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Tim Loughton: We are pleased to support the Bill that we are about to pass on Third Reading. That has been the case throughout, although we have had vigorous debates and remain concerned about some of the details.
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We support the Bill in order to support vulnerable children and to promote the life chances of looked-after children, too many of whom are left behind. I hope that we can do that in a way that does not intrude too much into the private family lives of those many children who are fortunate enough not to be described as vulnerable. I also hope that we have added safeguards to the Bill in relation to the independence from Government of certain of the new systems that are being set up and ensuring a more joined-up approach by the professionals that is at the heart of what we need to achieve.

The Minister said that this is a great Bill. That may be slightly over-egging it, but it is a very important Bill. As Lord Laming said, it was wholly unacceptable that there had been some 40 predecessors to his report on Victoria Climbié in as many years. We were failing too many children, and the message from Lord Laming was that things must be different. All hon. Members who have participated in the passage of the Bill would subscribe to that.

The Committee could be described as the testimonial of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson). He contributed to it with his usual well-informed demeanour and, when responding to me, cantankerousness. We respect and admire that, and we will miss him greatly when children's legislation comes before the House in future. I thank hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, particularly my hon. Friends, for their well-informed contributions.

Debate in Committee was sometimes fiery, particularly when the Minister talked about parental access. We saw that again today—fireworks from the Minister three days before Guy Fawkes night. However, the subject will not lie down. It is not a bandwagon on to which the Opposition have opportunistically climbed, but a very serious issue that is blighting the lives of too many decent parents around the country, and it deserves to be treated with rather more respect and seriousness than the Minister has shown in Committee and in this Chamber. Her comments may well come back to haunt her and will not be appreciated by many thousands of fathers and mothers who feel that they are being shut out of their children's lives.

I congratulate the Government on some of the later additions on foster allowances and look forward to the emergence of details on how that can become a practical reality. We sensed that the door was opening a tiny bit further in regard to a private fostering registration scheme, but we shall have to wait patiently for that. We particularly welcome the amendments that the Government accepted today on the wishes and feelings of children.

The Standing Committee was the first on which I had ever served in which I had my amendments hijacked. Quite a few that were accepted by the Government started off as Conservative amendments; mysteriously, the name of the Minister—or, today, the Secretary of State—then appeared on them. We are delighted that the Government have seen fit to support Conservative amendments, but it is slightly odd that they had to try to hijack them in that way.
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There are certain outstanding problems in the Bill; we make no issue about that. The independence of the children's commissioner still needs to be proven, and the "big ears, no teeth" tag will still concern their lordships when the Bill returns to the upper House. The relationships between the English children's commissioner and those in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will also present various problems that we shall have to review. One of my biggest concerns relates to the operation of the database. That provision still needs an awful lot more work and thinking out, because it represents a radical change to the way in which we account for our citizens, and many people will be concerned about its implications.

The structures that we have put in place in the Bill, the new people with titles, the tsars and the committees all sound very fine, but they will be as nothing unless there are well-trained professionals on the ground—social workers, teachers, school nurses, police officers and everyone else—who are properly informed, know what to look out for and work practically with each other to share that information safely in the interests of vulnerable children. The real test will not be what the Bill says but whether the people out there on the ground, whose job is to put it into action every day of the week, every week of the year, are able to do that; if, indeed, they are there to do it at all, because we still suffer from an enormous shortage of those dedicated people.

I was very pleased with our debate on promoting the educational achievement of looked-after children, which has been a scandal for far too long. We all agreed that it was a scandal, and that urgent action was required to address it. I hope that some of the practical measures in the Bill will begin to do so.

It is absolutely right that the Government should involve children as much as possible in making the provisions work. That is what the Bill is all about, and why we have all signed up to it. If it works, I hope that it will serve to re-engender some faith in the system among those children who have been left behind or left vulnerable for too long.

