded and recognised. We need

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sustained investment in children's services and we should commend the Government for their inspirational aim of ending child poverty. We should also encourage them to be similarly bold in embracing children's rights.

If we do that, we shall be able to challenge the absurd idea that we can oppose domestic violence, bullying, street violence and child abuse while retaining a 160-year-old concept of reasonable chastisement, behind which child abusers hide. We could also be bold in raising the age of criminal responsibility and abolishing the scandal and disgrace of locking children away in prison custody. We could recognise that children are children are children, the world over. There should be no differential treatment of children who are seeking asylum. For goodness' sake, we should set our face firmly against the deployment of children in armed conflict.

What I have talked about is, I believe, the best work that a Government can do, so we could look forward to a future generation building a better world than we can, because of how its members have been treated. That requires massive cultural change, but we can do it. We can transform the lives of children and our society, if we are prepared to be bold.

3.47 pm

Vera Baird (Redcar): The Joint Committee on Human Rights heard evidence a few months ago from a group of British children. We asked them whether they thought that their rights were adequately protected in this country. I believe that it was the first time that children had ever given evidence to Parliament, and if that is correct it gives the event historical significance.

The children did not think that their rights were properly protected. They spoke fluently about issues ranging from the grave matter of adequate protection from bullying at school, through the unavailability anywhere of information about their rights, to the fact they are never consulted about their facilities. It seems that the adult idea of consultation is to ask what colour the youth club walls should be painted, whereas any kid would have said that they did not want the youth club there in the first place.

I commend the evidence that those young people gave to anyone who wants an education in the various obvious ways in which children's rights are neglected. Obvious as they are once children have spoken of them, they are not obvious to us at all. It is pretty tragic that those young people felt that their rights were not given real consideration, and that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has set out numerous criticisms of the way in which our standards fall below those to which we have committed ourselves by international treaty.

The committee, as well as the children, made a point about the lack of a rights-based approach to current structures. With the JCHR I have met children's rights commissioners from places as far apart as New Zealand and Wales—as well as, of course, many human rights commissioners. It is my view—although not necessarily that of the JCHR—that although my right hon. Friend the Minister's serious attempts to change departmental culture are excellent, there should be a human rights

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commissioner in this country, and also, as part of that initiative, a commissioner for children's rights. I am convinced not by abstract arguments for children's rights, but by arguments about the practical benefits that such a person can bring, especially to some of the most vulnerable children in society. Without help, such children go on to become the most vulnerable adults in society.

Let me exemplify how a commissioner could help. Hon. Members have alluded to child poverty, but let me add a little to what has been said. If we use the measure of households below 60 per cent. of median income after housing costs, we find that 31 per cent. of children were living in poverty last year. The UN committee was very concerned about that figure. Clearly, the Government are working hard to lift families out of poverty, which the Conservative Government never did. Conservative Members here today have the temerity to argue about the figures, but their party was responsible for the depth of the poverty in which so many children were trapped for many years.

Mr. Grieve : The statistics showing that the number of children in poverty has fallen to 500,000 take us back to the 1994 position. I acknowledge that the figures rose in the last three years of the Conservative Government, partly for economic reasons, but for a long time they were better than they are today.

Vera Baird : There would have been no need for us to get 1 million children out of poverty after the Conservatives' period in government had they not been in poverty in the first place. The facts speak for themselves, and no amount of statistical sophistry can change that.

I applaud the success of the working families tax credit and the higher rate of child benefit, but children, in particular, are slipping through the net at one or two points. If a parent getting a job is the main route out of child poverty, difficulty in getting child care is the main obstacle, particularly for one-parent families. Although the risk of poverty in such families has declined by almost 10 per cent. since the Government came into office, 55 per cent. of children in one-parent families are still poor, compared with less than a quarter of children with two resident parents. Child care is critical to ending that problem. Despite increases in recent years, the Day Care Trust estimates that there is still only one child care place for every seven children under eight in England.

The recent spending review contained the welcome announcement that children's centres would be established in disadvantaged areas by 2006. That should provide expanded, improved and integrated children's services, and, I hope, training and other services for parents. However, the Government must build on that, and the aim must be to establish children's centres in all areas as quickly as possible. Child care would then become part of the social infrastructure and could be taken for granted, just like primary schools and GP practices. It would be available to all sectors of the community.

My right hon. Friend the Minister said that we had made progress on youth justice, and the Government certainly have an excellent record. However, will he consider the position of young defendants who are

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charged with a serious crime? The criminal justice system recognises that some witnesses in Crown court trials, such as children, are vulnerable. The Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 introduced a range of measures to protect and support child witnesses, including, in some cases, those up to the age of 17. For instance, a child witness first gives evidence soon after the event to a police officer trained in child protection. That is done in a pleasant room a bit like a sitting room, and every attempt is made to take the stress away. Their evidence is then used in court, and they do not need to go into the witness box.

A child witness can now be cross-examined soon after the evidence-taking process. That is done by what we might call plain-clothes barristers, long before the trial. It happens in an informal room, in the presence of a judge, but without the public or the jury, so there is no pressure. The child has then finished, and his or her job as a witness is over. The video of the cross-examination is shown to the jury at the trial, which could be months away. At worst, the child may need to be cross-examined at the trial, but that can be done by video link from a room well away from the pomposity and tension of the court. Those are all good and important protections.

However, a few children—the numbers run into double figures every year—are tried for serious offences such as murder, or offences committed with an adult who is entitled to trial by jury. That happens in the Crown court, not in the youth court, where most children are tried. The defendants could be as young as the 11-year-old boys who killed Jamie Bulger or, as in a previous case of mine, as old as 15. None of the witness protection measures applies to child defendants. They must give their evidence in court before 12 jurors, barristers and solicitors, and before both the public and the press, although the judge has discretion to limit the presence of the latter two groups.

In one trial, which made the point forcefully for me, 58 people were in court when my client, aged 15, who was charged, with a school friend, with murdering an old lady, should have gone into the witness box to give evidence to try to save herself from a life sentence. My client had read the early publicity about the case and knew that the press had applied to publish her name and were her enemies. The voyeurism in the public gallery was palpable and unavoidable, because people wanted to see the horror of young children who were said to have done horrible things. Compare her situation with that of the prosecution witnesses, also children of about 15, who had witnessed pretty small events of no great importance to them. They came to court, went straight to a room with their parents, chatted to a nice usher and watched their video on TV. They were then questioned in a quiet room by people grinning at them from the TV, just like being interviewed on a Saturday morning breakfast show. One lad had his lunch pail with him in the room. How does that amount to equality of arms between a child defendant and the prosecution?

The system accepts that child witnesses are vulnerable and need support, but not if they are defendants. How are we protecting the rights of the child defendant? That case was post-Bulger, and we did all the right things. The court was small and fairly modern. The children were not in the dock, but sitting with friends. We did not wear wigs and gowns, but fairly ordinary clothes. We did our

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best not to speak in Latin and, as kids cannot sit still, they were allowed to go in and out of court as they wished. All those arrangements have been replicated many times. However, it would be a rare child who could give evidence in their own defence in the atmosphere that I have described, which would certainly make it impossible for them to put their best foot forward, as they need to.

