§ 2.36 p.m.
§ Consideration of amendments on Report resumed on Clause 2.
§ The Deputy Speaker (Baroness Turner of Camden)
My Lords, as Amendment No. 4 was agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 6 to 13 because of pre-emption.
Lord Northbourne moved Amendment No. 5:
Page 1, line 9, at end insert—
( ) For the purposes of this Part the word "interests" used in the context of children is to be understood as referring both to those things which are of interest to children and to those things which are or may be in their best interests.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am slightly shaken by the changes in the Bill that took place before luncheon. I am told that I am allowed to move this amendment but that I am pre-empted on the amendments that follow it. So I shall have to bring the issue of the rights of children and the rights of parents back at a future time.
§ This is a small amendment. In Committee, I raised the issue that in the then drafting of the Bill the word "interest" is used ambiguously, as it is in the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. I must say that it is more ambiguous in the original Bill than it is in the amendment. "The interests of children" can mean those things that interest children or it can mean those things that are in the best interests of children.
§ The Minister explained that this was a subtle piece of wording intended to be understood to mean both those things. I believe that it is unsatisfactory to have one word that is meant to mean two different things and, having studied the Bill and the drafting of the clause carefully, it seems to me that the concept of the views and interests of children was closely woven into the Government's text. Therefore, the way to address this problem is simply to take a sentence to 923 define the two different meanings of "interests" in the Bill. I believe that this will avoid misunderstanding in the future. It might even avoid litigation in the future. I therefore commend the amendment to the House. I beg to move.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, there is some confusion. By virtue of Amendment No. 4 being carried, Amendments Nos. 5 to 13 are not to be discussed. Therefore, we ought to discuss Amendment No. 14.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, my understanding is that Amendment No. 5 is not pre-empted—Amendments Nos. 6 to 13 are pre-empted.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for his amendment. As he said, Amendment No. 5 would introduce a definition of "interests" as relating both to what is in the best interests of children and to what interests children. I believe that I am the culprit as regards the confusion that has arisen through what I said in Committee. It is a case of mea culpa in that respect.
I need to clarify how we have used the term "interests" in this part of the Bill. While the commissioner will concern himself with the best interests of children and with what interests them, the term "interests" in Clause 2 relates to the former interpretation only; that is, what is in children's interests—in other words, what is beneficial or advantageous to children. In determining that, the commissioner must have regard to the UN Convention. He or she will also take into account the views of children and others about what is good for children, and therefore in their interests.
The other concept—that of what interests children—is covered by the "views" of children. In expressing their views, children will make clear to the commissioner what interests them and what they think about such matters.
I hope that with that clarification I have set the record straight. I am very grateful to the noble Lord for returning to the matter. I hope that I have clarified the meaning of "interests" and that noble Lords will consider that the amendment is unnecessary.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, in the ordinary way I would have supported this amendment, but the difficulty is in fact on Amendment No. 4 on the—
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, I am referring to Amendment No. 5. With the leave of the Front Bench opposite I should like to say what I have to say. It is relevant or I would not be saying it. It is relevant to the structure of the Bill.
This is a definition clause in effect which is to be added on to Amendment No. 4, which I did not support—I abstained. I did not think that the argument was made out. But is it necessary to have a 924 definition clause? Where is the requirement? Is there really any doubt about what the interests of the children are? I would have raised this on the Bill in its original form or on the amendment.
§ Lord Northbourne
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for her remarks. I confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, that there probably is not a necessity for this amendment in that the noble Baroness has now explained that "interests" means the best interests. Will the noble Baroness go just one stage further and not only convince their Lordships but also the world by putting "the best" in front of "interests" in the text of the Bill? I shall perhaps consider moving an amendment to that effect at the next stage of the Bill. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 6 to 13 not moved.]
§ Clause 3 [Annual report of Commissioner]:
Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 14:
Page 2, line 46, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b) and insert "he must—
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 14, I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 15.
§ I return to a matter that we debated in Committee relating to the annual report of the commissioner. At present, Clause 3 requires the commissioner to send a copy of the annual report to the Secretary of State, who must lay a copy before each House of Parliament. Only once that has been done is the commissioner allowed to publish his report.
§ The obvious thought that occurs here is that the clause as drafted would enable a government Minister to delay publication of the annual report—not, I am sure, any Minister in the current Government because we have had firm assurances that that would not happen. However, of course, Ministers cannot bind their successors. I believe that the sensible way forward is to proceed as my amendment proposes, which is to transpose the duty to lay the report before Parliament on to the commissioner and require him simultaneously to send a copy to the Secretary of State.
§ There would be more than a degree of symbolism in this arrangement because it would be yet another way—perhaps a subtle way—of underlining to the world at large that the commissioner is independent. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, I had the pleasure of meeting yesterday a group of very bright young people who came to present their views on this Bill to a number of Members of the House. We spent some time talking about the commissioner and his role. One of the things they stressed most of all was how important it was for the commissioner to be independent of government, and be seen to be so. To tell those young people that the commissioner will not be able to publish his report until the Secretary of State says he can would serve only to confirm their worst fears.925
§ It is worth our remembering that the parliamentary and health service ombudsman, for example, can make annual and other reports direct to Parliament, and that is one important marker of the independence that the parliamentary commissioner enjoys. So as regards this amendment, I think that we can go further than saying it would be no skin off the Government's nose if it were accepted. We can also say that it would convey a pretty loud message about the public standing of the Children's Commissioner and the autonomy that he has. I hope that the Minister will feel able to think again about it. I beg to move.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, I support this amendment. It again clarifies the problem of what lies within the remit of the commissioner and what lies within the remit of the Secretary of State. This amendment has got it right in principle again. I ask only for consideration to be given.
§ Baroness Walmsley
My Lords, I support the amendment. The Minister's reassurances in Committee were very welcome but those verbal reassurances are no substitute for a legally robust appearance of this power on the face of the Bill. I point out that this is already enjoyed by the other UK commissioners. A theme is emerging in our debate today.
§ Baroness Howe of Idlicote
My Lords, I, too, support the amendment. It reaffirms the independence of the commissioner. As we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, it would place the English commissioner on an equal basis with those in other parts of the UK. I hope that it can be accepted.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for raising this issue again. As has been indicated, we debated this in Committee. At that time my noble friend Lady Andrews gave assurances that the procedure for laying the annual report before Parliament was not an attempt to limit the commissioner's independence, or an opportunity for the Secretary of State to alter the report. I have made that clear in many of our conversations, and my noble friend made it clear. The Secretary of State would not be able to alter the report in any way. The proposal is a normal procedure for laying reports before Parliament and is a practice followed by other organisations that are required to produce a formal public record of their work and findings, such as Ofsted.
In Committee, however, we noted concerns that the wording of Clause 3 might be seen as an opportunity for the Secretary of State to—dare I say it?—sit on the report, and perhaps lay it before Parliament after some delay. We do not anticipate such an attempt to delay a report, but we do not think it unreasonable to put some criteria on the timing of publication. Indeed, we have proposed in the context of the commissioner's new inquiry power that he should publish his report as soon as possible after completing an inquiry.
926 My noble friend Lady Andrews indicated to Committee Members at the time that we would return with wording to that effect on Report. I reassure the House that we continue to think about the issue. My briefing reads,ask them to bear with us",so I ask noble Lords to bear with us a little longer. Inevitably, what seems very straightforward is slightly more complicated for the annual report, which, as the House may appreciate, raises a wide range of issues that the Secretary of State may wish to draw to the attention of colleagues across government so that they are aware as publication draws near.
If noble Lords are willing to bear with us a little longer, I shall address that issue properly. I hope to do so at the next stage but, if all else fails, I shall commit then that it will be dealt with in another place. On the basis of that continuing assurance, I hope that the noble Earl will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ Earl Howe
My Lords, of course I am willing to accept the noble Baroness's assurance, for which I thank her. It is not the alteration of the report about which I am concerned, but rather the possibility of delay in its publication. However, I await with interest the further news that she may bring us, and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 15 not moved.]
Baroness Ashton of Upholland moved Amendment No. 16:
After Clause 3, insert the following new clause—
§ "INQUIRIES INITIATED BY COMMISSIONER
§ (1) Where the Children's Commissioner considers that the case of an individual child raises issues of public policy of relevance to other children, he may hold an inquiry into that case for the purpose of investigating and making recommendations about those issues.
§ (2) The Children's Commissioner may only conduct an inquiry under this section if he is satisfied that the inquiry would not duplicate work that is the function of another person (having consulted such persons as he considers appropriate).
§ (3) Before holding an inquiry under this section the Children's Commissioner must consult the Secretary of State.
§ (4) The Children's Commissioner may, if he thinks fit, hold an inquiry under this section, or any part of it, in private.
§ (5) As soon as possible after completing an inquiry under this section the Children's Commissioner must—
- (a) publish a report containing his recommendations; and
- (b) send a copy to the Secretary of State.
§ (6) The report need not identify any individual child if the Commissioner considers that it would be undesirable for the identity of the child to be made public.
§ (7) Subsections (2) and (3) of section 250 of the Local Government Act 1972 (c. 70) apply for the purposes of an inquiry held under this section in England and Wales as they apply for the purposes of a local inquiry under that section with the substitution for references to the person appointed to hold the inquiry of references to the Children's Commissioner.927
§ (8) Subsections (3) to (5) of section 210 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 (c. 65) apply for the purposes of an inquiry held under this section in Scotland as they apply for the purposes of a local inquiry under that section with the substitution for references to the person appointed to hold the inquiry of references to the Children's Commissioner.
§ (9) Paragraphs 2 to 5 of Schedule 8 to the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 (S.I. 1972/1265 (N.I.14)) apply for the purposes of an inquiry held under this section in Northern Ireland as they apply for the purposes of a local inquiry under that Order with the substitution for references to the person appointed to hold the inquiry of references to the Children's Commissioner."
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, we now come to an important part of our deliberations on the Children's Commissioner, which I hope that noble Lords will enjoy. In Committee, we spent quite a lot of our time debating the whole question of the power to initiate and hold inquiries, and of at whose discretion they should be held. It is fair to say that there was a strong feeling that that was a key indicator of whether the commissioner was truly independent in the eyes of the Government. As noble Lords know, we have been concerned that the commissioner's role should be strategic, achievable, and focused on improving the operation of systems rather than delving down into individual cases.
§ I have reflected on the points raised in Committee. We have always seen the commissioner as independent as well as strategic, and we want to be sure that that is how others will also see him. I am therefore very happy to move Amendment No. 16, which gives the commissioner the power to initiate and hold inquiries in a way that strengthens his strategic role. It is grouped with Amendment No. 29, a consequential amendment which I shall go on to explain.
§ I am grateful for the very constructive debates in Committee. The comments made in those debates have helped us to shape this new power, which I hope strikes the right balance between granting the independence to inquire into issues raised for the system by key cases, and avoiding the risk of the commissioner being swamped by casework.
§ The amendment will permit the commissioner to hold an inquiry into a specific case if he considers that it has wider public policy implications. We set out the criteria that we think are important for him to satisfy: namely, looking at cases which raise issues of public policy relevant to other children, investigating those policy issues using what he may learn from the individual case, and making recommendations on policy and practice. We are talking about investigating cases with wider significance, so the commissioner is not in any way an inspector or a regulator, looking into standards in school X or children's home Y to take action against those establishments.
§ As noble Lords would expect, we have also considered duplication. We want the new role to ensure the proper working of the system already in place, to support and protect children's interests and promote their well-being, not to cause confusion between the commissioner's work and that of other bodies. Proposed new subsection (2) prevents the commissioner conducting an inquiry where he would 928 be duplicating the work of another body. In practice, therefore, the commissioner would consult other bodies that could be undertaking an inquiry, and that subsection places a duty on him to do so as he thinks appropriate.
§ The commissioner would thus be able to take on board the views of those bodies about the merit of potential inquiry. We are thinking of the Commission for Healthcare Audit and Inspection and the Commission for Social Care Inspection. We hope that the consultation before starting an inquiry will be part of regular co-operation between the commissioner and other investigatory bodies. The commissioner's work can therefore complement that of the other bodies, and the consultation process can foster that co-operation.
§ I shall highlight one other circumstance in which it might not be appropriate for the commissioner to hold an inquiry, which is cases where legal proceedings are planned or under way, arising from the case into which the commissioner wishes to carry out an inquiry. We will expect the commissioner to make a judgment on whether it would be appropriate to proceed with an inquiry into such a case. He will not want his inquiry to prejudice those proceedings, which of course will be protected by the law of contempt. After legal proceedings, the commissioner may well look into the same case. As before, his purpose will be to improve policy and practice, not to review the role of the courts.
§ Proposed new subsection (3) requires the commissioner to consult the Secretary of State. I absolutely stress that that is not so that the Secretary of State can exercise a veto—although, if the Secretary of State had concerns that the commissioner was at risk of contravening proposed new subsections (1) and (2), he would make the commissioner aware of that. More typically, the Secretary of State might be aware of, or indeed planning, a broader inquiry that would take in the same case, or might suggest another case not known to the commissioner that could help to clarify the same issues. There could even be issues of public interest. A Secretary of State should be able to bring such issues to the commissioner's attention. However, the final decision lies with the commissioner, who is independent and free to act, but will make decisions in the context of the available information.
§ When the commissioner has been appointed, we hope to be able to work with him on some guidelines for that process, because he will be consulting across government and may consult various Secretaries of State. The term would refer to the Secretary of State whose department had primary responsibility for the issues to be considered. That might include making sure that the commissioner could indicate in the guidelines how quickly a response from the Secretary of State should be expected, as well as issues of information. We want to draw up such guidelines with the commissioner, but I stress that that is not in any way to limit his independence. Rather it is to ensure that the system works.
§ Most other parts of the proposed new clause echo the provisions of Clause 4. The main difference is that the inquiry is the commissioner's own, so he makes the decision about whether to disclose a child's identity, 929 and he publishes the report. Amendment No. 29 is consequential. Clause 5 already prohibits the exercise of the commissioner's powers under Clauses 2 and 4 in relation to devolved matters in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The same should logically apply to the new power. That amendment serves that purpose. I beg to move.
Baroness Walmsley moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 16, Amendment No. 17:
Line 24, leave out "and Wales
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, we on these Benches, and I think those on other Benches too, very much welcome Amendment No. 16, which gives the new commissioner the power to inquire into individual cases under certain very carefully prescribed circumstances. Those of us who have fought for the complete ban on such inquiries to be removed from the Bill always felt that the power must be so prescribed and hedged around with sensible precautions, so that the commissioner was not bogged down with such cases. That was never the intention of any of us.
§ Having said that, I must mention that the reference to Wales in proposed new subsection (7), which is the subject of Amendment No. 17, and the proposed new subsections (8) and (9), which are the subject of Amendment No. 18, allow the commissioner to initiate formal inquiries into non-devolved matters in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is the strong view of the commissioner campaign group, and of all three existing commissioners, that the Bill should create a commissioner for England with no UK-wide powers. Other amendments tabled with cross-party support in this House will pursue that.
§ Meanwhile, these two amendments seek to remove the references to Wales and delete subsections (8) and (9)—about Scotland and Northern Ireland—of the new clause. That is consistent with a raft of amendments tabled by various noble Lords with Welsh interests in particular. I hope that they will meet with a fair wind from the Government. I beg to move.
§ 3 p.m.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, I wholly support Amendments Nos. 16 and 29. They are consistent with Amendment No. 19, which I propose to move in due course.
§ Lord Lester of Herne Hill
My Lords, I, too, welcome the two government amendments and I shall briefly spell out some of the reasons why I think that they are well designed and fit for their purpose.
First, I like the fact that in subsection (1) the strategic approach is maintained—that the commissioner may consider the case of an individual child, but that in doing so the commissioner will be concerned with,issues of public policy of relevance to other children".That is absolutely the correct approach.
Secondly, I am glad that in the second subsection there is a provision against wasteful duplication. Again, that is important because if other public bodies 930 are able to perform those functions, they should. Thirdly, it is most welcome that the ministerial veto has been abandoned in Clause 3. There is consultation but no override. Fourthly, I am happy with the other provisions in subsections (4), (5) and (6). I should like clarification regarding one point. Subsection (6) states:The report need not identify any individual child if the Commissioner considers that it would be undesirable for the identity of the child to be made public".I assume, but just need confirmation, that the commissioner, as a public authority, must act in a way that respects personal privacy—that is guaranteed by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights—and, therefore, the standards to be applied under that would provide some safeguards in the exercising of the commissioner's discretion.
The provisions in subsection (7)—what I call subpoena powers—and subsections (8) and (9) are also well constructed because, as I understand it, one is building on powers in local government legislation that ensure proper control against any abuse of the power to obtain information by compulsion. At one stage I was worried that in the earlier amendment dealing with the earlier clause too much power was being given to the commissioner to obtain information, but I am satisfied that that is not the case, because that deals only with public authorities and the flow of necessary information. For those reasons, these amendments are well constructed.
§ Lord Thomas of Gresford
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Walmsley in Amendments Nos. 17 and 18. We have already taken a decision today that the Children's Commissioner should have,the function of promoting and safeguarding the rights and interests of children in England",and we have deleted the reference to the United Kingdom. Therefore, it would be anomalous and wrong that, in this clause, the Children's Commissioner should have the power to hold inquiries in Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland. Accordingly, those provisions should be deleted from the Bill; otherwise that inconsistency will remain—certainly up to Third Reading.
Why should the English commissioner, as he now is, hold inquiries in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland anyway? It is interesting that it was a public inquiry in Wales, dealing specifically with Welsh matters—namely, the Waterhouse inquiry—that sparked the desire in Wales to have a children's commissioner. That is why Wales took the first step in the UK to have a children's commissioner. We are perfectly capable in Wales of holding an inquiry of this nature, as the Waterhouse inquiry demonstrated, and we would resent in Wales having the English commissioner come in to hold inquiries at all.
§ Lord Laming
My Lords, I support Amendments Nos. 16 and 29. As noble Lords will know, I am greatly concerned about the role of the commissioner being further and further extended, but the wording of Amendment No. 16 is pitched extremely wisely in terms of raising issues of general relevance and 931 ensuring the avoidance of duplication. Regarding the Waterhouse report, although the facilities were in Wales, most of the children came from England.
