I have just come from taking part in the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, where we are talking about injunctions for children aged 10 and

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upwards, in addition to the anti-social behaviour orders for children aged 10 and upwards, and the importance of ensuring that there is no postcode lottery in that and that they are overseen fairly and consistently by local government around the country. Who is going to do that? It seems to me that the one person who is, and will have the responsibility to do so, is the Children’s Commissioner. I do not see why it could not be added to his or her responsibilities. Having seen some of the excellent reports that have come out recently from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner—in particular the one about the effects of acquired brain injury and neurodevelopment, which I think is a model; not to mention the very effective report on the work of mother and baby units in women’s prisons—I think it is very important that someone should look in greater detail than I think the Dunford report did at some of the peripherals that come with the responsibility for quality assurance.

I welcome the other amendments in this group, which seek to do that, but I am just a little nervous about the Children’s Commissioner having to report to too many separate committees in the other place. Yes, of course, human rights are involved but in dealing with children we are dealing not just with education but with health, justice and the Department for Work and Pensions because of various payments; we are also dealing with the Department for Communities and Local Government. It worries me that we should be specifying two particular committees out of many. I do not think we want to complicate the chain of reporting for the quality assurer on children’s rights. We ought to tease this out in this Committee, and possibly make recommendations about the clear chain that we see through to the Minister, to whom the commissioner will be reporting.

I am slightly concerned about the suggestion that the reporting annually to Parliament should not go through a Minister. The reason for that is that when the prisons inspectorate was set up there was a requirement for the Home Secretary to publish a reply to every list of recommendations made by the chief inspector. For the Children’s Commissioner to be properly effective, the Minister must reply so that one can see what is going to be done to maintain the momentum of improvements and observations that the commissioner makes.

The Countess of Mar: I support the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, in his contention. We have a Minister for Children, and the Children’s Commissioner should report to that Minister.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I will not speak in detail about the amendments but I should like to express my general support for anything that strengthens the independence of the Children’s Commissioner. The commissioner is not completely independent. He or she will have their powers very much diluted, which would be a pity because the Bill considerably improves the powers and duties of the commissioner. I very much welcome that.

Of course, it is also important that the commissioner has appropriate resources with which to carry out those improved powers and duties. The noble Baroness,

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Lady Lister, has clearly shown the link between independence and money. If the Government are controlling exactly how the commissioner spends his or her money, where is the independence? Her amendment should therefore be carefully considered.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I will be reasonably brief on the three amendments to which I have added my name, although all the amendments in the group are admirable. I also very much thank the Minister for his helpful letter and proposed amendment. There has been little time to take it in and I look forward even more to what he will say at the end of the debate.

As my noble friend Lady Massey said—and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, expanded forcefully on—the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has made it clear that national human rights institutions for children, including children’s commissioners, should be established in compliance with the Paris principles, which were adopted more than 20 years ago by the UN General Assembly. These minimum standards provide guidance for the establishment, competence, responsibilities and composition—including pluralism, independence, methods of operation and quasi-judicial activities—of such national bodies. These recommendations underpin the amendments that I am supporting. The Committee on the Rights of the Child has said:

“It is essential that institutions remain entirely free to set their own agenda and determine their own activities”.

It has also stated:

“The appointment process for ombudspersons for children should be open, transparent and appropriate”.

With regards to the commissioner’s funding, the Bill currently affords the Secretary of State absolute discretion in deciding the amount, timing and conditions. Currently, too, this has the potential significantly to undermine the commissioner’s independence. The Committee on the Rights of the Child is clear:

“In order to ensure their independence and effective functioning, NHRIs must have adequate infrastructure, funding … staff, premises, and freedom from forms of financial control that might affect their independence”.

Also, as Amendment 257 states, the appointment of a commissioner has to be seriously considered from all sorts of perspectives. I have met the commissioner whom we appointed and, if I may say so, it is an extremely good appointment.

However, what is said in Amendment 257 is equally important:

“The Secretary of State shall appoint an individual only if the Secretary of State reasonably considers the individual”—

and this is the bit that I want to stress—

“has adequate experience and knowledge relating to children’s rights, including the involvement of children in decision-making; and … is able and willing to act independently of Government”.

The active involvement of children in decision-making is the area that I want to stress, because that is essential in today’s world and I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me on that point, quite apart from any others.

Baroness Butler-Sloss (CB): My Lords, I have also put my name to three amendments and support the others in this group. It is absolutely crucial that the appointment of the Children’s Commissioner is taken very seriously, particularly that it should be somebody

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who can be genuinely independent of Government. May I suggest—perhaps unpopularly to any Government —that it requires someone who is prepared to be a thorn in the flesh. We do not want anyone who would be a yes-man or a yes-woman. Splendidly, the present Children’s Commissioner is certainly not that. I know her well and I have huge respect for her, but she does not have enough funding to do what she has to do and she certainly cannot do anything else.

If I may relay a short anecdote: the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, and I managed to be persuaded by the Government not to pursue an amendment in an earlier Bill on getting a children’s legal advocate for trafficked children, on the basis that the Children’s Commissioner would investigate what happened to a child who was identified as trafficked from the moment of identification to the point at which the child would be able to be settled, one way or another. That promise was made outside the Chamber. The Children’s Commissioner then said, “I cannot do this job. I do not have the money”. The noble Lord, Lord McColl, and I went to see her and discussed it with her. There was, with the Children’s Society and the Refugee Council, a shortened, abbreviated and, despite all their efforts, inadequate investigation, because it did not do what the Children’s Commissioner would have done, which was to take it from day one of identification through to the moment when the child would be settled. They did their best with very limited funding.

This was absolutely the sort of thing that should have been done by the Children’s Commissioner and the Children’s Commissioner would like to have done it, but the resources were not there. This is just one example. I know we lack money and that this is difficult, but children matter—they absolutely matter—and the Children’s Commissioner matters. He or she must be independent and properly appointed as somebody who really knows what he or she is doing. As the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, has just said, the Children’s Commissioner must be able to consult the children and bring their voice into decision-making—as this commissioner has done in an excellent way. For those reasons, I strongly support these amendments.

Baroness Hughes of Stretford: My Lords, we have heard some very powerful arguments in favour of strengthening the process of appointment and the independence of the commissioner. I am not going to rehearse all the arguments that have been put very ably by my noble friend Lady Massey and everybody in the Committee. Now that we are several years on and there has been a review of the role of the Children’s Commissioner, it is right that we take this opportunity to see how that role can be strengthened. It is the right time to do this based on our experience and the outcomes of that review. I support the amendments in this group in general and will speak to Amendments 255A, 258, 259 and 261 in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Jones.

Amendments 258, 259 and 261 reflect other amendments in this group, by stipulating the involvement of various parliamentarians and requiring the Secretary of State to consider their views on the process and the detail of appointments, or to have their consent to

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appoint. All those issues reflect the concern of the committee to make sure that there is a wide involvement of different groups, so that we get it right.

6.30 pm

Therefore, I will focus particularly on Amendment 255A, which is slightly different and deals with the other important dimension here, which is accountability. It would enshrine in law an accountability not to government but to Parliament, through instituting an annual public hearing by the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the Children’s Commissioner, on how he or she had been exercising his or her duties and functions. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, that one would not want the commissioner to have to speak to a plethora of committees. However, for the reasons he identified—namely, the scope of the remit of the Children’s Commissioner, which covers a wide range of factors that can affect children’s lives: health, education, the criminal justice system, the immigration laws, and so on—the Joint Committee on Human Rights might be the right place to examine that whole range of issues, in so far as she has looked at them in the previous year. I think that any Children’s Commissioner would welcome that. Certainly, the current one is not against that proposal. I am interested to hear the Minister’s views on this.

