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Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Greg Pope, Hywel Williams
Brennan, Kevin (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families)
Brooke, Annette (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Hughes, Beverley (Minister for Children, Young People and Families)
Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
Kirkbride, Miss Julie (Bromsgrove) (Con)
Loughton, Tim (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
McCarthy, Kerry (Bristol, East) (Lab)
Russell, Christine (City of Chester) (Lab)
Southworth, Helen (Warrington, South) (Lab)
Timpson, Mr. Edward (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con)
Turner, Mr. Andrew (Isle of Wight) (Con)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Williams, Mark (Ceredigion) (LD)
Mr. C. Shaw, Mr. M. Hillyard, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 24 June 2008


[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair]

Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

Clause 8

Well-being of children and young persons
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 4, in clause 8, page 6, line 15, leave out from ‘State’ to ‘in’ in line 16 and insert
‘must discharge functions under this section in a manner consistent with the objectives of safeguarding the welfare of children as set out’.—[Tim Loughton.]
4 pm
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing amendment No. 26, in clause 8, page 6, line 17, at end insert
‘and to the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.’.
The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): I had almost come to the end of my comments on amendment No. 4. I was explaining how it would narrow the well-being duty to a focus solely on safeguarding. We had an interchange about whether the phrase “having regard to” diluted the responsibilities under the duty. I shall clarify that for the Committee.
At the time, I did not have a copy of the Children Act 2004 with me, only a copy of the Children Act 1989, or I would have realised that subsection (5), in referring to sections 10(2)(a) to (e) of the 2004 Act, simply refers to the five elements of Every Child Matters, which I mentioned in my earlier remarks. That adds weight to my argument that the clause contains an unequivocal duty reflecting the five outcomes of Every Child Matters as enshrined in legislation.
Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): As the Minister will be aware, the welfare checklist in section 1(3) of the 1989 Act sets out not only the checklist but the “have regard to” aspect as well. As a way of coming to a position where we are both satisfied with the Bill’s approach, it might be helpful for the clause to say not only “have regard to” but, as in section 1(3) of the 1989 Act,
“have regard in particular to”.
That seems to marry the proposed legislation with the reasons why it is proposed under clause 8(5) in such stark terms as a responsibility and duty of the Secretary of State. It would not only be consistent with previous legislation, which contains a requirement to have regard in particular to a certain aspect; it would also satisfy Committee members from all parties in creating not only a duty but a particular duty for the Secretary of State.
Beverley Hughes: Without embarking on a lengthy examination of various Acts of Parliament relating to children, may I explain to the hon. Gentleman that as we are talking about well-being, the relevant piece of legislation is not the 1989 Act but the 2004 Act? Section 10 of that Act introduced a duty to co-operate to improve well-being. In that measure, “have regard to”, which we debated earlier, does not appear, so I am not quite sure what the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was referring to when he seemed to remember proposing it during the course of debates on that Act.
The clause will simply put a duty on local authorities to promote well-being. Without going too far into the minutiae and risking your censure, Mr. Pope, I understand entirely what the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich said. I simply say again to him that in terms of a duty in respect of well-being, subsection (1) puts that duty unequivocally on the Secretary of State, not a local authority or local agency. Subsection (5) simply says that in executing that duty, the Secretary of State must have regard to the five elements of Every Child Matters, as listed in section 10(2) of the Children Act 2004. It is like a double lock; the Secretary of State has a unequivocal duty, and that duty must reflect the legislation as it applies to local authorities and other agencies with regard to the whole child—not merely their safeguarding, important thought that is, but also the other four aspects of the child’s well-being.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Clause 8(5) states that the Secretary of State
“must have regard to the aspects of well-being mentioned in section 10(2)(a)”.
That is not the same as discharging functions
“in a manner consistent with the objectives of safeguarding the welfare of children”.
It could be argued that the former is merely a guideline, with discretion on how to take note of it, while the latter is a clear direction on how such discharge functions should managed. Does the Minister not notice the difference?
Beverley Hughes: We are turning words on a pinhead. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s attempt to ensure that the Government are serious, and I respect his right to do so, but I refer him to subsection (1). As I said, it unequivocally states that it is the duty of the Secretary of State to
“promote the well-being of children in England.”
In doing so, he has to have regard to the way in which well-being has been defined by Members of this House in previous legislation. Together, those two give us an assurance on how it will be undertaken.
I believe that the record will show that, in introducing amendment No. 26, the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said that we had not signed up to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Annette Brooke indicated dissent.
Beverley Hughes: I beg the hon. Lady’s pardon; I thought that someone had said that we were not signed up to it. She will know—indeed, she may have said so—that we have signed up to the UNCRC. It was ratified a long time ago, and the present Government do not demur from that international treaty. We therefore have an obligation under international law to ensure that the rights set out in the convention are given effect. However, the convention does not include an obligation to meet the rights in any particular way. It does not rely on provisions in domestic legislation, but the obligation exists entirely independently. I am sure that the hon. Lady will appreciate the fact that in practice UK law often goes further than the convention in describing children’s rights. The UNCRC rights are set out in very broad terms, whereas our legislation gives children specific rights on a range of issues.
