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5.45 pm

Tim Loughton: I would ask the Secretary of State to withdraw the comment that he has just made. We do not oppose all the measures that the Government are taking to make children safe. We never have done, we certainly would not, and we are not doing so now. Perhaps he would like to withdraw that comment, because it does not do him any credit to suggest such a thing. Will he withdraw it?

Ed Balls: We have had a litany of criticisms from the Conservative party of all the different recommendations in Lord Laming’s report on the confidentiality of serious case reviews, on the national safeguarding unit, and on reporting to the Cabinet Sub-Committee. It is true to say that the hon. Gentleman seems to be supporting our proposal on lay members, but even then he is casting doubt on it. I have heard no support so far for the measures that we are taking in this debate, but if he would like to tell us which recommendations he supports, I will then withdraw.

Tim Loughton: The Secretary of State really does himself no credit. Some of us have worked for rather longer than he has been in the House on child protection measures post Victoria Climbié. We have supported every single piece of child protection legislation that his Government have introduced, but we did not do that by failing to question the efficacy of some of it. What we are doing today is questioning the efficacy of some of the legislative proposals for which he is seeking our support. I have made it absolutely clear to him that although I fully support Lord Laming’s dedication and the passion, we just disagree with him on some—not all—of his recommendations, including some of the key ones which, we think, are absolutely flawed. Certainly, in the case of SCRs, the Secretary of State has not been able to tell us why he is against their publication—he just cited Herbert Laming, with whom we disagree. His role is to scrutinise and question those people who give him advice, not blindly to accept everything.

We need legislation that has been thought through properly. If that is what we have, and if the Secretary of State can show that it will improve qualitative outcomes rather than just add to the body of legislation, of which we have had rather a lot, we will support him. So far, he has not done anything. I support the new clause— [ Interruption. ] The Secretary of State is the one who has been playing politics, by making some very wild and unhelpful remarks, on the child protection issue. I have no problem with allowing lay members to be added to local safeguarding children boards—I support that—but what I am questioning is how much it will add in the greater scheme of things. There is one thing that he could do here and now: issue guidance about the full publication of serious case reviews, which would do much more to make those LSCBs fully transparent and accountable.

Mr. Graham Stuart: It seems clear to me that the Secretary of State has not apologised. He said on the record that the Conservative party opposed all the measures that the Government were taking to protect
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vulnerable children. There may be areas in which it is appropriate to try to put dividing lines between the Conservatives and Labour for political purposes, but may I put it to the Secretary of State that this is not one of them, and it brings us all into disrepute to pursue this? He should take the opportunity now to apologise.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. This debate is becoming somewhat fractious, and I suggest that although there is certainly reference to the serious case reviews in the new clauses, it is not just or entirely about that. There are many other aspects to the new clauses, and it may well be appropriate for us to move on and discuss them.

Tim Loughton: Absolutely, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was about to conclude, and I shall finish briefly with new clause 24, which requires LSCBs to produce an annual report. Again, I have no problem with that—it is a good thing if it adds to transparency. But again, I would like to know from the Secretary of State what he thinks that will achieve. The publication of 150 brochures by LSCBs throughout the country—what will that include and what is it intended to achieve?

The exercise must be about restoring confidence in the child protection system. LSCBs are the guardians of the efficacy of the child protection system around the country, yet we are unable to see their full deliberations when that child protection system goes wrong, as has been shown by the debate that we have just had on the publication of serious case reviews. All I have tried to do is get some details about some very vague new clauses, which on the face of it give wide powers to the Secretary of State to add bureaucracy to the bureaucracy that already exists in the child protection system. I shall finish where I came in. I think that is the biggest enemy of social workers being able to get on with their job. We have been exceedingly supportive of social workers being able to get on with their job. We have made a series of recommendations through “No More Blame Game” and the submission that the commission on social workers made to the Laming inquiry in February, which is about peeling back the bureaucracy from social workers. My fear about the amendments is that unintentionally they may add to it. If the Government and the Secretary of State can show that they will add to the bureaucracy but that that will add to the quality of the outcomes, we will support them.