Since some of our amendments were tabled, the Minister has issued two notes: one on the appointment process and one on the impact of the Bill on the framework agreement. The note on the appointment goes some way to identifying the detail of the process, and the involvement of various groups, including children and young people. However, can the Minister deal with the point that envisages that where the Select Committee recommends that the Secretary of State’s preferred candidate should not be appointed, the Secretary of State would be obliged to take account of the committee’s view but not be bound by it? There is a further possible step: in those circumstances it would be right for the Secretary of State to have to explain publicly, and in writing, the reasons why he was not acting in accordance with the views of the Select Committee.

Secondly, on the impact of the Bill on the framework agreement, I echo the point made by my noble friend Lady Lister about why we do not have the framework agreement in front of us, so that we can actually look at the detail, rather than a document about a possible framework agreement. There are two points that I ask the Minister to clarify. In paragraph 3, the note says that,

“the Commissioner will continue to be a corporation sole, remaining personally accountable for all the Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s activities and its public money”.

It does not clarify who the Government think the commissioner is accountable to, on a personal basis. Can Ministers give us their views?

In paragraph 5, it is envisaged that the commissioner will be required to produce an annual report for Parliament, but not where and by whom that annual report will be considered. I refer the Minister to our Amendment 255A, which proposes that the report be the basis of an annual hearing by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Can the Minister say whether he shares that view?

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My final point about these two notes, and in support of a number of the amendments, is that they are just notes: they do not, as far as I know, have any status. It may be that the Government will adhere to these notes, but they do not have to, and no future Government would be bound by them. They have no status, which is an argument for the Government accepting at least some of the amendments we are considering today, so that some of the requirements that the notes say the Government will implement, in part at least, are included in the Bill.

Viscount Eccles (Con): My Lords, I will be leading on another group of amendments and will try not to duplicate anything, but it is very urgent that the Government clarify what they believe the position of the Children’s Commissioner to have been and what they believe it is going to be. In principle, nothing is changed by the Bill in front of us—there is an extension of words but nothing is changed. The Children’s Commissioner is a corporation sole, which is quite a strange type of institution and not necessarily much beloved by the Treasury, but there you are, that is what the Children’s Commissioner is. The Children’s Commissioner has, I think, 27 staff and a budget of just over £2 million, or under £2.5 million. The office is one-tenth the size of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which has just been reduced in size by quite a large amount but remains 10 times the size of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. That is a nationally accredited human rights institution. There is a question as to whether we want two, which I will raise in more detail in the next group of amendments.

The fact of the matter is that the Children’s Commissioner has been really rather successful. It is a thorn in the flesh, to quote the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. It has freewheeled pretty well on a very small platform and produced some very interesting work. It can produce only recommendations: it has no power to make anybody do anything except write back to it under the 2004 Act to tell it, “Thank you for telling us what you told us and this is what we are going to do about it”. It has no executive authority at all. Do the Government intend that it should have any executive authority? I cannot see any in the Bill. It seems to me that some of the comment on what might or might not happen has got rather ahead of the Government’s game, and we are looking for clarity from the Government as to what they intend and what they expect.

The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, raised a very interesting point about raising expectations and then disappointing them. That is one of the reasons why the electorate are being turned off election after election: the Westminster system has a brilliant way of raising expectations and then disappointing them. I hope that this will not be another example, because it is not a good idea that it should be. There are some very serious questions here about resources, about what the role is and about what the Government expect of the Children’s Commissioner. I do not think that we have had answers as yet to those questions. I hope to hear them from my noble friend on the Front Bench.

Lord Nash: My Lords, Amendments 245, 255A and 257 through to 262 deal with issues related to the Children’s Commissioner’s independence. The

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independence of the commissioner is an important point of principle—and it is helpful to have this discussion, so that I may provide noble Lords with some assurances. I am grateful to all noble Lords involved in raising these issues, especially the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, my noble friend Lord Lester and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for speaking on his behalf—all of whom I know have long been passionate champions in relation to children’s rights.

John Dunford identified that a “perceived” lack of independence from government had affected the Children’s Commissioner’s credibility and, following his review, he made various recommendations to counter those perceptions. The Government have acted on his recommendations in full. We have removed the provisions that allowed the Secretary of State to direct the commissioner and the requirement for the commissioner to consult the Secretary of State. We are changing the terms of appointment to a single, six-year term, to remove the potential for political influence through the reappointment process. We have also made provision for direct contact between the commissioner and Parliament, including the laying of the annual report directly before Parliament and the ability of the commissioner to raise matters directly with Parliament.

I thank noble Lords who have spoken to Amendment 245 and give assurances that the Bill already provides that the commissioner has complete freedom in deciding his or her activities, timetables and priorities; under the primary function, it is made explicit that the commissioner has a free hand to investigate any matter relating to the rights or interests of children. Having carried out an investigation, the commissioner is free to make any recommendation that he or she deems appropriate.

It is true that as a non-departmental public body, the OCC is subject to some controls in relation to its spending. These controls apply to all NDPBs and are designed to ensure value for money for the taxpayer and to avoid unnecessary public spending at a time when the Government are seeking to reduce the budget deficit. Extremely important though the role of Children’s Commissioner is, I do not think that she should be completely exempt from these controls. However, where the commissioner has sought an exemption or relaxation from these arrangements and has demonstrated that they could compromise his or her independence, those requests have been granted. This arrangement seems to be working well and we see no need to change it.

The Government agree that the Children’s Commissioner should be accountable to Parliament through his or her annual report and are therefore grateful that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has made a commitment to hold an annual evidence session to scrutinise the commissioner’s work. I share the noble Lord’s concerns about overburdening the commissioner with reports to parliamentary committees but it is important for his or her independence that the commissioner is not accountable to the Secretary of State or another Minister. That is why we have welcomed the offer from the JCHR to hold an annual debate. This will be an opportunity for Parliament to ask questions and raise issues with the commissioner and, in turn, the committee will be able to raise matters with all the relevant Secretaries of State.

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Amendments 257, 258, 259, 260 and 261 in this group concern the appointment of the commissioner, any dismissal of the commissioner and the involvement of Parliament in these processes. The role of the Children’s Commissioner is an important one and I fully accept that the appointment and dismissal procedures need to be fair and transparent. However, I do not think that it is necessary or appropriate to define the conditions for either process further than is already done in the legislation.

We have provided a note in the other place on how the appointment process is expected to work. That note explains that the appointment of the commissioner would be in accordance with the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments’ code of practice. This ensures that candidates are appointed on merit, following a fair and open recruitment process.

The note also clarifies that children will be involved in the recruitment process and that we would expect Parliament, through one of its committees, to have a role in agreeing the job description and carrying out a pre-appointment hearing. However, the OCPA code of practice is clear that the parliamentary committee undertaking the pre-appointment hearing should not have a right of veto on the appointment. To pick up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, about the Secretary of State explaining publicly if he disagrees with the Select Committee, I do not think it appropriate for such a public debate to take place about the suitability of candidates.

In addition, I do not consider that legislation is the right place to set out the personal qualities needed for the role. These will be determined by the panel that is established to lead the appointment process, which is chaired by an independent assessor appointed by OCPA, and subject to quality assurance by Parliament. I hope that this provides the necessary assurances.

On dismissal, the existing provisions represent a high threshold. A dismissal could potentially be subject to judicial review and overturned if it was found to have been made inappropriately. The courts provide ample protection against the commissioner being dismissed on arbitrary grounds. I would expect the Secretary of State to want to consult the chair of a relevant parliamentary committee before taking such a drastic action. However, there may well be reasons why such matters would need to be treated in confidence. I hope that noble Lords are reassured that both the appointments and dismissal processes currently in place are fair and transparent without the need for further prescription in legislation.

