Children Bill [Lords]

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Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): Yes. She is right; he is wrong.

Margaret Hodge: My very good hon. Friend also tells me that Sheffield, the authority in her constituency, is another excellent trailblazer from which we are learning a lot. Sheffield and West Sussex gave me a good demonstration, which I hope that the hon. Gentleman has seen. Telford and Wrekin, too, is doing a good job. There is a lot of good stuff from the trailblazers in their different ways.

We are considering whether to have local databases, which I would prefer as it would be the simplest option. That is how to get the proposal off the ground, but do we need a 151st system to enable knowledge to be spread across the piece? Why not have a database of children who are at risk of abuse? I put those arguments on the record because they are important.

We want to take a preventative approach, as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said. The thrust of the reform agenda is to ensure that people do not merely react when things go wrong to try and stop them getting worse, but that they prevent a crisis occurring. A preventative approach means identifying children before they are on the at-risk register.

About 3 million of the 11.7 million children in Britain—about a quarter to a third—have an additional need of some sort, although that does not mean that they are at risk of harm or abuse. If we want to identify those additional needs at an early stage, a universal system that enables earlier identification is an advantage in ensuring that ''Every child matters'', to repeat the title of the Green Paper.

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Mr. Dawson: I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend about the necessity of universal provision, but as we discussed at our last sitting, there is an alarming gap in provision for children who may come unaccompanied through immigration and not be picked up again. I will not rehearse the iniquities of asylum policy, or our previous debate, but I ask her to assure me that she will continue to consider the issue and do everything that she can to plug that enormous gap. We cannot seriously say that we respect the memory of Victoria Climbie until we do so.

Margaret Hodge: There is a range of children—asylum-seeking children, Traveller children and others—who could easily fall through the net. A data-sharing system will help us to identify those children, and any child in Britain is covered by the Children Act 1989. Children who come in as asylum-seeking children may show up at a housing or social services department, a GP practice, a school or a youth club. Therefore, the system will support my hon. Friend's objective of trying to ensure that we protect all children in Britain; that is what we want to achieve.

10 am

Mr. Dawson: I entirely agree, but my point is about children who do not go to school and youth clubs and who are not taken to hospitals. The evidence from Operation Paladin suggests that a significant number of children come into the country but do not thereafter become known to anyone. That is of enormous concern.

Margaret Hodge: I do not think that Operation Paladin proved that. I think that it proved that the systems to deal with the children about whom we are all concerned, who are trafficked in and do not come in as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, are more robust than they were in the past. We did not identify those children at risk through the Operation Paladin experiment. They probably come in with adults, so they are not identified at the point of entry, and they emerge later, if we are lucky, or they do not emerge and are exploited later on. Operation Paladin has not given us all the comfort that we would have wanted in terms of trying to get to grips with the trafficking and exploitation that occurs with children who are brought in.

Let me return to why we want a universal data system. I think that we are probably talking about local systems supported by a national system. Earlier, I was making a point about additional needs. A universal system also ensures that we can identify most children. Nothing will be 100 per cent. effective—my hon. Friend is right about that—but a data system will enable us to identify and know about more children than we currently do. That is to be applauded. The system will ensure that children have access to the universal services, which is very important. We have talked about children who are not at school. I think particularly about children who are not in the NEET group—those who are not in education, employment or training. That is another area in which we want to do things better. The system will help local authorities

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to plan for services. A local database will also prevent the stigmatisation that is associated with being on the record of a social services department. I hope that that explanation convinces people that going down the universal route is the most important thing to do.

On amendment No. 34, I hope that I have convinced the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that I share his desire, as we go down the database route, to have a system that ensures that we can track children across boundaries to prevent them from slipping through that net. I hope also, on the basis of simplicity, that he does not pursue his amendment, because it would tie us down to building just one database system, and the dangers of not succeeding would be far greater in that case. The amendment pre-empts the feasibility work that we are doing and that we will consult him on as to what works best. I hope that I have convinced him that we intend to be as open as we can in pursuing this policy, and that he and others will work with us to ensure that it works for children.

Tim Loughton: We have had a long but useful debate on the amendment, which probably mitigates the need for more lengthy debate on other parts of the clause. However, an awful lot of questions remain unanswered. The Minister said that I accused the Government of wanting a blank cheque. Well, that is what they want. It is not an inappropriate analogy and, furthermore, there is no date on that cheque as to when the proposal will come into force and when we will know how it will work. We do not know how much it will cost and how many people will be involved, so we do not know how much the cheque will be for. We do not really know who the beneficiaries will be or who will have the authority to access the account and sign the cheque off. Despite everything that she has said at length, the analogy is a good one. It is a very blank cheque.

Some of the Minister's responses were not adequate. She gave an excuse about consultation—I know that the process takes a long time, but the Government have had a long time. The Bill started in the Lords at the beginning of this year, Lord Laming's report came out at the beginning of last year, and Victoria Climbie died four and a half years ago. There has been a lot of time for the Government to produce more detail on essential parts of the Bill such as clause 9. She was unable to produce the consultation details for the Lords stages of the Bill or for this Committee, and she may not be able to do so by Report—the final stage in this House. It is not good enough to say, as she put it, that this is ''the way these things go''.

We are being asked to sign a blank cheque without even seeing the consultation details, let alone the proposal that the Government intend to put forward as a result of that consultation. We are possibly years down the track from seeing what the Government will physically and practically produce, which may or may not be acceptable to many people with great concerns.

The Minister says that they will not rush the consultation. I entirely agree that, although it is late already, it is appropriate that everybody has their views heard. Will she at least say that we will be able

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to debate the subject on the Floor of the House, because it is of such magnitude? I know that she will tell me that she is not in control of the parliamentary timetable and that it depends on the Whips, but she could at least do her best to try to secure parliamentary time to debate the important subject of databases and information sharing. The subject goes beyond the remit of child protection, because Home Office matters and the implications of Soham are attached.

It is not as though the Minister would have to pull any great favours to do so, because until yesterday afternoon's debate on the national service framework for children, no Government time in this Parliament had been given to debate child protection issues. The only debates on that subject have taken place in Opposition time. We have not had a debate about children on the Floor of the House since she became the Minister for Children, Young People and Families. That is a pretty poor record, and I hope that she will use this excuse to try to lever time out of the Whips so that all hon. Members can contribute to a debate.

The Minister went through the list in clause 9 trying to minimise what will be included in the database. However, the only guarantee that she can give, because of additions that were inserted in the House of Lords, is that medical records will not form part of that data, but everything else can. On the subject of education, she again gave the excuse of parliamentary counsel drafting, but again that is not good enough. She gave a sigh of relief when she apparently knew what she was talking about once she received a note from her assistants. Why can education not be tied down more specifically to the identity of the education provider or the fact that education is taken at home if that is the alternative?

The Minister also mentioned the important subject of stigma. We do not want to do anything that stigmatises children who appear on a register. I have raised that subject with children who come out of the care system. Someone doing work experience for me has been through the care system and is exceedingly impressive and articulate. I have consulted him and many others. The response that I have had is that there is no overriding wish from supposedly vulnerable children—children who have been in the care system—to go on to a universal register with everybody else to make anonymous the fact that they have greater requirements and may be deemed vulnerable. They would much rather be specifically placed on a database and flagged up as having greater needs so that we pay greater attention to them and make sure that they get the help and support that they require. They do not care about the fact that they may be singled out; that is certainly the response that I have had. The excuse that we need to dilute the group of vulnerable children by making them an anonymous part of 11.5 million children does not wash.

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