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Lord Brennan: My Lords, in the first week of the recent war in Iraq, a 20 year-old soldier was killed. He was from California; he died in the service of the American nation; and he was a street child from Guatemala. He left his hostel; obtained education; wanted to join the army; and suffered that fate. That story tells us three things about street children: first, that they are human beings; secondly, that they can achieve progress with help; and, thirdly, that with that progress they can live and sometimes die the way we do in our ordinary society.

I have the humble privilege of being the president of the Consortium for Street Children in this country. It embraces 37 charities and NGOs which serve to care for and work for the progress of street children in the widest sense of the phrase all over the world, but particularly in South America. Who are street children? There is the stereotype. Are they helpless children? Are they dangerous criminals? Are they heroic survivors? The answer probably is, "A mix of all three and more besides". They are homeless; they may or may not have families. They may live on the street all the time, or some of the time. They may live in shelters, or hospitals, or sometimes prisons for adults.

How many are there in Latin America? The most conservative estimates put it at 8 million to 10 million. Should we do something about it? Who could gainsay the question? Of course we should. We should do something about it because it is our duty as a civilised country to do so ourselves and to help other countries with the problem to solve it. The Convention on the Rights of the Child requires states to support and enable families and communities to fulfil their role of caring for and nurturing children. If they cannot, Article 20 says:

That is the explicit requirement of Latin American states; it is the spiritual requirement of us as a friendly nation.

What can we do? There are three pressing problems: violence and justice; sexual abuse and exploitation leading in many cases to HIV-AIDS; and, not to be forgotten, natural disasters. Let us take them in turn, dealing first with violence and the need for justice.

It would be an unnerving surprise for us to note that the adult with whom a street child was most likely to come into contact in Latin America was a policeman,
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would it not? The policeman may beat, harass or sexually abuse them or shoot them dead—or in some cases be decent to them. That is the first step for progress. The Consortium for Street Children has produced an international manual for police training to do with street children, partly funded by the Foreign Office, for which we are extremely grateful. It applies all over the world and is in practice in a pilot project in Ethiopia and Bangladesh. We want to start a similar project in Guatemala this year, with funding. I invite the Minister to help in that regard. With a change in attitude by the police, you have a change in attitude to represent society.

The second point is justice. The state of Honduras was taken to the Inter-American Commission and Court on Human Rights by Casa Alianza for locking up children of eight and 10 in adult prisons. The court condemned it. We must make sure that such practices do not happen. The consortium has a programme for juvenile justice all over the world, saying that we must treat the children with dignity and fairness. Violence is the keynote of such children's lives—suffering it and trying to avoid it. We must help.

Another major problem is HIV/AIDS. When you are homeless—in the sense of familiarly homeless—and become promiscuous or are abused, the risk of HIV/AIDS is enormous. The children do not have a clinic to go to, a doctor to advise or a nurse to care. Nobody looks after them. The crime—I emphasise "crime"—of a sexually exploited boy or girl getting HIV/AIDS and being left by society to suffer it and die is unforgivable. I invite my noble friend to confirm that, in any programme for HIV/AIDS in Latin America to which we are a party or not, we will ask for a special report on what is being done for those children. We must also ask countries to stop sexual exploitation. It is disgusting—an outrage—and it has to stop.

The last point is natural disasters. South America is a large continent given to major events—earthquakes, floods, hurricanes—where poor people can be bereft overnight of everything in their family life. In Honduras after 1998's Hurricane Mitch, the street children population of the capital increased within a week by 10 per cent, because no one could look after them. They were orphaned or abandoned. I invite my noble friend to mark that fact and accept that, after natural disasters, in future we will ask that money be specially directed at avoiding the problem.

I have isolated three areas, but there are many more. Latin American countries stand to be criticised where appropriate but, generally speaking, they stand to be supported. The charities and NGOs from our country depend on foreign governments and systems in which to function properly. I have no doubt that my noble friend will want every ambassador, consul and embassy official in Latin America to try at least once a year or every few months to visit a street children programme. The humility that it will instil will inspire endeavour, and that is what we want. There should be daily representations if necessary.

I shall finish with a question to Members of the House. To be alone, not to be cared for or cared about, and to live a life without hope would present
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to any one of us a terrible prospect, yet what prospect does it present to a child? All who speak in the debate rightly speak on behalf of our country in asking our Government to act. We are a decent nation with decent principles. We must expect our Government on our behalf to require, by representations to the governments of Latin America, help for street children.

6.56 pm

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, one thing that has struck me throughout the debate is not only the knowledge of previous speakers, but the extreme passion with which they have all spoken. I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing the debate. Curiously, I am also grateful that the debate has come so much later than when he first tabled the Question, as the intervening months have given me a chance to visit projects in both Mexico and Ecuador.

I am particularly struck by the fact that it is today that Sylvia Reyes, the director of Juconi—I have visited its project in Ecuador on a number of occasions, including this year—is going to Buckingham Palace to collect her well earned MBE for all her work. That work is not only in Ecuador, but in training in Juconi's way of working throughout the world, including recently in Afghanistan. I would like to talk a little more about that later.