6.45 pm

Amendment 262 tabled by my noble friend Lord Lester and the noble Baronesses, Lady Howe, Lady O’Loan and Lady Lister, concerns the funding of the commissioner. I recognise, of course, that without sufficient funding the commissioner may be hampered in fulfilling his or her role. The Paris principles advise that an organisation such as the commissioner’s should have a budget that is sufficient to allow it to have an adequate infrastructure, staff and premises. Despite the economic pressures of the past few years, the

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Government have gone out of their way to ensure that the commissioner’s budget meets these conditions. I can assure the Committee that we intend this to continue.

I understand that my noble friend Lord Lester would like to see greater certainty for this commitment by placing it in primary legislation. However, it is important that we do not commit future Governments to spending commitments when we do not know what economic conditions will prevail. The commissioner’s office cannot be immune from the same financial pressures that all other publicly funded bodies may face in the future. With regard to budgets, the Government must clearly act in a way which is reasonable and which reflects the roles and responsibilities of the commissioner. The Government will always listen to the views of Parliament on this or any other matter and will consider them very carefully before reaching a decision.

We will discuss in detail in the next group of amendments the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, on the active involvement of children in decision-making. I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, found the note on our intentions in revising a framework agreement helpful. I am pleased that she has put on record our commitment to replicate specific provisions that have been agreed in respect of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. I can give an assurance that Parliament will be invited to comment on the revised draft agreement at the appropriate time. We will liaise with the commission in producing a new version and will provide an update on Report.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett: I am sorry to interrupt but perhaps the Minister can say what he considers to be the appropriate time. I suggest that it is before Report.

Lord Nash: We will provide an update on Report but the appropriate time is after Royal Assent.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett: I am sorry but the point is that the devil is in the detail, as I said, and Report, or possibly Third Reading, would be the last opportunity for parliamentarians to comment in a way that might affect the outcome. After Royal Assent seems rather late.

Lord Nash: We will take this away and consider it further. As regards the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, on accountability and to whom it should be, our view is that the commissioner should be wholly independent as regards his or her views and priorities from both government and Parliament. However, I accept that Parliament should be able to scrutinise what the commissioner does and have an opportunity to debate issues that he has raised.

I hope that my responses on these important points provide assurances to noble Lords and I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. This has been an incredibly perceptive debate and noble Lords have provided a lot of expertise. My noble friend Lady Hughes said at the

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beginning of her speech that it is the right time to review the role of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. I agree with that. We have experience of two commissioners, both of whom have put the voice of the child at the centre of activity and have done significant work with vulnerable children. The Minister listed some things that the Children’s Commissioner could do. However, as many noble Lords have pointed out, funding is an issue, and we need to look at that again.

Others have mentioned the scope of the commissioner’s remit, accountability, quality assurance and the JCHR. For me two key issues have come out of our discussions today to which I certainly want answers before Report. One is that we absolutely need the framework agreement before we get to Report. In fact, we need it some time in advance of getting to Report; otherwise, how can we debate this seriously? How can we put down sensible amendments if we do not have the detail of that framework agreement? Stemming from that, I need to think about—as I am sure others do—what should go in this legislation; obviously not in too much detail but issues have come up today that certainly need more consideration when we think about what goes in the legislation.

I hope that the issue of the framework agreement will be resolved long before Report. That will influence what we think should go in the legislation. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 245 withdrawn.

Amendments 246 to 249 not moved.

Clause 79: Primary function of the Children’s Commissioner

Amendment 249A

Moved by Viscount Eccles

249A: Clause 79, page 52, line 11, leave out from “promoting” to second “the” in line 13

Viscount Eccles: My Lords, I would like to continue to probe the question: what is the Government’s true opinion of the Children’s Commissioner as a corporation sole? I hope that my Government are not exclusively depending on John Dunford. His report was published three years ago. That is a third of the life of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner so I suppose that something must have happened over the past three years; I do not think that things will be exactly the same and I would like to know how they have developed.

On another occasion, maybe on Report, I will want to have a longer discussion about independence. I will confine myself to saying that arm’s-length relationships between public bodies and the Government are twisted arm’s-length relationships, and if you are funded by public money there is no such thing as independence in the true meaning of the word. If you consider the American War of Independence, which resulted in the United States of America, you can completely forget that as a meaning of the word when it is applied to a public body.

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Three years on, I will just make the comment that John Dunford did his report on his own, in five months; he is a very able man. He did not have any peer group review; I think it was mentioned earlier that sometimes it is a good thing to have some peer group review. I hope that the Government are not just taking cover behind John Dunford because by now they should have an opinion of their own.

I have two background thoughts when I raise these issues. One is the size of the superstructure that we have built in recent years on top of what is, to me, the front line, which has been very frequently mentioned during our debates. This is a very big superstructure, starting with the United Nations—190 signatories, not including the United States of America; some 70 of them have a national human rights institution. The expert committee in Geneva gets a report every five years. We last sent ours in 2008. The next one is going in 2014, which seems to be six years, not five, and there may be some message in that. That draft report is 200 pages long. It is sponsored by the department present here today, which has to get evidence from the whole of the rest of government, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, mentioned.

My second amendment is also a probing amendment. I just wanted to remind myself that everybody is concerned with the human rights of children. There is no exception—apart from, perhaps, one or two people living on a beach in western Scotland who have completely dropped out into a hut. However, I do not think that there is anybody who is not concerned. There are parents and there are teachers; many people have two roles.

If one third of children under 18 are not represented by an adult, by whom are they going to be represented? We have to remember the huge scope of the subject we are discussing, and sometimes a degree of unreality comes into it. For example, the Explanatory Notes say that this Bill is “strengthening” the Children’s Commissioner. In what way is it strengthening the Children’s Commissioner? It does not appear from my noble friend’s answer to the previous debate that the commissioner is going to get any more money. They are given more duties; they are even given a direction by Parliament to look into advocacy, while the rest of the Explanatory Notes say that we are not going to tell them what to do, we are going to leave them entirely free to decide what to do for themselves—but apparently not in the matter of advocacy.

The Children’s Commissioner also has a duty in the Bill to,

“consider the potential effect on the rights of children of government policy proposals and government proposals for legislation”.

You could employ 27 people on doing only that and they would have plenty to do. The Government need to be much clearer with us on what they mean by strengthening. If you add to the duties of an organisation but do not add to its resources, you could argue that you weaken it.

Where has the Children’s Commissioner stood in relation to the size of the task? I think that the commissioners have done rather well. They have done research, co-operated with a lot of other bodies, produced interesting reports, been a thorn in the flesh and rather

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successful lobbyists. Whom have they lobbied? They have lobbied the Government in general. You can argue about whether you want a lobbyist 100% funded by public money, or whether you would rather it was Amnesty International or some other rather looser and less controlled body that you want to do your lobbying, but it seems to have worked rather well.

The question I end with is: what is going to change? How is this Bill going to change the capability of the Children’s Commissioner? Or is it going to continue with business as usual? I really would like an answer to that question. I beg to move.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I have some amendments in this group, but before I speak to them, I will say a word about the amendment of the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles. I do not support it because it would take out what is the most significant improvement in the powers and duties of the Children’s Commissioner: namely, the duty to promote and protect the rights of children in England. This is making our commissioner a rights-based commissioner for the first time and I very much welcome that. I hope that the Bill makes a difference and that the Government are not, in the words of the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, “playing a game”.

I will speak to Amendments 250, 254, 255 and 256 in this group. Before I do, I will mention my support for Amendment 252 on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and Amendment 266A about a duty on public bodies to respect children’s rights and give proper regard to their views, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey. However, in order to save the Committee’s time, I will leave both noble Baronesses to speak for me on those amendments.