What possible justification can there be for excluding child defendants from all the witness protection measures available to everyone else? The problem is that there has never been a children's champion saying, "Just a minute. Think about the rights of that child." Undoubtedly, youth court trial should be available to all young people, with a senior judge brought in to try serious offences. The usual formula is that youth court trial is available unless the child is charged with an adult and the interests of justice require that they be tried together, in which case the child must go before a jury. I have never understood why it should not be the other way around. The youth court provides special measures to protect children, but otherwise, has the same aim of a fair trial, so why cannot we try the adult in the youth court on such occasions?

I shall add a few points to the excellent remarks that have already been made about the detention of children. Prison is ineffective in reducing youth crime and rehabilitating child offenders. Almost 90 per cent. of children sentenced to custody reoffend within two years. Despite that depressing statistic, we in Britain continue to imprison more children than are imprisoned in almost any other country in Europe—24 in every 1,000 10 to 18-year-olds, compared with six in every 1,000 in France, which has a higher juvenile population. The general rule is that imprisoning children exacerbates and prolongs the problem, so society must deal with it again and again. Prisons do not have the facilities to deal with child offenders, who are usually children in need.

The risk factors for offending are poverty, social exclusion, parental ill health, family conflict, poor parental supervision, abuse, harsh or erratic discipline and long-term separation from biological parents. Those issues cannot be tackled within the confines of the prison cell. Youth offending has not increased—in fact, between 1992 and 2000 there was a decline. However, there has been an increase in the use of custody for younger children. In 1999, 3.9 per cent. of custodial sentences were imposed on children under 14. However, the figure had risen to 9.3 per cent. by 2000.

The price we pay for the inappropriate use of custody and the continuing detention of children is counted in human life. Since 1997, 93 young people, six of them under 16, have committed suicide while in custody. A recent inquest verdict on young Kevin Jacobs, who hanged himself, aged 16, at Feltham young offenders institution, found that neglect was a contributory factor—clear evidence that a prison department is unable to safeguard and protect vulnerable and distressed children.

I have only one comment on physical punishment, because the issue has been well aired. We are all familiar with the arguments for and against it. Whatever our personal views, the anomalous state of the law is striking. Children are the only people in the UK who are not protected by law against violence. There is a double standard: we protect ourselves, as adults, but not the

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most vulnerable members of society. The topic is regularly debated within these walls and in homes across the country. Do adults have the right to discipline their children? Should the state interfere? What is missing is the perspective of an advocate of children's rights.

I do not doubt the Government's commitment to child welfare. Since 1997 they have demonstrated an ongoing commitment to eliminate child poverty and to improve health, education and the criminal justice system for children as well as for adults—but my concern turns on that phrase. Our reforms and our legislation often include children's rights as an afterthought—and occasionally an afterthought that we forget to think. There should be a mechanism for putting them at the centre of policy development.

That will not be achieved in the present set-up, however able, super and committed the Minister might be. For example the Minister currently responsible for children and young people is very committed—but he has a Department with many other responsibilities and there is only one of him. It is my strong view that the change of culture required in this country will not happen without a children's champion. I hope that the Government will give serious consideration to appointing a children's commissioner under the ambit of the human rights commission.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Peter Pike (in the Chair): Order. Before we continue, it will be helpful for me to talk about timing. The Minister requires about 10 minutes to respond to the debate, which is appropriate; according to normal procedure the Liberal Democrat spokesperson is entitled to 18 to 20 minutes; the Conservative spokesman might want a few moments, too. Three more Labour Members wish to speak, so there is still adequate time, but please bear the time in mind.

4.3 pm

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): I am delighted to take part in a debate on United Nations day on an issue of importance to all of us. I join my colleagues in paying tribute to the Labour Government for the work that they have already done, and encouraging them to do more. I also pay tribute to all who have campaigned on children's issues, whether they be organisations such as the NSPCC and Save the Children, or doughty individuals who, like some of my colleagues, have consistently and persistently championed the rights of children. I also want to commend the many people who, in their daily jobs—whether they are teachers or doctors, school bus drivers or sports coaches—uphold the beliefs enshrined in the convention. It contains a good set of principles, and traditionally we have upheld them.

I pay a special tribute to a policeman about whom I know nothing except that three years ago, when a refugee family arrived in this country in trauma and were being held for questioning, he gave the two children some chocolate. He made them feel secure and safe; in accordance with the principles of the convention, he gave them support and protection. Now,

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three years later, he is still well remembered. His actions made that family believe fully in the values that our country has to offer. I therefore urge the Government to reconsider the one policy on which the United Nations committee has questioned them—their retaining of the wide-ranging reservation on immigration and citizenship, particularly in respect of children.

Other Members have greater experience of the work being done in this country, and I therefore simply take up the refrain echoed earlier, which is that children are children are children, the world over. The convention is a United Nations convention, and this is United Nations day. In comparison with what happens here, children in other parts of the world are suffering to an untold degree, and despite the fact that we do not have direct legislative responsibility for them, we have a moral responsibility.

I would expect the United Nations convention to be recognised throughout the world, but I shall give just one example of its not having been observed. Despite the fact that the country concerned had signed and ratified the convention, things have gone terribly wrong. That country is Afghanistan, and I am talking about the situation there before 11 September. I admit that I knew little about what had happened there, and I guess that the rest of the world, too, knew little about it.

I pay full respect to our Secretary of State for International Development, who was taking the Government's values forward by supplying aid there, but just listen to this: a quarter of Afghan children died before their fifth birthday; half the children under five years old were underweight; 39 per cent. of boys, and only 3 per cent. of girls, had any education. Compared with the standards of concern that we show for children here, that situation is unrecognisable, and it is reflected to a greater or lesser degree in many other countries.

I want the Government to consider the debate going on in the United Nations about humanitarian intervention. I draw the Chamber's attention to the report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, commissioned by the Canadian Government, entitled, "The Responsibility to Protect". In what terms should the United Nations intervene, particularly in the context of our debate about upholding the rights of the child? That subject is perhaps one for the longer term. However, I register a strong interest, and I am concerned that the Government should take up the Canadian report and consider in depth how, in the long term, the United Nations should uphold the convention on the rights of the child throughout the world.

4.8 pm

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): I pay tribute to the Minister for his opening remarks, which combined a mastery of his brief with a passion for the subject. I sincerely hope that the feelings of amity and respect that I have for him will survive my visit to his constituency this Sunday afternoon, when my fellow Cottagers and I will be descending on St. Mary's football ground.

The full title of the report presented today is "Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child: United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland." I apologise because, wide though the Minister's brief is, he is not directly concerned with

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internal affairs in the north of Ireland. However, I hope that you will allow me to detain the Chamber with a few issues, Mr. Pike, as I think it is vital that they at least be aired.