§ Baroness Finlay of Llandaff
My Lords, I wish to point out that Amendments Nos. 17 and 18 create compatibility with amendments that I have tabled for debate later. Therefore, I would wish the House to consider carefully this group of amendments and for the Minister to consider the amendment to the amendments, because we would then have clear lines of answerability and a clear understanding of how this matter is to operate in each area of the United Kingdom in the interests, and for the benefit, of children.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, I wish only to comment that Clause 2 should to some degree meet the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, because it puts a measure of safeguard on the inquiry.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. I am pleased to note that this new inquiry power has been recognised as significant and positive in the development of the commissioner's role. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken the time to discuss this with me and to recognise this important step. It is about ensuring an effective champion in a job that can be done and a person who people perceive to be strong and independent.
I turn to Amendments Nos. 17 and 18 and the new inquiry power to which they relate. They would take from the commissioner the legal powers that he would have to hold an effective inquiry in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. He could still hold an inquiry, but would not have the power to take evidence or summon witnesses. Because of the consequential Amendment No. 29, the commissioner could not hold an inquiry into a devolved matter in those nations. In practice that would prevent him doing so on a non-devolved matter.
At present the other commissioners could not hold an inquiry or formal investigation into a case relating to a non-devolved matter. So this amendment would mean that there was no commissioner able to do so. I am sure that that is not what is intended, but it is important to understand the position that would be created. Later, we are to debate Amendments Nos. 26 and 27 about the commissioner's relationship with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I am always tempted to pre-empt my own future debates. In fact this would pre-empt the future comments of my noble friend Lady Andrews and I would not wish to do that.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, my noble friend says no. I hope that noble Lords will feel that at the end of that debate they will see the process that is under way about the links between the four commissioners. I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment at this time. It is important, 932 as we continue to debate and work for the best way that the commissioners could work together, that we do not put children in a position of not having any commissioner taking responsibility for such issues. On the basis that there is much more to say about relationships and that there are other stages of the Bill at which we can discuss them further, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
§ Baroness Walmsley
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reassurance that we will hear more about the Government's attitude to the devolved commissioners. In the mean time, it would be sensible and appropriate for me to withdraw Amendment No. 17. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment No. 17, as an amendment to Amendment No. 16, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 18, as an amendment to Amendment No. 16, not moved.]
The Earl of Northesk moved Amendment No. 19:
After Clause 3, insert the following new clause—
§ "SPECIFIC FUNCTIONS OF THE COMMISSIONER
§ (1) The Children's Commissioner has, subject to the following provisions of this Part, the following specific functions in respect of the sharing of information—
- (a) to draw up and disseminate to the persons and bodies to whom section 8 applies guidance as to the sharing of information between and amongst themselves;
- (b) to draw up and disseminate to the persons and bodies to whom section 8 applies guidance as to the circumstances in which it is appropriate for those persons and bodies to share information between and amongst themselves;
- (c) to maintain under review the guidance drawn up under paragraphs (a) and (b).
§ (2) In drawing up the guidance set out at subsection (1)(a) and (b), and in reviewing such guidance under subsection (1)(c), the Children's Commissioner shall consult with—
- (a) the Secretary of State;
- (b) the Information Commissioner;
- (c) such other interested persons and bodies with statutory responsibility for children as the Children's Commissioner sees fit.
§ (3) The guidance under subsection (1)(a) and (b) shall in particular make provision—
- (a) as to the nature of the information that, in the circumstances of the case, must or may be shared;
- (b) as to procedures designed to ensure the accuracy and security of information shared;
- (c) as to procedures designed to ensure, where appropriate, the co-ordination of the sharing of information between and amongst relevant agencies and persons;
- (d) as to procedures designed to govern the circumstances in which information can be lawfully shared notwithstanding any rule of law which prohibits or restricts the disclosure of information;
- (e) as to procedures designed to guarantee, as appropriate, the rights of data subjects in respect of any information about them that may be shared;
- (f) as to procedures designed to govern the period for which it is appropriate that information should be shared and to ensure appropriate deletion of any information shared in compliance with the Data Protection Principles;
- (g) as to procedures designed to impose penalties for the misuses of shared information and for the holding or disclosure of information contrary to the requirements of the guidance.
§ (4) The Secretary of State shall by regulations subject to affirmative resolution of each House of Parliament provide for the guidance referred to in subsection (1)."
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, first, I echo other noble Lords in expressing my considerable gratitude to the Minister, not only for keeping us informed via correspondence, but for arranging Tuesday's presentation of information-sharing Trailblazers. The event was extremely helpful in clarifying and crystallising my thinking and, I am sure, that of other noble Lords.
§ The Minister will recall that the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and I asked the practitioners present what would be the most important and helpful provision that they would like to see in the Bill. I do not think that I misrepresent them if I say that they cited as their top priority consolidated and concise statutory guidance on the protocols that should apply in respect of information sharing between and among agencies involved in child welfare. That is precisely what the amendment is intended to give them.
§ I shall not try the patience of your Lordships by rehearsing my arguments from Committee. Nevertheless, it is worth repeating the logic that has inspired the amendment. Put simply, it is the recognition of two related but quite distinct problems. On the one hand is the practical and/or technological issue of what provision should be made for systems, be they IT-based or not, that will facilitate information sharing. Clause 8 is the Government's chosen method of addressing that. On the other is the cultural issue of how to establish and inspire the sharing of information; that is, practitioners actually talking and communicating with each other on an inter-agency and intra-agency basis. As I said in Committee, the Bill is strangely silent on that, despite the fact that, to my judgment, the sense of it permeates a great deal of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, on the tragedy of Victoria Climbié.
I hope it is a fair reflection to say that the Minister was receptive to the principles underpinning the amendment in Committee, as indeed was the noble Lord, Lord Laming. I should also admit that the Government are well seized of the need for cogent advice on information sharing. The Minister put it thus:
We are clear that guidance to practitioners under Clauses 6 and 7 needs to provide more clarity about the circumstances under which information may be shared to promote children's welfare, safety and well-being".—[Official Report, 6/5/04; cols. 1304–05.]
Against that background, I hope that it is not too presumptuous of me to suggest that my purpose is, if I can put it this way, supported by the Government, by independent experts and by practitioners in the field.
§ For avoidance of doubt, the original amendment provoked some points of concern; namely, the danger of implicating the Children's Commissioner in line accountability and whether, in effect, the guidance on information sharing should be statutory. Your Lordships 934 can rest assured that in drafting the amendment, for which I express my debt to Liberty and to my noble friend Lord Campbell for their considerable help and assistance, I thought long and hard about its structure. The nub of the problem, on which we have already touched today in the context of earlier amendments, notably Amendments Nos. 4 and 14, is whether the Children's Commissioner or the Secretary of State should be responsible for the preparation of the guidance. In the event, I settled on the former.
As the Minister has observed,
the focus of the commissioner is on children—listening to children, representing children and hearing their views. His power comes from them and his focus must be on them".—[Official Report, 6/5/04: col. 1305.]
By extension, it is crucial that the commissioner be actively involved in preparing the required guidance in that sensitive area, if only to guarantee that it is properly child-focused. In truth, while respecting the anxiety that has been expressed, I am uncertain whether the amendment would create that line accountability problem. Certainly, that was not my intention. The commissioner will be responsible for preparation of the guidance with appropriate consultation, but responsibility for its issuance vests in the Secretary of State in the form of regulations subject to affirmative resolution. As it were, ownership of the processes of information sharing will rest with the commissioner, while effective responsibility for their enforcement will be derived from the Secretary of State's delivery of them in the form of regulation.
§ I turn to the question of whether the guidance should be statutory. The Minister implied in Committee that the Government favoured a non-statutory form, and I hold the opposite view. When we are dealing with an issue that impinges so seriously on individual rights, it is only right and proper that the guidance should be delivered in the form of regulation subject to affirmative scrutiny. That is not a matter of mere administrative detail; rather, it is one that has far-reaching implications for the rights of all our children, and it should be subject to proper parliamentary scrutiny.
§ It is probably as well to add here that it was my impression on Tuesday that the practitioners who expressed their heart-felt wish for consolidated guidance favoured it appearing in statutory form. I do not know what kind of response the Minister is bringing to the Dispatch Box today. It may well be that we must beg to differ on this point. Be that as it may, so far as I can see, this single issue is standing in the way of the noble Baroness accepting the amendment.
§ I conclude with this thought: the noble Lord, Lord Laming, has said that improvements to the way in which information is exchanged within and between agencies are imperative if children are to be adequately safeguarded. That provokes in me a simple question: where on the face of the Bill are those improvements to be found? Notwithstanding the thrust of Clauses 8 and 23, I cannot see them. This amendment is intended to plug that gap. I beg to move.935
§ 3.15 p.m.
§ Earl Howe
My Lords, I have considerable sympathy with the amendment, even though my noble friend is as usual ahead of me, having thought through a persuasive line of argument before it had occurred to me. As I said in Committee, I have a number of hesitations about the creation of databases, both on grounds of cost benefit and the civil liberties implications. We will come to those later.
However, as my noble friend said, what matters is that information is shared between the right people at the right time and in the right amounts. That was one of the main issues identified by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, in the Climbié case. Therefore, I am drawn to my noble friend's argument that primarily the issue is about information sharing. I can also see the logic of saying that there should be guidance and that we should entrust the formulation of such guidance to the commissioner. That is subject to appropriate consultation and the affirmative procedure, assuming that that arrangement is technically possible. I am sure that the Minister will tell us.
Those safeguards would appear to meet the obvious objection that might otherwise have been voiced that we would be placing too much reliance on the commissioner with too little parliamentary scrutiny. I shall therefore be most interested to hear what the Minister has to say in reply.
§ Lord Laming
My Lords, I am full of admiration for the thought that the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, has given to this important matter. The recent meeting we attended with Trailblazers was most helpful. It demonstrated not only what can be done, but what needs to be done and how the law needs to facilitate that.
My concern about the amendment was touched upon by the noble Earl. In the Bill, we attach a great deal of importance to the independence of the Children's Commissioner. He will be independent from government, independent from service providers and solely preoccupied with the interests of children. He will be able to comment on and evaluate any matter that affects children and their well-being, in the greatest sense of the phrase, and to criticise, where he takes the view that the current arrangements are not adequate.
It is therefore most important that the commissioner is not involved in anything connected with managerial accountability and service delivery. The management and exchange of data between organisations seems to be central to effective managerial responsibility, and a line of accountability must be clearly established. The commissioner's position would be weakened and compromised if he were associated with the guidance given to services and that guidance in due course proved to be inadequate. I hope that we will have the opportunity to reflect again on this matter.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, I shall try to be brief, but it is not so easy to do justice briefly to the contribution of my noble friend Lord Howe, which was short but important, and that of the noble Lord, 936 Lord Laming. There is no doubt that in the light of those contributions, and the one that we hope to receive from the Minister, the provisions will have to be rethought and the structure—or at least the presentation—of the Bill will have to be reviewed.
Of course, I am the sort of dogsbody who takes responsibility for the drafting of the amendment, but I am not a draftsman, as all your Lordships know. The amendment essentially represents an inquiry into how we are to get an effective regime in the Bill and have an effective means of enforcement. We must face up to the situation. The only way in which we can achieve that is by getting Parliament to say what the rules are, putting it in plain English, leaving the judiciary to enforce the rules and keeping the executive right out of it. Apart from the remit of the executive that we have been discussing, which is in another mode, the executive have shown themselves totally incapable of dealing with what is a very serious problem. Ever since the report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, we are still saddled in substance with the same rotten regime. We must face up to that.
The Government have given certain guidance about sharing, and it is proposed in the Bill that there should be key agencies. There always have been something like key agencies; it does not matter what one calls them, but they are set up by the local authorities, and there are now many more of them—I believe, about 150. The health authorities are now much larger and fewer—I believe, about 30. The frontline health services are provided by some 300 primary care trusts. But there is a vast and wholly unacceptable variation in the co-ordination, provision and equality of the services offered to our vulnerable children.
The noble Lord, Lord Laming, rightly criticised the existing practices on sharing information and what he called the widespread organisational malaise. That situation grew and festered under a ministerial executive administration. That is one of the main reasons why I assert and seek to persuade your Lordships—not today, but perhaps on another occasion—that the only way in which to do the right thing by our children is to leave it to Parliament to set out the rules and the judiciary to enforce them.
I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Laming. Although I suppose that my drafting could lead to anything, it was not intended in any way to apply to the commissioner. It is intended to apply to the agencies which are obliged to follow procedures, and those procedures are intended to be laid down. I cannot for the life of me see what the object is in having a sort of intermediate administration in the local safeguarding children boards. On that I seek help, because it seems to me that there is tier upon tier and there is no enforceability. We are running back into the old ministerial quagmire and we are getting nowhere. I am totally opposed to that. Of course, I do get things terribly wrong at times, but I cannot see why that is so, and I invite an explanation why we must have tier upon tier of administration.
I must not take too long today, but I suggest that the only effective control is to be afforded in the Bill, in primary legislation. The amendment allows and 937 provides subsidiary legislation in the form of regulations, which are all under the control of Parliament, using the affirmative resolution procedure. Parliament controls the rules while the judiciary enforces them.
Perhaps one cannot get anything right first time—but, with your Lordships' help, perhaps we may consider these matters on another occasion.
§ Baroness Howarth of Breckland
My Lords, I was going to be brief but I am not sure whether I have understood some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, so I may ask him for clarification—but on a future date, not necessarily today.
I am always in awe of the grasp shown by the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, of these issues and the way in which he thinks them through. However, I challenge his thought that the commissioner would undertake the task suggested. I support my noble friend Lord Laming in saying that, yet again, by extending the commissioner's role into such an area we would impair his independence. My noble friend Lord Laming and I have come to those conclusions totally independently, and I am grateful that I find myself alongside him.
I am not going to discuss the database, or some of the points that were made about it, but it is crucially important that when we come to that debate we need to be clear that any regulation comes from central government. However, I fear that those regulations will be interpreted not between Parliament and the judiciary but on the ground, by those people carrying out the task, as was well demonstrated by the trailblazers' pilots. I am grateful to the Minister—as are other noble Lords—for organising that, as it clarified a wide number of issues. We may have other questions, but many issues were clarified.
Once local authorities have put the work in place, it needs to be inspected. I presume that it would be inspected, as with the rest of the work of the local authority, through the national Commission for Social Care Inspection. There would be an air of monitoring, therefore, because that body considers how all regulations are in place in relation to all services. If the commissioner undertook that task, again, that would lead to duplication. In order to carry out the task, yet another team would be required under the commissioner. I should have thought that, considering the Benches on which the noble Lords sit, they would be particularly keen to see efficiency rather than that kind of duplication.
I shall want to return to some of the issues relating to the database. However, at present, I am simply saying that I do not believe that it is a job for the commissioner. We need absolute clarity about where the job lies and how the practitioners will carry it forward.
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, I am very grateful for all the comments that have been made about the trailblazer presentation. I, too, found it extremely valuable, having not had the privilege of seeing at least one before. I am also very grateful to 938 noble Lords for giving up their time—I know that their time is very precious. It was an interesting and useful occasion and it certainly enhanced my thinking, as I am sure it did that of other noble Lords.
I say in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, that we are in something of a chicken-and-egg situation in relation to our discussion on this amendment. Although this issue falls within this part of the Bill, we shall also want to discuss it when we reach another part of the Bill. It is very much linked to the deliberations that we shall have later—to suit the needs of noble Lords, I hasten to add—about the whole question of information sharing.
I agree wholeheartedly with what the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, has just said. It is a question of who is interpreting the guidance, and, as the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, rightly said, it includes the critical nature of bringing together the kind of guidance which is already available but which is perhaps misunderstood by different agencies in working out what they can do, when they can do it and how. One objective behind the Bill has been to address that point. The noble Earl will know that other issues were also raised by the trailblazer pilots.
I shall resist the temptation to talk more about Clause 8 and shall confine myself to the issues before us in this amendment. As the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, in particular said, the fundamental issue is the role of the commissioner and whether this is an appropriate role for him. Again, from my perspective, one objective of the Bill is to ensure that the commissioner does not take on roles which are either inappropriate or time-consuming and which detract from the fundamental wish, shared by all noble Lords, that the commissioner's work should relate to children and not to adults, machines or anything else. I fear that this falls into that category. Therefore, I hope that noble Lords will not press the amendment on the grounds that such a role would not be appropriate for the commissioner in terms of the time that it would take and the work that would be involved.
The second, and perhaps more fundamental, reason why I think that it is not a role for the commissioner is that this is about issuing statutory guidance under Clause 6 to organisations and bodies which will be as wide-ranging as noble Lords have indicated. They include the police and local government and so on. I do not think that it is appropriate to appoint an independent commissioner, as we have now reached the conclusion we wish to do, and then to say to him, "You will now instruct the police on issues of information sharing". Taking that as an example, I do not believe that that is appropriate.
I have said previously in your Lordships' House that it is important not to let government off the hook in terms of our responsibilities and accountability. It is right that statutory guidance should be given by government and that we should be held to account for that guidance in your Lordships' House, in another place and by the electorate.
Therefore, I feel very strongly that there is a real difference of opinion between the Government and the noble Lords who tabled the amendment. I completely 939 support the notion that guidance is critical. It will be very important in our deliberations on information sharing to be clear about the form that the guidance should take. It is important to consider the guidance that is already available and to ensure that people understand what they are and are not allowed to do. We should not necessarily issue new guidance but, as the noble Earl said, we should bring the guidance together.
I accept that it is important to ensure that the guidance carries weight, is well understood and well used. Where I disagree with noble Lords is that that function should rest with an independent commissioner whose role is to have regard to the interests of children.
Finally, we also expect the commissioner to develop expertise and knowledge and to have experience. There would be nothing to stop the commissioner making his views known about information sharing or about the way in which government carry that out if he felt that that was appropriate within his remit of taking into account what is in the best interests of children. There would be nothing to stop the commissioner being involved with that. I submit to your Lordships that that is for the commissioner to determine and that we should put government in the driving seat so that they take responsibility for guidance of this nature. On that basis, I hope that the noble Earl will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
§ The Earl of Northesk
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response and I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. I shall, of course, reflect very carefully on what has been said. At present, I believe that it is enough for me to say that I remain convinced that it is necessary to place statutory guidance on information sharing in the Bill. But the conundrum with which we are wrestling is whence that guidance emanates—that is, who prepares it. With that in mind, I am almost certain that I shall return to this issue with, it is hoped, an improved amendment that meets the concerns of those who have spoken. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 4 [Inquiries held by Commissioner]:
Baroness Ashton of Upholland moved Amendment No. 20:
Page 3, line 17, leave out "in such manner as he thinks fit".
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, we debated in Committee various aspects of the reports to be produced of inquiries held under Clause 4, where the Secretary of State has directed the commissioner to hold an inquiry. We have already debated in your Lordships' House various issues concerning inquiries.
