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Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this important debate and on giving the House the opportunity to discuss the plight of street children in Latin America. It has been a most interesting and informed discussion, one that follows on well from the more general debate on developments in Latin America, led by my noble friend Lady Hooper on 26 May.

As my noble friend Lady Rawlings stated in that debate, with Her Majesty's Government's focus on the problems of Africa, it is all too easy to forget that there are problems that are just as serious and urgent in other parts of the world. It is essential that this House keeps a spotlight on these other areas, especially when there are more people in Asia and South America who subsist on less than a dollar a day than there are in Africa.

It is clear from the debate on 26 May that, despite the unrest that we have witnessed in Bolivia and the continual problems of internal armed conflict in countries such as Columbia, Mexico and Brazil are, as the BBC once put it, "gentle giants awakening". They are areas where political stability is working hand in hand with a growing economy, enabling both countries to look
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outwards and to help anchor the continent as a whole. Let us hope that that remains the case after Mexico's presidential elections next year.

So, some steps, if faltering, are being taken by the member countries of Latin America. However, these nations will not develop the international respect to which they aspire without addressing the shocking human rights violations that are carried out in their societies. The plight of the street children has been passionately demonstrated by your Lordships. It is clear that, while Brazil is the most cited example of a country's failure to address its commitments to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is not by any means the only one. Guatemala and Honduras, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned, are examples, too.

Although Brazil has failed to produce 13 reports under the six core United Nations human rights treaties, 226 reports are overdue from various other nations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Being forced to produce the reports, those nations are compelled to look at the issues and to address the failings of their systems. I wonder whether Her Majesty's Government are taking any steps to help to address the issue.

The sharp contrast of wealth distribution is visually brought home by the sight of shanty towns next to the air-conditioned homes of the elite, particularly in the otherwise beautiful city of Rio de Janeiro. In Brazil there are an estimated 25 million deprived children and around 8 million of them live on the streets.

As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has highlighted, the proliferation of drugs and small arms means that around four to five children and adolescents are murdered in Brazil every day. In Guatemala City alone, there are, on average, two violent murders of children a day and last year there was a total of 847. The Honduran Government have officially recorded 1,030 children under 18 killed since 1998, although NGOs report a figure closer to 2,500.

It appears that few have been held accountable and brought to justice for those deaths. Despite moves toward a more civil society, the apparent impunity with which perpetrators of such crimes operate—they are often police or security officers—shows a distressing lack of political will and transparency to deal with the issue seriously.

The horrors of the figures that I have just mentioned exclude those who die from sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS following enforced prostitution, a subject mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, and the noble Lord, Lord Brennan. In Brazil's two biggest cities there are an estimated 150,000 child prostitutes, boys and girls as young as eight years old, controlled by strong organised mafia.

Will the Minister inform the House what advice and resources the Government have supplied to the Latin American countries to help to train specialised police units to investigate sex offences against children? What anti-corruption support are they providing to help to hold to account police officers and politicians involved in such despicable schemes?
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Corporate social responsibility is an important approach in helping to tackle this distressing issue from afar. Will the Minister inform the House of any government-led or sponsored trade missions run by the British Council or any other organisations to raise the issue with companies in Latin American countries? What steps are Her Majesty's Government taking to ensure that they have no dealings with companies and organisations which are known to profit from the use of drugs? What pressure are the Government putting on respective governments to assess the gun ownership and illegal trade in small arms within their countries?

What response has Her Majesty's Government taken in response to the Jubilee campaign's call for public information campaigns to promote understanding and sympathy for the situation of street children in Latin American countries? Many NGOs provide street children with the necessary shelter from violence and sexual exploitation. They provide food, clothing, medical treatment and, most importantly, general educational and training programmes to help to get them off the street.

I was most impressed by the description given by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, of the wonderful work that his consortium is doing there. I want to reinforce the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, about the pledges of DfID in this area and how they have been carried out.

Finally, I hope that the Minister will confirm that during the G8 summit some time will be made to discuss vital needs of the poverty stricken street children of Latin America. After all, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, rightly said, this issue is a continual reproach to the conscience of the international community.

7.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for giving us the opportunity to discuss the plight of street children in Latin America. Again, he has demonstrated, as he so often does, his considerable personal knowledge. That knowledge has been of great benefit to the House and I thank him for it. I am also grateful to all noble Lords who contributed to the debate. We have had a good deal of sharing of knowledge and compassion but knowledge and compassion are plainly not enough.

As the Minister with responsibilities for Latin America, I am encouraged to see the interest in that region in this House. We have had two debates in a very short period—within a month—which I welcome. I say to the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Astor, that of course Africa is vital to the G8 discussions for all the reasons of which we are aware, but that will not distract us from Latin America and these issues. These issues do not go away because we have that concern.

In general, the rights of children worldwide are a central part of our human rights policy. I stress that that is the Government's position. As my noble friend Lord Brennan reminds us, it is also our responsibility, as a civilised people in a civilised society, through charities,
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government and all parts of our society, to realise that we have obligations and ethical responsibilities. During the debate, my noble friend and others illustrated the values that underpin that, for which I thank them.

