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House of Lords

Monday, 21st October 2002.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Oxford.

UN Rights of the Child Report

Baroness Massey of Darwen asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How they will respond to the report of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in relation to United Kingdom procedures and practices.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, although we are under no formal obligation to respond to the report, the Government, together with the devolved administrations, are closely examining the report of the UN committee. We will consider its recommendations in developing an overarching strategy for children—a development that the UN committee welcomed.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. This has been a good government for children, but there are areas of concern that are clearly expressed in the report. How will the consultation carried out by the Children and Young People's Unit feed into a strategy that will then reflect the concerns of the report?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that this has been a good government for children. The Children and Young People's Unit based in the Department for Education and Skills has undertaken wide public consultation. We are looking to build a 10-year strategy that will help to design and develop our policy-making so that we think about how we support our children across government over the next 10 years.

Baroness David: My Lords, will the national service framework for children, which is now being produced, contribute to the responses that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child would like?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the national service framework is the responsibility of the Department of Health. Within the framework that is being developed, issues to do with the broad welfare of children will be paramount across the preventive, acute and other strategies that it will encompass. That will obviously be an important part of the overarching work.

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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge that there is still serious disquiet about the special educational needs toolkit, which affects a large number of children, particularly in the early years for assessment? What are the Government doing to respond to those who have that disquiet?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, as the noble Baroness is aware, we have developed the toolkit alongside organisations that have been able to work with us. It has been well received within schools. Some organisations have raised particular issues of concern and we are in dialogue with them. The toolkit is meant to be helpful and supportive for schools. It is not meant to be something that they have to follow exactly. The examples in it are pertinent to the different needs of children. Of course we shall continue that dialogue.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal. Will the Minister ask her colleagues in the Home Office to look carefully at cases of unaccompanied minors coming into this country? I have seen a number of cases of children in their mid-teens—who are still minors—who are not accorded the observation and care that is expected of the Home Office when they come in.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the Government are very concerned to ensure that minors arriving in this country are well looked after. They are protected under the 1951 UN convention on refugees, which the Government support. We are looking to ensure the protection of children who arrive here so that they are well cared for.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, how do the Government plan to respond to Recommendation 36 of the report, which asks them to respond with urgency and to,

    "adopt legislation throughout the state party to remove the 'reasonable chastisement' defence and prohibit all corporal punishment in the family and in any other contexts not covered by existing legislation"?

Do the Government accept the results of a recent MORI poll that shows that the public are behind such a change to the law, as long as it does not criminalise caring parents, who might give the occasional light smack?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the Government are absolutely opposed to violence and abuse against children. Noble Lords will be aware that the law allows only what is reasonable. We have recently conducted a web-based poll that showed that 82 per cent of people are in favour of that position. I acknowledge the work of the noble Baroness with the NSPCC as an ambassador. We want to ensure that parents recognise their responsibilities. Hence we have developed Quality Protects, Sure Start and the supporting organisations, such as Parentline and the National Family and Parenting Institute. We all recognise the need to make sure that our children are

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well cared for and to ensure that the Government play their part responsibly, but do not get involved in the normal course of family life. We are with the noble Baroness in opposing violence and the abuse of children.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one way to ease the disquiet felt by a number of us would be to appoint a commissioner for children for England? Given that that is totally acceptable in other parts of the United Kingdom, why is it not yet acceptable here?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, in answer to other questions in your Lordships' House I have talked about the value that we place on our relations with the devolved administrations. We are talking and working with them and looking at the way in which their commissioners are evolving their roles and responsibilities. It is worth noting that of the 14 million children who live in our nations, 11.9 million live in this country. We have approached the issue by looking at a range of responses from different departments to ensure that we represent children's rights and responsibilities. We are considering the issue and keeping open our discussions with the devolved administrations.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the report published last week by senior inspectors of services across the range for vulnerable children in education and probation in social services? The report found that children were being put at risk through lack of funding, lack of resources, lack of staff and inadequate co-ordination in multi-agency work. Does she recognise those concerns?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the Government recognise the concerns expressed in the report; indeed, they are the reason why, at last week's conference, the Secretary of State for Health announced his proposals on children's care. Multi-agency working is something to which we all aspire. Across government, we recognise the need to ensure that children are protected and properly cared for. Multi-agency reports are clearly necessary to achieve the objective of ensuring that children are well looked after.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, I think that I heard the Minister say "in this country", meaning England. May I suggest to her that, when she is in the Westminster Parliament, she is in the United Kingdom?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I think that I referred to "nations". However, I accept the noble Baroness's point.

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Baroness Linklater of Butterstone: My Lords, can the Minister briefly tell us the Government's policy on the imprisonment of children? The United Kingdom has more children in prison than any other country in Europe. I am also not referring only to children of 15 or older, but am particularly concerned about those under 15.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, reform of the criminal justice system has been central to the Government's agenda, and reducing and preventing youth crime is a major part of that agenda. As noble Lords will be aware, prevention has a huge part to play in ensuring that children do not end up in the prison system. We have to keep children safe and secure by working with them when they are at risk of becoming involved in criminal activity and offending. There is a huge amount to be done in that respect. We also have to work very closely with children who are guilty of criminal activity. My noble friends and other colleagues will know that the Home Office is working very closely with others on a preventive system.

Houses in Multiple Occupation

2.44 p.m.

Baroness Maddock asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What plans they have to regulate houses of multiple occupation.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker): My Lords, some of the worst unregulated housing conditions exist in properties of multiple occupation in the private rented sector. It also accommodates some of the most vulnerable in our society. That is why the Government remain committed to introducing further legislation to license these properties, in order to improve the safety and the welfare of occupants.

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