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Lord Morgan: My Lords, I support the amendment and I have three reasons for doing so. First, the Children's Commissioner for England does not have a specific remit on human rights, as he or she should. They are circumscribed in their powers, which rest on the Secretary of State, and in their philosophy because human rights are not brought in. We found some difficulties in this area when we discussed the hitting of children and the so-called "reasonable chastisement" provisions, which have been condemned on human rights grounds by international bodies, particularly in Europe, and against which there was no redress. I would like to improve the situation for children who are born and reared in England.
Secondly, I would like to safeguard the situation for children who have been born and raised in Wales. Under the Children Act, anomalously, the Children's Commissioner for England can interfere in the work of the Children's Commissioner for Wales. I find it in another context constitutionally bizarre that the Government who have introduced devolution should nevertheless reintroduce the well known tradition, "For Wales, see England". That seems a little out of date. It also means that the role, philosophy and independence of judgment of the Children's Commissioner for Waleswho has a human rights remit, as have the Children's Commissioners for Scotland and for Northern Irelandmay be compromised. Writing children formally into the Bill in human rights terms, which is already done in so many countries across the globe, would strengthen it.
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The final point is that, apart from the practicalities, it is the right thing to do. Surely human rights apply to everybody. We would rear up in protest if human rights were curtailed on the grounds of race or religion, so we should do so on the grounds of age, in terms of people being either too young or, for that matter, too old. We should have equality of treatment and fulfil those aspects of the Bill, especially towards children, who are currently gravely neglected in this area.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, WC Fields had to be reminded that even children are human beings. Speaking as a lawyer, I am quite sure that the amendment is technically unnecessary because children are, undoubtedly, within the ambit of the Bill. However, speaking as a human being rather than a lawyerthe two are not necessarily identicalI can quite see the presentation value of such an amendment. I therefore support it with one caveat, which I will express to my old friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote. She spoke twice of children being central to the work of the commission, but all the vulnerable groups are central to the work of the commission. I would not like the commission ever to be captured by one vulnerable group. All of them must have parity of concern, esteem and care. Subject to that caveat, I am in favour of the amendment.
Lord Mackay of Clashfern: My Lords, I suppose that being a lawyer and being a human being are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but I certainly support this amendment. It is important that children are put into the Bill. The other vulnerable groups to which the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, referred are also included, but including children is essential. After all, we have separate legislation for children and I would have thought that it was right that children should be explicitly acknowledged as the subject of these provisions in the Bill. I notice that it is proposed that the Bill will be amended later in relation to the European Community enactment. I cannot see any objection to making explicit this particular groupchildrenin the Bill on any grounds concerned with lists or the like.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, I am a human being and not a lawyer, although I did receive an honorary law degree yesterday.
Nothing at all divides us on the principle that children are central to the BillI take what the noble Lord, Lord Lester, said about what central should mean and the need for all vulnerable groups to be central to the work of the commission. It is absolutely critical that the new commission should promote the rights of children and young people just as it promotes
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those of adults. I will say a little about what that means in practice because I was much taken with what the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said about wanting the guarantee that that will be crystal clear. I want to bring life to that guarantee so that the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Howe, will feel confident about what I have to say.
We are absolutely clear that the new commission must consult with children and young people, and do that effectively. That means working very closely with organisations such as the Children's Rights Alliance, but also in less structured ways to ensure that the needs and priorities of children and young people are part of the priorities and planning of the commission. Innovative techniques will be required in order to engage with young peoplenoble Lords who have experienced working with children and young people will know that that is essential to ensure that we learn from children and young people what they want and need. That will be critical.
The commission will also need to address issues of equality and discrimination that directly affect children and young peopleas much, as my noble friend Lord Morgan said, as for any other group, including older people. I am sure that your Lordships will know that discrimination legislation and human rights apply equally to all, regardless of age. The commission's job will be to promote human rights, and promote and enforce the equality enactments in relation to old and young alike. It will need to work in a joined-up way with other organisations whose remit covers children, particularly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, says, the Children's Commissioner. We expect, want and desire a memorandum of understanding to be agreed between the commissioner and the new commission to ensure that that happens effectively.
On human rights, the remit will embrace children and young people. For example, the commission's inquiry powers will allow it to look into general discriminatory treatment of children and failure to meet human rights standards. Similarly, the commission will be expected to work with children and young people to tell them about their rights, and how those rights can be protected.
Noble Lords will know that we build on work that has happened with existing commissions, such as: the work of the Commission for Racial Equality, promoting youth leadership among minority ethnic groups; the EOC's work to combat gender stereotyping in children's early years; and the Disability Rights Commission's running of the educating4equality campaign, raising awareness of new rights for disabled pupils, and its work with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to ensure that awarding bodies do not discriminate against disabled pupils. I mention those because they are good examplesnot necessarily with the high level of publicity that I would likeof how the commissions are already working. It is our intention to ensure that the new commission will do the same.
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I will probably rue the day that I ever mentioned lists, and my phobia of lists. There is a difficulty with the amendment as it stands, however. I have had a conversation with the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, and say to her and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that I have tried hard to find a way that I could put this in the Bill that would not run me into difficulties because it would invite everybody to want a listan issue that we have to take seriously. Also, the difficulty with the amendment is that when I took it to parliamentary counsel, they advised me that it would cast doubt over whether children were covered in the other provisions of the Bill. I know that is not the intention of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. It could also, of course, narrow the scope of the clauses concerned, in that the commission could undertake its activities only with individuals, and not with public authorities and other bodies at a corporate level. I could not accept it if I wanted to, because it would not do.
I would like to say three things. First, I give you the guarantee that the commission will be promoting and working with and for children. Secondly, I will suggest to my honourable friend Meg Munn, who has responsibility for this policy and who I know will be delighted, that she meet with the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Howe of Idlicote, to have one more go at looking at what might be done. As noble Lords will know, I take this issue very seriously. Thirdly, in the work that we do in establishing the commission, I will commit to come back to the House and ensure that we are very clear about how the commission is going to work with children.
Nothing divides us on this issue. I am fully committed to ensuring that the commission works closely with and for children. I simply cannot accept this amendment for the technical reasons I have given. I do, however, commit the commission and give the guarantee unreservedly.
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