Like everyone else, I welcome the opportunity to debate the report. Compiling a periodic report under the UN convention involves enormous resources for Departments and non-governmental organisations. Hearings are thorough and competent, and Governments should never be defensive. A critical report such as this should be an opportunity to learn and change, and I want to mention a couple of points within the challenging context of political conflict in the north of Ireland.

We all know that children have suffered disproportionately during the 30 years of conflict. Many have died, and many more have been injured. A huge number have been robbed of their childhood. Those children all have in common the fact that the problem was not their fault. The community of NGOs in the north of Ireland took its participation in the process of compiling a report to the UN seriously. The Children's Law Centre, the Northern Ireland wing of Save the Children, submitted a report to the UN that was more than 30 pages long. It was supported by more than 30 charities and specialist organisations, and I want to mention its main points.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child agreed with the recommendations of the UN Committee against Torture in calling for a ban on the use of plastic baton rounds as a means of riot control. We are familiar with the Patten reforms and know that they have moved us a long way, but the baton round is a child killer—not potentially, but actually. It must be replaced with socially acceptable methods of policing.

Committee members were keen to consider the specific provision for the protection of children within emergency legislation. We have neglected that, and will need to examine it further. The principle of the best interests of the child contained within the convention on the rights of the child is one of the most far-reaching and revolutionary proposals to have secured unanimous support from the UN General Assembly. In applying that principle, we need to work through our assumptions. Some children's groups criticised the Government's proposals in the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, arguing that the youth justice section of the legislation did not adequately support the best interests of child protection.

A key point—it informs our whole discussion—was raised by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who said that much of the subject under discussion was like motherhood and apple pie. For all I know, he still commands enormous fees at the Bar, and that comment says something about his ability to cut to the quick of a matter. Although there is motherhood and apple pie, there is also an issue of conflicting and competing rights. I am sure that everyone is familiar with what occurred at Holy Cross school in north Belfast, where the right that people claimed to make a political protest was in direct and fundamental contradiction of the rights of young Catholic schoolgirls who tried to make their way to school through a gauntlet of hatred. Balloons of urine were flung at them,

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pornographic magazines were thrust in their faces, and blast bombs were exploded within metres of those primary school children.

It is said that freedom for the shark does not mean freedom for the minnow, which is true. There is a conflict. If we take one thing from the report and our discussion, it is that in such a conflict the rights of the child must predominate. Children must have primacy when rights compete and conflict. The current blockade at Holy Cross is on hold. Let us hope that our discussion and the actions of the Government will go some way towards establishing the acceptance of the fact that the rights of the child should be seen as supreme over the right to protest in that case.

I greatly welcome the debate, as I am sure everyone does, and I commend the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and all those involved in it. I am sure that I do not need to urge the Government to disseminate the report and study its recommendations with great care. I have been greatly impressed with many of the comments that have been made, and I feel distinctly optimistic. I thank you, Mr. Pike, for allowing me to stray a little beyond the direct subject of the Minister's responsibility; I hope you would accept that these are vital matters.

Mr. Peter Pike (in the Chair): The Chair only noticed the hon. Gentleman straying when he referred to the football.

4.15 pm

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): Unsurprisingly, I want to refer to the report as it affects Wales, although unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), I have not gone to the trouble of decorating my shirt with a tie that indicates which area of the United Kingdom I shall be discussing.

This is the second report reviewing the situation in the United Kingdom, but it is the first report following the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales. Considerable effort was made in Wales by Save the Children and Children in Wales, two prominent non-governmental organisations working for children, which organised the collection of evidence with the full participation of children. Children from Wales went to Geneva to participate in the hearings and listen to the presentation of evidence by the United Kingdom Government.

I note that the Northern Ireland report ran to 30 pages. The Welsh have a reputation for being verbose in written form, but we have managed to get everything into 10 pages, and even the bilingual version stretches to only five lines more than 20 pages. That shows that we can be succinct when we want to be.

One aspect of the report which gave me a wry smile was the way in which it jumped so quickly from 1995 to 1999, leaving out the first two years of the Labour Government. Things happened in the Welsh Office at that time that paved the way for the Children's Commissioner for Wales, for example, which was the first such post created in the United Kingdom. When I was appointed to the Welsh Office, I was the Minister responsible for children, and we set up a committee of civil servants from all departments to consider the concerns of children. We thrashed out a unified

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approach to children's policy and the needs of children. We did not get it right the first time and had to rethink our approach.

A big advantage of the Assembly over the Welsh Office is that it has Ministers for Departments similar to those in Whitehall. The Welsh Office Minister with responsibility for health and social services was also the Minister responsible for children. Now that three or four people oversee what I was responsible for, they can focus much more closely on the issues than I could. I freely admit that, on children's issues and other areas for which I had responsibility, I could not take the agenda forward as quickly as I would have liked, simply because I was responsible for so many different areas.

In the Assembly, we now have the opportunity to consider matters in a focused way. The report gives us grounds for hope following the positive developments that have taken place since the creation of the Assembly, one of which is the creation of the Children's Commissioner in Wales. As my right hon. Friend the Minister said, there are different types of commissioner throughout the world. There are some constraints on the Welsh commissioner because of the way in which devolution has developed. I shall refer to those constraints later.

The Welsh Assembly has established a body to take on board the views of children and ensure that children participate in the process of government. Its name—as a child of the 1960s, perhaps I should say its "groovy" name—is the Funky Dragon. The Funky Dragon is the children and young people's assembly for Wales. It is there to reflect views and to participate with the Assembly in policy development.

There is also a monitoring group in Wales now, headed by Save the Children, and including other NGOs, the Welsh Executive, the Funky Dragon and the Children's Commissioner's office, which all work together to monitor the implementation of the convention in Wales. There are a number of positive things going on.

It is also possible, however, to point to areas in which things must still be done better. As regards UK recognition, the UN convention is about a decade old. According to a survey conducted of 300 young people between the ages of 10 and 19 in Wales, almost 60 per cent. had never heard of the convention. Some 86 per cent. had never been involved in any talk or discussion about the rights of children, while 75 per cent. said that they would like to be involved. There is a task to be undertaken in disseminating information about the charter. That is arguably a task for the Welsh Assembly. I would guess, however, that the situation is not very different elsewhere in the UK, so there is also a role for Whitehall.

In contrast, due to the way in which devolution works, in Wales there are matters relating to children for which the Home Office, where my right hon. Friend the Minister daily storms the corridors of power, has responsibility. They are not part of the Assembly's brief, nor are they areas in which the Children's Commissioner can easily get involved, except in an advisory role. We need to examine how Whitehall, the Assembly in Cardiff, the Parliament in Scotland and the

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Executive in Northern Ireland can be connected, to make sure that all aspects of the convention are implemented in a co-ordinated way, so that all children can benefit. With the move towards devolution in England, that may become even more important. Although in Geneva the children and young people's unit represented children, its main function in the UK is to develop policy in England only. The question of how things can be done better throughout the UK should be discussed at Westminster.

