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Children Act 2004

2.58 pm

Baroness Walmsley asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Adonis): My Lords, the Government are committed to reviewing the practical consequences of the changes introduced by Section 58 of the Children Act 2004 and to seek parents’ views. This will take place during the year ahead.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, but I hope that the Government will stop making excuses. Is he aware that the view of the UN committee responsible for monitoring the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a view which has been published since the 2004 Act, is that all corporal punishment of children within the family should be abolished? Therefore Section 58 is both unclear and unhelpful. Can he give us an assurance that this authoritative advice, along with that of the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the human rights aspect of this issue, will be taken into account during the consideration of the review?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I can give an assurance that we will take account of all the elements set out by the noble Baroness. However, I should point out that this is not a question of excuses on the part of the Government. We are carrying out the will of Parliament as set out in the Children Act 2004. As the noble Baroness knows, Section 58 of that Act began as an amendment to the Bill moved by her noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, and was agreed by this House on a free vote of 226 to 91. So there is no question of excuses, the Government are carrying out the will of Parliament in this regard.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, in what respects does my noble friend think children have fewer rights than adults, and for what reasons do they merit less protection?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, for all the reasons set out in the debate that led to the incorporation of Section 58 into the 2004 Act. The issue was fully debated at the time.

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Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, this is a sensitive issue, but there is a world of difference between the perpetrators of violence against children and the vast majority of parents who struggle to do what is right for their children, often in difficult and challenging circumstances. Does the Minister not agree that the criminalisation of smacking would take up a great deal of time and resources that could be put to better use in protecting children who are in real danger?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I simply note that when the Children Act 2004 was passing through this House, it was the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, who said:

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, in moving what is now Section 58 of that Act, said:

That issue remains the same, and I note the noble Baroness’s views on it.

Lord Judd: My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that, in this highly emotionally charged area of family and social life, clarity of what the law is and intends should be absolutely paramount, and that among many of those carrying responsibility for the implementation of policy, and indeed the implementation of law, there is at present an anxiety that, for ordinary people in ordinary family situations, the law is anything but clear-cut?

Lord Adonis: Again, my Lords, I simply rest on the will of Parliament, which enacted Section 58. In moving that provision, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, who shares many of the views of my noble friends on these issues, said it was,

I hope it has produced much greater clarity in this area than was present.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, following the question already asked on human rights issues, is it not rather strange that we seem to be allowing an element of violence against children that would be quite unacceptable if it were between two adults? If I strike an adult in the street, he or she is likely to get extremely angry and in fact bring some kind of case against me. If I strike a child in the street, the same is not the case.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I fully understand the point the noble Baroness is making, but I say again that these issues were debated at length in the discussions that led to the incorporation of Section 58 into the 2004 Act, and Parliament’s will on this matter could not have been clearer.

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Lord Soley: My Lords, there is an impressive respect for Parliament in the Minister’s reply, which I think we will all appreciate. Does he not agree that the idea behind this part of the Act is very important, but that education and persuasion change parental behaviour, not putting people before a court?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I could not agree more with my noble friend.

Lord Carlile of Berriew: My Lords, does the Minister agree that any review should look at the use of violence against children in custody too? Many such children are subjected to physical violence that remains unchecked.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, physical violence against children in custody is regulated by laws other than the Children Act 2004. While I accept that it is an issue we need to pay careful attention to, the provision I quoted is specifically in respect of parents and parental authority over their children.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, my noble friend Lady Walmsley mentioned the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. We have recently heard that during the past few months 17 year-old soldiers have been placed in active combat. Will the Minister please explain that?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, that ranges a bit wide of the Question, so I am entitled not to answer.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, in response to something the Minister said, is he aware that 16 other European countries already have a total ban on the physical punishment of children; that four more have already declared the intent to do so; and that in none of those countries where this has been a clear law for many years are the prisons full of caring parents who occasionally lose it?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I believe that that is a rhetorical question which the House will no doubt take into account when it next debates legislation in this area.

Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill [HL]

3.05 pm

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to reduce the number of parliamentary constituencies, amend the rules governing the number of electors in each constituency, and for connected purposes. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a first time.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Bill read a first time, and ordered to be printed.

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Welfare Reform Bill

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That it be an instruction to the Grand Committee to which the Welfare Reform Bill has been committed that it consider the Bill in the following order:

Clause 1,

Schedule 1,Clauses 2 to 21,Schedule 2,Clauses 22 to 27,Schedule 3, Clause 28, Schedule 4, Clauses 29 to 39,Schedule 5,Clauses 40 to 57,Schedule 6, Clauses 58 to 61, Schedule 7, Clauses 62 to 65, Schedule 8, Clauses 66 to 69.—(Lord McKenzie of Luton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Mental Health Bill [HL]

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the amendments for the Report stage be marshalled and considered in the following order:

Clause 1,

Schedule 1,Clauses 2 to 21,Schedule 2,Clauses 22 to 26,Schedules 3 and 4,Clauses 27 to 33,Schedule 5, Clauses 34 to 39,Schedules 6 to 8, Clauses 40 to 42, Schedule 9, Clauses 43 and 44, Schedule 10, Clauses 45 to 48.—(Lord Hunt of Kings Heath.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Forced Marriages (Civil Protection) Bill [HL]

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be committed to a Grand Committee.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

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Concessionary Bus Travel Bill [HL]

3.06 pm

Read a third time.

Clause 1 [The national concession]:

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 1:

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we have previously discussed the exclusion of community transport from the Bill. I have chosen once again to present this amendment due to the importance of community transport to some of society’s most vulnerable people.

Drawing on my experience as leader of Essex County Council, I can tell your Lordships that many of our residents, even in places like Essex, live in rural locations, which necessitates the provision of community transport as the most efficient method of providing a convenient and effective service, particularly to those in the most remote settings. The alternative is to commission bus services to those areas that, due to the spread of the population there, would transport only a minimal number of passengers. Not only is that economically inefficient, it is irresponsible, as carbon emissions per person on such a journey would be very high. As an advocate of efficient and sustainable public services, I find the notion of empty buses touring the countryside unpalatable. It was suggested in our previous debate that community transport would stop the use of some rural buses. I am not advocating that; there are times when community transport is the most suitable way to serve rural areas.

The people who live in remote areas, particularly older people, would often be those who would benefit most from the concessionary fares scheme. Excluding community transport from the scheme demonstrates the paradoxical nature of the Bill. There is the intention to enable older and disabled people to participate more fully in their communities; however, that good intention is overshadowed by allocation of funding going only to those who enjoy regular bus services.

At our previous debate, the Minister’s response to this suggestion—and I am sure it will be the same today—was that local authorities can expand the provision of the scheme at their discretion. However, local authority leaders need the money to be able to do that, as we will be discussing later.

My authority spends around £75 million on transport of all kinds. To get best value out of that means joining various uses, such as transport for schoolchildren being available for people going to disabled centres, elderly people, and so on. Anyone who knows anything about local area agreements in local authorities knows that the money is pooled. To get the best value out of it you would need the sort of transport I am describing, not bus services. Therefore, the people whom I am talking about would not benefit from this legislation.

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I still hope that the Minister can see some way in which the Government could bring community transport into this area, if not now later on, as it becomes more necessary to look at varied methods of transport. The Community Transport Association found that only a minority of authorities provided reimbursement to community transport schemes, and those that did so usually only reimbursed half, rather than the full cost. I strongly argue that this Bill could discriminate against rural communities and against the disabled and older people in those communities. I hope that even at this late stage the Minister could reconsider this matter. I beg to move.

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, on Amendment No. 1. I will speak to Amendments Nos. 2, 3, 7 and 8, which are grouped with Amendment No. 1. Amendment No. 2 deals with the extension of the transport concession to a companion whose assistance a disabled person may need to travel on public transport, and Amendment No. 3 deals with the definition of mental disability.