I wait for a proper explanation when the right hon. Gentleman responds to the debate. In his opening remarks, there was no detail at all. The House and all those working in child protection in the country are entitled to rather more detail and a far more substantial explanation than the Secretary of State has given us thus far.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I shall speak to amendment 15, which stands in my name, as Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The amendment was tabled on behalf of the Committee to give effect to one of the recommendations in our scrutiny report on the Bill.

The Bill places children’s trust boards on a statutory footing. In its 2008 concluding observations on the UK, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, commenting on the UK Government’s overall strategy for implementing
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the UN convention, welcomed the fact that the convention was referred to in the children’s plan, but expressed its continuing concern

We agree with that criticism and we asked the Government what, if any, would be their objection to the Bill being amended to require children’s trust boards, first, to have regard to the need to implement the UN convention when preparing their children and young persons’ plans, and secondly, to consult with children and young people in the preparation of the plans, as envisaged by article 12 of the convention. We welcome the Government’s commitment in relation to the second suggestion that children and young people should be consulted when the children and young people’s plan is being drawn up, and the fact that this will be made a requirement in the new regulations governing the adoption of such plans.

However, my Committee is disappointed by the Government’s refusal to adopt the UN convention as the strategic framework for children’s plans. In their response to our question, the Government state that they consider it

The Government’s reason is that they say that the UK complies with its obligations under the UNCRC through a mixture of legislative, executive and judicial action, and they are content that their legislation is consistent with the provisions of the convention. They say that the broader issue of embedding the UNCRC into UK policy and practice is covered in the Green Paper on a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and they consider that the appropriate way to take the issue forward.

Although the Green Paper welcomes public debate on whether children’s rights should be included in any Bill of Rights, and considers that such a Bill

it nevertheless acknowledges that the UNCRC is

However, the Green Paper contains no proposal for further embedding the UNCRC into UK policy and practice. If anything, the Green Paper appears sceptical of the value of such a proposal, preferring to emphasise that the goal of achieving improved outcomes is pursued in distinctive ways across the UK, and indicating that any Bill of Rights and responsibilities should allow for recognition that responsibility for many aspects of child well-being is devolved.

My Committee was not persuaded by the Government’s reasons for not taking the opportunity in the Bill to embed the UNCRC in further policy-making. The Bill’s provisions on the drawing up of children and young people’s plans provide an opportunity for the Government to respond positively and constructively to the concern of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child that the convention is not regularly used as a framework for the development of children’s strategies. We recommended that the Bill be amended to require children’s trust
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boards to have regard to the need to implement the UNCRC when preparing children and young people’s plans, and in our report we suggested an amendment to achieve this, which is the amendment that I tabled for today’s debate.

This is, in effect, a more specific version of the duty that now appears in clause 1 of the Equality Bill. It requires the strategic decision-making authorities for children—the children’s trust boards—to have regard to the need to implement the UNCRC when drawing up strategic plans for children. The UNCRC includes a duty to realise progressively various social and economic rights—for example, the right to an adequate standard of living, access to health, education and so on—as interpreted by the UN committee. Both the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on Economic and Social Rights want states to adopt strategic plans for the implementation of the rights, particularly the social and economic rights, in the UNCRC and in the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights.

The point of our amendment is to require the strategic decision-making authorities for children to have regard to the need to implement the UN convention, including by progressively realising their right to an adequate income and so on, when drawing up strategic children’s plans. Like the Equality Bill clause 1 duty, it could be judicially reviewable if the children’s trust board does not have regard to the UNCRC when drawing up its plans. This is a way of ensuring that the CRC, which protects children’s social and economic rights, is more firmly embedded in strategic decision making about children. That is what the amendment seeks to achieve. It is regrettable that the Government have not accepted it so far, and I hope they will now reconsider, in the light of our amendment.

Annette Brooke: The Liberal Democrats welcome new clause 21 and consider it a good response to the debate that we had in Committee.

On new clauses 22 to 24, I shall reflect on the significance of our debate today and the Government’s announcements tomorrow, given the additional shocking news that was revealed in the past week and the “Panorama” programme last night, which had some serious messages for us all. Child protection is the most important issue that we face, and it should not be used as a political football.