Before I go into the detail of my amendments, I will pay tribute to the coalition Government and the current Ministers, and particularly to the former Children’s Minister, my colleague Sarah Teather MP, for bringing the Children’s Commissioner for England much closer to the Paris principles and making the office a much better national human rights institution, as it should have been from the start.

7 pm

My Amendment 250 is to clarify the commissioner’s primary functions. I believe that the legislation should grant the Children's Commissioner all the powers that a national human rights institution should have. These are specified by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. There are two essential functions that are not listed in Clause 79. They are: raising public awareness of children’s rights by promoting knowledge of and respect for them; and initiating and participating in certain legal proceedings regarding specific cases of children.

In another place, when a similar amendment was discussed, the Minister stated that this list should not include activities that are already implicit in the commissioner’s primary functions, and that the list was intended to describe her or his broad remit rather than being exhaustive. However, the fact is that the list that is contained in Clause 79 already includes many

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powers that one might describe as implicit in the commissioner’s primary functions. So why refuse to include these two? It suggests that they do not belong there. I ask my noble friend the Minister to set my mind at rest by making it quite clear to the Committee that the Government believe that the two powers in my amendment are indeed implicit in the broad remit of the commissioner and that, therefore, they may be seen to be on a par with those that are included in the list in Clause 79.

Legal proceedings are difficult for children, so they need their commissioner to be able, in a few very special cases, to be able to take their place. The current commissioner has made it clear that she does not consider this to be something she would expect to do a lot of, but she needs the power in a few cases. Also, I emphasise that raising awareness of children’s rights is crucial to ensuring they are implemented.

Amendment 254 amends Clause 85, which introduces an expectation that the Children’s Commissioner will report on his or her activities in relation to children’s rights. I very much welcome this clause but would like to strengthen it with a requirement that the commissioner should monitor the implementation of the UNCRC in England and report on the state of children’s rights across the country, rather than just write about his or her own activities. Again, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, in General Comment No. 2 in 2002, made it clear that independent national human rights institutions for children should:

““Review and report on the Government's implementation and monitoring of the state of children’s rights.

John Dunford, in his excellent 2010 report—I think it was commissioned by the previous Government; no it was not, it was this Government—which has resulted in Part 5 of the Bill, also recommended that the reformed OCCE should submit an annual report to Parliament which highlights and makes recommendations on issues in relation to children’s rights. At present, Clause 85 requires the commissioner to report only on how his or her activities have impacted on the rights of children, so we need to add an expert review of the whole national picture in England.

Amendment 255 strengthens the voice of the child in this section. Given that the commissioner’s role is to promote and protect children’s rights, it is vital that children and young people are involved in all aspects of the office’s work. I welcome the fact that the commissioner must take all reasonable steps to involve children in the work but, to comply with Article 12 of the UNCRC, he or she must also give due regard to their views. That is why my amendment says that the commissioner’s annual report must include the extent to which due regard has been given to children’s views. It is all very well receiving their views, but they must be seen to be acted on.

Amendment 256 extends the definition of vulnerable children in Clause 86 to include trafficked and unaccompanied migrant children and children in custody. Clause 86 lists four groups of children living away from home or receiving social care for whom the commissioner’s office will have responsibility, now that the post of Children’s Rights Director is to be incorporated into the OCCE. While appreciating the statement by the Minister in another place that the

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Government wish to ring-fence the groups that currently come under the remit of the Children’s Rights Director, I have confidence that the OCCE will continue to represent these children. This is not, therefore, an adequate reason for excluding my particular groups of very vulnerable children from the list in Clause 86.

I am well aware that a well qualified Children’s Commissioner will be perfectly capable of identifying which groups of children should be regarded as vulnerable. However, if in future anyone should question whether a commissioner should give advice or assistance to trafficked children or those in custody, it would certainly make the matter very clear if my amendment were to be incorporated in the Bill—or if I get a clear statement from the Minister. Alternatively, perhaps my noble friend can explain that all the children covered by Amendment 256 are included in the duties and powers of the reformed OCCE.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett: My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 252 in a group of amendments that are largely designed to strengthen the role of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, whom I thank for her support on this amendment, my starting point is to applaud the ways in which the Bill already strengthens the role of the Children’s Commissioner, in particular through the incorporation of an explicit children’s rights-based remit. I therefore have to part company with the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, on that—although I very much agree with him on his point about resources.

Viscount Eccles: Nothing in the 2004 Act would prevent the commissioner saying anything that she wants to say, or investigating anything that she wants to investigate, in the area of rights. My point about it being stated in the Bill is that it is a move towards creating another national human rights institution. The question to the Government is: is that what they are going to do? If they are not, there is nothing wrong with the 2004 Act.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett: But because it was not an explicitly children’s rights-based institution, it did not have the status internationally that other children’s commissioners have. So this is a step forward and I am glad to be able to support the Government. In fact, I was one of those who criticised my own Government for failing to write in an explicit children’s rights-based remit.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, welcomed the reforms as,

“constituting a significant human rights enhancing measure”.

However, we believe that the reforms do not go quite far enough and therefore proposed this amendment. The intention is that the Bill should expressly define the rights of children in England to include the rights in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child for the purposes of defining the commissioner’s primary function. At present, the Bill simply requires the commissioner to “have regard” to these rights. I am sure noble Lords will agree that that is a much weaker formulation.

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The recommendation that the commissioner’s primary purpose should be defined explicitly with reference to the UN convention should not be construed as just the icing on the cake, for it is about the ingredients of the cake itself. This was recognised in the Dunford report commissioned by the incoming coalition Government. It recommended that the new role of the Children’s Commissioner should include,

“promoting and protecting the rights of children under the UNCRC”,

so I am afraid that the Minister was not totally accurate when he said that the Government had taken on board all the recommendations of the Dunford report.

The UNICEF global study of independent human rights institutions for children underlined that:

“There is one non-negotiable attribute of all independent human rights institutions for children: a mandate rooted in the Convention on the Rights of the Child”.

However, the JCHR’s “negotiations” or dialogue with the Government on just such a mandate came to naught and the Bill retains this weak requirement simply to have regard to the convention. The Government’s original objection that the UNCRC has not been directly incorporated into UK law was met by our carefully worded amendment, which does not imply incorporation, as the Government now acknowledge. They then fell back on two arguments. The first was that,

“the UNCRC contains a broad mix of rights and aspirations, rather than a more classic formulation of rights such as those in the ECHR”.

Secondly, they argued that some UNCRC articles are broader than children’s rights as such and include, for example, parents’ rights or the state’s responsibility to create an environment in which children’s rights can be realised.

The committee was not persuaded by those arguments and responded:

“It is a matter of common consensus that the UNCRC contains some very important children’s rights. The fact that some of its provisions are couched in aspirational terms, or impose responsibilities and obligations on the State, does not detract from this fact”.

Indeed, these aspects of the convention are surely true of human rights treaties generally and have not deterred other states from incorporating the full convention into domestic law. In any event, the amendment is carefully worded with this possible objection in mind: it defines the rights of children to include, not the UNCRC itself, but “the rights in” the UNCRC.

As Carolyne Willow, a long-standing children’s rights expert, has argued, the suggestion that the reference to parents,

“somehow diminishes children’s rights, is muddled. Article 18(2) of the treaty sets out the basis for states supporting parents—in order to guarantee and promote the rights of children. This is no different from recognising and assisting carers in order to uphold the rights of disabled people, or guaranteeing support to adoptive parents as a means of securing the child’s right to a family life”.

The JCHR believes that the Children’s Commissioner,

“should be entrusted to interpret the UNCRC and to take a sensible and properly advised approach about the children’s rights that it protects”.