It is now four and a half years since the tragic, horrendous and unimaginable death of Victoria Climbié, but we should not forget that an average of 80 children suffer similarly at the hands of parents or carers each year without hitting the headlines. We need to reduce that figure, and we hope that the Bill will go some way towards achieving that. Lord Laming's report said that we needed to take urgent action now, and that his recommendations could not be

That was absolutely right, and I hope that the Bill will represent an important step towards ensuring that this problem is addressed now. If it works, it will be a fitting tribute not only to Victoria Climbié but to all the other victims of horrendous abuse, whose abusers should never have been allowed to get away with what they did. We hope that they will not be allowed to do so in the future.

6.43 pm

Mr. Dawson: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for pointing out to the Whips that, although I have lost count of the number of times I have voted
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against the Government on the Bill, I have still been really nasty to the Opposition. I trust that that will ease my passage through the last few months of my dotage in the House of Commons, although I must point out that the Constitutional Affairs Committee inquiry into the family court system starts next week.

Despite my recent voting record, this is a good Bill, which presages a tremendous future for children in this country. I hope that it leads to a future of child-centred services, integrated services, co-operative services and, as the hon. Gentleman said, a future in which many more workers on the ground come together, are respected and valued for the work that they do, and are enthused and inspired by the Bill to produce even better work for children in the future.

In all of our discussions, we have all been guilty of tending to think of children as a great object of concern, while ignoring their dynamic and creative potential. We have had a great deal of discussion about the rights and wrongs of the children's commissioner. The Bill has been amended one way or the other, but I believe that it provides a huge opportunity for children and young people to take the commissioner and children's services wherever they will. We now have one person and, I presume, an office, who will be responsive to the agenda not of the Government or Parliament, but of children and young people. That will take children and young people—and eventually this whole country—in directions that perhaps we do not fully understand, as I believe that children and young people know things that we do not know, that they can engage with their peers in ways that we cannot, that they are the future of this country and that the experience of having a children's commissioner will allow them to lead and eventually take over the running of this country in directions at which we can only hint.

We have let the genie out of the bottle with this Bill, which is a good thing and a real achievement. In time, that may lead us all to say that this was a great Children Act.

6.47 pm

Mrs. Brooke : We have been really pleased to be able to work on this legislation and, I hope, to contribute positively to the debate. It is always a matter of great pride to participate in making legislation that one believes can make a real difference—in this case, to children's lives.

Throughout consideration on this Bill, we have made much of the fact that we all need to listen to children. We cannot remind ourselves of that too often. Listening to children imposes on us the responsibility of not letting them down. Undoubtedly, we, collectively, have let many children down over the years. A core part of the Bill involving adults relates to the quality and quantity of staff and the training that is needed. Most importantly, if we are to learn the lessons of the past, we must achieve real multi-agency working and common practices, so that people are not compartmentalising and going home because they have done their bit, resulting in somebody being left out of the equation.

I welcome the amendment on wishes and feelings. The all-party children group, with the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), arranged an excellent presentation not long ago in which we
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witnessed children's feelings. It was important to realise that children who might not be able to articulate their wishes could express anger, sorrow and so on. I congratulate the Minister yet again on introducing the minimum fostering allowance, which has been very important.

I want to express a few regrets. Are we really saying that every child matters if we still have asylum seekers' children in detention centres? We have children in prison. This very day, people are calling for a special inquiry into Joseph Scholes's death. We still have a lot to do, and it would have been good to reflect concern for those most vulnerable children in the Bill.

On a slightly different tack, I thank the Minister very much for writing to me about the proposed guardianship arrangements. I was extremely pleased to learn that the Government were in the early stages of reviewing existing arrangements for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, to establish whether they needed to be changed. That was heartening, because we had said a lot about asylum seekers' children and it gave us a ray of hope.

We have had a great deal to say about the children's commissioner, and I am sure we will return to the subject when the Bill returns to this House. Obviously, we have concerns about new clause 12, but overall I agree with other Members that so much in the Bill is good that we want to express our support clearly and loudly.

I also want to thank everyone who served on the Committee, because it was a pleasant Committee on which to serve.

6.50 pm

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