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Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: I, too, support this amendment. Casting my mind back to the Orkney abuse cases, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred, and the Ayrshire abuse cases which occurred at about the same time in Scotland, the trouble was that there was no commissioner for children and nobody to whom the parents could turn.

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In one case in Ayrshire the mother of children who had been removed on the flimsiest excuse by social workers contacted Members of Parliament, me and all kinds of people. There was very little that we could do about it. I believe that if at that time there had been a commissioner for children in Scotland things would not have gone as badly wrong as they did, or at least they would have been put right rather quicker. I very much hope that the noble and learned Lord will give this amendment favourable consideration.

Lord Renton: I support this amendment. I refer briefly to the use of the expression "the rights and responsibilities". We all have a broad idea of what that means, but when it comes to contesting it at law those who are challenged may very well try to place a narrow definition on those words. If at Report stage it is possible perhaps to include a cross-reference in other legislation as to what these rights and responsibilities are it will make the effect of the amendment much firmer.

The Earl of Listowel: I should also like to speak in support of the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. Before doing so, like many other Members of the Committee I welcome the news that the formal power of the commissioner is to be extended to all children in Wales. Most child abuse occurs in families. I believe that there is a danger of going from one extreme to another--from ignoring the voice of the child to believing that only the child can speak with any authority.

It is normally artificial to think of children's welfare in isolation from their families. It is a principle of Chinese medicine that if a child is ill it is usually best to treat the mother. If a family is living in overcrowded and damp accommodation or, perhaps more to the point, parents are worried about delays in receiving housing benefit, that does not affect the child but it worries the parents, which will impact adversely on the well-being of the child. There is at least one country in the world that has a commissioner for the family rather than for children. It is important to bear that in mind. Of course, the interests of the child and family are on occasion very divergent but, normally, supporting the family is important in supporting the child.

Lord Northbourne: I should like to support the amendment. As I know so well the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General, I suspect that he will either accept the amendment or will have a jolly good reason for not doing so. Therefore, I would rather listen to what he has to say.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: It may be superfluous, but I should like briefly to support the amendment. As I believe the noble and learned Lord knows, my experience in this field comes from defending the rights, if they can be called that, of mentally handicapped people in this country, where it appears that the pendulum has swung too far in favour of officialdom and the decisions of the Home Office and

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others and where sufficient attention has not been paid over recent years to the rights and interests of families and parents. In that respect, I take the opportunity to congratulate the Government on their White Paper, Valuing People, produced under the auspices of Mr Hutton in another place.

I have not had a great deal to do with the Bill. However, I can recognise when the pendulum has swung too far in favour of the decisions of officialdom when I come to read the Bill and the Explanatory Notes, which do not actually mention the word "parents". I feel sure that my noble friend Lady Young is on to something here and I very much hope that the Government can accept the spirit of her amendment.

Lord Swinfen: I should like to support the amendment. We should all remember that parents have the great responsibility of bringing up the next generation. It is upon the proper upbringing of the next generation that the welfare of the country as a whole stands. It is important that they should have as much support and guidance as possible. We all make mistakes. We all need help as parents and some need more help than others. I hope that in his functions the commissioner will do all he can to help parents to bring up their children properly.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My noble friend Lady Young was quite right in saying that I drew attention to this area of possible concern during our Second Reading debate on 19th February when I said:

    "Some may feel a little uncomfortable with the possible implications here. There is the threat of an overweening bureaucracy, thrusting confusedly in all kinds of directions and interfering unnecessarily in all kinds of areas, including normal family life and normal child-parent relationships".

I went on to talk about the Orkney children scandal of 1991 and the Cleveland fiasco, as I called it. I concluded by quoting the hope expressed by Sir William Utting that,

    "the rights of children and the rights and responsibilities of parents prove mutually supportive".--[Official Report, 19/2/01; col. 545.]

That is very much our fervent hope. But there have been occasions when officials have ridden roughshod over parental rights and responsibilities.

It is clearly important that those rights and responsibilities should always be considered. Indeed, they should be in the forefront, especially when a child is taken from his or her parents' care and placed elsewhere. There is a tendency for society to regard those in authority in social services as near infallible and their provision for children as infinitely superior to the provision previously made for them at home. Social workers and their judgment are trusted implicitly. I have a good deal of sympathy with what was said by the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun. Sometimes parents do not know to whom to turn. We know to our cost that there have been failures which the Government and the Bill seek to prevent from recurring.

Therefore, in this context, I should have thought that my noble friend's amendment would certainly not be too onerous an addition. It simply requires the

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commissioner to have regard to the rights and responsibilities of parents or guardians. The Government may well say, "Of course he will have such regard", to which we should say, "Why not place the amendment on the face of the Bill? It would remind the commissioner of its importance". What we want is an effective commissioner who does not supplant the role of parents. It must be someone in whom the parents have confidence.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Young, will forgive me if I start with a personal response. There can be no time at which I am more aware of the role and responsibility of parents than at this moment and on this day, as we wait for one of our sons and our daughter-in-law to have their first child. I can assure the noble Baroness that the only problem she may have later in our proceedings is if I suddenly leap up and shout in a very disrespectful way "yippee".

There is common ground between us about the importance of parents and the role that they play. We have no doubt about that. We intend to bring forward an amendment on Report that will enable the commissioner to make representations to the Assembly about aspects of family life that may affect children's rights or their welfare. I want to say a few words about that welfare aspect. The expectation is that, in exercising any of his functions, the commissioner would find it impossible to perform the function of looking to the welfare of children without taking a proper and balanced view of all aspects and all relevant issues.

As the Conservative Assembly member, David Melding, has clarified, a fully effective Children's Commissioner will offer great support to parents without undermining the responsibility of the family in any way. The Bill will enable that to happen. In the Assembly debate on 7th June last year it was accepted that it was not the intention that the commissioner should exercise functions in respect of families, such as investigation, although it might be appropriate for the commissioner to comment on aspects of family life that affect children.

Perhaps I may turn to the contributions made during the debate. The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, and the noble Lords, Lord Renton and Lord Roberts of Conwy, referred to individual cases. It is very important indeed not to see the role of the Children's Commissioner in isolation from the other improvements being made to the system; namely, it becomes a part of the whole. It is therefore vital that the role of the Children's Commissioner is not seen as a role in which parents will present individual cases, in particular during a process of review that will take its proper course through the legal system, in order to seek the commissioner to intervene on an individual basis.

Having said that, it is quite clearly the case, from what has been said previously, that we intend that the commissioner should be able to comment on the broad strategy framework and policy in which those decisions take place. I hope that I have managed to

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separate and distinguish the two functions because it would be a mistake for noble Lords to envisage the role of the Children's Commissioner as one in which he would intervene in individual cases. That would then go against the interests not only of the children concerned but also of the parents because it would muddy the waters and could adversely affect a proper decision being reached through the due legal process.

It has never been the intention of the Government that the commissioner should interfere in family life. He will have no investigative, review or monitoring powers in respect of parents or guardians. He is there to promote and safeguard the rights--a point to which noble Lords have referred when speaking to other amendments--and the welfare of children.

I hope that, in the light of this response, the noble Baroness, Lady Young, will not wish to press her amendment because we do not consider that it is appropriate. However, we fully recognise that, in performing his tasks, the commissioner will have to have regard to the unity of family life when examining the welfare of children in their families.

Perhaps I may conclude by saying what a pleasure it is to be able to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, and to thank him for his congratulations on the Government's White Paper.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Hylton: Before the noble Baroness sits down, can she give the Committee an assurance that the forthcoming government amendment will refer, in terms, to what she has just said about the unity of family life?

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