The Government’s refusal to accept our recommendation suggests that they do not trust the commissioner to do so. The arguments put up by the Government are weak and leave me puzzled as to why they are so resistant to embedding the commissioner’s

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welcome children’s rights-based remit in what the Alliance for Reform of the Children’s Commissioner describes as, “the authoritative international legal statute for children’s human rights”. I hope that the Minister will take this away and think again.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, in this varied and lengthy group, I want to focus on Amendment 266A, although I support others to which my name is attached. The amendment states:

“Any person whose functions are of a public nature must in the exercise of his or her functions … respect, protect and fulfil children’s rights; and … seek … the views of children in matters affecting them”.

Here, it harks back to the Children’s Commissioner not having sole responsibility for children’s rights. Others have expressed powerful convictions that all children have rights, even though the rights of vulnerable children—for example, asylum seekers, trafficked children or those in custody—are sometimes neglected. What really concerns me here is that we seem to fail to grasp the issue of listening to children and seeking their contribution to improving systems which should work for them. I cannot understand why. Involving children in these matters which affect them has at least two functions: it not only helps children feel engaged and more likely to respond positively but helps make systems and structures better. It makes for better decisions about children. As I have said before, we have become better at listening to children and young people, but it is inconsistent. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, will know the answer to this much better than I do, but I wonder how much young people in custody are consulted. From all I hear, not very much.

Concern for child rights and consultation with children work in practice. I mentioned earlier the Every Child Matters report. Schools were at the centre of that and I want to give an example of how schools can improve school life and achievement by listening to, respecting and valuing the contribution of children. UNICEF’s Rights Respecting Schools programme is a resounding success according to an independent evaluation. It encourages child-driven polices on behaviour and school activities. At its heart are school councils and classroom discussions on rights and responsibilities.

It seems to me that any organisational system functions better if those within the system are consulted and involved. Children are totally capable of having a view about what is best for them, and many organisations—not only schools but children’s services, health services and youth clubs—do consult children and are the better for it. The state has an opportunity to task other bodies with the job of promoting and protecting children’s rights. A duty on public authorities to give due regard to children’s rights in their decision-making would ensure that all areas of government are aware of their obligations towards children.

7.15 pm

Other UK countries are taking legislative steps to mainstream children’s rights. The Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill currently before the Scottish Parliament would introduce a duty on the public sector to report on what it does to embed children’s

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rights. Ministers in Scotland will have to keep them under consideration and take steps to further the rights of children. In Wales, Ministers must have due regard to the UNCRC when developing a new provision for enactment or a new policy or when reviewing an existing policy.

The coalition Government made a commitment in 2010, as we have said before, to give due consideration to the UNCRC when making new policy and legislation. A freedom of information request sent to 17 government departments found that only the Department for Education had conducted any detailed analysis of its policies in relation to the UNCRC. Three departments stated that they did not hold the information requested, suggesting that they do nothing to assess the compatibility of their policies with the UNCRC. Other departments gave inadequate responses, indicating that systematic analysis had not taken place. In June this year, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children, which I chair, and which has many members present this evening, called on the Government to introduce a legal obligation for public bodies to have due regard for children’s rights under the UNCRC in making decisions affecting children. The group recommended that an amendment be introduced to the Bill to give legislative weight to the Government’s commitment to give due regard to the UNCRC. I still support that recommendation.

Baroness Jones of Whitchurch: My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 251. It would allow the Children’s Commissioner to conduct an investigation into the case of an individual child in specific circumstances which enable the commissioner to fulfil his or her primary purpose, which is defined as his or her strategic role. This principle, which underpins the existence of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, is accepted by everyone. This amendment seeks not to undermine it, but to aid the Children’s Commissioner in its pursuit.

We believe that the current proposed wording serves to undermine the ability of the commissioner to work strategically. Five years ago, Meltem Avcil, a 14 year-old girl, slashed her wrists when her bail application was turned down when she was detained at Yarl’s Wood detention centre. After self-harming, the child was handcuffed to a hospital bed. The then Children’s Commissioner for England, Al Aynsley-Green, investigated her case of self-harm. His report concluded that detaining the child for 80 days had amounted to inhuman treatment and recommended public policy changes to avoid such events occurring in the future. This is just one example of where the ability to investigate an individual case has advanced the strategic work of the Children’s Commissioner.

Another example is from Wales, where an investigation into specific cases of school exclusion led to the discovery that children were routinely informally excluded for prolonged periods in a manner that was against their interests. When this was debated in the Commons, the Minister, Edward Timpson, responded that the injunction on such investigations was to prevent the commissioner,

“becoming bogged down in individual casework at the expense of the OCC’s strategic role”.

That is an unsatisfactory response; it is clear that specific investigations can serve to aid a strategic approach.

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Our amendment does not allow the commissioner carte blanche to engage in investigations or, indeed, make the commissioner feel under an obligation to investigate all individual cases which he or she receives. Instead, it is highly limiting and restricts investigations to when it is judged that they can genuinely advance the commissioner’s strategic role. Furthermore, the wording of our amendment also serves as a rebuttal to the suggestion that it would create a presumption that casework was part of the commissioner’s role and that it offered an alternate point of appeal to existing channels.

There also appears to be an element of confusion among Ministers. Mr Timpson said that it is “simply not possible” for the commissioner to investigate individual cases,

“without the commissioner’s strategic role being compromised”.

Nevertheless, in further discussion, he proceeded to point to other provisions in the Bill which allow the commissioner to,

“initiate a formal inquiry into the case of an individual child where he or she considers that it raises issues of public policy that are relevant to the other children under the separate inquiry function”.—[

Official Report

, Commons, Children and Families Bill Committee, 23/4/13; cols. 681-82.]

That is an apparent tacit admission that it is possible for the commissioner to investigate individual cases without compromising his strategic role. Unfortunately, the Bill makes it clear that that simply will not be possible in future. All of us accept the fundamental importance of the strategic role of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner yet it also seems obvious that this can be properly pursued only if the commissioner has the freedom fully to investigate individual cases in very specific instances. Our amendment seeks to find the appropriate wording to ensure that this can occur. I hope that the Minister will feel able to support our proposal, if not the exact wording of our amendment.

Viscount Eccles: My Lords, I have a third amendment in this group, to Schedule 6 and on a very different subject. It is proposed that the Children’s Rights Director, who is part of Ofsted, is to be transferred to the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, taking the duties and powers of the office with him. Is that already happening? If it is, will the resources that are transferred balance with the duties and the costs of carrying out those duties in such a way as to make no material difference to the Office of the Children’s Commissioner in respect of resources?

Lord Nash: My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 249A to 256, 266A and 266AZZA.

Amendment 249A was tabled by my noble friend Lord Eccles, who asked how we are strengthening the commissioner’s function. We believe that amending the commissioner’s primary function to one of promoting and protecting children’s rights is, as my noble friend Lady Walmsley and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said, an important step forward in establishing the OCC as a credible organisation that meets the key requirements expected of human rights institutions. There is much support for our proposals. For example, in its report following pre-legislative scrutiny, the Joint Committee on Human Rights described the proposed new remit of the commissioner as,

“a significant strengthening of the Commissioner’s mandate, and is an important step in the transformation of the office into a fully fledged human rights institution for children”.

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The way in which the primary function is described matters. The lack of a statutory rights-based remit is the main reason why the Children’s Commissioner has, to date, only been accepted as an associate, rather than full, member of the European Network of Commissioners.

I turn now to Amendment 250, which was tabled by my noble friend Lady Walmsley, to whom I pay tribute for her effective and long-standing work on children’s rights. I agree with her that part of the commissioner’s role should be to raise awareness of children’s rights. However, in determining what activities to set out in the Bill, our approach has been to avoid including activities that are already implicit within the commissioner’s primary function, and we believe that raising public awareness of children’s rights is an inherent part of the commissioner’s new primary function of promoting and protecting children’s rights.