Poverty, unemployment and social dislocation leave many children with no option other than to leave home. On the streets they are often excluded from accessing key services such as health and education and they lack the support that most of us assume we shall have in life of kinship and social networks. Many suffer and are at greater risk from organised violence, trafficking, sexual exploitation, enforced prostitution and HIV/AIDS. In addition, poor police training—in some places I suspect there is no police training—low salaries and weak judiciaries can exacerbate the problems. It is the underlying causes of deprivation and exclusion, as well as the requirement for police and judicial reform, that need to be tackled if there is to be a serious long-term solution.

The noble Lord, Lord Astor, was right to say that the growing economies of the continent are fundamental if they are to make progress at all. Yet there is so much more to do because so much is going wrong. Reports are required from many countries. In response to one point raised, we try to monitor against the criteria set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, because that is the most widely ratified of all the core human rights treaties and because monitoring is needed as implementation is so patchy.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child considers implementation of the convention. We have supported training for NGOs—this is a direct response to the point raised by the noble Lord—to improve the quality of all shadow reporting to the committee. That means that the committee receives fuller pictures, year-by-year, of the situation on the ground in any state party. That includes, in our case, work done with the NGOs in Belize, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Trinidad and Tobago and, of course, Brazil, which is at least making efforts to be up to date in its reporting.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, asked us what we are doing. The Government see a broad agenda that we must tackle when we approach the plight of street children in the region. That can be pursued both in lobbying and influencing and in direct support to project work.

I turn first to poverty. I should like say a little about the exceptional work that my colleagues in DfID are doing. Our contributions to multilateral institutions for work in Latin America amount to about £100 million a year. An annual bilateral programme of £11 million will complement that by helping the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank to improve their ability to tackle poverty, inequality and inclusion in their programmes. It also supports efforts to improve donor harmonisation and the effectiveness of government poverty reduction strategies to include social exclusion and child poverty. Our contributions to the European Commission, rightly emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, are also assisting them to implement a social cohesion programme in Latin America.
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We also recognise the important role of civil society, which has been demonstrated so clearly by all noble Lords speaking in the debate. We also support that. On the lobbying front, I can assure the House that we have made clear to the governments of Latin America, bilaterally and with our EU partners—in our presidency of the EU, given my responsibilities, I will certainly continue to do so—the importance we attach to respect for human rights and, at the heart of those, the rights of children. Together with our European partners, we continue to call for all states parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child to implement their reporting obligations.

I was pleased that my noble friend Lady Gibson drew attention to the convention and our responsibilities to the UN. After all, that is a cornerstone. The UN is still working on those issues—and still failing, I suppose, with regret, I must say; but still working. We closely monitor progress. In some areas progress is being made in countries in the region where there is concern, including in Central America and Brazil.

Perhaps I could talk about a few countries to illustrate the point. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, talked about the Jubilee campaign and illustrated it with Brazil, and other noble Lords mentioned Brazil. The noble Lord described a harrowing, terrifying list—a catalogue—of degradation and lack of value attached to children's lives. In the article to which he referred, which I read with interest—actually, interest is too pallid a word; it is a moving article—he made the point that in the absence of gravestones the website provides the only documentary evidence of the children's lives that have been lost, of children's deaths. He is right to ensure that these issues are not forgotten.

My noble friend Lady Gibson was right to say that the Brazilian Government recognise the scale of the problem, but it is below governmental level where there is evidently much work to be done. According to the latest report of Brazil to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, major problems exist in the realisation of children's rights. Those are the effects of, inter alia, unequal social structure, the growing incidence of early pregnancy and child labour.

There are also a number of positive developments; for example, a decrease in infant mortality and a significant expansion of primary school education. Brazil has introduced a number of programmes, such as the Family Grant, the Zero Hunger Programme and the Programme for the Eradication of Child Labour. However, all of that does not remove the problem, which was so powerfully illustrated by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, when he described the work of members of his family and the NGO work that is essential.

We engage frequently with the Brazilian Government on all those issues, both bilaterally and through the European Union, on a broad range of human rights issues, including about the situation of street children. The Government have funded a number of projects in the human rights field in Brazil, including tackling some of the more pressing problems of violence in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.
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A priority area for projects in 2005–06 is the promotion of child rights in that context. Our embassy in Brasilia is currently in discussion with the Brazilian Government on how they can assist in developing a training programme to build vital capacity among the Brazilian judiciary in the areas of juvenile justice and young offenders. That infrastructure is plainly vital, as this debate has illustrated.

