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Earl Howe: My Lords, what we must not do at this stage of the Bill, and it is something that the noble Baroness has successfully avoided, is to reprise all the arguments from our debates at earlier stages. However, in endorsing all that the noble Baroness has said, I would like to make three brief points.
The first point is to say that what the Government are seeking to do in relation to the commissioner's functions makes no logical sense. In the Bill as it stood originally, where, as the House will recall, the commissioner was given a power but not a duty to have regard to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, it was perfectly tenable for the Government to resist the mention of rights elsewhere in the clause. Much as we may not have liked it, Ministers drew a line which made clear that the commissioner's functions would be about promoting awareness of children's views and interests, not about safeguarding their rights.
But it seems to me that when the Government accepted the amendment to change "may" to "must" in subsection (8), the whole nature of the commissioner's role became quite different. Originally, the mention of the UNCRC had the appearance of an afterthought. Now the scales are tipped the other way. If we read subsection (8) as the Government want it to read, the commissioner will be looking at children's interests within the context of children's rights. I share the doubts expressed by the noble Baroness about exactly what that means, but the whole emphasis has changed. That is why I believe it makes no logical sense to resist going the whole way and saying, as the Lords amendment did, that the commissioner will concern himself or herself with promoting and safeguarding the rights of children as well as their interests.
The second point I want to make is to say that the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness attempt to meet the Government half way, which is important. I might have hesitated before sending back to the other place exactly the same wording as before, but I have no difficulty in asking the other place to consider the amended wording, which retains the key concepts to which Ministers are firmly wedded and which we previously cut out; that is, the views of children and the key outcomes which children have said are important to them, and to which the Minister himself referred.
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The Government may voice the fear, as the Minister has today, that these amendments will involve the commissioner getting bogged down in investigating individual cases. I do not believe that that is so. I do not know of anyone who wants the commissioner to get bogged down in individual complaints and grievances. That is not what he is about, and I hope that the wording of the amendment forestalls that criticism.
My last point is about why it is right to ask the other place to look at this matter again. This is an extraordinarily important moment in legislative history. The creation of a Children's Commissioner for England is something for which many thousands of people up and down the country have been praying for a very long time. Yet what the Government first said they were going to give us and what they are actually proposing to give us now are two quite different things. The model envisaged by the Government will not only make the commissioner a fish out of water as regards all the other children's commissioners in the country and, indeed, in Europe, as he will be much weaker than any of them, but also in an international context he will be unrecognisable as a real commissioner. As such, as we understand it, he will not be allowed the join the European network of ombudspersons for children.
That really is a crazy state of affairs. It might be one thing if the time devoted to the debate on the Floor of the other place had done justice to the importance of the issue and the clear message conveyed by noble Lords, but by no stretch of the imagination could it be said to have done so. The whole debate on the functions of the commissioner held last week in the House of Commons took barely half an hour. Members of another place need to take another look.
I believe that this is a golden opportunity for Parliament and for the Government to deliver what Ministers themselves have trumpeted: a powerful and effective champion on behalf of children. If in due course the noble Baroness decides to divide the House, I shall most certainly follow her.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I think that all noble Lords would join in thanking the Government for the changes to the Bill that they have accepted, and for the explanation we have heard today in this House and made earlier in another place of why they have made these changes. However, another point needs to be emphasised. The case of Victoria Climbié has been a focus for so many of the reasons why noble Lords want to push certain issues further. It is at least arguable that she would have been saved had she been listened to and taken seriously. In that respect, the example of how the Victoria Climbié case illustrates the Government's emphasis on listening to children is absolutely right. We must become better at listening to children and taking them seriously.
But that is not enough. Children need information about their rights, they need effective services and systems designed especially for them, and they need the adults in their lives to respect them. They also need
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a powerful and independent champion to promote and safeguard those rights at all times. It is for those reasons that we feel so passionately about this.
Contrary to what the Minister has said this evening, and what has been said by the Minister for children in another place, there is nothing limiting about the proposed focus on rights and interests. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child covers all aspects of childhood. Outcomes are important, but the rights must come first, along with the responsibilities that exist alongside them.
I tend to forget that the UK ratified the UN convention in 1991. Indeed, as president of the UK committee of UNICEF, I was personally involved at the time. We looked at all this in detail. However, I have to admit that I have forgotten a lot of what is set out in certain articles, and that there are 40 rights in total, a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley.
Literally everything is covered by the convention, including that the best interests of the child should be a primary consideration in all matters affecting that child. The right to education is covered, as are the aims of education, which are described. There is the right to play and leisure, which was a subject that came up a lot in our debates on the Bill. I mention also the right to maximum survival and development set out in Article 6, while the right of children separated from their parents to special protection and assistance is dealt with in Article 20.
I am sure that my noble friend Lord Northbourne will be pleased to learn that the state has a responsibility to support parents in the upbringing of children. That is set out in Article 18. And let us not forget that it was due to noble Lords in this House that one mention of parents is now made in the Bill; only one, but at least it is there.
Further down the list of rights are those covering children who get into trouble with the law. That point was made very effectively by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. When we look at the facilities available to young people in prison, we see that they are very inadequate indeed. The more likely it is that young people are moved from prison to prison, the less likely it is that they will receive any of the extra support they need. The importance of parentsthis will again please my noble friendis stressed in three separate articlesArticles 5, 7 and 18.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child took 10 years to draft. We know that all but two countriessadly, the United States is one of themhave ratified it. It is an absolute milestone in what we should be doing. It sets the agenda for measuring the outcomes on which the Government are so keen. However, I am worried that it seems as though the Government have settled for a half-decision.
I have warmly welcomed the Bill, as have many other noble Lords. Perhaps I am about to be a little unkind, but I do not believe that I am. The Government seem to be saying, "Let's have a Children's Commissioner, but let's make sure he or she does not stray into difficult policy areas. Let's ensure he or she does not get involved in
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difficult individual cases. Let's ensure that he or she does not go into the more questionable areas of the Government's human rights record. Let's ensure that we do not have to find too much extra money". The commissioner will have a budget of £2.5 million for 11 million children. Will that go very far?
Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, I too am puzzled by the government amendments with regard to rights. I should like to ask my noble friend in what way is the commissioner to have regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is entirely about rights? In another place, our honourable friend Margaret Hodge said that,
That is fair enough. But after these amendments, the commissioner may not promote, safeguard, encourage the taking account of, or advise the Secretary of State about or review and report on. She or he may not even consider what the rights of children are. In what way, therefore, is the commissioner to have regard to the articles of the United Nations convention, the only purpose of which is to assert specific rights?
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