The commissioner can intervene in legal cases where he or she has a sufficient interest in the matter before the courts. Indeed, the commissioner has used her current powers to intervene in a number of legal cases in the past. However, the effect of the proposed amendment could be to create an expectation that the commissioner would respond to every request to intervene in legal matters that he or she receives. I do not believe that this would be helpful. In his review, John Dunford gave an example of another commissioner who had instigated legal proceedings to take a particular children’s rights issue to the courts which were unsuccessful and costly. This is not something we would want to encourage.

Turning to Amendment 251, I assure noble Lords that there is nothing in the Bill that prevents the commissioner talking to individual children or using evidence drawn from the cases of individual children to inform the primary function. In fact, it is hard to imagine that the commissioner could investigate a matter strategically without using evidence from individual cases to support his or her findings.

As noble Lords will be aware, where the commissioner makes recommendations under the primary function, he or she can require a written response setting out how those recommendations will be addressed. Amendment 253, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, seeks to make similar provision in respect of the separate advice and assistance function. This role is currently provided by the Children’s Rights Director to the children within his remit and is intended to be an informal, light-touch service. It may involve as little as a telephone call to the DCS in a local authority, and the amendment therefore runs the risk of overformalising what is working well as an informal process.

I fully recognise that other groups of children are vulnerable and in need of extra support, including those mentioned in Amendment 256. However, I do not believe that this means that we should include them in the definition set out in Clause 86—the purpose of which is to provide a definition of the children who currently fall within the Children’s Rights Director’s remit—so that other provisions in the Bill can be applied specifically to that group of children. Clause 86 is not an attempt to define vulnerable children for the purposes of the commissioner’s primary function and there is therefore no reason to include other groups of vulnerable children within it, as the Bill makes clear

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through the provision in Clause 79. When determining how best to discharge the primary function, the commissioner must have particular regard to,

“other groups of children who the Commissioner considers to be at particular risk of having their rights infringed”.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for highlighting in Amendment 252 the importance of the UNCRC to the commissioner’s primary function. Our view is that, in exercising his or her primary function, the commissioner would be expected to take account of all children’s rights that are relevant. This would include the UNCRC and its optional protocols that the UK has ratified, rights set out in other international treaties and rights within domestic law. However, we also recognise that the UNCRC is central to the children’s rights arena and so make an explicit reference to the UNCRC in the Bill. We believe that this represents the best formulation.

Turning to Amendment 252A, it is our clear intention that the commissioner’s work should be informed by the views and interests of children. As well as the overarching requirement to involve children as set out in new Section 2B(1) of the Children Act, the Bill includes requirements on the commissioner to: make children aware of his or her role and how they can contact him or her; consult children on the commissioner’s forward plans, before finalising his or her business plan for the year ahead; and to report on the action he or she has taken to involve children in his or her annual report.

In meeting all these requirements, the commissioner will be required to take particular steps to involve children whom he or she considers have fewer opportunities to make their views known. I am sure that noble Lords will therefore agree that the Bill includes ample provision for children to be involved in the commissioner’s activities and to influence his or her agenda. We agree that this should include a wide range of children’s views but we do not think it is feasible to include a requirement to involve all children, which Amendment 252A seeks to do.

With respect to reporting on the extent to which children enjoy the rights set out in the UNCRC, I note that in response to a recommendation by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, we have made it clear that monitoring implementation of the UNCRC is within the scope of the commissioner’s remit. Amendment 254 goes further than this, however, and creates an expectation that the commissioner would conduct an annual review of UNCRC implementation. This would be a significant undertaking and place a burden on the commissioner’s office that would inevitably divert resources away from other priorities. We have no objection to the commissioner carrying out an annual review but do not think that he or she should be required to do so.

I agree it is important that the Children’s Commissioner should not just consult children but take their views into consideration, but I am not persuaded that Amendment 255 is necessary. The commissioner’s primary function includes promoting awareness of the views and interests of children, and it is difficult to imagine how a commissioner could carry out that function

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without taking account of those views. Reporting on how he or she has done so is a matter of good practice and therefore it is expected that this would happen without having the requirement to that effect in the Bill.

Amendment 266AZZZA relates to provision in the Bill that enables the Secretary of State to make a staff transfer scheme. This will allow staff working for the Office of the Children’s Rights Director, currently located in Ofsted, to transfer to the Office of the Children’s Commissioner and will ensure that those staff are protected in terms of, for example, their continuity of employment and pension entitlements.

I would like to assure my noble friend Lord Eccles that these arrangements are already well in hand and that Roger Morgan, the current Children’s Rights Director, has been closely involved in the design and development of these provisions and continues to be part of the working group which is overseeing the transition to the new arrangements.

7.30 pm

Turning to Amendment 266A, it is important that any organisation or agency gives due regard to children’s rights and views when planning or delivering public functions that may impact on them. The convention provides a comprehensive set of principles and standards through which action to support children’s development and well-being across all aspects of their lives should be planned and delivered. The UK Government act as a state party for the whole of the UK and have formally signed and ratified the UNCRC. This means that the UK is already under an obligation to comply with its terms and conditions and to give due regard to it. We take these responsibilities very seriously and are held to account for them periodically by the UN committee. As my noble friend Lord Eccles said, we are due to submit a report to the UN committee early next year on the implementation of the UNCRC across the UK over the past five years and the draft report is on the Department for Education website, where we are calling for views.

The noble Baronesses will also be aware that to remove any possible uncertainty about our commitment to the UNCRC, in 2010, the coalition Government made a commitment to Parliament that they would give due consideration to the convention when making new policy and legislation. The UNCRC has been a prism through which we have considered many of the new measures being introduced through the Bill. Our consideration of the provisions in the light of the European Convention on Human Rights and the UNCRC has been published and made available to noble Lords. We are grateful to the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for having conducted its own impact assessment on different aspects of the Bill which we have taken into consideration in preparing the draft clauses.

The amendment also raises the wider question of a UNCRC duty on other parts of the public sector. The Government have issued statutory guidance to directors of children’s services and local authority lead members for children’s services about this. The guidance states that they should have regard to the UNCRC and ensure that children and young people are involved in

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the development and delivery of local services. I recognise that practice still varies across different parts of government and different parts of the public sector. This is likely to be true regardless of whether there is a duty or not. However, there will be lots of opportunities for public sector actions to be challenged. Reforms we are making to the Children’s Commissioner, for example, will strengthen his or her powers to investigate matters and bring them directly to the attention of Parliament. I welcome the offer from the Joint Committee on Human Rights to have an annual discussion about the commission’s work on children’s rights.

I am very grateful to the noble Baronesses for highlighting this important issue. I hope my answer has provided them with an assurance of the Government’s commitment to implementing the UNCRC in a way which keeps bureaucracy to a minimum and maximises the benefits to children. I hope that my responses on all these issues provide assurances to noble Lords, and I urge the noble Viscount to withdrawn his amendment.

Lord Mawson (CB): My Lords, I have not been able to sit through the passage of this Bill, so I am not in a position to comment on it. However, over the past few months I have been sitting on the draft deregulation Bill which is concerned to reduce red tape and bureaucracy. I have come to the conclusion that the Government have a serious intent to get a grip on red tape and bureaucracy.

Can the Minister help me understand where this Bill and this discussion sit within this wider agenda? Will this Bill increase red tape and bureaucracy? What are its unintended consequences and where does it sit in the one-in-and-two-out agenda? It would be helpful to understand the scale of the red tape that will be generated by this Bill and this discussion. I would find it helpful to have the Minister respond to this further point briefly, if that is possible.

Lord Nash: I will write to the noble Lord on this matter.

