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6.30 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley), who has tremendous experience in these matters.

This has been a serious debate because it is about serious, often sad and upsetting, issues. I commend the eloquent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who has done a great deal of work on child protection for many months. I shall not repeat all his points in the short time available, but of course I agree with every one of them.

The Secretary of State urged me to accept a cross-party consensus, so I shall begin by agreeing with the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow). I do not often agree with a Liberal. He made some good points, but, most importantly, he took up the Secretary of State's remarks about the delay in the Green Paper on children at risk. The Secretary of State says that that delay is only one parliamentary week. What ridiculous

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spin gone mad. Strictly speaking, we know that that is true, but it is months—many weeks—since January in the real world. Does the Secretary of State think that cruelty to children stops because the Houses of Parliament are not sitting? I do not know why the Minister for Children is laughing; it is not funny. Children continue to be at risk in the course of one parliamentary week.

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) for her wise words. She, like my other colleagues, knows the subject well; she has been steeped in it because of the sad case in her constituency.

I commend much of the speech by the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward). His work on ChildLine has been very successful over the years. I take his point about reasonable chastisement. I undertake to consider that, but I sincerely hope that the Minister will also do so.

The Secretary of State, in urging me to accept a cross-party consensus, wants to pay homage to those who have worked on the subject in the past; I join him in doing so. I show respect for Ministers of all parties who have done something about trying to improve child protection. I have a lot of respect for the former Secretary of State for Health, the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), and the way in which he handled the Laming report when he presented it to this House. Indeed, I commend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills for the progress that has been made so far.

The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) made the excellent point that we need to know who will be the one person who is responsible locally; we have to wait for the Green Paper to deal with that. While we are waiting, I commend Essex county council—my county—for its pioneering attitude in bringing together the departments of education and social services. We have some excellent people in Essex who will make that work.

I remain seriously concerned about the delay in the publication of the Green Paper and the consequent delay in improving services for vulnerable children. As other hon. Members said, the former Secretary of State for Health clearly stated in January that the Green Paper would be published in the spring. When it was not, the former Leader of the House assured us in good faith that it would be published before the summer recess. That was not unreasonable; things were going well, the Government were taking the necessary action and we agreed with them. However, the Prime Minister threw a spanner in works by appointing the hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) as Minister for Children.

We welcomed the creation of the post of a Minister for Children that would bring together cross-departmental functions. That was practical and good, and many hon. Members from all parties agreed with it. I believed that that new post would mean more Government attention on the issues that Lord Laming's report identified. Far from providing a focus on vulnerable children, the hon. Lady has simply provided a focus on herself and no action on the Laming report. She devised three different excuses for not publishing the Green Paper; the Secretary of State came up with even more today.

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The first excuse was the Prime Minister. Two weeks ago, his official spokesman said that the Prime Minister wanted to be present at the Green Paper's launch and that he had no time in his diary to undertake such an engagement until the autumn. What is the Prime Minister doing between two weeks ago and the autumn that is more important than the protection of vulnerable children? It is extraordinarily difficult to find out. I wrote to ask him, and his office replied that his diary cannot be published for security reasons. That is fair enough but I wonder whether the reply refers to security from international terrorists or whether he would prefer that his Back Benchers did not know where to find him. The Prime Minister is probably too busy to bother about a mere Green Paper because he has to practise his Pinocchio performances in front of Commons Committees and the BBC.

Let us be fair to the Prime Minister. It is not his job to publish a Green Paper on children at risk; that is why he has a new Minister for Children. She came up with two further excuses. She says that she wants to be Minister not only for children but for young people and their families. As a sort of tsarina for everyone, she wants to expand the Green Paper's remit. That is not a good excuse. She can produce pages of glossy waffle about her politically correct ideas if she wishes, but she should deal with Lord Laming's recommendations now. We do not mind waiting until the autumn for the waffle.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Perhaps it would help hon. Members if, as well as giving us a tirade against the Minister, the hon. Lady would outline some of Her Majesty's Opposition's options, policies and priorities on the most important topic of child abuse.

Mrs. Laing: The hon. Gentleman has been absent for the debate. It has been serious, and we are tackling the issue of child abuse. [Interruption.] I cannot hear the hon. Gentleman; he is murmuring. We do not mind waiting until the autumn for the rest of the Minister's ideas, but we should have the Green Paper now.

The Minister's third excuse is that it is only a Green Paper or discussion document, not a statement of Government policy and therefore not urgent. However, it is not only a Green Paper. The document was promised as the Government's response to Lord Laming's report on the Victoria Climbié inquiry. Lord Laming recommended action within six months. Local authorities have done all that they can on the Laming recommendations, as far as we know. We went into that in great detail during the Secretary of State's speech. We do not know, but we believe that they have done all that they can so far. They need to know the Government's response before they can go further. Local authorities are in limbo, time is being wasted and children are at risk.

I know that the Minister has been under pressure because of her past record of failure to protect children in Islington. It was, of course, the first London borough to ban fox hunting, but it was not very good at paedophile hunting. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Whatever happens, hon. Members should not shout at the hon. Lady. She has

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been called to speak and she should be allowed a hearing. Sometimes insulting hon. Members is all right, provided that it is within the rules of the House.

Mrs. Laing: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I do not intend to insult anyone but to put before the House the facts about what is really happening. That is what we are here to do.

Mrs. Fitzsimons: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Laing: I do not have time to give way.

The Minister for Children said that she had learned from her mistakes, and I hoped that she had, because it is quite reasonable to do so. But the facts that have emerged in the last few weeks show that she has not. Surely the main lessons to be learned from her past must be that words are not the same as actions, and that producing politically correct speeches does not bring results. That is why she was criticised before, but she is now doing exactly the same things again.

The underlying theme of this Government is that image is more important than reality. No wonder no one can trust them. No wonder no one believes a word that they say. [Interruption.] I am not scoring political points. I am doing my duty, which is to hold this Government to account for their mistakes, their failures and their negligence. [Interruption.] Labour Members ought to get their priorities right. The duty of this House is not to protect a discredited Minister, but to protect vulnerable children.

6.41 pm

The Minister for Children (Margaret Hodge): Apart from the opening and closing speeches, we have had a lot of thoughtful contributions from both sides of the House today on this central issue of concern, which should be above party politics. The final contribution from the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) demonstrated that, to the Conservatives, children are nothing more than a convenient political tool to be exploited to narrow political advantage.

Mrs. Laing: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Hon. Members: Sit down!

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call for calm. We are about to have a recess: we should be happy. We should not be so angry with one another.

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