In Wales we need to examine issues related to monitoring through the Children's Commissioner, and the vexed question of the way in which devolution is currently developed. There are certain issues that are important to children, over which the commissioner does not have any direct power. He can advise, but his role is not the same as it would be if there were full devolution of responsibilities to Cardiff. That is another issue on which Whitehall and Wales need to work together much more closely.

On the report, a number of my hon. Friends mentioned child poverty. There is a great commitment to end child poverty in a decade. In Wales the problem is even bigger than in the rest of the UK. Save the Children and the university of York did a study of child poverty in the UK, and in Wales the number of children in families whose income is less than 50 per cent. of the average, excluding housing costs, is 10 per cent. higher than average. One third of children in Wales are in that situation.

Wales also has a higher than average rate of teenage pregnancies: it is over a third whereas in the rest of the United Kingdom it is less than 30 per cent. Boys in Wales drink phenomenally more than boys in the rest of the UK: 53 per cent. of them drink alcohol weekly compared with only 47 per cent. in England, 37 per cent. in Scotland and 33 per cent. in Northern Ireland. Tragically, drug abuse is much higher too: 28 per cent. of under-15s had used drugs in the previous month, which is not far short of double the figure for elsewhere in the UK. Something extra needs to be done in Wales. We have objective 1 status and things are going well in that direction. However, of the 18 indicators used in England to measure progress on taking children out of poverty only four work in Wales. We need to look at that and perhaps talk to other Departments to try to get that right.

Finally, I should like to talk about physical punishment, which was mentioned by a number of my hon. Friends. When the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) quoted the terrible statistics that the NSPCC has gathered on child abuse—for example, that one child every week dies from physical abuse—I thought that he would say that the time had come to change the law. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) said, that physical abuse arises from the framework of this Victorian law, which permits reasonable chastisement, which we know our courts have interpreted extremely widely in the past.

As a child, I was chastised physically more than once by my parents. Like many who still approve of reasonable chastisement, I could say that it did not appear to harm me that much, although it hurt at the time—some may wonder whether I have made a serious career mistake in saying that. Many people share the

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thought that it does no harm, but I am pleased to say that neither of my children, who are now in their thirties, can remember me physically chastising them, although they do say, "Dad, sometimes you really exploded." But it was all verbal and along with everything else it seemed to do the trick. The NSPCC's survey found that almost 60 per cent. of people would support a change in the law, provided that a trivial incident would not become a matter for recourse to the courts. The body of opinion is moving towards changing the law.

I am pleased that Jane Hutt, the Minister for Health and Social Services, made an important statement on the subject in Wales yesterday. She said that she would approach my right hon. Friend the Minister to see whether something could be done because, under devolution, we cannot make that change in Wales ourselves. However, in all those areas where the Welsh Assembly can make policy regarding children, it has made it clear that there will be no physical chastisement of children. On top of that it has taken the positive measure of working with the National Family and Parenting Institute and the NGO Children in Wales to develop a parenting support project and to have a parenting code to help parents to find ways of keeping children on the straight and narrow without recourse to physical punishment. I hope that the Minister's commitment to look at further ways to improve the care and treatment of children and the policies developed in the UK will mean that the Government can at last take steps to rid us, once and for all, of the vexed Victorian question of reasonable chastisement.

4.29 pm

Vernon Coaker (Gedling): I hope that my voice lasts for the five or 10 minutes of my contribution. I apologise if it sounds more irritating than usual.

I want to add a few comments as co-chair of the UK Youth Parliament and say that today's debate gives us an opportunity to reflect on the quality of the lives of the 13.5 million young people in the UK under the age of 18 and the challenges that face them. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on his work in trying to raise the issue of young people in Government. He made a good fist of saying how much progress has been made, and much of that progress is a tribute to the work that he has done. There is much more to do, but it is important to recognise that we would not have arrived where we are today without his personal commitment to the work.

My speech will be a series of challenges. There is not much point in our saying, "These are all the good things we have achieved," because the debate would then lack a cutting edge or any sense of excitement or passion about what we need to do to deliver the services and the sort of country that we want for our young people. Instead of just congratulating ourselves on what we have achieved, we should consider the problems that still confront us and challenge the status quo, because if we do not, there will be no radicalness in what we are doing. We need to set our sights high.

I want to reflect on a couple of matters, including the participation of young people in our society. We have made some progress in that respect, but how much progress have we really made in terms of Departments listening to what young people say? They may listen, but

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how many policies can we identify that have fundamentally changed as a result of young people saying that they do not agree with what the Government are doing? How many local authorities have youth councils or forums in which young people can say to the council, "The policy that you are pursuing is wrong," and cause the council to change its mind and amend its policy? Guidance may suggest it, but do we know how many schools have set up youth or school councils, or how effective those that exist are? How many schools change their policies on discipline or lesson organisation, teaching and learning styles or timetables as a result of what the school council says? We need to ask such questions.

We started on the route of participation, and made considerable changes. We challenged the system and said that the voices of young people were crucial, but as well as setting up the participatory mechanisms, we need also to try to measure their outcomes in terms of what influence young people have on policy. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to reflect on how we might do that. I do not have the answers to all those questions, but it is important to reflect on them.

My right hon. Friend made various points on education, and we have made considerable progress in that regard, but we must ask what we are doing about the problems in education and how they come about.

We need to concentrate not only on the quality of many schools, which still needs to be improved, but on special needs education and whether the special needs of every one of our young people in this country are adequately met in all our local authorities. Parents in my constituency tell me that one of their greatest frustrations with education is trying to get help with the individual learning difficulties of their son or daughter.

We must also reflect on the provision of recreation facilities and youth clubs. As my right hon. Friend knows, the resources available for the youth service in this country are abysmal. The provision of recreation facilities for young people in some parts of the country is, frankly, poor. As hon. Members will know from their own constituencies, young people with nowhere else to go play out on the street. That causes problems, because when the police come to move them on, there is nowhere for them to be moved on to. There is a complete lack of informal, as well as formal, recreation space. One of the challenges that we face is whether we can develop the available youth facilities and rebuild the youth service.

My right hon. Friend made some important and interesting points about crime and the Government's attempts to do something about youth offending. My experience tells me that we could prevent much youth crime and much antisocial behaviour if we had a larger youth service and more youth workers out on the street working with our young people. There is often a terrible shortage of such workers.

We have made tremendous progress in tackling poverty, but there is still much for us to do. The Minister referred to the large number of children we have removed from poverty. Earlier, we started to debate whether the poverty was relative or absolute, and what the actual number of young people living in poverty was. Although we are making significant progress, there are still far too many children and young people who do not have the quality of life and standard of living that we

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want them to have. It is incumbent on us to challenge ourselves to reflect on what we have done and consider whether we can do more. There are young people in our constituencies in homes or communities whose standard of living and quality of life we simply do not believe is good enough.

