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Standing Committee Debates
Children Bill [Lords]

Children Bill [Lords]

Column Number: 75

Standing Committee B

Thursday 14 October 2004

(Morning)

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Children Bill [Lords]

8.55 am

The Chairman: Before we commence, I have briefly to announce that, in accordance with requests, copies of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child are available on the Table.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Benton. May I ask whether you anticipate allowing a short stand part debate on clause 2? Many Opposition Members would be prepared to speed up our debates on some of the amendments if we had the opportunity to say why we shall then vote against the clause.

The Chairman: The convention is that it depends on the course of discussions on amendments to the clause. When it comes to putting the question on clause stand part, much will depend on what has transpired beforehand. I see no problem if people keep to the amendments and do not debate the broad substance of the clause.

The other point I want to make is that the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) has informed me that he is sick. His is the lead name on a number of amendments to clause 4, so I thought it right to explain his absence.

Clause 2

Membership of the Commission

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Margaret Hodge): I beg to move amendment No. 1, in

    clause 2, page 2, line 31, leave out subsection (7).

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 130, in

    clause 2, page 2, line 32, after 'is', insert 'desirous of but'.

No. 131, in

    clause 2, page 2, line 34, at end insert—

    '(7A) Nothing in subsection (7) shall permit assistance to be provided in actions against a responsible adult.

    (7B) For the purposes of this Part, ''responsible adult'' includes—

    (a) a person having parental responsibility for that child;

    (b) a teacher of the child;

    (c) any other employee of the child's school;

    (d) a person working, whether as a volunteer or employee, for any voluntary organisation of which the child is a member;

    (e) the child's social worker; or

    (f) such other natural person in a class designated by order, subject to the negative resolution procedure, by the Secretary of State.'.

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Margaret Hodge: I tabled amendment No. 1, to delete subsection (7), which would empower the commissioner to provide assistance to a child to bring legal proceedings. The subsection is the result of an Opposition amendment tabled in the other place.

We have had a lot of discussion on the issue, Mr. Benton, and you will know that we want the commissioner to have a strategic role in achieving the outcomes that children have defined as important to them, and in ensuring that the system works for children as a whole, rather than making the commissioner spend time on individual cases.

I assure those members of the Committee who may be concerned about what it will mean for individual children that a range of bodies can already provide representation for children, including the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. The Official Solicitor also provides support for children. It makes no sense to duplicate those roles. Deleting subsection (7) does not prevent the commissioner, if called on, from acting as a witness in court proceedings. As part of his general clause 2 functions, he will still be able to look into complaints to ensure that the systems work effectively and are child-friendly.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) tabled amendments Nos. 130 and 131, but I hope that he will agree that if our amendment is adopted his will become unnecessary.

Tim Loughton: May I correct the Minister on one thing? I tabled the amendment, and she has hijacked it. It has never happened to me before. Government amendment No. 1, and several others that my hon. Friends and I tabled within minutes of Second Reading now magically have her name at the top. I am delighted to do all the hard work, and for her to take the credit. However, we may have different reasons for supporting the amendment.

Subsection (7) came about as the result of a comprehensive, cross-party revision to clause 2 in the other place. I do not think that it was singled out as a particular addition, but it was agreed on all sides. However, it was added in the interests of putting together an all-encompassing alternative to the clause, to beef up the role of the commissioner—a matter on which we will continue to talk.

I have some problems with subsection (7), but for different reasons than the Minister. I originally tabled the amendment as a probing amendment. I do not seek to take away the right of children to be able to turn to the Children's Commissioner for legal redress as a last resort if their interests are not properly being taken into account—for instance, if a social worker has not been appointed to a looked-after child, or a child's educational entitlements are not being provided for.

The intention behind the subsection is that children whose rights and entitlements are being neglected can ask the commissioner to start legal action to institute those entitlements. That is absolutely right, and I have no problem with it. It will be of some reassurance if the Minister is saying that that can be provided by other means, although the mention of CAFCASS does not fill me with great confidence, as she knows.

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I am concerned that the subsection could be used in a vexatious way by a young person seeking to cause annoyance to a parent or, more likely, a teacher. The child could seek legal redress through the commissioner to pursue an unjust legal case because of some vendetta. I am sure that it would happen only in extreme circumstances, but the wording of the subsection could give succour to a person wanting to bring such a vexatious complaint; it would entitle the child to the support and resources of the Children's Commissioner to undertake such action.

That is the only reason why I challenge the inclusion of subsection (7). I do it for different reasons than the Minister, but if she can give me some reassurance that that could not happen, I would be happy to withdraw my amendment—although I cannot, as it is now her amendment, and she will press on with it, which confuses the whole picture.

That is why I and my hon. Friends tabled the amendment, and I would be interested in the Minister's response.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab): I am opposed to my right hon. Friend's proposal, for what I think are good reasons. I shall try out an example in order to hear her response.

The Children's Commissioner will be undertaking all sorts of work on policy issues relating to children. My right hon. Friend suggested on Tuesday that it would be important to consider the position of young people in custody. The Bill already allows the commissioner to take up individual cases that raise issues of public policy. It already gives the commissioner the important opportunity to enter premises and talk to a child in private, if that is what the child wishes. It is therefore entirely possible that, when undertaking an inquiry into the position of children in prison, the commissioner will visit a young offenders institution. He may see a child in private and it may become plain that the child is suicidal.

I have it on good authority that there are suicidal and extremely distressed children in young offenders institutions as we sit here today, and the commissioner is highly likely to come across them. They have often not been well represented; their best interests have certainly not been taken into account in criminal justice proceedings, and there may well be a case for the commissioner to initiate urgent legal proceedings on behalf of individual children. The commissioner might want to seek an emergency protection order or judicial review, or instigate a review of a child's sentence. There may be many other avenues that he could pursue, and he would often want to do so in partnership with the child, the child's parents and legal advisers, CAFCASS and many other bodies. However, the commissioner will need a residual right to bring legal proceedings to assist that individual child in those individual circumstances. What my right hon. Friend suggests is not only a terrible diminution of the commissioner's powers, which the other place

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wisely established in statute, but a dangerous step. At its heart, subsection (7) is a child protection measure, and we should keep it in the Bill.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I, too, rise to speak against the amendment. As Baroness Walmsley so forcefully said in the other place, subsection (7) is a measure of last resort, and we are talking, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) said so movingly, about the most vulnerable children. The wording of the Bill may not be perfect, but the reference to situations

    ''where the child is unable to bring legal proceedings''

is fairly clear, and I cannot see it opening the floodgates to many individual cases.

On the comments made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), we are all concerned about vexatious cases. As a former teacher, I am always distressed when people suggest bringing cases because GCSE results have not been as high as expected, but I do not think that we are talking about such cases. We are looking to appoint a special person with defined powers, and subsection (7) goes on to say that the commissioner may provide assistance where

    ''it appears to the Commissioner reasonable to do so''.

Will that wording not close the gate on vexatious complaints? If the Government do not think that it would be strong enough to do so, I would prefer them to consider strengthening it.

I can only emphasise that the safety net in subsection (7) is one of the most important in the Bill, particularly in the light of such tragic suicide cases. Such cases reflect on us all, given that they are happening in our secure institutions and other places. The words in the Bill may not be quite right and may need strengthening, but I urge the Government to remember that that safety net is very important.

 
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