§ In moving Amendment No. 20, I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 22 and 23—all relating to Clause 4. The first, Amendment No. 20, addresses a small but important point on the publication of inquiry reports. The other two—Amendments Nos. 22 and 23—are technical and relate to inquiries in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
For the first of these—Amendment No. 20—I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, who is not in his place but who moved an identical amendment in
Committee. In the debate then, I said that we would consider the points that the noble Lord had raised and write to him, as I have done, and that we would introduce an amendment should that seem appropriate. I have reflected on the matter and believe that his amendment would achieve what we want. The wording,
in such manner as he thinks fit",
added little to the duty on the Secretary of State, and it might have given the impression that the Secretary of State could choose to publish a report in some obscure manner in order to minimise awareness of it. That was certainly never our intention. Inquiries will be significant events, and the Secretary of State will wish to ensure that the findings and recommendations become known and that those who are the subject of recommendations respond to them.
§ I do not think that the words that we are seeking to remove would have allowed a Secretary of State to get away with obscuring the publication of a report. But I am happy, through this amendment, to delete the relevant phrase, and I reaffirm that we want inquiry reports to be widely known and available.
§ The other two amendments—Amendments Nos. 22 and 23—clarify the references in subsections (8) and (9) of Clause 4 to the relevant legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively. The original wording had indicated the statutory provisions under which an inquiry might be held in Scotland or Northern Ireland. The amendments add that they would apply to such an inquiry as they would to a local inquiry. This is not a substantial change, but it makes the wording more accurate. I beg to move.
§ Lord Lester of Herne Hill
My Lords, the great cartoonist, Bateman, used to do wonderful cartoons. One, for example, was about the barrister who admitted that his defendant had no defence, and so on. This amendment reminds me of the Minister who withdrew unnecessary powers voluntarily. It is a very good thing indeed that glasnost has broken out in the corridors of power, and I congratulate the Minister and her colleagues on having won that argument.
§ Earl Howe
My Lords, I thank the Minister for responding to the concerns expressed by my noble friend Lord Lucas in Committee and for moving Amendment No. 20. It is, indeed, most welcome. The amendment in my name in this group—Amendment No. 21–was also proposed in Committee by my noble friend Lord Lucas. Clause 4(5) enables the Secretary of State to censor a report of the commissioner where such a report identifies an individual child. The intention of this provision is clearly to ensure that the identity of the child is not made public where that would be detrimental to the child's interests or undesirable in some other way.
As was said in Committee, I have considerable doubts about whether it is right for the Secretary of State to take this decision rather than some other person. The obvious person in my view is the commissioner, but that is a separate issue. If the Secretary of State is the person who is empowered to take this decision, he should not be able to 941 change the report in ways that go beyond what is necessary to protect the child's identity. In Committee the Minister said that is what subsection (5) implies and that it was not the Government's intention that the Secretary of State should alter or amend any of the commissioner's reports except to protect the child's identity where that was seen to be necessary. Of course, I accept her assurance that that is the Government's intention.
I am not fully comfortable with the argument about the drafting. To someone of benign character, like the Minister, her interpretation is certainly possible. To someone less benign like me, it is more than possible to read the subsection in a way that says that where a report identifies an individual child and it is thought undesirable for his identity to be made public, the Secretary of State may amend the report in any way he chooses. I should like the Minister's reassurance, once again, that that interpretation of the subsection is legally impossible. If it is not, I would invite her to take the matter away and consider it further.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, I cannot think of anyone more benign than the noble Earl, Lord Howe, but I like the idea that he thinks I am benign. That is very reassuring.
I am grateful for what noble Lords have said about the government amendment. The noble Earl clearly set out what he seeks to do in this particular case, and I shall not repeat it. I shall simply say that I shall take it away and consider what we might do perhaps to address this more fully. The noble Earl is right. We are clear about what it means but the point is made and I shall take it away.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ [Amendment No. 21 not moved.]
Baroness Ashton of Upholland moved Amendments Nos. 22 and 23:
Page 3, line 32. after "Scotland" insert "as they apply for the purposes of a local inquiry under that section
Page 3, line 37, after "Ireland" insert "as they apply for the purposes of a local inquiry under that Order
§ 3.45 p.m.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote moved Amendment No. 24:
Leave out Clause 4.
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, as many noble Lords have said, government Amendment No. 16, to empower the commissioner to initiate an inquiry, is very welcome news. Certainly, it will help to establish both the independence and credibility of the commissioner. However, that significant step forward is marred by the continuing power of the Secretary of State to direct the commissioner to undertake an inquiry into the case of an individual child.
§ Under Clause 4 it will be the Secretary of State, not the commissioner, who determines the terms of reference of such an investigation. It will be the Secretary of State, not the commissioner, who determines when the report from 942 such an inquiry can be published. It will also be for the Secretary of State unilaterally to decide to amend or stop the publication of an inquiry report, to protect the identity of an individual child. The reason for that has been given.
§ None of the commissioners in other countries in the UK can be directed or controlled in that way. Surely, it is a fundamental violation of independence but I would have thought it is also unnecessary. The Secretary of State has other powers to establish judicial-style inquiries such as the Victoria Climbié inquiry or the Bichard inquiry into the Soham murders, so surely he or she does not need this additional power.
§ The Government may approach the Children's Commissioner to undertake an inquiry just as it can any other individual or body. New legislation is certainly not required for that. The important point is that Clause 4 requires the commissioner to be permanently at hand to undertake inquiries set by government. That still gives the Government an unacceptably high level of control over the commissioner's agenda and raises questions about whether these arrangements will be seen as a potential cost saver to this and future governments which is, I am sure, not the intention of this Minister.
In giving evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights on 20 April, Scotland's Children's Commissioner, Professor Kathleen Marshall, described the process by which she will determine whether or not to undertake a formal inquiry. She stressed the vital point that the commissioner should be receptive and, most of all, responsive to issues raised by children. She stated:
There is this issue, about [children] raising things themselves, that from their point of view are going to further their protection. The other issue, about the investigation being directed by ministers, is that I would not like to have an investigation or an inquiry foisted on me. … I plan to … assess before I undertake anything what it is going to cost me in time and resources, what … I am going to have to set aside, and I want to have control over that".
§ Of course I also welcome the deletion of the provision allowing the Secretary of State to publish the commissioner's inquiry report in such a manner that he thinks fit, but the commissioner will still, under Clause 4, be required to hand over his or her inquiry to the Secretary of State before publication.
I turn to another of the children's commissioners, Peter Clarke, commissioner for Wales. In giving evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights on 20 April he explained:
The idea that someone could interfere with whether or not this report was published seems to me completely inconsistent with my understanding of what independence means. … Transparency is another word that is very important for our sorts of offices and the publication of a report and the processes being open and transparent are critical parts of our credibility. We have also had now increasingly numbers of professionals working in organisations who are willing to share information with us in private which might well lead to the improved protection of children because they see us as being independent and trustworthy in this way. The less independent we are the less we will be able to enjoy that sort of confidence.
§ Mr Clarke's observations are, I think, significant because he is the longest-serving commissioner in the UK having now been in post for more than three years. I accept that Ministers have stated categorically that the Minister will be an independent champion for children 943 and I believe that is their view, but I have to admit that it is difficult to reconcile the Government's stated aims for the commissioner, and the significant progress made in recent days, with the reality of Clause 4.
§ I hope that the Minister can be persuaded to go one stage further and accept the amendment as proposed to delete Clause 4. I beg to move.
§ Lord Thomas of Gresford
My Lords, I too wish to speak in support of the amendment, to which my noble friend Lady Walmsley has added her name. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, mentioned Mr Peter Clarke. In his evidence on 22 April last to the Welsh Affairs Committee he was asked what he thought were the significant differences between his powers, which he has exercised for some three years, and the powers proposed for the English commissioner. The very first thing that he said was:First, my full independence: I cannot be instructed by any minister to carry out an investigation. That is a key difference between what is being proposed in the Children Bill for a commissioner for England, with its UK parts, and my own office.I consider that to be absolutely fundamental to the independence of the post, and I am sure it would be seen as such too by the European Network of Ombudsmen for Children. I think it is just so fundamental that I am surprised it is a model that is being put forward".Then he was asked by Mrs Julie Morgan whether there was any other commissioner,in places in Europe that could be directed by a minister to carry out an inquiry?His reply was:I am having to pause. I cannot think of one. The problem I have in answering the question is that when I joined the European Network some three years ago there were 12 members and there are now 40: it is growing very rapidly, particularly in the former Soviet countries. It may just be that there is a model of that sort but I am certainly not aware of one".So here we are with a commissioner being put in place; there are 40 commissioners who are members of the European Network of Ombudsmen for children. None of them can be told by a Minister what to do. If the Welsh commissioner cannot be told by a Minister what to do, why can the English commissioner be told by a Minister what to do?
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, I support the arguments of my noble friend Lady Howe for the reasons I gave earlier; namely, that I want children in England to be just as well protected as they are in the other parts of the United Kingdom. There is also a further consideration that some children—usually those of refugees or asylum applicants—fall into the hands of the Home Office. Therefore, it is all the more desirable that the commissioner should be fully independent and not told by Ministers what he can and cannot do.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, as always I am very grateful to noble Lords for such a constructive debate on the issue. As the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, has made very clear, the effect of the amendment is to delete Clause 4 under which the Secretary of State can direct the Children's Commissioner.
944 I understand the question being asked, which on the one hand is about independence and on the other the appropriate relationship between the commissioner and the Secretary of State and whether it is appropriate under new Clause 2 for the Secretary of State to continue to have that power. I do not expect that this power will be used with great frequency. However, I think that it is important as there may be a case which the Secretary of State believes has key significance concerning children's lives, and on which he believes that the commissioner is uniquely placed to hold an inquiry. It may be on an individual child or on a particular set of circumstances—for example, as mentioned by noble Lords, the Waterhouse inquiry.
We envisage that such inquiries would occur only after the kind of discussion and collaboration that one would expect. As I reassured noble Lords in Committee, we do not expect the Secretary of State to burden the commissioner in any way. One of the reasons we think the provision is important is that direction is followed by resources and resources will be critical if we are to see the kind of high-profile inquiries that sadly we have had to have from time to time.
I referred earlier to the importance and therefore, in a sense, the substantial costs that accompanied the tragedy of Victoria Climbié—£3.8 million. It is important that if the Government are going to, very rarely but none the less perhaps occasionally, say, "We need to look at an issue; we do believe it is critical", it is possible for the Secretary of State to say, "I wish this to be done and I wish this to be done by the commissioner".
§ Baroness Walmsley
My Lords, in view of the opinions expressed by the Minister, do the Government intend to take powers for a Secretary of State to be able to direct the other UK commissioners to conduct inquiries?
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, I have no suggestion that we would do that. Indeed, one of the issues that we will come on to when we discuss the relationship between commissioners in other parts of the UK is how best to ensure that we are able to deal with inquiries. I do not want to pre-empt that discussion because I feel I will move into territory on which we need to have a bigger debate. It is not an issue that we have not discussed and considered; it is a question of how we think it is best done.
I recognise that noble Lords will disagree with me on this issue. I am always, as noble Lords know, accommodating when I can be. However, on this issue, which we have discussed and which I have discussed with my right honourable friend, the Government are clear: we wish to retain this power. We expect it to be used, as I have indicated, rarely and to be the trigger for resources for directions. That cannot be done other than by resources following on from that.
In rare and probably exceptional circumstances, we might wish to be able to say to the commissioner that on behalf of the Government and on behalf of us all we would like him to undertake this. I appreciate the concerns raised. I trust that the relationship will be a 945 positive one. None the less, we would wish to retain the power. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw the amendment.
§ Baroness Howarth of Breckland
My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, perhaps I may ask for clarification. I have some concerns that a commissioner is asked to undertake an inquiry of the size of the Climbié inquiry. My friend—and I mean without the noble in other circumstances—Lord Laming was lost to us all for over a year. Presumably, the commissioner would not carry out the inquiry personally. Even oversight of it might take him away from the work that the House has talked about wanting him to do. I ask for clarification.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, on the issue of inquiry there is the ability of the commissioners themselves to initiate inquiries. For example, on the Victoria Climbié inquiry it may well be that a commissioner—or indeed in the case of the tragedy of the little girl Toni-Ann Bayfield—will say, "I wish to do this". We have talked about how that would happen and the commissioner could decide to do it.
In such circumstances there would be, I suppose, a danger that the commissioner would be, as the noble Baroness described it, lost to us. That is why the commissioner will have an office and staff. The commissioner will consider how best to carry out inquiries. Indeed, we anticipate that the Secretary of State will direct the commissioner. That is not to say that there will not be dialogue, or indeed an opportunity to delegate part of the responsibility for that role.
The noble Baroness is right: the issue is about who has the responsibility for conducting the inquiry. In this case we are saying that the Secretary of State would direct the commissioner. The following dialogue may well lead them to ways of doing it, which we will leave for them to discover. None the less, there would be an overarching responsibility and overview from it. That is very important. In thinking about inquiries the Government began with our concern that indeed the commissioner could be wrapped up in inquiries. If they are of such significance, I would argue that that is time well spent.
§ Baroness Howe of Idlicote
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her remarks, and indeed to other noble Lords who have spoken. I have to say that I remain puzzled. As I tried to point out in my comments, it is possible for the Secretary of State under existing circumstances to do just what the Government wish to write on the face of the Bill.
While for the moment I am prepared to withdraw the amendment, I think we may have to think again on the issue. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 4 p.m.
Baroness Walmsley moved Amendment No. 25:
After Clause 4, insert the following new clause—
§ "FURTHER ACTION FOLLOWING REPORT BY COMMISSIONER
§ (1) Where the Children's Commissioner has made a report which contains a recommendation as to action to be taken by a relevant body, the Commissioner may by notice require that body to provide the Commissioner within 3 months of the date of the notice with—
- (a) such information as will enable the Children's Commissioner to determine whether the body has complied with the recommendation or will be complying with it; or
- (b) a statement of the body's reason for not complying with the recommendation.
§ (2) A notice under subsection (1) shall include a statement that a failure by the body to respond within the period mentioned in that paragraph may be published in such manner as the Children's Commissioner considers appropriate.
§ (3) If, on receipt of a response from the body, the Children's Commissioner considers that—
- (a) the action taken or proposed to be taken by the body to comply with the recommendation is inadequate; or
- (b) the body's reason for not complying with the recommendation is inadequate,
§ (4) A notice under subsection (3) shall include a statement that a failure by the body—
- (a) to provide what the Children's Commissioner considers to be a satisfactory response; or
- (b) to provide any response within the period mentioned in that subsection,
§ (5) The Children's Commissioner shall maintain a register containing details of—
- (a) recommendations (together with the reasons for them) contained in reports;
- (b) action taken by the Children's Commissioner under subsections (1) and (3); and
- (c) the results of any such action.
§ (6) Any register maintained under subsection (5) shall be open to inspection by any person at all reasonable times at the offices of the Children's Commissioner and the Commissioner may make arrangements for copies of the register to be available for inspection in such other place or places or by such other means as he considers appropriate.
§ (7) The Children's Commissioner shall publish those arrangements in such a way as to bring them to the attention of persons likely to be interested."
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, at present there is no requirement on bodies to which the commissioner addresses recommendations to make any sort of response. This new clause enables the commissioner to require a response to his or her recommendation and to publicise any failures to respond. That is similar to provisions in the legislation establishing commissioners in Wales and Northern Ireland.
When the new clause was debated in Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, responded:
It is certainly not the Government's intention that the commissioner's inquiry reports should sink without trace … Reports should lead to action, as the Committee would expect, or to explanation of why the commissioner's recommendations have not been accepted or implemented".—[Official Report, 6/5/04; col. 1332.]
However, the Minister went on to suggest that it would be the Secretary of State's task to follow up recommendations in any reports of inquiries that he or she had directed the commissioner to carry out under the existing Clause 4.
§ The scope of this new clause goes wider than any recommendations made by the commissioner following a formal inquiry. I have welcomed the new clause proposed by the Government giving the commissioner the power to initiate formal inquiries. That is one of the matters on which the Government have listened. It is essential that the commissioner can require a person or body to whom he or she addresses recommendations to respond and can publicise any failures to respond.
§ Of course I accept that constitutionally it would be wrong for an unelected body such as a commissioner to be able to enforce a recommendation, but what is proposed in this new clause is a necessary and reasonable way of ensuring that the commissioner's recommendations are taken very seriously. Similar provisions exist in legislation establishing the Wales and Northern Ireland commissioners. It works very well and gives commissioners in those countries the teeth that they need. We want a similar set of dentures for the English commissioner. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, the amendment has our names attached to it. It is hugely important that follow-up work is done as a result of whatever finding the commissioner might make. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, has said, it seems ironic that Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland can do it whereas we cannot.
The noble Baroness, Lady David, who is not in her place at the moment, spoke very keenly in Committee. She said that further action following a report was essential. I tried to make that proposal in my opening remarks on that amendment at that time.
The Disability Rights Commission strongly supports the aims of the amendment to give the commissioner essential powers also. I cannot add much more to what the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, except perhaps to point out that the amendment is strongly recommended by outside groups ranging from Barnardo's and Childline to Save the Children UK and UNICEF. I have done great disservice to all those groups that come in between, but I fear that we will not progress with this Bill, if every time we have an amendment we support it so strongly that we keep repeating the same remarks. In case the Minister has not been briefed in this regard, we have had a lot of support for the amendment.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, I am very grateful to noble Lords for speaking to the amendment, and for the very helpful way in which it was introduced. I appreciate that it is important to 948 look at what happens beyond, and to ensure that things are acted upon. As drafted the amendment would apply to all adult reports, annual reports and any reports of inquiry. There is no disagreement on the principle of what to do.
I am not sure whether I agree with the bureaucratic process proposed. Although I recognise that it reflects some of the work on the Northern Ireland commissioner—I do not want to suggest that that was a bureaucratic process—it goes a little further than required. We expect that, when a commissioner makes recommendations addressing government practice and policy in particular, Parliament will be the place that demands of us the answers. That is right and proper; it is very important that we ensure that it happens. I have no doubt that, if my department were under question by the commissioner, issues would be raised in your Lordships' House, to put it politely. I expect that we would look to Parliament to do that work.
Where we have local government and service providers, part of the role of government is to press for answers to the commissioner's concerns. Regulatory bodies may be able to exert their influence. I have no doubt that the commissioner will be very public and vocal in raising concerns, as is right and proper, so that there is a general embarrassment factor, which is also very important.