I should also briefly declare an interest as an honorary board member of that organisation and, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, generously said, as joint chair of the All-Party Group on Street Children. While mentioning that all-party group, I should pay tribute to its secretary, Wilfred Wong, who is assiduous in enabling us to write to ambassadors when appropriate to express our opinion about children being murdered in Latin American countries.

I want to go back to some points made by noble Lords. Perhaps one of the main points of the debate was made eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, when he talked about shining a light on this darkness. That is probably our main ability—to shine a light on the darkness of what is happening. We can ask ambassadors of countries to come in, as the Honduran ambassador did last year, and talk frankly to us about the problems, as he did. He accepted that Honduras had a great problem, and acknowledged the fact that the court and police systems there had a great deal to do. As noble Lords have rightly said, it is also our job to keep the pressure on governments to make sure that the police and court systems in their countries know that we intend to shine a light on that darkness, and that they cannot get away with killings unnoticed. That is the first step in dealing with some of these horrendous issues.

Our second difficulty was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. Latin American countries are referred to as middle-income countries. I was equally struck by what I saw in Guayaquil. Once you have left the nicely-developed Malacon area and you get to the outer reaches it is nothing like a middle-income
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country. It certainly is as deprived as any country that you care to go to. Indeed, 80 per cent of the population of Ecuador live below the poverty line.

Equally, when we visited Pueblo, about 60 miles from Mexico City, with Juconi and the IPU delegation last year, you were given the impression that you were not in a middle-income country, once you had left the city centre—Mexico is much wealthier than many of the countries that noble Lords have mentioned. However, Brazil and Mexico are often referred to as the "twin hubs" that will lead Latin America forward. We should look to them for some of the leads regarding how to deal with the issues that, perhaps, have concerned me more. That is the side that I have seen, as opposed to the more horrendous issues that noble Lords have been talking about.

There is another side to street child life, which concerns those street children who often do have homes. They are not homeless, will not be subject to attacks by the police and may work occasionally in the market or on the streets, cleaning windscreens or selling flowers. Equally, they have little hope of breaking out of the cycle of poverty, because the education system in their countries is not in any way, shape or form, geared to enable a street child to go to school.

I was particularly struck by the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson of Market Rasen, on the importance of having a birth certificate, an identity, as a first step to enabling some of those rights to education and health to be realised. Without those rights it is difficult, even for the child who is not exposed to violence and who is not locked up in prison, to make many steps forward in life.

That is why I wish to return to the work of Juconi, because it works with the family as a whole when the child still lives at home. Juconi will identify the child as being on the street. Sometimes that child is there due to violence or abuse at home. Sometimes they are on the street simply because of the sheer poverty at home and they need to go out and earn some money to take home. Juconi goes into those homes and works with the child with the permission of the child and, sometimes, the willing participation of the adults—although that is not always the case.

Sometimes that participation is somewhat unwilling to begin with and it is slow and painstaking work that Juconi carries out. But its idea is to mainstream that child back to the facilities that the two countries that it works in, Mexico and Ecuador, can offer. Both counties do offer a level of education. Indeed, if the children can access it and if Juconi can bring their levels of literacy and numeracy up to a point where they can reasonably enter school, they can return to mainstream education or enter it for the first time. It is a measure of the success of that project that a year ago its first child graduated from university. That is an achievement indeed.

So that type of work, which is not dramatic, is extremely important. It is equally imperative that, in shining the light, the countries in which that work takes place choose to recognise the importance of such work and highlight that there is hope and a future if people
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choose to send their children to school. That may be combined with working in the markets because, realistically, it is not possible for all of those children suddenly to leave their work which brings in income for the families. However, they should, at least, have a space to work at home—whether it is a shelf to the side of the bed, or whatever; and space is often at a premium. Homework and so on should be encouraged, so that they can take a step forward.

I met a young reporter called Daniel Postini while I was in Ecuador. He was a photographer for the Expreso newspaper in Guayaquil. It was his mission in life to bring to the fore what it was like to live in some of the shanty towns that surround Guayaquil and what might be done to take a step forward. He was there to photograph the children who were displaying their works of art at an exhibition. In talking to him and the children, I was struck by the fact that the children were similar to any other children. Their artwork was exciting, but the subjects were similar to what might be seen in England—for example, "My birthday party", "My trip to see granny in the country". The difference was quite heart-rending, when it was explained to me that, mostly, their artwork was actually dreams of what they desired.

But for some of them, their dreams were about attending school and having a school uniform. That can be realised. I look forward to hearing the Minister say what contributions DfID can make and the difference that the ambassadors in the two countries that I visited have made—Denise Holt in Mexico and Richard Lewington in Ecuador—to encouraging the work of NGOs and the governments of those countries and furthering the mainstreaming of all children into education. That would be a major step forward.

7.7 pm

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