Viscount Eccles: My Lords, I am grateful to all those who took part and to the Minister for his reply. At the risk of repeating myself, you can strengthen a mandate, but that is not the same as strengthening the organisation which has to carry the mandate out. If I remember rightly, John Dunford joined in the disappointment with the way that the Children’s Commissioner operated until 2010. I think that disappointment, if it is shared, will continue because the Government’s answers are that business will continue as usual. I make no negative or positive comment on that. I just wish I knew whether that was the correct interpretation in the view of the Government. In particular, the relationship of the Children’s Commissioner with the Equality and Human Rights Commission is very important. If they are going to co-operate, work together and do things jointly, there is a strong case for leaving the Children’s Commissioner pretty open, pretty freewheeling and able to look at whatever the commissioner thinks should be looked at and to make recommendations as a result of that work, which is what has been happening and, in my view, has happened

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rather successfully. I do not want to stand in criticism; I just wish I knew what the Government really expect so that we could understand what they expect and out there the public could understand what they could really expect. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 249A withdrawn.

Baroness Northover: My Lords, we have been given permission to go on until 8 pm, as I announced at the beginning of this Sitting, because we are running behind in the consideration of this Bill. I am acutely aware that the staff of Hansard need to work beyond their normal hours to do that. Therefore, we will need to finish at 8 pm. I realise that a number of noble Lords are here specifically for the next two groups and that they have helpfully combined them so that the subject matter can be addressed. My initial feeling was that if everybody was very brief, we might be able to get through. My sense now is that we may have to break in the middle of the debate. We will see how we get on.

Amendments 250 to 252A not moved.

Clause 79 agreed.

Clause 80: Provision by Commissioner of advice and assistance to certain children

Amendment 253 not moved.

Clause 80 agreed.

Clauses 81 to 84 agreed.

Clause 85: Annual reports

Amendments 254 and 255 not moved.

Clause 85 agreed.

Amendment 255A not moved.

Clause 86: Children living away from home or receiving social care

Amendment 256 not moved.

Clause 86 agreed.

Clause 87 agreed.

Schedule 5: Children’s Commissioner: minor and consequential amendments

Amendments 257 to 262 not moved.

Schedule 5 agreed.

Clause 88 agreed.

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The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Haskel): I have to remind your Lordships that the usual channels have agreed that the next two groups will be combined.

Amendment 263

Moved by Baroness Finlay of Llandaff

263: After Clause 88, insert the following new Clause—

“Offence of failing to prevent smoking in a private vehicle when children are present

(1) The Health Act 2006 is amended as follows.

(2) After section 8 insert—

“8A Offence of failing to prevent smoking in a private vehicle when children are present

(1) It is the duty of any person who drives a private vehicle to ensure that that vehicle is smoke-free whenever a child or children under the age of 18 are in such vehicle or part of such vehicle.

(2) A person who fails to comply with the duty in subsection (1) commits an offence.

(3) A person convicted of an offence under this section who has not previously been convicted of such an offence shall have the option of attending a smoke-free driving awareness course in place of paying a fine under subsection (4).

(4) A person who does not wish to attend an awareness course or who has previously been convicted of an offence under this section is liable on summary conviction to a fine of £60.

(5) The Secretary of State may introduce regulations to alter the level of penalty payable under subsection (4).

(6) The Secretary of State shall update all relevant regulations regarding the offence created under subsection (2) within six months of this section coming into force.

(7) The Secretary of State shall introduce regulations within six months of this section coming into force to prescribe the format of the awareness course in subsection (3).”

(3) In section 79(4)(a), for “or 8(7)” substitute “, 8(7), or 8A(5)”.”

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff (CB): My Lords, I will be as brief as I can, and my noble friend—as I must say for the purposes of these amendments—Lord Faulkner of Worcester will speak to Amendments 264, 265 and 266, which are now in this group.

The amendment I have tabled builds on the work of the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, who took a Private Member’s Bill through the Lords last summer, and that built on the work of Alex Cunningham MP in 2001, who introduced a 10-minute rule Bill.

This topic of children in cars where people are smoking has been around for some time. The amendment puts the onus of responsibility on the person in charge—that is, the driver of the vehicle. Children who are strapped into a car—as they have to be by law, for their protection—have little or no control over the smoking behaviour of adults in their presence. The British Lung Foundation did a survey of 1,000 children aged eight to 15: 51% had been exposed to cigarette smoke in the car. Of those who had been exposed, 31% reported having asked the people smoking to stop, but 34% were too frightened or embarrassed to ask even though they wanted the person not to smoke.

Smoking in a car is a particular concern because it is a confined space. We all know the hazards of passive smoking. Indeed, we have legislated against it. What we are now doing, however, is leaving children at higher risk than adults were exposed to before. Research has shown that a single cigarette smoked in a moving

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car with a window half open exposes a child in the centre of the back seat to around two-thirds as much second-hand smoke as in an average smoke-filled pub, in the bad old days when people smoked in pubs. Importantly, however, if someone is smoking in a stationary car with the windows closed, the level increases to 11 times that of a smoky pub.

There is clear evidence that cigarette smoke damages children’s lungs. They have smaller, more fragile lungs; they breathe more quickly and their immune system is less developed. It has been estimated that there are more than 165 new episodes of diseases of all types in children caused by passive smoking, which they are exposed to in such high concentrations primarily in cars, although they may also be exposed at home. This has been estimated to culminate, tragically, in about 40 sudden infant deaths a year, quite apart from about 300,000 primary care consultations and almost 10,000 hospital admissions. It costs us £23 million a year in primary care visits and hospital treatment, particularly asthma treatment. There is a catalogue of case reports about children who have had such severe asthma that they have suffered respiratory arrest. When the parent has stopped smoking in the car—the environment in which the child was exposed—their asthma has improved enough to be controlled. The Department of Health ran a two-month marketing campaign to try to raise awareness but I suggest that the next step has to be legislation.

Children are a protected party in law. Seatbelt-wearing rates increased in the UK from 25% to 91% after legislation was introduced alongside awareness campaigns. Children want this legislation: in the British Lung Foundation survey in 2011, 86% of children aged eight to 15 said they wanted the Government to introduce a law to protect them from cigarette smoke in a car. That is almost nine in 10 children. In another survey, done on Mumsnet, 86% of respondents supported a ban, including 83% of those who were themselves smokers. An ASH-YouGov survey of public opinion showed 78% out of more than 10,000 respondents saying they would support a ban in cars carrying children under 18, even though over 60% of those respondents were themselves smokers.

We are exposing children now to a very high risk of smoke through passive smoking. It is time to address that. I beg to move.

7.45 pm

Lord Faulkner of Worcester (Lab): My Lords, it will not escape the Committee’s notice that Amendments 263 and 264 are cross-party and Cross-Bench amendments and follow the precedent set by the introduction of smoke-free legislation in 2006, which your Lordships will remember was passed overwhelmingly on a free vote in both Houses of Parliament. Tobacco control should not be a party-political matter but the common concern of everyone who cares about the health and well-being of the public. To prove that point, the House of Commons held an excellent Back-Bench debate on the very issue of standard packaging the week before last, initiated by the Conservative MP for Harrow East, Bob Blackman. The Hansard report is well worth reading, not least because the case for standard packaging was widely supported by speakers in all parties.

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The Committee will be aware that earlier this year it appeared that the Government would themselves legislate for standard packaging, as both the then Secretary of State for Health and the Minister for Public Health were convinced of its value as a means of discouraging children and young people from taking up this lethal habit. For reasons which I still do not fully understand, no government Bill has been forthcoming. However, fortunately, with the help of the Public Bill Office—to which I am most grateful—it proved possible to propose a new clause for the Bill on the basis that this is a measure that will improve the health of children and families.