I am not wedded to the proposed system; it does not quite work for me. I am always anxious about putting so much on the face of the Bill, although I appreciate that such amendments are often tabled to elicit debate in any event. Perhaps we could have a conversation about the matter—this is off the top of my head—as we are very comfortable with the principle, but I would like to explore further existing mechanisms that might be better used. I am always reluctant to create new mechanisms if we can use existing ones. Perhaps we could consider where the tension points might be, as so many organisations feel very strongly about the matter—although it has not been raised with me, so I am in the dark in that regard. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
§ Baroness Walmsley
My Lords, I am shocked, horrified and mortally wounded to know that the Minister thinks that my amendment is bureaucratic. She is criticising the legislation on the commissioner for Northern Ireland, because, as she correctly said, we have based the amendment on that legislation. We were so specific in order to avoid accusations of being woolly and vague; yet, in being specific, we are criticised in a different way.
The Minister mentioned what would happen if the commissioner made recommendations about her own department. She is correct in saying that if her own department did not respond to such recommendations, noble Lords would keep her very busy at Question Time. The problem is that noble Lords would not be able to keep other organisations so busy. That is why we need something in the Bill to ensure that the commissioner has teeth.
949 However, I very much welcome the Minister's on-the-hoof seat-of-the-pants flying today—with a sideline glance at the Officials' Box—in suggesting that she may be able to come back at Third Reading with a recommendation on how we could ensure that the commissioner was responded to appropriately. I look forward to hearing what happens in that respect, and would very much like to carry on the conversation with the Minister until Third Reading. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff moved Amendment No. 26:
After Clause 4, insert the following new clause—
§ "POWER OF CONSIDERATION AND REPRESENTATION BY COMMISSIONER
(2) Omit subsections (1) and (2) and insert—
( ) The Commissioner may consider, and make representations about any matter affecting the rights and welfare of children in Wales to—
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I preface my remarks by thanking the Minister for the open way in which she has discussed the issues. I am slightly hopeful that her response may bring me some comfort, following our brief discussion before we entered the Chamber today.
§ I shall also speak to Amendment No. 27. Amendment No. 26 is identical to an amendment tabled in Committee. It amends the Care Standards Act 2000, by which the office of the Children's Commissioner for Wales was established in the first place. Amendment No. 27 sets out how the Children's Commissioner in England shall consult and work with the other Children's Commissioners. It is essential that children in the same household have a clear route to their champion and that the Children's Commissioner can deal with all the issues that children raise with him or her in the same manner, whether the department is devolved or not.
§ Children are unaware of government structures and their difficulties do not easily split between devolved and non-devolved issues. A child can request help from the Children's Commissioner in Wales because he is homeless, but it appears that he could not do so if he was then in police custody. That seems perilously to cut across the child's access to the commissioner and all that is intended with that. As the English commissioner will now have such powers, it is essential that the Children's Commissioner in Wales is able to represent the issue for Welsh children direct to whichever body that child has raised issues about, whether it be in Wales alone or centrally in England on a UK basis.950
§ In Committee, the question was raised about the appropriateness of amending the Care Standards Act during the passage of the Bill, but it seems to me timely—indeed, essential—that as the Children's Commissioner is to be established for England, the Children's Commissioner for Wales has powers to work with the commissioner in England. I briefly remind the House that the Government have stated that they want a fair, consistent and equal approach to all non-devolved policies, irrespective of their geographic location. That was outlined in their response to the first report of the committee session on the empowerment of children and young people in Wales.
§ The purpose of Amendment No. 27 is consequential on focusing the Children's Commissioner in England. It requires the Children's Commissioner for England to consult and collaborate with the other commissioners on UK-wide issues and with appropriate commissioners on issues affecting children in more than one country. That has been strongly supported. I will not go through the list of supporting organisations, but I draw the House's attention to the fact that it is also supported by the commissioners themselves in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
§ The idea of the Secretary of State in England directing the commissioner to go into one of the other countries to carry out a formal investigation seems strange, given that there will be a commissioner in each of the devolved countries. This debate is not about devolution of government functions; it is about an independent Children's Commissioner being able to exercise his functions in each country in relation to all matters that affect children's rights and interests.
§ A legal opinion from Jack Beatson QC has advised that there is no obstacle inherent in the devolution settlement to prevent the sovereign Westminster Parliament from establishing a commissioner with the powers envisaged by the National Assembly for Wales. I emphasise that the National Assembly for Wales also supports the request for those increased powers for the commissioner in Wales and for collaborative working between the different commissioners.
§ On UK-wide issues—tackling child poverty and increasing safeguards for children in custody, for example—there will be clear value to the commissioners consulting together and collaborating to promote and safeguard children's rights, views and interests. However, it is essential that in each country, children have their own commissioner who fully understands the law, policy and practice in that country, as well as being aware of the society's culture, languages, traditions and demographic make-up.
I finish simply by citing a joint briefing issued earlier during the Bill's passage. The commissioners in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland together stated:
We want all children to have easy access to a Commissioner who will act independently on their behalf and jointly with other Commissioners where appropriate. We need to take a holistic view of children's needs—not one dominated by the complicated government and legal structures arising from devolution".
In the words of Jane Hutt, whom I met earlier today, we need a one-stop shop for children.
§ The Deputy Speaker (Lord Brougham and Vaux)
My Lords, as Amendment No. 27 is grouped, I should say that if Amendment No. 27 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 28 or 29 due to pre-emption.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Lord Roberts of Conwy
My Lords, we have touched on the substance of these amendments in discussing Amendment No. 4 earlier today. That amendment changes the remit of the Children's Commissioner and confines him or her to England, rather than the United Kingdom. As I pointed out, that has implications as far as the situation in Wales is concerned. It is clear that there is a need for clarification, if nothing else, of the respective roles of the Children's Commissioners for Wales and the United Kingdom, or England as the case may be, and the relationship between them. There is a functional overlap between them in Wales, and I dare say similarly in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
By the nature of his appointment, the Welsh commissioner—which is a Crown appointment, but paid for by the National Assembly for Wales—can officially only deal with children in so far as they come within the scope of devolved powers. When children are affected by non-devolved powers, the Welsh commissioner can make representations to the Assembly, which can then carry them forward to the relevant Secretary of State. As I said this morning, what happens in practice is that the Welsh commissioner has informal talks with officials at the department concerned.
Again, as I pointed out this morning, under the present dispensation the Welsh commissioner can call on the UK commissioner to back him up by devoting himself to the problem that the Welsh commissioner has seen in a non-devolved area. There is no doubt that it is an untidy situation. An individual child may have a problem that crosses the boundaries of devolved and non-devolved areas of government. Such problems are no respecters of such artificial boundaries. I look forward to hearing the Government's comments on the solution proposed in Amendment No. 26, which seems reasonable enough to me, and formalises what happens informally now.
Amendment No. 27 does much the same. One of my first concerns on reading this Bill was the relationship between the commissioners. We all want there to be close collaboration between them to avoid duplication of effort and to maximise mutual benefit. Amendment No. 27 puts all that in the Bill. Although the Government may argue that it is not necessary, the Bill is improved by having these matters in it.
§ Lord Thomas of Gresford
My Lords, in Wales, when we have a rugby match, the team warm up and there is a lot of punching of one's chest, punching of other players, running up and down on the spot, and even banging one's head against the wall. Then you go out to play. It was in that spirit that in 2001 when we were dealing with the Children's Commissioner for 952 Wales Act, that we attacked the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, who was then leading for the Government.
As a result of that match, we ended up with Clause 75(a) being inserted into the Care Standards Act 2000 as a little bit of a compromise. It provided that the Welsh commissioner may consider and make representations to the Assembly about any matters affecting the rights or welfare of children in Wales. The compromise was that the Welsh commissioner could not go straight to Whitehall and deal directly with the Secretary of State in the particular area that he was concerned with, but he had to go through the Welsh Assembly.
That was as much as we could gain in that match, and so we warmed up today, but it may be that we are in a situation where if you go out on to the pitch and someone hits you on the nose in the first minute, all the steam drains rapidly away. We were informed that the Minister was going to give us some good news at a later stage this afternoon. However, I must play the game as it is written, so she will forgive me if I remind her of some of the evidence that has been given to the Welsh Affairs Committee of the House of Commons by Jane Hutt, on 22 April. She said:
We are going to see a much more holistic service for children, safeguarding children, as a result of a Children Bill which has strong Welsh clauses and I think this is the spirit in which we must try now to move forward in enabling and ensuring that children in Wales have one point of contact, with one Children's Commissioner, our Welsh Children's Commissioner".Jane Hutt is the Minister responsible in the Welsh Assembly. She made it clear to the committee that whatever the arrangement, there should be a single person who is the Children's Commissioner for Wales to whom children could take their complaints. Of the Bill, she said:It is difficult for me to go into practicalities, but … if a child is engaged with the youth justice system, then we would hope that the child or young person would be able to relate to the Welsh Children's Commissioner. But obviously the Welsh Children's Commissioner then would be relating to the English Children's Commissioner in relation to the issues or problems and thence, if appropriate, to the Secretary of State for that reserved function".She was suggesting that the English commissioner would be a buffer between the Welsh commissioner and the Secretary of State.
The amendment proposes to remove the English commissioner and all his officials and make it possible for the Welsh commissioner to go directly to the appropriate Secretary of State; not through the Welsh Assembly, not through the English commissioner, but as of right himself.
Indeed, Jane Hutt, who clearly is very sympathetic to the point of view that we are putting forward, said that,
we would want to make sure that the Welsh commissioner was able to have the clout … on behalf of Welsh children to know that something was being considered fully by the Secretary of State and the UK Government as it would be by the Welsh Assembly Government".In giving her evidence, Jane Hutt was followed by Mr Peter Clarke, the Welsh commissioner. I have already referred to some parts of his evidence. He was 953 told that the recommendation of the Welsh Affairs Committee was to have the powers given to him under both reserved and non-reserved powers within Wales; indeed, they would be extended into England where there are Welsh children who are in custody and that he should have the power of direct representation.
He was asked what powers he lacked at present. He said:My current powers are there but I do not have my strongest powers in the area of non-devolved matters. I cannot require documentation to be given to me.That means that he cannot call for documents. He continued:
I cannot require the attendance of witnesses to give evidence on oath if I am conducting an inquiry. From the point of view of being the most powerful children's champion possible it would be good from my perspective if the current Children Bill were amended to extend my powers over those matters".Peter Clarke told the Committee that the Westminster Minister, Mrs Margaret Hodge, had told him that it was non-negotiable for this Bill to extend those powers. On 4 May, when she gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee, she was asked about that. She said:
I said it was non-negotiable whether or not we would use the vehicle of creating an English Commissioner for England as a means of adding to the powers of the Welsh Commissioner on non-devolved matters".Dr Francis, who was questioning Margaret Hodge, said:'Non-negotiable' is a word that would have been used in the days of undemocratic devolution. Now we have democratic devolution. Surely these issues are all negotiable".Margaret Hodge replied:
The government view is … reflected in the clauses that we have put in the Bill that is being currently considered through the parliamentary process. Clearly, we will have to see how that parliamentary process works its way through the system, but the government view is that this is not a vehicle in which we are prepared to extend the power of the Welsh Commissioner on non-devolved matters".Why not? When are the issues of a Children's Commissioner—whether in Wales, England or any other part of the United Kingdom—next going to come before Parliament? When will there be an opportunity for this matter to be debated and considered further? It would be extremely sensible and practical for the Welsh commissioner to have access to the relevant ministry in non-devolved matters. That does not mean that we would be breaching something that I have often attacked, the devolution settlement, by so doing.
We would not be adding to the powers of the Welsh Assembly by giving the Welsh commissioner these powers. It is only sensible that he should have within his compass powers to look after the interests of every child who happens to be in Wales, whether that child is in prison and therefore subject to the Home Office—a non-devolved area—or whether the child is in hospital and subject to the devolved matters concerning health. What difference does it make?
We have already debated today why the English commissioner should have any powers in Wales, and we have carried the necessary amendment at least to limit 954 them. Why should not there be direct access to Ministers? As the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, pointed out, the Welsh commissioner has already made informal approaches on a number of occasions to the Prison Service and the police, along with various other institutions, to make representations on behalf of children in Wales. On only one of those occasions has he met a problem. He had been able to obtain the medical records for a child, but the police refused to allow him to see the police reports because it was a non-devolved matter. These distinctions are ludicrous.
I shall not weary noble Lords by going into the question of what should and should not be devolved to Wales; that is for another day. But it is ridiculous that whether a matter is devolved is used as an excuse to prevent the Welsh commissioner having full powers over the interests of children in the Principality.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
My Lords, I support Amendments Nos. 26 and 27 and I wish to express my gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, for tabling them. The background to Amendment No. 26 has been fully explained to the House. I think that I can best help by pointing out that the situation is unsatisfactory and that there are four basic and obvious weaknesses in the present arrangements.
First, the Assembly may decide not to carry the matter forward. Secondly, even if the Assembly decides to take the matter forward, the Assembly Minister or official in charge of the exercise will not have full command of the detailed facts which are available to the commissioner. I am sure that the Assembly Minister or official would do his best, but that can be only second-best and therefore he may fail to get to the root of the problem.
Thirdly, there may well be a waste of valuable time for the child or young person in deciding whether or not the particular subject area is a devolved matter. That can be a difficult issue. Fourthly, I recall that my noble friend Lady Gale asked at Second Reading about the child or young person in Wales who does not know the difference between a devolved and a non-devolved area. It is puzzling, confusing and unsettling.
So for all those reasons the position is simply unsatisfactory. Therefore the question must be: how can it be improved? I believe that the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness offers a way forward. As explained by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, the object of Amendment No. 27 is to provide a secure statutory basis for the commissioners to consult and work together on matters concerning children's rights and interests throughout the UK. I have read the Bill carefully but a statutory duty to consult on such matters does not exist. If I am wrong, I am sure the Minister will correct me.
But there are matters which affect all children throughout the countries of the United Kingdom. These should be addressed by a dialogue between the UK commissioner on the one part and the three territorial commissioners on the other. I believe that whatever the UK commissioner can do on issues and themes that 955 affect the children of the UK, can best be done in consultation with the other three commissioners—drawing on their knowledge of their territories, drawing on their experience, drawing on their skills—and then agreeing or negotiating a common approach wherever possible.
Without such consultation one can safely predict that the reports of the UK commissioner could prove to be inappropriate in Wales or Scotland or Northern Ireland. I therefore very much hope that Amendments Nos. 26 and 27 will bring forth a positive response from my noble friend Lady Andrews.
§ 4.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Andrews
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, for the opportunity to debate again the implications involved in the relationships between the four commissioners, not least because it gives me a chance to report on the progress that has been made since we met in Committee. I do not know how good the good news will be. I am sure that I shall be unable to deliver it with the sheer charm of the beloved late Lord Williams. I hope noble Lords will understand that we have listened to the arguments but—I cannot soften the blow—we cannot accept the two amendments. I shall explain why in due course.
As previously, there have been powerful arguments. I understand how strongly noble Lords feel about these issues. Essentially, the amendments address the Welsh commissioner's remit over non-devolved matters and his relationship with his UK counterpart. Amendment No. 26 would give the Welsh commissioner powers to make representations to the National Assembly for Wales and to UK Ministers.
The situation has not changed since the Committee stage, when I described at some length the existing scope and ability for the Welsh Children's Commissioner to make representations to the Assembly on non-devolved matters affecting children. There is nothing to stop him making representations to the relevant UK Minister. Indeed, I know that the Wales Office has confirmed to the Welsh commissioner that he is welcome to approach it at any time.
In the light of the changes that were made to Clause 2 today, which have slightly complicated matters, Amendment No. 27 would require the four commissioners to work together on matters relating to the rights and interests of children across the UK. However, it would still leave a gap in that the commissioner would not be able to report to the UK Government on non-devolved matters. The Government continue to believe that this is a serious omission and that the English commissioner, working with his counterparts, should have this function.
Let me take these issues one at a time. We had a very good debate in Committee on the impact that the commissioner clauses might have on the devolved nations, and on Wales in particular. The focus of the debate was primarily on the relationship between the Children's Commissioner and the Welsh commissioner and how it 956 might affect the way in which the interests and the representation of children in Wales on non-devolved matters were dealt with.
The issues we discussed, however, obviously invited an outcome that worked for all the devolved nations. At the end of the debate, I told the Committee that we would take the issue away and explore the ways in which we might be able to ensure that there was no confusion about the roles and effectiveness of the new commissioner and his or her three equal counterparts. Issues of confusion were very much in the minds of noble Lords, with various illustrations given of how that might occur.
I must repeat two important provisos that I made in Committee. This is not the good news, I am afraid. First, we will not use the legislation to extend the powers and the remit of the Children's Commissioner for Wales. We remain convinced that it is neither the right time nor the right way in which to make such changes.
Secondly, I should like to give the assurance that I gave earlier that by creating a new commissioner, we will do nothing that will undermine or diminish the existing powers and remit of the three established commissioners in the UK. We have reiterated that pledge in many different ways and circumstances.
What we want to do—it has been described this afternoon as tidying-up or matters of dialogue—is make sure that the relationship between the commissioners works as smoothly and transparently as possible for the benefit of all children in the UK, wherever they are. We aim to create a system that children can understand and from which they can benefit.
We have listened very carefully during the debate, and discussions have since taken place at both ministerial and official level to find a solution that works, above all, for children and young people. First, in response to the debate over the formal relationship between the proposed commissioner and other commissioners, we are attempting to clarify matters. We are looking at ways of sending a clearer message by way of the legislation that the England/UK commissioner is not a "first among equals" but an equal partner with other commissioners. We still want to find a clearer way of presenting his role in relation to England and in relation to the UK as a whole, defined in terms of language and scope, but also in a way which is consistent with the devolution settlement. We continue to believe, however, that it is logical for the English commissioner to have the reporting power to the UK Government through non-devolved issues. We need to think about this and, as I said, discussions are in progress.
Secondly, we still want to ensure appropriate and effective co-operation between the commissioners so that children are not confused and their interests are served properly, no matter what they entail. We think the best approach is for the commissioners to get together to decide how best to do this—that is the nature of the dialogue we envisage.