In Ecuador, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred, unofficial statistics suggest that there are 1 million working children there, of whom 5,000 are street children or at social risk. For several years, our Embassy in Ecuador has assisted JUCONI—the Junto Con Ninos—which is one of the main NGOs working in this area. Incidentally, the Mexican embassy is engaged in a similar way in Mexico. As the noble Baroness said, JUCONI's main challenge is to get street children—in many cases the family breadwinners—back into education, by providing family support and encouragement. It was really good to hear that the first of those children has got to university. That is surely lighting a light in that country. I congratulate the noble Baroness on her work there.

In Central America, we have raised concerns about issues in those countries. Our embassies maintain close contact with the region's governments, non-governmental organisations dealing with child protection, and other members of civil society. We regularly voice our concerns bilaterally and, as I said, with our EU partners. The problem in Central America is plainly made much worse by youth gangs, the Maras, as they are called, which are responsible for violence and increasing crime throughout the area. Young people and children, frequently from broken homes, may join those gangs when they are very young—as was said, they are almost a child army—sometimes when they are no more than 10 or 11 years old, to try to gain a sense of community and personal protection.

Studies have shown that young people are often desperate to leave the gangs but reintegration into the mainstream of society is difficult, especially for those with visible tattoos. It has been almost impossible for them. With no prospects of employment, many young people remain locked into the vicious cycle of crime and drug dependency that inevitably brings them into conflict with the law.

We have provided support for many local projects in Central America to help protect children and fund equipment as well as to support training for local police forces across the region. DfID has also supported government programmes to strengthen social services, improve conditions and protect vulnerable children. That is a significant part of DfID's programmes across the continent.

My noble friend Lady Gibson also drew attention to Honduras, which has been particularly affected by gang violence. Examples of work that we have supported there include assistance in setting up a government special investigative unit for deaths of minors and a community policing project on children in conflict in conjunction
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with Save the Children. We have also funded a study by the Children's Legal Centre at Essex University, with which my noble friend will be familiar, to investigate the juvenile justice system. The final report of that study, which is being undertaken by a very good group of academics there, will be launched in September 2005 at a regional conference on children in conflict with the law and will guide future legislation in this important area.

During 2004, DfID gave Honduras £1 million to support its poverty reduction strategy, including the analysis of child poverty and the plight of street children. The strategy commits the government to reduce child labour, improve the quality and equity of education and improve child health coverage. Our embassy is monitoring that.

In Guatemala, where we understand from Casa Alianza that in Guatemala City alone there are some 4,500 street children, we have funded the research and publishing of a manual to train the local police force in child rights and child protection, with particular focus on street children. This work was carried out with the NGO, Consortium for Street Children. We have funded Casa Alianza's work to refurbish a home for former street children and a shelter for sexually abused children with the human rights ombudsman office.

As I briefly summarise those national examples, I feel compelled to admit that training of police forces and the judiciary are very important steps into which we should put resources. That will not stop wicked people from being wicked, I fear, but it is a means of ensuring that we intervene as purposefully as possible in those areas.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, we are working hard on voluntary-sector training to boost its excellent efforts as much as possible. DfID and the FCO work substantially with the local NGOs in programme delivery—largely because they are the best placed organisations to deliver those programmes—and to help to build their capacities. Examples include Casa Alianza, in Central America; ChildHope International, in Brazil; and projects in Venezuela and elsewhere. There is a long list, which I shall not go through, but it is serious.

In response to my noble friend Lord Brennan, the Guatemala project is also deeply involved with the local NGOs in training the local police in child rights. It is another area where that specific problem is being addressed.

Most of the reports that we have heard today are truly shocking. It is sad to have to admit that there are no quick fixes or magic solutions. The noble Lord, Lord Astor, raised some of the central problems about small arms. Although it is no quick fix, my right
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honourable friend in another place Jack Straw is promoting the international small arms treaty in an attempt to get some control of those issues. As I said earlier, the underlying causes are the deeper issues of poverty, inequality, social exclusion and, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, rightly says, the acute problem of drugs and drugs trafficking.

If I quote Nelson Mandela accurately, those are all blights caused by human beings. Of course, natural disasters are not blights made by human beings but they add to and compound the misery of what we do to ourselves as human beings. We have real ethical obligations in that regard.

The noble Lord, Lord Astor, asked what we would do about corruption in companies and governments. At the G8 summit the issue of anti-corruption and good governance in governments is fundamental to the whole package concerning debt write-off and aid. Our own legislation is fundamental to dealing with and penalising corruption. As I have said, we are working in all those spheres to assist Latin America in that broad agenda and trying to tackle the more specific issues related to street children. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, can rest assured that we will pursue that role with our partners in Europe during our European presidency and beyond.

I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, that I will seek to ensure that our HIV/AIDS programmes include special reports on the position of children. I will discuss that both in my own department and with DfID. I will also discuss visits to street children. As I am sure noble Lords know, many visits already occur, but I will ask what the programmes are, as I am as keen to know the answer to that question as I know the noble Lord is.

Governments in the region recognise the root causes of the problem, and some are making progress. We will continue to encourage and assist them to make more progress. We must go beyond knowledge and compassion to make progress. We will only let ourselves down if we do not do that.

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