Under the Homelessness Act 2002 and the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, priority housing can be given to 16 and 17-year-olds. That is an important reform, but far too many of our young people still have no support in the community. Because of changes to the legislation, a 17-year-old girl in my constituency has been placed in a council property as she is in need and presumably has suffered problems in the past. That is a great thing, but once society has housed her—a good thing—there is no support for her in terms of her other needs. There is a need for more joined-up support. We need to reflect not only on housing policy but on social and welfare policy.

My theme is that we need to reflect on the challenges that confront our society as well as congratulating ourselves on our achievements. As a society, we are judged by how we treat young people coming into the country as asylum seekers or refugees. We must remember that the fundamental point of the policy that we pursue in respect of asylum seekers and refugees coming into the country as children is that they are not asylum seekers or refugees—they are children. The whole agenda is rights driven, which means that those children have rights as children. Sometimes, however, we deal with them in such a way that they are not seen fundamentally and first of all as children. We should reflect on that.

My voice is now starting to irritate me as well as—I expect—everyone else, but I simply want to say that some of my remarks have been intended as challenging: they are not meant to be negative, to decry the achievements of the Government or be unhelpful; they are about acknowledging that our achievements have been enormous. My right hon. Friend is as committed to the furtherance of children's rights and to young people as we could wish.

However, if we as a Government and as individuals are to achieve as much as we want for our young people, we have to continue to ask ourselves the hard questions and to challenge ourselves about whether we are doing as well as we can. If the story is bad, we have to say so. We should not flog ourselves for that, but we must understand the reality and what we need to do about it.

There are serious challenges and serious problems in many areas. If we reflect on them and are honest about them, the policy that we develop to tackle them will be better and more rigorous and will bring about a better life for our children than it would if we simply enclosed ourselves with the view that everything in the garden is rosy.

4.42 pm

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): I want to register an interest, in that I serve as a parliamentary ambassador for the NSPCC. It is not a paid position, but it gives me a great deal of useful information and I am very grateful for the work that the NSPCC does. I am here today, however, to give a Liberal Democrat response to some of the issues that we have debated.

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I congratulate all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, because it has been well informed, and telling points have been made to which I hope that the Minister will respond. However, to debate and do justice to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child and its 54 articles in three hours is impossible. It would take him that long just to respond to the many concerns expressed in the concluding observations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which were published earlier this month.

I shall focus on a few of the main issues, some of which have been touched on by other hon. Members, and on some of the recommendations made by that committee. Quite rightly, several hon. Members have spoken about child poverty, the cycle of deprivation and delinquency that can continue through the generations, and how we need to end that cycle.

I want to ask the Minister about the recommendations concerning detention and juvenile justice, which he has heard something about from others. The UN committee expressed serious concern that

its 1995 report. It goes on to say that it is "deeply concerned" about the high and increasing number of children in custody at earlier ages for lesser offences, which it regards as a violation of article 37(b) of the convention. The committee also expressed concern about the Government's failure to drop their reservation concerning article 37(c) because children are still detained in adult prisons. It said:

On top of those concerns are others about the use of restraint in custody. The report highlights recent figures showing that in two years 296 children sustained injuries following restraint and control in prison. As was revealed in the recently published joint chief inspectors' report, "Safeguarding Children", there are weaknesses in the Government's current arrangements for safeguarding young children that are letting children suffer serious harm and even die.

As the chief inspectors say in their report:

That is a huge number, but I am concerned not only about injuries but about deaths, too.

Most recently, there was the tragic case of Kevin Jacobs, and I quote from a column by Mary Riddell in The Observer on 13 October 2002:

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The article concluded:

Since 1997, 93 young people have committed suicide while in custody. Detention and training orders seem to have led to an increase in jail sentences, apparently on the mistaken belief that they will result in more rehabilitation. What steps are being taken to review that pattern and ensure that alternatives to custodial sentences, such as the intensive supervision and surveillance orders, are used? Will the Minister comment on the fact, which has been picked up on by one or two hon. Members, that not all young offenders institutions are fully compliant with the principles and requirements of the Children Act 1989? What steps are being taken to ensure compliance? That, too, was a concern in the "Safeguarding Children" report.

Many of the children in custody should not be there in the first place. Half of them are the casualties of an under-resourced and over-pressured child protection system. So far the Government have refused to lift their reservation about children being detained in adult prisons, and the UK locks up more children than any other European country, which is a scandal. The convention makes it clear that custody should be a measure of last resort, so when will the Government honour their commitment to remove girls and young women from adult prisons? What is the timetable for compliance with article 37(c)? When will the reservation be lifted?

Paragraphs 37 and 38 of the conclusions in the report concern child deaths through neglect and abuse. The topic has not been spoken about much today, but is a concern for us all. I fully acknowledge that much good work has been done, not least through the quality protects programmes, but the UN committee rightly draws attention to the appalling level of child deaths in this country. Home Office figures clearly show that child homicide figures in England and Wales have not fallen for 25 years or more. We have cut child deaths on our roads and reduced the risk of disease and illness in children, but the child death rates as a result of neglect and abuse have remained unchanged.

Framing effective policy requires information, but there is a disturbing lack of information on the causes and circumstances of unexpected or suspicious child deaths. As the committee notes, there is no systematic follow-up for child deaths in this country. Incredible though it may seem, there is no permanent database of child death cases. The full extent of child death in this country remains largely hidden. The committee expressed its alarm at the lack of a co-ordinated strategy to reduce child deaths, and made eight specific recommendations concerning the issue. How, in general, do the Government intend to respond to those

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recommendations? In particular, will the Home Office consider establishing a system of statutory child death inquiries, and include in future British crime surveys all crimes committed against children?

The issue of corporal punishment, mentioned in paragraphs 35 and 36 of the recommendations, has been at the heart of the debate, and has been a cause for concern to many of the hon. Members who have contributed. The Government have set their face against changing the law concerning reasonable chastisement. That is an unacceptable loophole that has allowed our courts to tolerate the use of belts, sticks, canes and other implements to punish children.

Research has shown that physical punishment is ineffective as a form of discipline. It is associated with subsequent aggressive and criminal behaviour in children. A 1995 UK study concluded that physical punishment was a significant factor in the development of violent attitudes and actions by children. Another UK study found that children who were frequently aggressive with their siblings were four times as likely as those who were rarely aggressive to have been severely punished at some time in their life.

Hon. Members, particularly those on the Front Benches, have been right to emphasise the importance of quality parenting, but it is wrong to use that as an excuse not to deal with the issue of reasonable chastisement. No one here is talking about some draconian ban. It is worth remembering that in 1999 a MORI poll for Children Are Unbeatable! found that 73 per cent. of those who responded and 78 per cent. of those with dependent children supported a ban

The year before that survey, the Office for National Statistics found that almost every adult surveyed considered punishment that leaves a red mark or bruising to be unreasonable. Some 76 per cent. of people surveyed said that they did not support the smacking of children under two, and 87 per cent. said that using a cane, stick, belt or other implement to punish a naughty child was not acceptable. There were no significant differences in the views on smacking held by men and women, or by parents in different age groups.