957 We will also study the Bill and make any necessary changes we believe are important to enable this to happen. Should we conclude that there should be legislation to promote effective co-operation between the commissioners, we would want such legislation to be of an enabling nature, which would allow commissioners to work out the detailed procedures between them. For example, if the English commissioner has a remit to report on non-devolved issues, as we intend, the commissioner could be enabled to ask his or her counterparts to undertake certain tasks relating to non-devolved matters in their nation, on his or her behalf. They would, of course, have the right to refuse. Such a conclusion would seem to take care of some of the issues that have been raised.
Noble Lords will know that the existing commissioners are extremely committed and impressive professionals. They have children's interests very much at heart. We are confident that they will use the legislation as a frame around which to develop effective practices. We have spoken before about the commissioners drawing up their own independent protocols or memorandum of understanding. These are extremely useful tools. They will certainly help to ensure the clarity of the communication process. We anticipate that they will cover issues such as how the commissioners pass on communications from children, when it is appropriate to do so, and how they will keep one another informed of the views of children. We hope that this will be explicit.
We listened carefully to what noble Lords said in Committee. Discussions are taking place at all the relevant levels. I therefore ask noble Lords to bear with us as we take these very complex discussions forward. We must be certain of the outcome. There are technical and legal aspects that need to be thought through very carefully and we want to press ahead with the full agreement of our colleagues in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
As noble Lords know better than most, with many powers and functions devolved to the administrations in other nations, and an independent commissioner in each of them, it will require thorough investigation. I cannot provide more detail at this point but I reassure noble Lords that we are working very hard to find a practical way forward that best serves the views and interests of children, wherever they are in the UK. I am sure that the commissioners will support us in that. With that in mind, we hope to have concrete proposals to bring forward when the Bill is debated in another place in a short while. I hope that with those reassurances, and recognising the hard work that is going into making these relationships and processes as clear, transparent, robust and effective as possible for children across the UK, noble Lords will be able to withdraw the amendment.
§ Lord Roberts of Conwy
My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I have listened very carefully to what she said but it seems to me that it is not a full explanation of why the Government are rejecting the amendments, particularly Amendment No. 27, which 958 spells out that the commissioners shall consult and work together. It is something that looks fairly simple to put on the face of the Bill and yet the Government say that it is a complex matter and so on. Is that really the sticking point? Or is there a financial angle to this difficulty over collaboration?
§ Baroness Andrews
My Lords, we believe that the process that we are taking forward will ensure that effective consultation will be achieved by the creation of opportunities for dialogue between the commissioners and by looking at the potential for enabling this. The problem with the amendment is that it would leave us in a position where the commissioner would not be able to report to the Government on non-devolved issues in relation to Clause 2. We would have to address that omission. As this is slightly complex, I would prefer it if I could write to noble Lords about this and give some further detail.
§ Baroness Finlay of Llandaff
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her reply. I am, of course, disappointed but I hear the message asking us to bear with the Government and the commitment to carry on looking at this and to introduce changes to the Bill when it goes to the other place.
I am concerned that the amendment stressing that the commissioners must consult and work together is not currently going on the face of the Bill because one could have a clash of philosophy, for example, that could impede the working of the commissioners. There is a lot to be said for making this a statutory requirement. I am very grateful to the noble Lords who spoke in support of this amendment for making their points so strongly. They are now all on the record.
I advise the Government to look again at the legal opinion from Jack Beatson QC in February, of which I think they are aware. He said:The operation of the doctrine of ultra vires and the (sometimes uncomfortable) nature of the Commissioner's investigations and recommendations make it fundamentally important that the Commissioner be given as broad a mandate as Parliament considers possible and for this mandate to be laid down in law to enable the Commissioner to conduct his office without having to depend upon the "good will" and co-operation of the UK government (of whatever composition) for his effectiveness".This, of course, was advice given to the Children's Commissioner for Wales group.
Given that I accept the Government are actively looking at the matter and discussing it with the Assembly, I shall withdraw the amendment at this stage. However, I shall be concerned if the Bill progresses further without these issues of compatibility between the different regions really being addressed. I am convinced that there is confusion out there, and that confusion will continue unless we have very clear lines of reporting regarding to whom the children go and to whom the commissioner goes—sometimes rapidly, as has been said—when a problem seems to be emerging. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Clause 5 [Relationship with other Commissioners]:
§ [Amendment No. 27 not moved.]
Baroness Thornton moved Amendment No. 28:
Page 4, line 16, at end insert—
(d) to the extent that such matters relate to children in one or more of the English Regions, take account of the views of and any work undertaken by any relevant Regional Children's Commissioner
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in a way I am following on from the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. She used the word "regions" when I think that she meant nations. I am talking about regions. It is ironic that if the previous amendment had been accepted, it would have meant that the House was precluded from a discussion about the English regions, which is what these amendments are concerned with.
§ Amendment No. 28 would add to the subsection concerned with the relationships between the different commissioners. Amendments Nos. 32 and 33 would add a suggested remit of what a regional commissioner might do. Amendment No. 33 has one of those things in it that brings my noble friend the Minister out in hives; that is, a list. Amendment No. 144 seeks to amend the Title of the Bill.
§ The heart of this problem is that there is no recognition in the Bill of the regional dimension for England. I should like to put on record my thanks to the Minister for the discussions that we have had so far. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, who added his name to the amendment, is not present. I suspect that he is on a train between here and Brussels where he has attended a meeting on the European regions, funnily enough, and has not yet made it back. However, we had a useful discussion with the Minister, and I am very grateful that she found the time to do that.
§ These amendments in a way constitute a gallop around this issue at this stage. A key omission from the Children Bill is the lack of regard to the role of regional government structures in England. The amendments would include provision of an appropriate regional mechanism within the national commissioner structure. The amendments would introduce a mandatory requirement to appoint regional children's commissioners, which would ensure a consistent and coherent approach rather than allowing them to develop in a patchwork or ad hoc fashion.
§ In Committee, noble Lords on all sides of the Chamber supported the need for the Children's Commissioner's office to operate with an understanding of the complexity of regional government structures and responsibilities affecting children's lives. These amendments address the Government's point, made by my noble friend Lady Andrews in Committee, that,
"a model for London takes us into the issue of models for other regions".—[Official Report, 6/5/04; col. 1338.]
§ In many ways, my concern echoes the debate we have just had in which the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, spoke about a one-stop shop for children in the nations of the UK. The same applies to children in the regions of England. While it would be possible for variants of, for 960 example, the office of the Children's Rights Commissioner for London to be set up in other regions, if this was done outside the process of this Bill it would have the significant disadvantage of being non-statutory. By not falling within the Children's Commissioner provisions in the Children Bill, they would lack the statutory authority or power. In addition, such a model could be confusing for children and young people and the wider public in the regions if there were an England commissioner and a regional commissioner with different roles and responsibilities.
§ The Minister expressed concern in Committee about the creation of an inappropriately complex structure at this stage and suggested that the first months and years might not be the time to overload the commissioner with new challenges. However, I pray in aid the Government's proposals to create the new commission for equality and human rights. That new commission would have a presence in each of the nine English regions, as proposed in the DTI White Paper issued very recently, Fairness for All: A New Commission for Equality and Human Rights. It is envisaged that that regional network would help to deliver the commission's strategic priorities in a way responsive and sensitive to local and regional needs, rather than through a one-size-fits-all or overly centralised approach.
§ We seek to ensure that the Children's Commissioner's function is engaged with local government on the issues of health, social care and education, and with regional government in the issues of planning, community safety and cultural and transport policies as they affect children. I am aware that that has budgetary implications. The current budget for the Children's Commissioner for Wales is £1.4 million a year. The cost of a regional commissioner mechanism would be substantially less than that. The principle needs to be discussed.
§ I want to say something about numbers and give the example of a regional commissioner in London. London has 1.62 million children, which is two and a half times the number in Wales, three times the number in Scotland, and one and a half times the number in Northern Ireland, where there are already commissioners. London's children continue to experience the highest levels of poverty and inequality of any region in the UK. For example, after housing costs, the child poverty rating in inner London is 48 per cent. A regional commissioner structure would help to reflect the diversity of London's children, 41 per cent of whom—53 per cent in inner London—belong to a black, Asian or ethnic minority group.
§ London is also home to a disproportionately high number of children who are doubly disadvantaged by poverty and discrimination, including refugees, the homeless and the disabled. London's children are particularly susceptible to the effects of environmental degradation such as poor air and unsafe play areas. However, in the fullness of time, similar arguments will be made and deployed about the things that affect children in rural communities, isolated communities and small villages, as the English regions develop and 961 set up their own structures. Therefore, the question facing us is how to recognise the regional dimension at this stage of the Bill. I beg to move.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, it is good that the amendment was moved from the Government's Back Benches; I am very glad that that is the case. Amendment No. 28 suggests taking account of regional views, which is important. I hope that they will be genuinely helpful to the Government. I also welcome the group for a reason that I gave on Second Reading and twice earlier today—that I want English children to be just as well protected as those living in other parts of the United Kingdom.
There have been some references to the very much larger workload concerning children that arises in the natural course of events in England. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, made special reference to London. Of course, that is true. I should add that in London one will find a disproportionate number of children whose first language is other than English. That poses huge problems for the education system.
Finally, in support of this group of amendments, that accountability of regional children's commissioners will be important and the long-term solution will lie with future English regional assemblies—whenever we get them. I hope that the Government take this group seriously.
§ Baroness Andrews
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken on the amendment, particularly to my noble friend, because she is a great champion of regionalism. I wish I could give her more satisfaction in response to her amendments. I shall explain why it is difficult for us to do that and our solutions.
Amendment No. 32 establishes posts for regional children's commissioners in each of the nine English regions and Amendment No. 33 specifies the role of those commissioners in assisting the Children's Commissioner and the issues to which they would have regard. Amendment No. 28 requires the Children's Commissioner to take account of their work and Amendment No. 144 is consequential on the Bill's title page.
We discussed these issues in Committee in the context of an amendment seeking to establish an assistant commissioner for London. As I said then, different regions and areas face different challenges. We would expect the commissioner to be aware of and to respond to them.
Without reiterating the argument, we would expect the commissioner to be well aware of the differences and the imperatives of different regions that make a critical difference to children's lives. The issues that contribute to regional differences—equality, the different pressures on children and families, and language, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, mentioned—can mean a loss of opportunity and access, as well as discrimination and disadvantage across the country.
962 Those issues are listed in subsection (2) of Amendment No. 33 and are those that the commissioner will wish to bear in mind when considering whether and how to address regional matters. However, returning to our point of principle, there are no analogies between other bodies and the commissioner, who will be a unique agency for addressing complex and widespread issues. We, in Parliament, should not impose structures on the commissioner. We should leave it to him or her to decide how best to deploy their staff and priorities. It is possible that the commissioner may choose to focus the work of his office by region, by age group, or by topic—or any mixture of those options. We will all watch that closely, but he will be independent and we should not interfere with his freedom to operate as he sees fit.
There is a separate question of how the commissioner takes account of and interacts with regional bodies. In exercising his functions he will relate to regional and local bodies as much as to national bodies. Again, in response to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, the commissioner will certainly take account of regional views. He will be aware, as we all are, that there is a powerful regional dimension to policy that is developing all the time. Regional and local organisations are extremely relevant to the scope and impact of the commissioner's work. As regional government grows and becomes more powerful, it has a serious job to do in listening and responding to the needs of children. We must not undermine that in any way and I am sure that the noble Baroness would not dream of that—nor would her amendment do that—but it is a matter that we should bear in mind.
There is a powerful dynamic in regional government and it may be that there will be more local or regional commissioners along the lines of the London pilot. Of course, the Children's Commissioner would want to build on the work of others. That would be certainly be a way of engaging young people in the regions and assisting the national commissioner in getting their views. Ensuring that children across the diverse regions of the UK receive equal benefit from what the commissioner will bring will be a vital dimension of the commissioner's work.
I am sorry that I cannot accept my noble friend's amendment, but I hope that she understands the reasons why we take that position and that she will be able to withdraw her amendment on those grounds.
§ 5 p.m.
§ Baroness Thornton
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her answer and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for his support. I had hoped for slightly more comfort and that the Government might recognise that the Bill does not mention the English regions at all. If we expect the commissioner to do all of the things that the Minister has described, the Bill must reflect that—a list may be too prescriptive. There has to be some mention in the Bill of the need to recognise the regions.
963 The Government need also to address the issue of how children will be best served by the legislation. They will not be best served by a patchwork of different commissioners at different levels doing different things, with something like 10 different telephone numbers being available to children to ring a Children's Commissioner. I fail to see how English children will be served by that. While I am of course prepared to withdraw my amendment, further discussion of this matter is needed. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Baroness Andrews moved Amendment No. 29:
Page 4, line 16, at end insert—
( ) The Children's Commissioner may not under section (Inquiries initiated by Commissioner) hold an inquiry where the issues referred to in subsection (1) of that section relate to a matter referred to in subsection (1)(a) to (c) above.".
Baroness Walmsley moved Amendment No. 30:
After Clause 5, insert the following new clause—
§ "CONSISTENCY OF LEGISLATION WITH CHILDREN'S WELL-BEING
§ (1) A Minister of the Crown in charge of a Bill in either House of Parliament must, before Second Reading of the Bill—
- (a) make a statement to the effect that the provisions of the Bill have been assessed for their contribution to the well-being of children, relating to the aspects specified in subsection (3)(a) to (e), and that, in his view, the provisions of the Bill do not act to the detriment of any child or group of children in respect of those aspects; and
- (b) make available in each Library of the Houses of Parliament a copy of the assessment made under subsection (1)(a); or
- (c) make a statement to the effect that although he is unable to make a statement under subsection (1)(a) the government nevertheless wishes the House to proceed with the Bill.
§ (2) The statement must be in writing and be published in such manner as the Minister making it considers appropriate.
§ (3) For the purposes of subsection (1)(a), the aspects of children's well-being are—
- (a) physical and mental health;
- (b) protection from harm and neglect;
- (c) education and training;
- (d) the contribution made by them to society; and
- (e) social and economic well-being."
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I return to an amendment that was tabled also in Committee. It was written for us by the Children's Society. It would place on the Government a similar duty to that under Section 19 (1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998; that is, to make a statement of compatibility with the five outcomes proposed in the Bill.
§ Of course, the amendment was written before we upset the applecart this morning and threw out the five outcomes. However, I should like to initiate a debate on the principle of the need for government to assess the impact of legislation on children. The amendment would also ensure a child impact assessment process for all new legislation, for which the Children's Commissioner, under Clause 2, and local agencies, under Clause 6, will 964 be accountable. That would provide a much needed and effective mechanism for improving the co-ordination and consistency of policy-making affecting children across all departments and levels of government.
§ When the amendment was tabled in Committee, it received Cross-Bench support. Although the amendment was rejected by the Government, the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, welcomed its underlying aims and gave an assurance that the intention of the Government was indeed to ensure consistency and co-ordination in improving outcomes for children at national government level.
§ The Minister also highlighted a number of developments and initiatives that the Government have already put in place. The Government's commitment to changing and improving policy-making for children, as expressed in Committee, is both recognised and very welcome. However, there are several reasons why we believe that the amendment, or something like it, should be accepted. Clearly, given earlier events, I shall not be testing the opinion of the House on it in its present form, but it provides important added strength to the new framework that is being introduced.
§ In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady David, asked why such a child impact assessment process should not be based on the articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, rather than on the outcomes for children as are being created in Clause 2. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady David, who is not in her place at the moment, may have been looking at her crystal ball and may have realised that the outcomes would not be there. Therefore, the UNCRC may be a more appropriate framework for such an assessment.
§ What is essential at this stage is that a lasting statutory commitment to children is made right across government as part of these measures. It is important that national government should monitor and account for their impact on children's well-being, to make them as accountable as the Children's Commissioner, who is required by the Bill to report on progress on the outcomes, as it used to stand, and the new children's services authority, which will be responsible in planning arrangements.
§ We wholeheartedly agree with the Minister's statement in Committee that all legislation that we pass in the House has an impact on children. She said that she could think of no exceptions. It would be all too easy to presume that some new policies and legislation are not children's matters and need not be the subject of explicit assessment or debate about their impact on children. For example, reforms to the NHS, transport, environment or housing policies can be seen as either managerial issues in which children have no obvious interest, or areas in which children are invisible members of the general population, represented by their parents' interest as adults, rather than seeking to identify impacts on children as a discrete group. We all know, however, that children can be significantly affected by such wide-ranging reforms. For example, they have been affected by the 965 way in which primary case services have changed and evolved as a result of the primary care trusts, and we know of the health impact of traffic pollution on children's asthma rates.
§ The Disability Rights Commission believes that child impact assessments for all new legislation would provide a vitally needed means in which to address the impact of new measures on the life chances and opportunities of disabled children and other disadvantaged groups, and the extent to which they promote equality or potentially discriminate. Requiring Ministers to provide statements with all Bills, setting out the compatibility or otherwise of the measures with key outcomes or sets of rights for children, would open up the legislative policy-making process to more effective scrutiny and accountability.
§ The case for expert assessment of the possible impact for children remains. The responsibility should be clearly placed on government to account for the way in which any new legislation will contribute to outcomes for children, thereby enabling local structures to deliver those outcomes on the ground. Parliamentarians have a vital and well respected role to play in championing the rights and needs of children and young people. The publication of the Government's assessment of the impact of any new legislation on children will greatly enhance the level, depth and quality of debate in both Houses of Parliament and the contribution of Members to the parliamentary process.
§ This is the first major Bill relating to children since 1989, and it is important to get it right, as it may be another 15 years before we get another chance. If we passed an amendment such as this one—although perhaps not this one, given the faults that I have just outlined—it would be an opportunity not only to improve this Bill but to set in place a mechanism that can improve all future legislation as it relates to children. It is a very far-reaching amendment and, although I shall not press it to a Division today, I shall be most grateful for any other contributions on the matter and for the Minister's response about the principle of the impact assessment. I beg to move.
§ Lord Northbourne
My Lords, I have for some years been an enthusiast for the idea of child impact statements on legislation, and it may have been a remark of mine that led to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Children experimenting with impact statements. The difficulty is that it is an extremely complex issue. For example, what is the impact on children of a gas Bill? It will be different for children of different ages and in different circumstances. It could be dangerous or advantageous—because it keeps them warm. One ends up not with a piece of paper such as this but with a great tome, which is what happened to the All-Party Parliamentary Group, and it cost a great deal of money. It is necessary to have, if at all possible, 966 a more limited impact statement. I had not thought this matter through, but that is my modest contribution to this debate.