Amendment No. 2 would entitle a companion to travel free of charge where a disabled person needs their assistance to be able to travel on public transport. Amendment No. 3 seeks to introduce a more straightforward definition of mental disability by reference to the Mental Health Act 1983. On Report, I said that I thought more streamlined amendments might be brought forward to deal with the definition of mental disability in a neater way, and Amendment No. 3 is one of those. Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 parallel Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 with respect to the London scheme.

I do not propose to detain your Lordships overlong with these amendments. They stand together in a group that seeks to extend the scope of the Bill in a number of ways. We say that they are marginal extensions, but the Minister has made it clear that he does not agree. He may concede that the extensions are marginal when set against the total extension of concessionary travel introduced by this Bill, but at all events he has made it very clear that the Bill already does a considerable amount and it simply is not possible to push the envelope any further at this stage. I respect that view. He has been very fair. We have had a full debate, and he has explained his position fully and carefully. I thank him for his very open and accessible approach and his willingness to engage in dialogue on the amendments.

The Bill already achieves quite a lot; I believe the Minister said it was going to cost an extra £1 billion. I know that he is not unsympathetic to the points of principle that we are raising, and that it is simply a question of resources at this time. I know that he will continue to reflect on the matters that we have raised and will undertake a review to see whether it might be possible to do more at a later stage. In particular, Age Concern would like to see the Government producing a report within one year on a concessionary solution for people who do not have bus services in their area or who, for one reason or another, are unable to use bus services. Help the Aged has also recently published a study on local bus services and travel

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concessions, which I commend to the Minister. If he could tell us that he would be prepared to look at those reports, reflect on them, and see how the matter might be taken further at some later stage, that would be a very helpful conclusion to this debate.

3.15 pm

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for raising these important issues, which we considered at earlier stages of the Bill. As I have explained, the Bill is about expanding the geographical scope of concessionary bus travel, not about extending the concession to other groups of people or other modes, as envisaged by these amendments.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, was generous enough to acknowledge, the Transport Act 1985 provides local authorities with considerable flexibility to offer more than the statutory concession to their residents. There are numerous examples of councils offering concessions to additional groups of people and companions of disabled people and, as we discussed at other stages, concessions on community transport services. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, was emphasising the money aspect. We shall have a chance to discuss that later this afternoon but, at this stage, I indicate that his amendments would cost money.

The Bill does not stop local authorities continuing to use their discretionary powers to provide enhancements to the proposed national minimum, taking account of their local circumstances. The Government have sought to provide local authorities with more freedom and flexibility in choosing how they use their resources so as to best reflect their local priorities. That approach has been supported by local government.

As I indicated on Report, at present we are not in a position to commit further funding to concessionary travel. As the noble Lord, Lord Low, indicated, a very sizeable sum has been allocated for the introduction of the main proposition behind the Bill. Therefore, I am sure that noble Lords will agree that we have already done a great deal to improve the well-being of older and disabled people, who are among the most vulnerable in society.

I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for repeating that from April 2008, as the noble Lord, Lord Low, generously acknowledged, the Government will be providing around £1 billion of funding each year for concessionary travel in England—a major public spending commitment of which we are rightly proud. The extension from the local to the national entitlement alone involves substantial new money of up to £250 million.

Although the costs associated with these amendments are not likely to be hundreds of millions of pounds a year, they are significant. This is, of course, money that would have to be found from other areas. On Report, I provided the department’s initial estimates of the annual cost of the extensions envisaged by the amendments—around an extra £10 million a year for carers, approximately £50 million for people with mental impairments and at least £25 million for community transport. Those

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costs are purely indicative and could be much higher, depending on the eligibility definitions, which are far from clear at present, the degree of take-up, the extra concessionary travel which may well be generated, the switch from other modes, travel behaviour and the amount of additional capacity required. The existence of all those inter-related factors, which at this stage we can only estimate, makes the issue of costs very difficult, but they are not insubstantial, particularly against the background of the money that has already been devoted to the Bill.

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