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Functions of Commissioner in Northern Ireland

Amendment made: No. 28, in page 5, line 36 after 'promoting', insert 'awareness of'.—[Margaret Hodge.]

Clause 27

       Responsibility for functions under sections 25 and 26

Amendment made: No. 40, in page 21, line 17, leave out 'sections 25 and 26' and insert 'section 25'.—[Margaret Hodge.]

2 Nov 2004 : Column 272

Clause 51

Ascertaining children's wishes

Amendments made: No. 21, in page 36, line 18, after 'wishes', insert 'and feelings'.

No. 22, in page 36, line 21, after 'wishes', insert 'and feelings'.

No. 29, in page 36, line 22, at end insert—

'(2)   In section 20 of that Act (provision of accommodation for children: general), in subsection (6)(a) and (b), after "wishes" insert "and feelings".

(3)   In section 47 of that Act (local authority's duty to investigate), after subsection (5) insert—

"(5A)   For the purposes of making a determination under this section as to the action to be taken with respect to a child, a local authority shall, so far as is reasonably practicable and consistent with the child's welfare—

(a)   ascertain the child's wishes and feelings regarding the action to be taken with respect to him; and

(b)   give due consideration (having regard to his age and understanding) to such wishes and feelings of the child as they have been able to ascertain."'.—[Margaret Hodge.]

Clause 64

Regulations and orders

Amendments made: No. 41, in page 42, line 11, at end insert—

'(3A)   The Secretary of State may not make a statutory instrument containing the first order under section [payments to foster parents] unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by resolution of, each House of Parliament.'.

No. 42, in page 42, line 14, after 'apply,', insert—

'(aa)   an order made by the Secretary of State under section [payments to foster parents] to which subsection (3A) does not apply,'.—[Margaret Hodge.]

Clause 65


Amendment made: No. 43, in page 43, line 3, leave out paragraph (c) and insert—

'(   )   section 47 and Schedule 4 so far as relating to England come into force in accordance with provision made by order by the Secretary of State, and so far as relating to Wales in accordance with provision made by order by the Assembly;

(   )   section [payments to foster parents] comes into force at the end of the period of two months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed;

(   )   sections 48 to 55 so far as relating to England come into force in accordance with provision made by order by the Secretary of State, and so far as relating to Wales in accordance with provision made by order by the Assembly;'.—[Margaret Hodge.]

Schedule 1

Children's Commissioner

Amendment made: No. 30, in page 44, line 19, at end insert—

'(1A)   The Secretary of State must, to such extent and in such manner as he thinks fit, involve children in the appointment of the Children's Commissioner.'.—[Margaret Hodge.]

Order for Third Reading read.
2 Nov 2004 : Column 273

6.28 pm

Margaret Hodge: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

We are approaching the end of the Bill's passage through the House. It is a significant moment. I am pleased to reflect on a process in which there has been a great deal of constructive engagement from hon. Members of all parties who have brought their wide experience, intellect and attention to detail to our deliberations and the Bill has benefited greatly from that.

When the measure was introduced in the House of Lords in March, it was widely and warmly welcomed in and outside Parliament. Many people have waited a long time for the measure. The Bill has acted as a vehicle for important discussion of an exceptionally wide range of issues that are important to children's lives and the outcomes that they achieve. Throughout, there has been a wide consensus about the value and importance of the reforms that we are making. Baroness Howarth of Breckland came up with the catch phrase:

It is slightly larger now and, thanks to this House and the other place, its heart beats even more strongly.

The Government's plans for the commissioner have been well tested during the parliamentary process, and I pay tribute to the parliamentarians and lobbyists who have campaigned for the creation of a commissioner for such a long time. The Government are confident that the Bill, enhanced by the amendments that the House has agreed today, is the best way forward. We will have a strong champion for children with a powerful, independent and manageable role, which will allow them to be an important voice on children's behalf. We intend the commissioner to be appointed early next year, and I am pleased to say that we are involving children and young people in the appointment process. My ministerial colleagues and I look forward to working with the commissioner.

Part 2 of the Bill contains a range of duties and powers for local agencies, which will establish clear lines of accountability for children's services and lead to better arrangements for safeguarding children and planning, commissioning and delivering services. I was pleased that the Standing Committee agreed a Government amendment to introduce the children and young people's planning requirement, which is an important rationalisation of the planning burdens on local authorities and which will be another lever to encourage more effective outcomes in planning, commissioning and delivering services.

The Bill allows us to set up universal information databases, which have attracted considerable attention. I repeat that those databases will in no way be a substitute for action, and I hope that they will provide a valuable tool to help practitioners work together better so that they can more easily identify children and meet their needs.

In response to parliamentary scrutiny, we have made some helpful amendments. The Bill now contains clear descriptions of the information that will be on the database and the agencies that may access it. Crucially,
2 Nov 2004 : Column 274
it includes the reassurance that the databases will not include details of case information.

Last week, we published our first consultation document on the difficult issues around the cause for concern and sensitive services. In developing the regulations and guidance, it will be important to respond to the issues raised by the consultation, to continue to learn from the work of the trailblazers and to take into account the issues and concerns that have been raised legitimately during the passage of the Bill. I am grateful to all hon. Members who have taken pains to ensure that we are aware of the importance of getting the Bill right and of the many things that we must avoid getting wrong.

We have spent a lot of time today debating aspects of the latter parts of the Bill, and hon. Members know that some significant improvements have been made. Today, we have introduced a power to establish a minimum fostering allowance, which is an important step that has been welcomed on both sides of the House. We have amended the Children Act 1989 to ensure that children's feelings, as well as their wishes, are taken into account when assessing their needs in a range of circumstances.

We have responded to hon. Members' concerns by enabling changes to be made to the rules of court, which will help us to represent our constituents without getting into contempt of court, and I am grateful for the work that has been done by my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General.

The passage of the Bill marks the beginning of the important programme of change for children to which the Government are committed. As I have said many times, the Bill provides a legislative framework, rather than all the answers, to improve outcomes for children.

Our purpose is to maximise opportunity and minimise risk; to enhance opportunity for every child; to work to close the gap between those who succeed and those who achieve less well; to make sure that every child matters; and to support our resolve to do all we can to prevent children such as Victoria Climbié from falling through the net and dying at the hands of adults in whose care they have been entrusted.

But it is what happens at the local level, on the ground, that will make a real difference to the lives of children, young people and their families. What will count is our work over the coming months and years with all those who provide services for children at the front line, from strategic agencies to individual practitioners. Our task is to build on the framework created by the Bill to reconfigure our services so that we shift our efforts to prevention while strengthening the safeguarding and protection of children; change services and organise them around the needs of the child, not of the professionals; and ensure that the voice of children and young people lies at the heart of all that we do.

This is a great Bill that will help us to create a step change for children. I commend it to the House.

6.36 pm

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