§ Baroness Howarth of Breckland
My Lords, I support the noble Baroness on the question of principle. In other areas, I have been used to impact statements which, as a specification, are no longer than one side of A4 paper. I think that it is possible to achieve such a specification. However, it makes people think, and we in the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Children and many other places have been doing just that. I understand that that is the emphasis that the noble Baroness is trying to achieve. In the most obscure Bills, one might well find that the impact on children is highly significant.
§ Baroness Howe of Idlicote
My Lords, I am also a signatory to the amendment, which clearly will have to be redrafted. It would provide a very timely method of checking on the impact of any new legislation and how it affects children.
I accept what my noble friend Lord Northbourne said. To a certain extent, like the gas Bill, the impact that legislation will have on children of different ages is a question of common sense but, in the area of equal opportunities and in areas where it has eventually come to be used, impact statements have been seen to have a very positive effect. I hope that we can work out something which will have roughly the same effect.
§ Baroness Finlay of Llandaff
My Lords, I rise briefly to support the principle behind the amendment. Because of the comments that have been made, it is almost a relief that the wording is not quite right at present. However, it would be an opportunity missed if we allowed a Bill about children to go through without trying to come up with a form of words which meant that the issues appertaining to children in the different ways that we live and organise our society in the UK were not given consideration somewhere on the face of the Bill.
§ Baroness Andrews
My Lords, I wish that Ministers had such an effect when they called for help with their amendments. The noble Baroness has some powerful champions. I am also glad that the noble Baroness reflected on the impact of what was achieved this morning in terms of outcomes. That is something of which we should be very aware.
I must repeat some of the comments that I made in Committee not only because we are sympathetic to the reasoning behind the amendment—of course, we are extremely alert to the need to be aware of the impact of legislation, and indeed of policy and practice, on children—but because we are entirely committed to ensuring that children are consulted and that their needs and well-being are taken into account when new legislation or policy is developed.
However, I continue to believe that it is unnecessary to place a duty of this kind on Ministers. I think that it could even be counter-productive. Having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, talking about 967 the gas Bill and the processes, outcomes and complexity implied in it, we must bear in mind that there is a very real danger that a duty of this kind could add to the bureaucracy that we are working hard to reduce. Such bureaucracy gets in the way of delivering the best services.
We must also reflect on what we are doing to represent the views and interests of children. I shall not refer to all the things that I said in Committee. Then, I went through a list of the ways in which the Government are moving to put children's views and interests at the heart of what we do. That includes the new Cabinet Committee, Misc 9(D), and the work that Margaret Hodge is doing—for the first time, we have a Minister for Children.
I outlined our core principles, which lay down a common framework for government departments to involve children in the development of policy and legislation through to implementation and evaluation and the training that civil servants receive. They must take into account how children's lives are affected. Therefore, over the past year we have seen significant changes in the machinery of government.
I, too, have experience of impact statements, and I think that there is potential for the situation to go one way or the other—either by over-bureaucratising and causing, in some senses, an obstruction to delivery or by being too superficial. We need to move beyond the sense that a tick in a box indicates real progress.
The Bill is not about making symbolic gestures. It is about achieving real and lasting change in our culture so that policymakers, politicians and practitioners anticipate and think about the impact on children of ideas, decisions and actions not after we make them but before and during the process of making them. Establishing a children's commissioner is a key step forward in that. He will bring access and expertise. The noble Baroness spoke about new legislation. I would see him having a key role in anticipating how new legislation will affect children. Doubtless, he will advise Ministers on the development of legislation as a key task, and I am sure that he will not hesitate to put forward his views on that.
The promotion, protection and involvement of children in decision making is a priority for this Government. We are making real strides, but I believe that it is more effective and appropriate to continue the way that we are doing it and now with the extra support of the independent children's commissioner to ensure that children's views are integral to that process. That is better than for the Government to comment on their own plans and develop procedures which could be either over-bureaucratic or over-simplistic. I hope that, in the spirit with which that is intended, the noble Baroness will be able to withdraw her amendment.
§ Baroness Walmsley
My Lords, I thank all those who have supported the amendment and the Minister for her response. It is often a very effective strategy of those who oppose something to stretch it to a ridiculous extent and then ridicule it. What we propose 968 has been based on our own experience of practice in the All-Party Parliamentary Group producing a relatively short but not superficial—
§ Lord Northbourne
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. I want to make the point that doing that within a group is rather different from when a Minister has to make a statement, because the Minister's statement carries with it legal obligations and liabilities.
§ Baroness Walmsley
My Lords, indeed, I accept that. It would be up to the Government to do that in a way which is balanced, appropriate and reasonable. I am sure that this Government would do that. But the All-Party Parliamentary Group found it extremely useful. As the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, said, it makes one think about the impact on children. Where the Government are concerned, of course there are resource implications for all legislation. Most children's services have a limited budget. It could very well be that it would be a useful service if the Government were able to consider the impact of any legislation on those limited budgets in relation to children's services. A new piece of legislation could very well impose obligations on them which they simply do not have the budget to fulfil.
The requirement is to make people think. As I said earlier, I shall certainly not press the amendment, but despite the reassurance of the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, we may want to redraft this and bring it back at Third Reading. It is a matter that we shall want to consider. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments No. 31 to 33 not moved.]
§ Clause 6 [Co-operation to improve well-being]:
Lord Northbourne moved Amendment No. 34:
Page 4, line 32, at end insert—
( ) the quality of family life in the family or other care setting in which they live;
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall take a few moments on this amendment. Amendment No. 7 having been cut away from under my feet, I see this as an opportunity to address the same issue. This amendment flows from amendments I tabled in Committee together with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. It raises issues about the list of five principal aspects of children's wellbeing, the list of five objectives for children service authorities in securing the welfare of children in Clause 6(2). It is the same list as is used in Clause 2(3), to which my Amendment No. 7 referred, and in Clause 20(2) in connection with Wales.
§ The doubts which were expressed by certain noble Lords about that list of five amendments were opened up earlier in our debate today. In a way I do not want to cover the same ground, but I should like briefly to make my points. I defer to the Minister that if a discussion is to be held between now and the next stage of the Bill, of course I certainly shall not move the amendment.969
§ In Committee the noble Baroness made it clear that the five aspects of child welfare listed had been captured from the consultation carried out by the Government in conjunction with developing the Green Paper Every Child Matters. They represent children's views and priorities. I have studied carefully the analysis of the consultation questionnaire and the report on the consultations with children. I do not know whether these were the documents the noble Baroness was referring to, or whether she has a secret weapon that she will give us in addition to those. The replies to questions 4 and 7 in those papers are about the family. If one bears in mind the terms in which the questions were cast, it becomes perfectly clear that the children who answered those questions were extremely concerned about and interested in the quality of family life within which they lived out their lives.
§ I believe that many of those children would, if they had been given the opportunity to do so, have placed a secure, supportive and happy family as the most important single thing for their well-being. There is another point which I would superimpose on that. The statistics in the consultation do not identify the ages of the children questioned except those over 18, those aged 18 to 16 and those under 16. I am interested in the under-16s. Children under 13 represent two thirds of the nation's child population and children under 10 represent half.
§ The language used in the consultation and various other clues suggest very strongly to me that although they were represented, there were relatively few children under 10. Perhaps the noble Baroness will, either when she replies or in writing, let the House know the number of children under 13 and the number under 10 involved in those questionnaires. If there had been more younger children, there is no doubt in my mind that that would have weighted even more strongly the argument in favour of the environment of the family being a supremely important consideration to children.
§ Noble Lords may say—and I am trying to dispose of the argument in advance—"Ah, but you cannot legislate for happiness in the family". The answer of course to that is that one cannot legislate directly for some of the other things in this list of five. The list is an instruction to the Children's Commissioner to be concerned about the effect of certain things on the welfare of children. There is no reason whatever in my view why the quality of life in the family or other places where children live or are cared for should not be a key factor which the Children's Commissioner should take into account. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, in speaking to Amendments Nos. 39 and 84 I shall address the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. These government amendments to Clause 6 and Clause 20–its Welsh equivalent—seek to meet the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and others about the importance of the role of parents in the context of arrangements to 970 improve well-being. I have considered very carefully the best way to ensure that the Bill makes proper reference to the importance of parents and carers.
Our amendments add to the Bill a strong statement from the Government about their understanding of and respect for the critical importance of parents and carers to the well-being of children. They require the children's services authority to have regard to this in making the arrangements under the clause. In doing so, they suggest that the arrangements should support parents and carers and therefore not undermine their role—a sentiment that always underlies the noble Lord's comments. The amendment also ensures that the role of parents and carers is properly reflected in the legislation in a way that does not lead to bureaucratic intrusion in their lives.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and other noble Lords for their valuable contribution to the process. In that spirit, I welcome the intention behind the noble Lord's amendment, which adds quality of life to the list of outcomes. Family life, including quality of provision for the small group of children who do not live with their family, for whatever reason, makes a crucial contribution to securing good outcomes for children.
We have had several debates during the passage of the Bill about amending the list of outcomes. Noble Lords will know that I have made many comments about lists and adding to them; I shall not repeat them. The outcomes in Clause 6(2) translate from Every Child Matters to define well-being. I would be very happy to look more carefully at statistics about which children were involved. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, talked about meeting children yesterday; it is not necessarily about the numbers of children one meets but about the opportunity that one gives them to contribute to debate and deliberation. As I have tried to point out, it is not about where you end, but where you begin. There is much more to do on that.
I have no doubt that family life makes a terribly important, if not fundamental, contribution to well-being. We simply do not think that it sits properly in the list of outcomes. We have tried to address the noble Lord's concerns, but I am always happy to continue the dialogue, and to meet the noble Lord and others to see whether we can do anything further. We have thought very carefully about how best to reflect what we felt were genuine concerns—we set parliamentary counsel many challenges, and this was one of them. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ Lord Northbourne
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness. In the confusion arising out of Amendment No. 7 being cut away from under me, I missed the opportunity to thank her for the other two amendments that the Government have tabled. They were a generous response to many of my concerns. I should have said that at the beginning.
I would like to continue the discussion, if I may. There is a marginal difference between, on the one hand, listening to parents as a channel of communication with 971 children, conveying information about them, and, on the other hand, the experiences that children have in their families. Those experiences are affected by all sorts of external considerations, such as housing, and should be matters for consideration by the commissioner. In that regard, I would like to challenge the five outcomes and say, "Hey, you cannot get away with those five outcomes unless you put in the other one as well". On the basis that we may discuss the matter further, I shall withdraw the amendment.
§ Baroness Howe of Idlicote
My Lords, I strongly welcome Amendment No. 39, in the Minister's name, as it is the first government amendment to the Bill to mention parents. Elsewhere the Bill does not mention parents at all. As a result, my noble friend Lord Northbourne and I thought, "How brilliant; let us put it in to our amendment on the children's commissioner". In the process, however, we have shot our fox. So we may have to revisit that in another way.
It is very important that the role of parents and carers is recognised. I thank the Minister for that. I support the intention behind the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. I am sure that we shall find some way of returning to it later.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ The Earl of Listowel
My Lords, I put on the record my sincerest apologies to my noble friend Lord Northbourne. I really should have given him warning that I was withdrawing the amendment just before his amendment. It did not appear to me that it impeded his presentation, which seemed to me to he very eloquent, but I apologise to him. In future, I will make sure that this does not happen again.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, I warmly welcome government Amendments Nos. 39 and 84, which repeat twice over the importance of parents. I have received briefing from a wide range of children's societies and organisations saying that they did not want any reference to parents in the Bill at all, as if children could be treated and legislated for in vacuo, which must be nonsense.
Finally, I say to my noble friend Lord Northbourne and to the Government that the words in the latter part of his Amendment No. 34, "other care setting", are important and may be helpful phraseology for the Government to use somewhere, somehow. When children cannot be looked after and cared for by their parents, it is essential that family-like conditions be created for those children.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I rise briefly to support and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on pursuing his amendment. I know that he has technically withdrawn it, which is a shame. I will respond to the Government's amendments and speak to the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne.
Ever since I came to this House some seven years ago, we have consistently had debates on the family and on the importance of parenting. On as many 972 occasions as I have been able, I have supported those debates, because I feel strongly about the role that the family and parents play in society. It has worried me that there was no direct reference to parents in the Bill, which I thought was a great oversight. I welcome the fact that the noble Lord has pursued it.
I thank the Government for coming back with their amendments, because it is helpful to have something in the Bill. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, will not necessarily agree about the completeness of the amendments, but he will recognise the importance of including them. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, for bringing forward the government amendments, and thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for having pursued what is a critical issue.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
My Lords, I too was going to support the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in his amendment, before he withdrew it. I also thank the Government for bringing forward their amendments. It is important that we have in the Bill recognition of the role of parents and the role of the family. Again, I join others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on his perseverance with this issue, and for the fact that he brings it forward time and time again, not just in the context of this Bill, but in many other contexts, as a reminder of how important it is.
I am delighted that the Government have placed their Amendment No. 39 in Clause 6. In looking at the process of co-operation and the relevant partners, and so on, we need to be reminded that none of this co-operation will work unless the fundamental family situation and the role of parents is taken into account. I am pleased to see this amendment, and I congratulate the Government on bringing it forward.
§ The Lord Bishop of Oxford
My Lords, briefly from these Benches I also congratulate the Government on bringing parents into the Bill in a proper, recognised way. As a society we ask parents to do more and more, and we hold them responsible for more and mere. The least that we can do is ensure that they will be properly taken into account in the Bill.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote moved Amendment No. 35:
Page 4, line 33, at end insert "including the need for a nutritious diet
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I believe that I am entitled to speak to this amendment now. I shall also speak to Amendment No. 76 in the group, which also includes Amendments Nos. 36, 79 and 80. When withdrawing a very similar amendment in Committee, I ended my remarks on the role of the Children's Commissioner in ensuring children's well being and diet by saying that the House,
can take considerable comfort from what the Minister has said".—[Official Report, 6/5/04; col. 1237.]
Indeed, it was encouraging.
§ Since then, the House of Commons Select Committee report on obesity has been published. In the light of that worrying report and the urgency of promoting a healthy diet for children's well being, I felt that your Lordships would wish to have a further opportunity to discuss the role that both the Children's Commissioner—I realise that currently, to some extent, there are problems about that in what I am saying—and local authorities might play in tackling that increasingly worrying phenomenon.
§ I hope that your Lordships and the Minister will forgive me for raising that subject once more, but it is increasingly important as well as an urgent issue. Clearly, conclusions from the Health Select Committee inquiry in another place have reinforced the need for an integrated and wide-ranging programme to tackle the obesity crisis that they describe. Of course, that should include recreation, sport and physical activity in schools, on which, in a previous debate about this group, considerable emphasis was placed. I am sure that others will refer to it now.
§ The Select Committee pointed to the shocking fact that if current trends continue, half of all children in England could be obese by 2020. Future generations could die before their parents. Quite apart from the physical and psychological suffering that is caused to each individual, the financial cost to the economy—particularly the NHS—of the many illnesses that are caused by this condition make preventive action imperative.
§ Therefore, hardly surprisingly, that Select Committee called on the Government to adopt a health education campaign to be dedicated exclusively to tackling obesity. Obesity is one of the most easily recognised and visible forms of poor nutrition. But if we are to address that particular problem, we need to look at the diets of all children and not just those of children who are overweight or termed obese.
§ In the spirit of this Bill, and rightly so, there is a need for the Children's Commissioner and others involved with children to ensure that the views of children are heard and incorporated into the development of any future campaign. In that context, it is encouraging to see from a recent FSA study that 14 to 16 year-old children have a broad sense of the key constituents of a healthy diet. But, alas, they do not critically assess their own diet against those criteria. Clearly, there is a need for more educative work to be done here.
§ The debate about whether food and drink advertising should be banned from children's programmes has yet to be resolved. Meanwhile, with more and more of the population consuming ready-made meals, it is horrifying that, as a Which? report entitled Recipe for Disaster tells us, we are apparently consuming up to three times as much fat and nine times as much salt depending on the make of pizza, chicken tikka masala or steak and kidney pie that we buy.974
§ In her reply in Committee, the Minister gave several examples of welcome government action in support of a healthy and nutritious children's diet, including the important role that schools in less affluent areas could play in providing breakfast for pupils. But the question about what to do about school vending machines still largely hangs in the air. Like food advertising in children's programmes, the indication is that that is to be addressed by guidance and self-regulation.
§ The Health Select Committee's view was that the food and drink industry had some three years in which to put its own house in order before legislation was inevitable. Should we not be asking whether the time has come right now for stronger action?
§ I hope that the return of this amendment will give the Minister an opportunity to expand on what action the Government intend to take in response to the report of the Health Select Committee, in particular as it affects the priority role of the Children's Commissioner, as well as what further action local authorities might be expected to take. It is clear that we have to do far more to ensure that there is at least some hope of a healthy beginning to our children's lives.
§ For example, it would be helpful to hear from the Minister, among other things, whether and how the Government intend to ensure that the views of the Children's Commissioner are included in forthcoming government policy initiatives on food and health, as well as on the involvement of local authorities.
§ I want to ask one other question. Is it intended that the Children's Commissioner should also be involved in initiatives such as follow-up on the forthcoming White Paper on healthy living, and the reviews and work programmes of both the Food Standards Agency and Ofcom? I beg to move.
§ Lord Northbourne
My Lords, I rise briefly to support my noble friend—I beg the pardon of the noble Lord; I shall give way.
§ Lord Pendry
My Lords, I am sure that all noble Lords have their minds set on the passage of this Bill, but equally I am sure that many will be wondering what is happening to the England side playing in Portugal. I can tell noble Lords that we are now one up against Switzerland.
Other amendments in this grouping relate to the outcome of education and training. They were to be headed by Amendment No. 9, but that was swallowed up earlier. However, Amendments Nos. 36 and 80 are still essential if we are to define children's well-being in the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Rix, had intended to speak in support of these amendments, but he has informed me that this debate clashes with another commitment involving one of his many charitable works. He wishes the amendments well, but he cannot be here today.
As I and other noble Lords on all sides of the House have argued since Second Reading, the existence of opportunities for children to enjoy their free time cannot be taken for granted. The concept of the outcome of enjoyment as being essential to a child's 975 well-being, which was made prominent in the Green Paper, has been lost in the Bill as it stands. These amendments seek to recognise that the enjoyment of freely chosen free-time activities—recreation—are essential to a child's healthy development and well-being. I believe that children's services and the Children's Commissioner should be concerned about the provision of opportunities for children to enjoy their recreation time as an essential element in safeguarding and improving that well-being.
A vital part of that includes safeguarding opportunities for children's play in the widest possible sense: staffed and unstaffed play provision, unstructured play as well as more structured activities; and opportunities for children to play independently, to explore and find adventure in their local environments. The proposed term "recreation" encompasses all this and more, and yet warrants some further clarification.