I shall comment on each of the Government’s proposed new clauses. I have concerns about new clause 22 in particular, and those concerns are deep set, because my reading of Laming’s review is not the same as the Secretary of State’s. I do not think that new clause 22 addresses what Laming had to say. For example, Laming stated:

I do not regard that as full consultation, by the way—

I agree with that, but Laming went on to say that they

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Laming went on to recommend that the statutory targets

but he said:

6 pm

The new clause does not seem to be directed at the right body. It is directed at the children’s services authority, and I do not understand why it is not directed at the children’s trust board, which would involve the other agencies. I do not see how the new clause would result in the important partner bodies fully accepting the targets. I make that point in extreme seriousness, because one great concern is that the new clause will not be fit for purpose.

My other concern is that we do not know the precise targets that the Secretary of State has in mind, and we all know that targets can have unintended consequences—there have undoubtedly been some in children’s legislation. Therefore, we do not feel able to give our unequivocal support to the provisions without knowing a lot more about them. We wish to reserve our position, because we want to ensure that we have the best possible legislation for the protection of children, and we are not convinced about the measure at this stage.

Under new clause 23, lay members would be included on the safeguarding children boards, which is perfectly sensible, although I have some concerns about the training that would have to be given to those members, and about their exact role and status. At this stage, we do not know about that.

On new clause 24, the Laming review clearly recommends that the safeguarding children boards should produce annual reports, and I cannot see anything whatever to object to in that. However, the process in respect of which Laming recommendations are brought forward for consideration today, what will be in the announcements tomorrow and what might be introduced into the Bill at its next stage seems a little “pick and mix”.

My hon. Friends and I have tabled an amendment on the independence of the chairman of a safeguarding board. Interestingly, Lord Laming made a recommendation on the chairmanship of the board, when he clearly said that he did not think that the same person should occupy the chairs of the children’s trust board and the local safeguarding board. Therefore, it seems relevant to consider our suggestion, which is carefully written, because it would permit a member of another authority to move across and aid the scrutiny role of an authority. That issue needs to be discussed, and I hope that the Secretary of State will give it some serious consideration.

I shall take a minute to comment on the Laming review generally. It was important to have a speedy review, and full congratulations must go to Lord Laming on what he achieved in the time that he had. However, his time was limited and the consultation was limited, so, yet again, I make the point that, notwithstanding Lord Laming’s experience and considerable knowledge of the issues, a fresh pair of eyes should look at the system, because they may see things that others have missed.

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New clause 20 is the slightly amended version of an amendment that we discussed in Committee, and it is right to revisit a subject that was raised at the end of a very long sitting on 26 March. On that occasion, my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) outlined most eloquently why we feel that its provisions are necessary. The new clause would introduce a statutory duty to ensure that the investigating or key worker saw the child separately from his or her parent or carer.

My hon. Friend had the advantage of having read the serious case review regarding baby Peter, so he was able to reflect on the issue more deeply than I shall be able to today. However, it is vital that we think about what happened in two infamous cases. We know that nobody spoke to Victoria Climbié, yet she died in shocking conditions. We know also that baby Peter had his face smeared with chocolate to conceal the bruising and injuries to him. How can we—anybody—suggest that it is not important for a key worker to have time alone with a vulnerable child to talk to them, where appropriate, and to communicate with them in all sorts of ways? It is accepted that the child’s views must be presented, but I suggest that we need to go one stage further: will we really be able to hold our heads up if we have yet another case in which a baby or young child is severely abused or even killed and the social worker has not had any meaningful and direct communication with them?

Although my hon. Friend put forward an excellent case at the end of that very long sitting in Committee, it was clearly a tiring time for the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and I take issue with some of her comments at the time. That is not to attach any blame whatever to her, because it was a very long sitting. Indeed, she did not have all the time that she might have wanted to reflect on the new clause, because, under normal circumstances, we would probably have considered it some days later.

Alison Seabeck: Will the hon. Lady clarify something? I understand why she might want a child to communicate on their own with a key worker, but many such children are very small and many of their problems are physical injuries that would require a physical examination. If a third person, other than a parent or carer, did not monitor such communication, would it not leave the key worker open to all sorts of separate allegations? There are problems with the new clause, so will the hon. Lady talk me through them?

Annette Brooke: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but it is important to appreciate that the Government’s argument is that the provision in our new clause is already available, so that rather unpicks her remark.

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