Given those responses to the survey, why have Ministers failed to act? Why are they not prepared to ban blows to the head, shaking and the use of implements? Why are the Government unwilling to put on the statute book the factors that courts must take into account when determining whether punishment is reasonable?

Child prostitution has not been mentioned today, but the Barnardo's "Stolen Childhood" campaign, for which many of us will have seen the literature—not least the haunting posters of young children made old before their time by abuse through prostitution—has moved many. We are talking about boys and girls as young as six. In paragraphs 55 and 56 of the recommendations, the UN committee expresses its concern that the law criminalises children who have been the victims of such exploitation. In the "Safeguarding Children" report, the joint chief inspectors said that they were particularly concerned about a child protection system that seems to be in denial about the problem. They also said:

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The lack of a clear strategy to pull together the evidence from across agencies, co-ordinate intelligence gathering, and put in place the support such children need is a gross neglect. What plans do the Government have to commission the study on the scope, causes and background of child prostitution that was recommended in the report? What plans do the Government have to make it a criminal offence to buy or sell the sexual services of a child, or to participate in, facilitate or allow sexual exploitation of a child under the forthcoming sexual offences legislation? The Government signed the optional protocol on child prostitution in September 2000, but they have yet to ratify it. When will they do that?

Barnardo's rightly drew attention to the role of the internet in luring children into prostitution. Following a constituency case 18 months ago, I raised my concerns at Prime Minister's questions about paedophiles using teenage chatrooms to groom children for sexual purposes. I welcome the fact that the Home Office set up a taskforce on internet safety. I am a member of that taskforce, and I have been encouraged by the progress that has been made in framing both a legislative and a multi-agency response to the issue. However, what assurances can the Minister give today that the House will soon be able to enact those vital protections?

I want to question the monitoring of the implementation of the convention. The UN committee has asked the Government to enshrine the convention in our domestic law, and many hon. Members have said much the same today. Do the Government support taking that step?

The committee expresses deep concern that, although there is a Children's Commissioner in Wales—which is a welcome innovation—and there are plans for similar posts in Northern Ireland and Scotland, there is no such post in England. The Liberal Democrats believe that establishing a children's rights commissioner would ensure that Governments took children's rights seriously in their policies and decisions. Some powerful arguments have been advanced for that today.

By definition, that office is a guardian of the human rights of all children, not a manager of child protection services or of a Government welfare or quality assurance programme. Children's rights commissioners are meant to ensure that Governments consider children as citizens now, rather than only when they grow up and can vote. I regret that, to date, Ministers have set their face against such a post, preferring instead the more narrowly drawn children's rights director in the National Care Standards Commission. That is a valuable post, but it is not an adequate response to the matter, as it covers only looked-after children and fails to meet this country's obligations under the convention.Moira Rayner, the former director of the London Children's Rights Commissioner's office, put it this way:

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Can the Minister outline the Government's case against the establishment of such a commissioner? We have never heard that case articulated by a Minister; perhaps we can do so today.

The UN committee makes several specific recommendations about data collection. When I was preparing for this debate, it became clear to me how little the Government know about the circumstances of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. There is no regular collection of statistics on the numbers or needs of that group of children—indeed, apart from a snapshot survey conducted last year of a typical week in a local authority, no information has been collected. How is it possible to plan sensibly and sensitively for the needs of those children without basic information? Establishing a clear picture of how many of them there are in the country is a key ingredient in developing responses and services that those very damaged children need. It is hardly surprising, then, that the committee was so critical of the Government's handling of asylum-seeking children.

The committee has set out a massive agenda of issues and recommendations for the Government to consider. The Minister has outlined some of the responses that the Government have made so far. It is vital that they act to ensure that this country's obligations under the convention are honoured, and that children's rights are named and claimed for children when they are children.

4.58 pm

Mr. Denham : I am grateful to the hon. Members of all parties who have taken part in this debate. A huge number of issues have been raised, and even though I have been left about half an hour to speak, I cannot promise that I will manage to recall all of them—even with the help of my notes—let alone answer them satisfactorily. However, I will deal with as many as I can.

It is a shame that the Back-Bench contributions have come entirely from Labour Members. Given the importance of these issues, it is a pity that the other parties have been represented only by their Front-Bench spokesmen—although they have done a good job.

Mr. Grieve : That is a problem, but this afternoon's debate in the Chamber is on the local government finance formula, which is of enormous importance, especially to Back Benchers. In the circumstances, it is no great surprise that that has been their priority.

Mr. Denham : None the less, one or two might have made their way here to express their interest.

I look forward to seeing my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) at St. Mary's on Sunday afternoon. Perhaps he will join me at half time when I am hoping to launch the next phase of the anti-racism campaign run by Southampton football club. That will provide him with some half-time entertainment.

On more serious matters, let me start with the issues raised by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). The NSPCC's figures on child murders are of course shocking, but it is worth remembering that this country has one of the lowest child murder rates in western Europe. Some indicators, particularly the number of children on at-risk registers, are more fairly viewed as a measure of how we have built on our child

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protection systems in recent years rather than as an accurate reflection of the scale of the problem. The inspectorate report published last Monday acknowledges considerable improvements, though clear gaps in the system remain—

Mr. Dawson : On a point of order, Mr. Pike. I am afraid that we cannot hear the Minister at this end of the Chamber. Something may be wrong with the microphone.

Mr. Peter Pike (in the Chair): I do not know whether the problem is in the system, but the microphones are sensitive to position, so I hope that the Minister will position himself well.

Mr. Denham : I will step forward.

I was saying that some of the examples used by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield can be read as evidence of the extent to which we have built a more extensive system of child protection rather than as evidence of the problem. It is rather like increases in certain types of recorded crime, which show that people are acquiring more faith in the system. As the inspectorate's report showed last year, much has been done, but improvements remain to be made. As well as considering how best to respond to the report, the Government are waiting for Lord Laming's report on the Victoria Climbié case. We do not know exactly what they will be, but proposals for changes to the system of child protection will certainly be recommended and the Government will want to take them very seriously indeed.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield made an interesting speech, and it was a measure of how public debate has changed over the past five years. It was mainly about what the evidence shows about the best forms of prevention and early intervention in the lives of young people and young offenders. However, he is a member of a party that never spent anything like the resources that we are spending on services. At the last election, his party proposed to cut £20 billion from public spending.

I welcome debate about the best model for early childhood strategies. Ministers did not design the sure start programme on the back of an envelope. It is based on extensive reviews of the published and evaluated evidence on the most effective ways of intervening to help young people. The same is true of the youth offender strategies promoted by the Youth Justice Board. There is always room for debate about innovations and new ideas. I am glad that today's debate has been about how to make the best of the substantial investment that we are making.