Successive governments have recognised sport and the arts as essential aspects of recreation for children, with accompanying programmes and strategies to deliver them. But no such recognition has hitherto existed for play. In Committee we heard from noble Lords on all sides about the importance of play for play's sake. Yet the importance of play to children has not always been evident in government thinking and guidance. In my view this is a serious oversight, and the result is that local play provision is often a low priority and is vulnerable to cuts in funding.
Without sufficient provision for play, children's opportunities for enjoyment become restricted. As I and others have argued—although I shall not go into the details again today—play is far too important an issue in the development of happy and healthy children to suffer such neglect.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ I therefore seek assurances from the Minister that if these amendments are supported by her today the meaning of children's play, in its widest sense, will be encompassed within their terms. In other words, I hope that she will state clearly that the Government recognise play as the main form of recreational activity for most children and that this will, at the very least, be explicit in the definition of "recreation" in all guidance and documentation associated with outcomes for children in the new Children Act.
§ I hope the Minister will be able to give that assurance. The whole House is indebted to her for listening to the case that I and others have placed before her, and for her understanding on this issue at Second Reading. As I make these comments about the Minister, she trips out of the Chamber. She is certainly the pin-up girl of the House today.
§ I wish to have that assurance because it will be vital in interpreting the Bill as envisaged in the Green Paper. I believe that it will adequately reinstate the outcome 976 of enjoyment and achievement into the legislation, responding to children's and young people's requests that they should be able to enjoy their childhoods.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I support the amendment. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, has been able to speak to his amendment. At one stage I thought we were going to lose it altogether. I apologise to him that my name has not been added to his amendment. My name was attached to Amendment No. 9, which was lost earlier because the other amendment was carried.
I strongly support his amendment. I shall not repeat what I said at Second Reading. Play is a hugely important part of a child's development. Whether they live within a family or live in care, every child needs the opportunity to learn to play, whether through informal sport or formal sport, which I used to teach. To a certain extent, the noble Lord's amendment sits very well with the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, because nutrition and health go hand in hand. I am happy to support both amendments.
I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Pendry. I tried to contact his office but there has been a slight misunderstanding. My name is attached to the earlier amendment but is missing from this one. I support both amendments.
§ Lord Northbourne
My Lords, I support the amendment of my noble friend Lady Howe. The two amendments go very well together. What I was going to say originally and wish to say now is that it is no good telling children what is good for them; you have to make it fun and you have to convince them that it is delicious. Equally, recreation is a wonderful way to sell all kinds of different learning and experiences to children. I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Pendry.
§ Baroness Finlay of Llandaff
My Lords, I wish to speak briefly to the amendments to which I have added my name. Amendment No. 81 has been moved into this group for the convenience of timing and because it is the relevant place for it to be.
My noble friend Lady Howe has said almost everything there is to say about the importance of nutrition in children's well-being. I should like to add that obesity per se does not mean that the child is over nourished; the child may be malnourished. There are some very obese children with severe deficiencies of trace elements, iron deficiency and so on. Hence the term "nutritious diet". I fully recognise the Government's concern not to have long lists on the face of the Bill, but there is a huge issue in the nation at the moment in regard to diet and the use and abuse of ingested substances in the name of food.
The importance of play is beyond doubt. These are very important amendments. I will be happy to withdraw Amendment No. 81 if the Minister can reassure me that the term "recreation" completely covers play and will therefore allow the National Assembly for Wales to implement its play policy and 977 use the term "play" in secondary legislation when the word "play" is not mentioned on the face of the primary legislation. It is a legal technicality. If the Minister can give me that reassurance, the word "play" would be redundant because it is subsumed within the activity of recreation.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
My Lords, my name is attached to Amendment No. 36. However, my name did not get attached to some of the earlier amendments, which have been lost in any event.
We spoke on this issue in Committee, and I supported the amendment. It is, as we discussed then, vital to children's mental, physical and academic development to be able to explore the world through play as well as through other more formal procedures. I take it that "recreation" encapsulates the important informal elements of play as well as the more formal ones, and the enjoyment of life that comes from play.
While I have some reservations about the inclusion of the phrase "nutritious diet" in the Bill, I very much endorse what has been said by the noble Baronesses, Lady Howe and Lady Finlay, about the importance of diet in child development and in the understanding of how to bring up children. We support both the amendments.
§ Baroness Howarth of Breckland
My Lords, I had not intended to speak on this issue, but I wanted to emphasise one particular aspect. The list comes under the area of co-operation in well-being. I am not often keen to add to lists, but the work done between the Department for Education and Skills and the Food Standards Agency on school meals—I declare an interest as an FSA board member—is very revealing. What has emerged from the debate is clear: one cannot have one without the other. Children can have two hours' play at school, which is recreation—exercise, at the end of the day—but what they eat there is quite horrifying. They may have a choice but they regularly choose chips, nuggets and hamburgers. I saw a piece of research recently in a school, where photographs were taken of children and the meals they ate—there was not a green in sight.
If the Bill contained provisions about food, exercise and fun, it would reflect the way children see life, and we might be able to do something about widening the co-operation which we have already demonstrated has taken place between some departments. The co-operation we have sought with some other departments has not been as easily achieved as that with the Department for Education and Skills. It needs to be clear that unless we work together, our children's health will deteriorate, they will have less exercise and they will die at an earlier age than previous generations.
§ The Lord Bishop of Oxford
My Lords, I spoke in Committee in favour of including "play". I would like to see "play" in the Bill, but I would support "recreation", for reasons about which we all agree.
978 I also support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, about the need for a nutritious diet. Of course we do not want to make lists longer, but including something in legislation has a very powerful educational effect in the country. In the same way that it took many years to wake up to the dangers of smoking, we are only just beginning to wake up to the dangers of obesity. The Government can play a real part in this educational programme by ensuring that this requirement is in the Bill.
§ Baroness Andrews
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken in this short and enjoyable debate. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and other noble Lords that there is a close relationship between the two sets of amendments. It is sad that I have to accept one while not accepting the other. I hope I do it with good grace.
I shall start with the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. I thought she spoke very powerfully about the significance of her amendment on a nutritional diet. It is sounds rather bleak to say that we are sympathetic but think that it is unnecessary to include the need for a nutritional diet in the Bill. It is not just a matter of lists. The first outcome that we originally had in Clause 2 referred to physical and mental health. That obviously encompasses nutritional requirements. We think that it is very clear that when we are talking about physical and mental health we are obviously talking about the way children thrive and flourish. To do that they need a good diet for good health.
The noble Baroness invited me to say a little about the Government's policies on obesity. I shall not spend too much time on the subject. She will know that our focus is on coherence, prevention and increasing physical activity levels. We are waiting with great interest for the outcome of the public consultation on Choosing Health?, in which young people have responded quite significantly. That is good news. We shall be looking very seriously at how best to respond to the Select Committee report, which is extremely powerful in its analysis. There are various consultations going on that will feed into the public health White Paper. Our response to the Select Committee report will be published at the same time as the White Paper and will tie in with it. We will reinforce and extend that coherence. That will be published later this year.
I should say that the Assembly recognises that a good diet is extremely important. Wales has traditionally not been an area of the UK where a healthy diet has been much in evidence. There is a national nutritional strategy for Wales, Food and Well Being, which was launched in February last year. It identifies children and young people as a priority group for action. There is a food and fitness health promotion grant scheme that provides financial support for community projects. Wales is addressing the issue in a very proactive way. I know my answer is 979 disappointing but, on the basis of those assurances, I hope the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, before the noble Baroness moves off that subject, will the Government be willing to think again? I was one of the people who took the Food Standards Bill through the House. There were two matters which we wanted to make sure were in the Bill. One was food labelling, which we did get into the Bill. The other was nutrition, which we did not. It is something that we bitterly regret. So I am sorry to interrupt but I thought it worth raising because there are so few opportunities to put nutrition into a Bill. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, is a member of the Food Standards Agency and I know that it gives a greater direction to its thoughts. I know I should have mentioned this earlier. These opportunities come so rarely. It is a hugely important issue and I thought I should share it with noble Lords.
§ Baroness Andrews
My Lords, I understand why the noble Baroness has taken the opportunity but I am afraid that, for the reasons that I have mentioned, we have to stick with the broad definitions. We will make clear what they encompass in the guidance that we put out subsequent to the Bill.
I turn to the amendments concerning recreation, so persistently and ably pursued by my noble friend. I am not surprised that he has taken the opportunity to give us the latest score. I think that that was something we had all been waiting for. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to resolve the concerns raised in relation to play and recreation at different stages of the Bill. Amendments Nos. 36 and 80 are designed to include recreation within the aspect of well-being. In Committee, we agreed to go back and look at the need to ensure that play and recreation were reflected in the Bill and we have done so. Noble Lords have paid tribute to my noble friend, which I think is quite right.
We accept these amendments, which will cover England and Wales. We are completely at one in the importance that we attach to play as a developmental aspect of children's lives in terms of learning and enjoyment. It is extremely important that there are opportunities for informal as well as formal play. We are building that sort of opportunity into programmes such as SureStart.
§ 6 p.m.
§ When we considered the way in which it could best be done and fully reflected, we looked at precedents such as Section 508 of the Education Act 1996, which made it clear that references to recreation cover the range of play-related activities. We recognise that recreation embraces play. That captures well-being and the important element of enjoyment that might otherwise be missing. Play will be a major element of recreation. We hope to ensure that that is understood. My noble friend and I would be very happy to be in the Ministry of Fun but, unfortunately, we cannot include fun on the face of the Bill. As I say, we value play for the sheer enjoyment that it brings. In Committee we 980 made clear that key parts of play are encompassed within the education and social elements of children's well-being. I hope that noble Lords are happy with that outcome.
§ As regards the question raised by my noble friend in relation to her Amendment No. 81, I assure her that the Assembly will be free to include play in secondary legislation. I hope that on that basis she will feel able to withdraw her amendment. I have no doubt that noble Lords will share our pleasure in accepting the amendment of my noble friend Lord Pendry.
§ Baroness Howe of Idlicote
My Lords, I thank the Minister very much for her comments. This has been an extremely stimulating debate. All the points that were made were extremely relevant. I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for her suggestions. Nutrition is crucial, just as recreation is crucial. You need to see a measure on the face of the Bill to bring the matter home.
I should like to think that the Government will give us rather more comfort at Third Reading. In the mean time I thank noble Lords for their comments. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord Pendry moved Amendment No. 36:
Page 4, line 35, leave out "and training" and insert ", training and recreation
Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 37:
Page 4, line 37, at end insert"—
( ) housing
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I can think of nothing worse than following a success and standing here trembling because I do not think that I am likely to score again.
§ In Committee the Minister declared that housing should not be specified as an outcome and relegated it to a function to be considered by agencies in co-operating with each other.
§ I refer again to the statement made by Adam Sampson of Shelter and his claim that poor quality housing is adversely affecting more than 1 million children. Quality may mean size; it may also mean state of repair; it may mean multiple occupancy. It may also mean design features such as poor insulation, lack of soundproofing or inadequate ventilation. I find it hard to agree that a problem of this size and complexity can or should be relegated to a minor matter in a long list of affairs over which the Government expect co-operation.
§ The number of homeless families in temporary accommodation has more than doubled since Labour came to power according to new figures released on 16 June by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. In 1997, there were more than 41,000 households in temporary accommodation. That figure has now risen to a horrendous 97,000. With that rising figure, and given the fact that there are more than 700,000 empty 981 homes in the United Kingdom, and 97,000 homeless families, I believe that the Government have not got their act together. Therefore, I am trying again with this amendment.
§ It will be difficult—the Minister may say that it is not possible—for the Government to accept the amendment, having fought so fiercely over some that have already been turned down, but I must again bring to noble Lords' attention the importance of housing in the well-being of children and families. Vulnerable children and young people are being put at risk of homelessness because social services and housing departments are not collaborating effectively, according to Shelter. The charity called on the Department for Education and Skills to amend the Bill so that housing departments were included in all information-sharing arrangements. It is said that disputes and new duties are being laid down under the Homelessness Act 2002. Joint working between the two departments and health authorities continues to be fragmented. If it is fragmented now when they know that they should work together, that only adds to the thrust behind the amendment.
The Bill sets out new arrangements for children's services, but fails to identify the effects that housing can have on children's lives. For instance, many homeless families fail to access basic healthcare as they move from one grotty place to another. At an earlier stage, the Minister said that local housing and district councils were included, which was one reason why my amendment was turned down. She said,
we expect housing decisions to be looked at in the context of wellbeing".—[Offictal Report, 6/5/04; col. 1233.]
She pointed out that district councils were included in Clause 6(3)(a), which I accept. However, I am still concerned that, with the pressures placed on local authorities, the housing needs may be less considered in the overall well-being of the child.
§ It is very difficult to keep arguing that that should be specified. In Committee, we highlighted the fact that, once one starts on a list, it is difficult to know when to stop. I therefore accept the Minister's slight dilemma. However, I feel extremely strongly about the issue. Many of the families who find themselves homeless know only too well the difficulty of providing for a child's well-being. I redoubled my efforts when I saw the figures announced on 16 June, with that huge rise in the number of homeless households in temporary accommodation. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Walmsley
My Lords, I added my name to the amendment because, when I was a teacher, it became very clear to me that few issues had more effect on a child's life chances than its housing status. If the child is homeless and in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, there is enormous instability. There is very often overcrowding and a lot of noise, and it is not the most healthy environment for children. It is certainly not conducive to them doing their homework and having a peaceful environment in which to consolidate their learning at school when they get 982 home. Even if children live in a normal stable home, its being damp or overcrowded affects their health tremendously, which affects their education.
I shall move on to the information-sharing part of the Bill. We are considering what happens to children when they move from one authority to another, and how to ensure that vulnerable children are attached to the services that they need. It strikes me that the housing department is the one department of a local authority that is bound to come into contact with a child moving into its area. The family will look for council housing or housing benefit, or pay council tax if they own a home. One way or another, the housing department of local government will have some contact with the children.
For all those reasons it is important that the duty to co-operate extends to the issue of housing and those people responsible for housing in relation to children. I support the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, in her attempt to insert housing into the Bill.
§ Lord Northbourne
My Lords, I, too, support the amendment. However, it is not broad enough. My amendment relating to the environment in which children have to live would include housing. While I do not wish to have an argument about the exact wording of the amendment, it would be right to sit down and take to pieces the five objectives in Clause 6(2) to try to make them more in line with what is really in the best interests and needs of children.
§ Baroness Howe of Idlicote
My Lords, I very much support the amendment. I was particularly impressed, at the same gathering that the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, attended yesterday evening, with the children themselves and the messages that spread around the reception area about what they wanted out of life. One loud and clear message was their wish for a decent and safe home, because we were talking about domestic violence. All of those children had been affected and had suffered a great deal. However, the wish for a decent home and one in which they could feel happy, secure and do the things that they wanted to, was strong on their list.
§ Baroness Andrews
My Lords, nothing divides us at all regarding the importance of housing as an aspect of equality in children's lives—and everything that they do, from achieving at school to maintaining good family relationships. I understand the concerns that are reflected in the amendment and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, spoke passionately about her concerns over the potential lack of co-operation within and between local authorities. I also recognise that there is a need to involve housing associations, for example, that are discharging functions under contract from housing authorities. I am aware of concerns about the effectiveness of existing legislation that requires social landlords to co-operate with social services departments. So we are concerned to ensure that at every level the housing department is fully integrated with all the other services that deliver benefit for children and families.
983 We have several problems with the amendment. Adding housing to the broad outcomes is not the most effective way of addressing such concerns. The positive outcomes in Clause 6 define well-being for all children in the broadest sense and are what the children's services authority should be aspiring to achieve. There are many factors that contribute to those. Housing is one of those. Good quality housing is extremely important hut, in itself, is not an outcome within that definition. It is a means of achieving an outcome in relation, for example, to physical and mental health. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, spoke clearly about her experience.
The second problem with the amendment is that we have made arrangements for that co-operation. I have to re-iterate what we said in Committee—it is why, regarding two-tier authorities in England, we have placed the district council under a reciprocal duty to co-operate in the arrangements under Clause 6. That encompasses all of their functions that impact on children's well-being, including housing.
I hope that the noble Baroness will take some comfort from the intention in Clauses 13 and 14 to issue statutory guidance on Clause 6 and on the lead member and director of children's services, so that local authorities must have regard in formulating polices and strategies. That guidance will make it crystal clear that co-operation applies not only to local authorities and their partners, but to departments within authorities, such as housing. The lead member and the director of children's services will have a key role in overseeing that internal co-operation—so we are trying to pin that down as best we can.
In Wales, all children's services authorities are unitary and, therefore, housing and other functions are within the same authority. But the Assembly also recognises the importance of housing in a child's life and the need to ensure that housing matters are included as a priority in the consideration of children's needs. That will be recognised in the preparation of Welsh guidance.
The noble Baroness drew our attention to homelessness and it is worth putting on record that in 2002 we set a target that by 2004 no homeless family with children should have to live in a bed and breakfast hotel, except in an emergency—and even then for no more than six weeks. On 4 May, we announced the final monitoring figures against this target, which showed a 99.3 per cent reduction.
§ 6.15 p.m.
§ From 1 April, this target was reinforced by new legislation, which means that local authorities can no longer discharge their homelessness duties by placing families with children in B&B for longer than six weeks. The Government are also making significant investment in improving the quality of housing stock. By the end of this year, the number of non-decent homes will have been cut by 1 million. In Wales, the Assembly is also considering legislation to achieve this objective to provide additional support and set performance indicators in terms of housing.984
§ I hope that the noble Baroness will accept the three points I have made: the first in relation to definition; the second on what is in the Bill; and the third in relation to statutory guidance. I hope that that will reassure her that her amendments are taken seriously but are not acceptable to the Government in that form.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, can she clarify a few issues? Is the statutory guidance in being and on the face of the Bill or will it be issued in due course? Secondly, I understood that recently the B&B figures have risen. Thirdly, if my figures are correct and the figure of 41,000 has risen to 97,000, how does that sit with the Minister's assertion that the figures are falling?