Let us briefly consider the facts about youngsters smoking. First, most smokers start when they are teenagers. Two-thirds of existing smokers report that they started before their 18th birthday, and about two in five before they were 16. That is despite the fact that the direct sale of cigarettes to minors is now unlawful. Using official data, Cancer Research UK statisticians have calculated that, in 2011, more than 200,000 young people under the age of 16 started to smoke. Secondly, the younger the age at which smokers start, the greater the harm is likely to be, because early uptake of the habit is associated with subsequent heavier smoking, higher levels of dependency, a lower chance of quitting and a higher chance of death from smoking-related diseases. Thirdly, smoking rates are higher among poor communities and vulnerable groups.

Critically for this Bill, among the most vulnerable groups are children in care. For example, a 2002 study for the Office for National Statistics of 1,000 looked-after children showed that almost one-third were current smokers. This rose to more than two-thirds for those in residential care, reflecting the greater proportion of older children in these placements. I know that the Minister will agree with me that these figures are shockingly high and that it should be a high priority for the Department of Health to try to reduce them drastically. It is our view and the view, I think, of most experts in the field, all the charities, the BMA and other medical bodies that the introduction of standard packaging for tobacco products will make a real difference and will address the issue of young people smoking.

I could say a great deal more about the behaviour of the tobacco industry and its appalling attempts to frustrate this legislation but I shall reserve that for Report, when I promise the Committee that the issue will be put before the House, which will be given an opportunity to come to a definite decision. I hope very much that it will have the support of all parties in the same way that I will remember it did tonight.

Baroness Hughes of Stretford: My Lords, I know that other noble Lords want to speak, but perhaps because my noble friend and I have amendments in this group it might help if I speak to them first and we can get everything on the table.

I shall speak to Amendments 265 and 266, which would make a small but significant amendment to Amendment 264, which was spoken to by my noble friend Lord Faulkner. I also have a great deal of sympathy with Amendment 263. The arguments in favour of standardised packaging for tobacco are now

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self-evident and hardly need to be rehearsed. Similarly, there are no credible arguments against implementing standard packages for cigarettes that are not just plain but which, as we have seen in some of the briefings, are such that they may deter take-up of smoking and convey in stark terms the dangers of doing so.

The effects of smoking are well known. It is the largest preventable cause of cancer, causes 100,000 deaths a year and is a big factor in heart disease, cardiovascular illnesses, strokes and so on. Despite progress in reducing smoking, one in five adults still smokes. My noble friend Lord Faulkner has just reminded us of the fact that it is often in childhood and teenage years that people take up smoking; a significant number of youngsters aged between 11 and 15—an estimated 200,000, as he said—take up smoking. It is therefore a significant issue, and the more young people we can deter from taking up smoking in the first place and becoming lifelong addicts the better. We have to take seriously anything that makes smoking less attractive.

Especially since the advertising ban, cigarette packaging is the most important opportunity for tobacco companies to do exactly the opposite: namely, promote smoking as a cool, attractive and grown-up thing to do. That is why they spend millions on developing their packaging by testing its attractiveness to potential new customers and adding novel or gimmicky features that will attract interest. It is patently obvious that the companies believe that packaging is crucial to promoting their products and giving themselves a market edge. Indeed, research among young people by Cancer Research UK and other charities confirms the positive impressions conveyed by packaging in the minds of young people. One view was, for example, “It looks too colourful to be harmful”. We therefore have to use any means possible to protect young people from tobacco and deter them from taking up smoking. That is of course why the industry is resisting standardised packaging.

Like my noble friend, I could say more but I will not do so. This is essentially an issue of child protection. The public support standardised packaging. Children and young people find standardised packaging less attractive, more of a deterrent and more effective in conveying health warnings. Health professionals across the disciplines support standardised packaging. Other Administrations in the UK, and other countries abroad, are moving in this direction. I very much support Amendment 264, which sets out very well the detail that regulations on standard packaging should include, and I congratulate my noble friend and other noble Lords on bringing forward the amendment. However, our Amendments 265 and 266 would strengthen it by requiring the Secretary of State to make regulations rather than simply allowing them to decide whether to do so.

Baroness Tyler of Enfield: My Lords, my name is attached to Amendments 263 and 264. I want briefly to say why I feel so strongly that they are extremely important.

Like other noble Lords, I see smoking in cars primarily as a child protection issue. As we have heard, children’s lungs are smaller and they have faster breathing rates. That makes them particularly vulnerable to second-hand smoke, especially within the confines of a car.

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As we have heard, very often children are not able to stop adults smoking in their presence. Adult members of the public are protected by smoke-free legislation on public transport and in the workplace, but large numbers of children remain exposed to high concentrations of second-hand smoke when confined in family cars. I just do not think that is right.

My second point is that we simply cannot afford to wait any longer. We know that roughly one in five children reports being regularly exposed to second-hand smoke in cars. It has catastrophic health consequences. Finally, we know that there is very strong public support for this. In a recent survey, 80% of the public and 86% of children supported a ban, as do many health organisations.

Turning very briefly to standardised packaging, there is a very clear reason why people in the tobacco industry are always so opposed to amendments such as this. It is very straightforward. They know that the designer cigarette packet is a very effective advertising tool. Most worryingly, it is particularly effective on young people. I had many examples I was going to give; I shall reserve them for Report.

The other argument I would like to address is the one about the nanny state poking its nose into the lives of individuals. We are told that people know the risk and make an informed choice regarding whether or not to smoke. Of course, the problem is that the choices made by young people are not always informed. I am sure that we know from our personal experience how impressionable young people can be. I certainly do.

I remember going into a sweet shop aged about 14 or 15. There was a pack of cigarettes there. I will not give the name because I do not want to advertise it. I thought it was terribly elegant and glamorous and that if I bought that pack—which I did—I would be very elegant and glamorous. I do not think either of those held up, but really strong messages are coming across in that packaging. I have looked at the most up-to-date evidence. It is absolutely clear that standardised packs are less attractive to young people and improve the effectiveness of health warnings.

We have a duty to the children of this country to move on this issue once and for all. The time for talking is over and the time for action has arrived.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, my name is on Amendment 263 and I shall be very brief indeed. We have just been discussing the Office of the Children’s

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Commissioner. We have just been talking about child protection. This also is a case of children’s rights. Children have the right to not be sitting in a smoke-filled car.

I was part of a debate on the Private Member’s Bill of the distinguished former surgeon, the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, who is here and will speak later on. He made a significant point. He said that awareness and behaviour change need to be coupled with legislation, and that smoking law at the moment does not cover cars.

The noble Lord, Lord Crisp, said that there are four questions to be asked. Is it dangerous? Yes. Are the dangers material and significant? Yes. Is it something that that affects other people? Yes. What are the downsides? They are modest. They are about having the freedom to smoke in a car when your children are present. It should not be allowed.

Lord Ribeiro (Con): My Lords, I hear my name mentioned and I think I ought to say something very briefly. Your Lordships are influenced only by evidence. The evidence following the legislation in 2006 in Scotland and 2007 in England has already shown measurable effects in improving healthcare, particularly among non-smoking bar workers, in whom one study found an 89% reduction in cotinine concentration, which is a specific marker for tobacco smoke exposure.

That benefit should not be restricted to bar workers but should be the right of children who find themselves confined in cars where adults are smoking. I support this amendment very strongly. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be minded to consider it. I realise that the Government have a programme for behavioural change and education and may wish to pursue that. The research, however, points to the fact that there is an improvement if we reduce second-hand smoke.

Baroness Northover: My words in front of me say that this may be a convenient moment for the Committee to adjourn. I know it is not. I am very grateful to noble Lords for abbreviating what they had to say. I am extremely grateful to our Hansard colleagues for staying on beyond their allotted time. I am sure that we will come back to this on Wednesday, but I am afraid that I will have to adjourn the Committee.

Debate on Amendment 263 adjourned.

Committee adjourned at 7.59 pm.