Without prejudging what Lord Laming will say, we clearly need to improve our ability to identify young people at risk and to ensure that services for them are properly co-ordinated. That is why in the autumn, after the spending review, we announced that in England—it does not apply to the devolved Administrations—we shall be working with local authorities, the health service, the police and other agencies to put identification, referral and tracking systems in place. It is a way of sharing information about young people when different agencies are concerned about them, to ensure a concerted response.

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We all know from our constituency work of individual children who were known to the police, social services and education organisations, but in respect of whom the different agencies had not co-ordinated their response. Such a child can end up in crisis, may need to be taken into care or even end up in a young offenders institution. If there had been an intervention four or five years earlier in those children's lives, that would have led to a different and more positive outcome.

We are building on the current system to ensure that we have better focused strategies to identify those young people who are at risk. We will ask all the agencies that I mentioned to work together in a more concerted way from next spring, to develop clear preventive strategies for young people. Those strategies should show not only how the agencies will identify the young people at risk but how they will work together to respond to their needs. We are moving forward. There is a great deal more to be done in this area, but we can be pleased with what we have done so far.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) acknowledged what the Government have done so far. I disagree with one of her substantive points about the naming of children who are the subject of antisocial behaviour orders. We believe that such orders can play an effective role in strategies to control youth nuisance at local level, with which I know she agrees.

Such orders are used most effectively as part of a wider strategy, which on some occasions will attempt other interventions before moving to an ASBO and in others will move straight to it. The impact of an ASBO depends on people knowing that the order has been made, so that the public and the communities that have been affected can help to monitor and identify any breaches of the order. An ASBO that cannot be enforced, so a breach cannot be prosecuted, is unlikely to be fully effective. Although the courts have discretion in the matter, the ability to name an offender under an ASBO is a key part of the measure. If we removed it, the measure would not be effective in many circumstances.

There are a variety of views on smacking and reasonable chastisement. There are those who would like any form of smacking to be outlawed. Others, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), said that the issue concerned not so much outlawing it entirely as the definition of reasonable chastisement, and that the law should, perhaps, be amended to be more precise about what that means.

There are several issues that we need to take into account. I spoke to several of my counterpart Ministers in countries that have banned smacking, and they said, universally, that those laws had not been enforced but were symbolic. Therein lies a difficulty that may be peculiar to the United Kingdom—I do not know, as I am not an international legal expert. We have very little tradition in this country of declaratory legislation, of passing laws as a symbol of what we mean, rather than ones that we expect to be enforced. Had we a different tradition, the debate might also be different.

I believe that trying to amend the law to be more precise would probably get us into more hot water and more difficulty than we would wish. I have in mind the analogy of the law on euthanasia. It does not fit exactly what happens, and most attempts to suggest something

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different would probably make it worse rather than better. The same would be true of an attempt to define more precisely what we mean by reasonable chastisement, or to come up with an alternative form of wording.

In practice, I believe that the law, backed up as it is now by the European convention on human rights, under which test cases have been taken, provides sufficient protection for children. I do not advocate smacking. I have two children, one of 15 and the other of 12, and neither of them has ever been smacked. I am, personally, a strong opponent of smacking. Not everyone in the Government shares my opinion, but I am certain that the way to send out the right signals about smacking is by supporting positive approaches to parenting, by having programmes that support parents in seeing different ways to discipline and by helping them to convey ideas about good and bad behaviour to their children. That is preferable to attempting to bring the criminal law into this difficult and sensitive area of family life.

Mr. Dawson : Does the Minister accept that the Government might be on stronger ground on the matter if, in the consultation that preceded the latest modifications to policy, they had offered the people of this country the option of abolishing the concept of reasonable chastisement, as the Scottish Parliament offered it to the people of Scotland?

Mr. Denham : There will always be different views about whether a particular consultation should have covered more options. The lesson from the consultation exercise, which was carried out through the Department of Health, was pretty clear in its conclusions. It endorsed our sense that a change in the law is not the right way to address the issue.

Mr. Burstow : Can the Minister confirm that the Government's clear and settled view is that they would not wish to legislate to ban blows to the head, shaking a child or using implements to punish a child?

Mr. Denham : We are not proposing to legislate on such matters. In case the hon. Gentleman wants to read something into my response, that does not mean that we would approve of forms of punishment of children that amount to assault. That is very clear, and I believe that it is the legal position. I think that, in practice, setting out detailed legislation would be a difficult challenge. We would be in danger of diverting attention from the real issue, which is how we support parents in finding alternative ways to discipline their children, other than any type of physical chastisement. The time devoted to the debate on what the Victorian law says, as interpreted by the European convention on human rights, amounts to a diversion from the real issue of how we can promote more positive approaches to parenting. We have more to do on that, although we have made a significant start in the past few years.

Smacking relates strongly to the question of a children's rights commissioner or a children's champion. Several hon. Members referred to that. Forgive me if I cannot identify every comment with each

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individual Member; I hope that people will bear with me and recognise their own contributions. I said earlier, and several hon. Members acknowledged it, that there are different interpretations of who such a person might be. Those interpretations range from someone who would be, essentially, a children's ombudsman, who could take up complaints and issues raised by children, to the incorporation of the concepts of the convention in primary legislation. Somewhere in between is a body that might have the right to declare whether we have complied with the convention and which may have greater or lesser powers to require the Government to act. That is the spectrum of ideas that we are considering.

My view is that if we went for incorporation, it would inevitably be implied that we wanted to shift a huge policy area involving children to the courts and away from a democratic Parliament. Whether or not my view on smacking, and the Government's, is right, the decision on what the law in this country says about smacking should be taken by an elected Parliament, not franchised out to the courts.

Although not everyone takes the same view as me, I do not think that many people would accept the idea of the law on smacking being determined by the UN committee observing our progress on the UN convention on the rights of the child. Surely Members of the elected Parliament must decide the convention's interpretation—we believe that our position complies entirely with it.

In debates on commissioners, ombudsmen or others, we are considering what role such figures could play in achieving not only legal, but cultural and political change. I do not believe that we could ever have made a commitment to abolish child poverty in a generation because we had a children's rights commissioner. We have made a commitment to do that because we persuaded this country's people to elect a Government who intended to make child poverty a priority. Whatever commissioner we had, if a Government did not want to abolish child poverty, and the people did not want them to, it would be very difficult for such a person to impose that objective on them.

The matter, then, is not quite as simple as giving someone an office with a plate on the door saying, "Children's Rights Commissioner". Before we resolve the issue, we have to decide what Parliament's responsibilities are in the matter, what is to be decided democratically, what are the issues on which the convention provides a useful stimulus—as it does to me as a Minister in judging my actions and policies—and which issues Parliament should decide are to be determined by lawyers and courts, rather than by Ministers and elected MPs. Thus the matter is not, in my view, as simple as some of its advocates claim, because there are important choices to be made.