We take the implementation of the UNCRC seriously, but since ratification and under Governments of different complexions our policy has always been that the convention should be implemented through a mix of legislative provisions and policy initiatives. Implementation of the convention rights comes about through Government and devolved Administration policy, taken as a whole.
We aim to meet our duties under the convention through the totality of our activities, rather than making reference to it in individual legislative provisions. That is the stance that we have taken. Since ratification, the Government have diligently pursued implementation of the UNCRC through a raft of measures, including the Children Act 1989 and subsequent provisions, the Children Act 2004, Every Child Matters and more recently the wealth of measures set out in the children’s plan. All those programmes are steadily improving the well-being outcomes for all children and thus the fuller realisation of their UNCRC rights.
Annette Brooke: First, I assure the Minister that I did indeed say that the previous Government had signed up to the convention, so I gave credit where it was due. Is the Minister expecting a completely clean bill of health when the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child reports back on the evidence supplied by the Government and others, including the four children’s commissioners?
Beverley Hughes: We will await the view of the UNCRC, but we have certainly made a strong case that the Government have progressively improved the position of children and young people in relation to all aspects of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and aim to continue to go further, so we will have to see the outcome of those different points of view as they are put to that committee.
Finally, the Secretary of State’s duty to promote the well-being of children clearly encompasses the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and I think that the duty, just as it stands, creates an additional legislative vehicle by which the Secretary of State will carry out activities and bring forward policy and practice that will implement the convention. Therefore, what matters most is giving children that good experience of childhood and having a Government who progressively want to go further to promote the well-being of children, rather than conforming by referring to the convention in every single piece of legislation or going through the arduous process of incorporating it all together in one big piece of legislation, which would frankly be a completely fruitless task.
I am sure that the hon. Lady and I agree on the importance of the convention and our desire to give children and young people rights that go far beyond those of the convention, but I accept that we might disagree on how best to demonstrate that that is being done, particularly if she is arguing that references to the UNCRC are needed in every piece of legislation. The Government do not think that that is necessary, but we are none the less committed to those rights for our children and young people and will continue to be so. With those assurances, I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will withdraw his amendment.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I have somewhat lost the train of thought from where we started before lunch. Now that we are getting into the particulars of “having particular regard”, which I thought was a particularly ingenious suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich and one that showed the willingness of the Opposition to come to some accommodation with the Government to improve the Bill’s terminology. I am still not quite convinced how the Minister deems not replacing “having regard” with a clear positive duty to promote the well-being is just as adequate. However, we have had quite an interesting canter round the subject and should move on to something fresh. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Beverley Hughes: We have explored the Government’s intention in that regard and that Members, notwithstanding the previous debate, welcome the fact that a parallel duty to promote young people’s wider well-being has been added to the Secretary of State’s duty to promote the educational opportunities for them. One consequence on which we have not yet touched is the fact that the clause will enable the Secretary of State to enter into legal contracts to promote the well-being of children.
4.15 pm
Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): I am pleased to serve on a Committee so ably chaired by one who is such a strong advocate of vulnerable children. I welcome the clause, because although the well-being of children and young people is by all means the responsibility of the Secretary of State, it is good to be part of a Committee that is making that so explicit. The clause refers to the Secretary of State’s powers to promote the well-being of
“persons under the age of 25 of a prescribed description.”
Will the Minister ensure that children and young people who have run away from home or been thrown away from home are given consideration under regulations in that respect, particularly in view of the excellent runaways action plan launched by the Department last week and the commitments that that will bring over the following months and possibly years to support children who run away?
Will the Minister take particular account of the “Stepping Up” report, which was produced by the Children’s Society for the Department? Following extensive consultation, that document identified the fact that some local authorities
“reported unwritten policies of refusing any accommodation for thirteen to fifteen year olds. Police were keen to emphasise that they would raise concerns with social services but some local authority colleagues reported that teenagers were unlikely to receive support unless the level of risk was so high as to cause concern of risk to life.”
That appears to mean that if there is a valid cause for concern about the well-being of young people who have run away from home but it does not raise concern about a risk to life, those young people are, in many local authority areas, not being considered for looked-after status and therefore will not receive the benefit of many of the extremely valuable measures being put in place by the Bill. Will the Minister ensure that that set of young people is given full consideration under subsection (4)(b)? Can she identify for us whether she will be able to take that matter into consideration when regulations are made under the clause?
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