Mr. Burstow : The Minister makes a fair point about the spectrum of debate that must take place, but is he minded to introduce a Green Paper to enable those debates to happen? We can make progress quickly, but the Government clearly want further debate, so may we have a Green Paper?

Mr. Denham : Last year's launch of the consultation on the overarching strategy for children was not

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specifically a consultation document on the establishment of a children's rights commissioner, but I have found that, in practice, it has elicited many responses on that subject. I cannot prejudge decisions that have not been made, but we are examining the matter as part of our consideration of responses to the overarching strategy. I want that strategy, including our action plan on the United Nations General Assembly special session on children held last May, to include the debate on a children's rights commissioner. I do not want to separate addressing this matter from what the Government want to do for children as a whole. That would be an artificial separation of rights and policy, which I do not want.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre also mentioned the rights agenda. I have suggested to him some issues that I would raise in response to his approach, but that debate can continue later. He also mentioned mental health. He might have seen the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, made some 10 days ago, of a significant expansion of child and adolescent mental health services during the next three years as a result of the spending review. That will be welcomed by everyone. Mental health has been regarded by many, including me when I was a Minister at the Department of Health, as an area in which we did not do as much as we should have done for children, so the announcement will be widely welcomed.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) raised some important and well informed points about young defendants facing serious charges. She acknowledged that the guidance issued in 2000 went some way to try to humanise the court arrangements for young defendants—for example, abandoning robes and wigs, restricting presence in the public gallery, including that of the press, and ensuring that all participants are on the same physical level. However, she raised other points on which I should like to reflect a little after the debate. She put her points very powerfully indeed.

My hon. and learned Friend also rightly mentioned child care. She will know that a major expansion of child care, in terms of the development of children's centres, was put forward in the spending review last summer. I was not able to deal with that at length in my opening speech, but it is very much part of our provision for children, which will also help with the positive parenting that we have discussed.

I have much sympathy with how my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) put his points on what challenges we face. He is right that a big challenge is to make participation real, and we have shown that we can do that through schemes such as quality protects. The development of the Connexions service throughout the country has shown much good practice in its involvement and consultation with young people, but, to be honest, the national and local position is patchy. Over the next few years, we must identify good practice and respread it as quickly as possible.

We should probably do more to bring issues that need local consideration to the attention of Members of Parliament, including how they can involve young people in their constituencies and ensuring that they listen to young people. That is especially relevant if, as I hope, we develop occasional youth-oriented Question Times in this Chamber. I also hope that we can do more

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to achieve that through hon. Members' work in the all-party group on youth affairs. I should acknowledge the role played by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre in the all-party group on children, which also works extensively in that area.

There have been important changes, such as the rights of young people that are enshrined in education legislation. There have also been moves over the past few years to ensure that people listen to children with special educational needs during the identification of their future educational needs.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre spoke about unaccompanied asylum seekers. We know that there has been substantial growth in the number of such people, and we do everything we can to recognise the rights and needs of those young people.

With regard to the United Nations convention, it is not feasible to run a proper immigration system on the basis that any child who arrives in this country following payment to people traffickers is considered not part of the asylum system, but simply a child. We must step up our efforts to tackle people trafficking. That is a reason why we have a reservation regarding the UN convention. We make every effort to ensure that how we run our asylum system takes into account the needs and interests of such children.

As well as reminding me about Sunday's football match, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North raised several Northern Ireland issues and referred to baton rounds. He knows that the type of baton round has been changed following extensive testing programmes involving the police scientific development branch, which comes under my Home Office responsibilities. Every effort has been made to ensure that the less lethal technologies that are used are as unlikely as possible to risk causing lasting damage or death, but it is impossible to eliminate that risk from any technology that we have. A balance must be struck for police officers who face riot situations in Northern Ireland or, indeed, on the mainland. They must be able to control the situation without putting themselves at impossible personal risk. We take that issue seriously.

I referred to my Home Office responsibilities. Several hon. Members, in addition to flattering me, suggested that I should not have a day job in addition to this one. I take that as a mixed blessing. The issue is difficult, but, fortunately, it is one for the Prime Minister, not me. I regularly tell children's organisations that one can argue the point both ways. A Minister who is dedicated to a specific issue, but who has no handle on a specific Department, runs the risk of being relatively marginalised when up against Departments with punching power.

Equally, if the Minister, like me, has departmental responsibilities, less time can be devoted to that issue. I believe that being a Home Office Minister has strengthened my ability to push through several aspects that I have mentioned, especially those such as youth participation—a person must prove that that can be done in their Department, rather than just going around telling everyone else how to improve their act. I am sure that the debate will continue, but our current approach has real advantages.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) brought a much-needed international dimension to the debate, for which I am grateful. I am not familiar with the Canadian report to which she referred—no doubt I should be, and now I will have to be—but I shall draw the matter to the attention of my colleagues at the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office. The UN intended, and intends, to safeguard the universal rights of children around the world, and we need to do what we can to promote them, including in problematic and conflict-ridden countries such as Afghanistan.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) raised some important points. He is right to say that there are areas of overlapping responsibility in the devolution settlement that we must identify and work through. For example, the Home Office is responsible for policing and crime reduction in Wales, but my remit as Minister responsible for children and young persons stops at the boundaries of England. I can tell my hon. Friend that the children and young people's unit meets quarterly, with a formal agenda, representatives of the devolved Administrations, including that for Wales.

Part of that work is to co-ordinate the UK's response to and implementation of the convention. There is weekly—indeed, daily—informal contact between the CYPU and Welsh Assembly officials, and a Welsh delegate went to the UN hearings in Geneva. Although we can do more on some issues, as my hon. Friend says, there is good co-operation. We are watching with interest the development of the commissioner role in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and how it relates to children's policy.

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The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam raised a series of issues. I cannot deal with them all, but I hope that I have at least made my position clear on the children's rights commission and on smacking. He asked about young offenders institutions and sentencing trends. I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that the development of the greater use of detention and treatment orders is a result of misapplied sentencing. A great deal has been done to ensure that courts understand why a combination of custody and supervision and training should provide a more rehabilitative framework than an alternative such as the same period spent entirely in detention. Its increased use does not necessarily suggest that new people—those who would not have been in the system in the first place—are being caught up in it.

I agree, however, that we need to continue to extend the range of non-custodial provision, especially the intensive supervision and surveillance programme, which has produced extremely good results. My view is that that is partly because it brings a degree of structure to the chaotic lives of young people, often for the first time. There is statutory guidance on child murder reviews, so the hon. Gentleman may be incorrect in saying that there is no statutory procedure when a child dies following abuse or neglect. I shall look back at precisely what he said and clarify the point if necessary. I recognise the importance of the work on child prostitution, and I am grateful for his contribution to that.

We intend to ratify the convention, and we will be in a position to do so when we have found a way to ensure that our laws cover internal child trafficking as well as the external trafficking that will soon be so covered.

Question put and agreed to.

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