§ Baroness Andrews
My Lords, statutory guidance will be issued on Clause 6. That is the easy question to answer. Clearly, we have different figures. Our monitoring figures against the target showed a 99.3 per cent reduction, but I will take the noble Baroness's figures and write to her about the reconciliation between them.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. It is always difficult at the Report stage because we are not allowed to come back and the Minister would not have been able to respond. I am grateful to all noble Lords who supported the amendment, but I am slightly disappointed in the response. I accept that statutory guidance will be issued later. I accept the invitation of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, to discuss the matter at length before the next stage. However, having listened to what has been said, at this stage I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Baroness Walmsley moved Amendment No. 38:
Page 4, line 37, at end insert—
( ) equality of opportunity
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this is the first of a group of amendments about equality of opportunity. They appear at various places in the Bill where we felt it appropriate.
While we obviously strongly welcome the commitment given by the Minister in Committee to use guidance to spell out that,
all organisations involved in the co-operation arrangements in England must—I emphasise must—have regard to promoting equality of opportunity".—[Official Report, 20/5/04; col. 954.]
we feel that without a clear statutory basis such exhortations will have limited impact. In any case, this is of such importance that it should be enshrined on the face of legislation—at least somewhere in the Bill.
§ The inclusion of equality of opportunity in the list of core outcomes for children's services and partner agencies locally would be consistent with the positive equality duties set out in Article 2 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and, indeed, the Government's avowed commitment to a new inclusive society and more equitable outcomes for children.985
§ The Government have set great store by the fact that Every Child Matters was widely welcomed, but the Disability Rights Commission did not feel that the Green Paper gave sufficient weight to the particular disadvantage faced by disabled children and their families; to the fact that disability is a key factor affecting children's life chances; or that resolving the marked inequalities experienced by disabled children and young people was a specific issue around which services should coalesce. I am therefore anxious to ensure that the remit and accountabilities of new and existing institutions and agencies key to delivering the Government's new policies should include clear instructions to address and measure progress in the area of equality—and, in particular, disability equality.
§ The new arrangements for promoting children's interests and improved co-ordination of children's services and multi-agency working set out in the Bill could lead to major improvements in the social inclusion and life chances of disabled children and their families. Indeed, we all hope that they will. But to realise that potential, this important new legislation must take a firmer focus on tackling the specific discriminatory barriers that disabled children face and include a specific reference to promoting equality.
§ Current equality legislation does not provide comprehensive protection for disadvantaged children. Disabled children and children from black and minority ethnic communities—girls and boys—already enjoy some individual protection in access to local authority and other public services under equality legislation, but others do not. There is no equivalent protection on grounds of religion, refugee status, sexuality or family status. That penalises disabled children, as there is no mechanism for addressing multiple discrimination. Often a disabled child may be discriminated against, which may happen on the grounds of disability, religion, family status or a combination of all those things.
§ Public bodies under the Bill will now have positive duties. They already have duties to tackle racial discrimination. In the next few years, we should see similar duties on disability and, eventually, gender; but there are sadly no plans as yet to extend rights or positive protection on other grounds. Such is the vulnerability of children that they should benefit from proactive cross-cutting promotional equality duties, which should be put in the Bill.
§ I hope that the Minister looks kindly on the amendments. If she felt that she was able to accept only some of them, I suggest that the priority is with those to Clauses 6 and 20, which is probably the most appropriate place to put equality of opportunity in the Bill. However, all the amendments are appropriate if we want to emphasise the fact that equality of opportunity is an important issue, which all the 986 agencies that we are addressing should have at the front of their minds in operating children's services. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I rise to support these amendments, to which our names are added. They are hugely important. Early in Committee we had long debates, especially about the position of disabled children. It is always very difficult to find ways in which one can ensure that people who are less able than others—in the widest sense, not only disabled—have equal opportunity to things that most of us take for granted. I spoke at length on that matter in Committee.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, rightly raised specific issues today, and I shall not repeat what she said. However, I am still worried by the evidence of how disabled children in particular have failed to date to be looked after adequately, when they are among the most vulnerable in our community. They warrant clear statutory provision in the Bill.
On disability and equality of training, the NSPCC and the national working group highlighted the need for children's protection training better to address the needs of disabled children so that professionals can track and identify abuse. Where disability equality training is provided to members of the local safeguarding children boards, how will that be rolled out across the child protection services and what is the Government's overarching strategy for implementing that recommendation? In Committee, the Minister promised Peers news on the plans for disability equality training for LSCB members, and we hope to hear more from her later.
The Minister knows—we spoke about it in Committee—that I attended a meeting with disabled children. Whereas we might have been too embarrassed to say openly that we realised that they had a disability and that they should be treated equally, the children said to us, "Yes, but we are disabled". That is one of the problems that we have. Therefore, I hope that, having changed the wording in the amendment, the Government will look at it more sympathetically, remembering the strong contributions that were made in Committee in relation to this matter. We hope that the amendment is now wide enough to cover everyone who should have equality of opportunity, which most of us assume is our right.
§ Baroness Howe of Idlicote
My Lords, I shall speak very briefly. My name was not added to these amendments but I am totally in favour of them. The Disability Rights Commission has made it clear that the evidence relating to how disabled children have been failed to date is so strong as to warrant clear statutory provision. The continuing evidence that one sees over time certainly supports that. We may have moved some way from the BBC programme, "Does He Take Sugar?" but there is still a long way to go. Therefore, I hope that the amendment will find favour.
987 To my mind—I follow the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on this point—if there was only one reference to a clear duty in relation to all aspects of the various tasks that the Children Bill is addressing, that might at least satisfy many people.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken with great understanding and great passion about the issues involved here. Perhaps I may go through the amendments briefly in order to explain our position.
As noble Lords have indicated, Amendments Nos. 46, 53, 88 and 91 deal with safeguarding. As noble Lords know, in these clauses we have been focusing on the safeguarding of children. That is not to say that it is not possible to identify groups of children who might be at greater risk of harm and to work with them to good preventive effect. But our primary aim here is to ensure that, in the day-to-day work that takes place, those working with children identify potential problems and act on them. That is a clear and distinct purpose.
Clauses 6 and 20, to which Amendments Nos. 38 and 83 relate, in many ways concern the equality of opportunity. We want local services to work together to improve the well-being of all children in their area—and I mean "all" children. However, I do not think that it is necessarily right to amend the list of outcomes as suggested. Equality of opportunity is not an outcome in itself or a definition of well-being; it is something that we must strive for in seeking to improve the outcomes for children.
That means that, inevitably, we must provide different, and more, support and different levels of support or, indeed, different kinds of support—the issue to which the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred in talking about the needs of children with disabilities. We must recognise them as equal, recognise that their needs are different and ensure that we do that well.
Therefore, helping families and children to be well equipped for the issues that they face must also be about dealing with any inequalities that they face. These are issues that partners must look to in reaching their decisions under the arrangements in Clauses 6 and 20. But they should do so on the understanding that the elements of well-being that we are seeking to establish are universal aspirations that we should have for all children and all young people, whatever their background or circumstances.
I also recognise that the most disadvantaged children are often the hardest for mainstream services to support, and therefore there is a greater risk that they will be sidelined. We need to ensure that the levers we intend to use to secure change, all the performance indicators, inspection, intervention and so forth—better training is a critical part of that—deliver for them. The Government are committed to ensuring that.
As noble Lords will realise, I am not terribly drawn to putting this in the Bill. However, whenever someone says two things, "Somewhere in the Bill" and "Once", 988 my ears prick up because I am mindful of the spread of support for this. Although that is not representative in numbers this evening, it is certainly representative in quality. I would ask that I might perhaps have one more look at Clause 6, which I think is where the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, indicated, on the basis that I have listened to the words "Somewhere in the Bill" and "Only once".
Whatever I do, I hope noble Lords will understand that there is nothing in anything I have said or anything we are trying to do which detracts from equality of opportunity. We understand that we cannot support all children unless we recognise that some children and families begin with huge disadvantages. It must be for services to focus their attention on ensuring that they support them effectively. Nothing I have said detracts from that, but I shall have one more look.
§ Baroness Walmsley
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for promising to have one more look. I accept that we cannot always ensure that all children come out equal but we can at least give them an equal opportunity to get there. That is what I think we should seek to do.
I mentioned Clause 6 but I would point out that Clause 20 is the Welsh equivalent, so one would really have to do both. I wait with bated breath to see whether the Minister is able to accept the amendment. It would be significant if she did and widely welcomed by all the groups which care for children with disabilities, in particular, but all kinds of disadvantaged groups would be most grateful for this kind of improvement to the Bill. With that in mind, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland moved Amendment No. 39:
Page 4, line 37, at end insert—
( ) In making arrangements under this section a children's services authority in England must have regard to the importance of parents and other persons caring for children in improving the well-being of children.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland moved Amendment No. 40:
Page 5, line 2, at end insert—
( ) a youth offending team for an area any part of which falls within the area of the authority;
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 40 I shall speak also to Amendment No. 51 and the Welsh equivalents, Amendments Nos. 85 and 90. Those amendments relate to the inclusion of youth offending teams in the duty to co-operate to improve the well-being of children and as members of local safeguarding children boards.
§ Noble Lords who took part in discussions in Committee will recall that the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Sharp, tabled an amendment that sought to name the youth offending 989 team as part of children's services. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, tabled a similar amendment that would include a youth offending team among the relevant partners under a reciprocal duty to co-operate in the arrangements made by the children's services authority. The same noble Lords also tabled similar amendments to include youth offending teams in local safeguarding children boards.
§ I made it clear in Committee that it has always been our intention that youth offending teams would have a role in local co-operation arrangements and local safeguarding children boards. I agreed that we would give further thought to whether the original drafting achieved that adequately.
§ Having done so, I now propose amendments which will name youth offending teams as relevant partners under the duty to co-operate and as board members of the local safeguarding children boards. Amendments Nos. 40 and 85 will place a statutory duty on youth offending teams to co-operate in the arrangements made by the children's services authority under Clause 6 in England and Clause 20 in Wales. Amendments Nos. 51 and 90 will include the youth offending team in the list of board partners of children's services authorities, who will be members of the local safeguarding children board under Clause 9 in England and Clause 24 in Wales.
§ The amendments are the best way to secure the involvement of youth offending teams in local co-operation arrangements and local safeguarding children boards. With thanks to noble Lords who brought this to my attention, I beg to move.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the amendments. They more or less entirely meet the point we were trying to make when we moved the amendments in Committee. I am glad that she is able to table amendments that are not only in relation to local co-operation but also to the local safeguarding teams. It is important that they are included. It is an excellent outcome for that reason.
Baroness Walmsley moved Amendment No. 40A:
Page 5, line 7, at end insert—
( ) the Immigration and Nationality Directorate
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, particularly in the light of the Government's plans in Clause 8 to improve the sharing of information, and in view of cases such as that of Victoria Climbié, it would seem essential to give the duty to co-operate to improve well-being to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate. That is why I move Amendment No. 40A.990
§ The Immigration and Nationality Directorate is usually the first to know about a new child coming into the country who may be vulnerable. So it really should be included in the duty to co-operate in Clause 6.
§ On Amendment No. 43, the critical services responsible for the welfare and support of refugee children and their families are excluded from the exhaustive list of those to whom the new duty applies in Clause 7. I ask the noble Baroness—I know she has an aversion to lists—to add them to that list. I perhaps helped her earlier today by removing a list from the Bill, so there is some room to put a few more people in.
Seriously, we believe that this is contrary to the Government's intentions as set out in Every Child Matters and ministerial commitments given in Committee that its wording includes all children. The Minister has repeated that again today. She used the words "all children". In Committee, she said:
noble Lords can rest assured that the wording of the Bill covers all children. There are no exceptions; noble Lords would not wish it otherwise, and neither would I".—[Official Report, 4/5/04; col. 1086.]
The Joint Committee on Human Rights has also recently criticised the exclusion of refugee agencies from Clauses 6, 7 and 9. It stated:
the omission of this particular group of children from the institutional arrangements designed to fulfil the State's positive obligations to children and Articles 2, 3 and 8 [of the Convention] raises the question of whether this gives rise to unjustifiable discrimination in the enjoyment of Convention rights".
The amendments I have tabled would rectify those omissions.
§ The Refugee Children's Consortium wholeheartedly agrees with the principle behind the agenda of Every Child Matters of an agreed set of outcomes and standards for all children. Refugee children are children first and foremost and should be afforded the same rights and protection as any other children in the UK. The agencies responsible for providing support and accommodation to refugee children, for their care while being detained with their families and for making critical decisions about their entry to the country, should be included in the new duties and arrangements in Clause 7.
This amendment was tabled in Committee and we return to it today. The amendments were resisted by the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton. She stated:
The amendments go much further than our obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and could be exploited".—[Official Report, 20/5/04; col. 976.]
I understand the Government's fear about this, but it is clearly a reference to the UK's wide-ranging reservation to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on all matters relating to immigration and nationality, including the treatment of refugee children, which is Article 22.
§ The reservation is essentially an opt-out clause in respect of immigration and nationality and has been severely criticised for being incompatible with the object and purpose of the UNCRC, most recently by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the JCHR. It is alarming that the Government feel that the duty in Clause 7 would extend further than their obligations under the UNCRC, particularly given the 991 fact that the Government have repeatedly argued that the purpose of the reservation is not to deny refugee children their rights, but that it is needed for an effective immigration system. I hope that the Minister can explain how and why the provisions in Clause 7 would be too onerous for refugee agencies, and how she considers that the excluded institutions responsible for refugee children would not be able to meet the duties under the clause.
§ Concerns about the treatment of children in Prison Service establishments have led to their inclusion under the new duty in Clause 7. Many parallels can be drawn between conditions for children detained under immigration law and those detained under criminal law. Similar concerns have been raised about the treatment of children in immigration detention centres and those in Prison Service establishments. Can the Minister explain why, if the Government consider it appropriate to detain children, and the care for children in detention is of a high quality, those responsible for their care should not fall under this duty? How can the Government distinguish between the imposition of the duty on prison governors and its imposition on detention centre managers?
§ The Minister argued in Committee that measures had been put in place to improve the situation, including the toolkit and training for immigration officers. Those measures are welcome but they are no substitute for the inclusion of this essential service in the new duty, particularly given the necessity, as outlined in the toolkit, for a multi-agency response to trafficking. It is certainly no argument against its inclusion.
§ It is hard to recognise the Government's assertion that the Bill's provisions extend to all children and the Every Child Matters agenda with the exclusion of key refugee agencies responsible for the care of refugee children from the important duty in Clause 7. That is particularly so when we consider the vulnerabilities of refugee children and the significant criticisms made of the institutions responsible for their care.
The last amendment in the group was also tabled in Committee. In response, the Minister stated that she did not think it necessary that the Immigration Service or NASS be required to be on the safeguarding children boards, but gave an assurance that:
Both NASS and the Immigration Service recognise the importance of local safeguarding children boards and will be fully involved in the boards where appropriate".—[Official Report, 24/5/04; col. 1168.]
However, no such assurance was given about whether there would be a similar expectation regarding immigration removal centres. Can the Minister confirm whether there would be such an expectation? I beg to move.
§ Earl Howe
My Lords, I wholeheartedly endorse everything that the noble Baroness has said on this important issue. Without going over the same territory at length, it seems that there are key points to emphasise.
992 The first is the comment made by the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the exclusion of refugee agencies from this part of the Bill raises the question of whether there is unjustifiable discrimination in the enjoyment of convention rights. It is true that this is not a categoric condemnation by the Joint Committee, but I suggest that it puts the onus on the Government to demonstrate exactly why they think that the omission of these agencies from the Bill is human rights compliant. As the noble Baroness said, if prison governors are within the scope of the duty, it is difficult to argue that detention centre managers should not be.
The second point is practical. Why do Ministers appear to think that the provisions in Clause 7 would be too burdensome for refugee agencies? The current wording does not impose a particularly burdensome duty; it is simply a duty to have regard to the need to safeguard children and promote their welfare. Why should the Immigration Service and the NASS be exempt from such an obligation, when, by the nature of their work, they clearly have a key role in safeguarding children?
I said in Committee that, when we consider the deficit in the delivery of these essential services to such very vulnerable children, we should not speak, as the Minister did, of the situation being exploited by such people. I feel that the Government have not defended their position very convincingly; I doubt whether they can. We await their response.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, I suggest that we need all three amendments in the group, Amendments Nos. 40A, 43 and 52. They are interrelated and mutually reinforcing. The noble Baroness has already shown today that she is in a very responsive mood and I hope that she can go further than she was able to do in Committee. After all, the Green Paper and the document, Every Child Matters, showed clearly that the Government want to protect and benefit all children. The noble Baroness said in Committee that the wording of the Bill covers all children. She even said that there are no exceptions.
This evening, she said again that all children should be embraced by the effects of the Bill. Previous speakers have, properly, mentioned the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I would just like to add to that list the Chief Inspector of Prisons in relation to immigration removal centres. We already know from reports received that provision for the care and welfare of children in those centres is not of a very high standard—contrary to what was claimed by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, when speaking for the Home Office on the parallel Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill.
So I am bound to agree with the Refugee Children's Consortium when it points out the discrepancy between the Bill as it stands and the particular vulnerability of refugee children—and, I would add, trafficked or potentially trafficked children. That is why I support the amendments and urge the Government to be as sympathetic as they possibly can.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lady Walmsley for her speech. It is not often that I hear things on the subject of refugees that I find totally fresh and lucid and that put the whole argument in a totally new light. I have found that today. That was an unusual experience—I will say no more.
Those of us who were in the House last Tuesday afternoon will have listened to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, manfully struggling to put forward government policy and explaining that one could not make things too nice for refugees because that might increase the pull factor that brings them to the United Kingdom. The whole background to that thinking is contained in Jack Straw's White Paper of 1999. I think that the reference is to paragraph 8.19, but I would not like to answer to that from memory, where it is argued that conditions must be made reasonably unpleasant so that people shall not be attracted to come here because the conditions are too nice. In fact, that is an invitation to other powers to conduct a Dutch auction.
I will not trouble the House with the reasons why I think that that is totally impractical and why I think that such choice does not normally exist. But I will trouble the House with the reasons why I think that that is particularly relevant to children. If families have made the decision to come here, it is in the highest degree unlikely that that is the choice of the child. Even in the case of unaccompanied children, that is still in the highest degree unlikely. It will be either on parental advice, or if they have escaped on their own after the massacre of their family—as has often been the case—it will simply be a matter of where the next flight is going to. Attempting to deter children by making conditions unpleasant, or less than totally pleasant for that purpose alone serves no useful purpose whatever. As a Dutch auction, it invites responses about which I do not particularly want to think.
This was a stupid policy in the first place, and this is one of its most stupid effects. The department has its own degree of autonomy. It is capable of resisting the spread of the Home Office in setting up secret cells within its own walls. The Department for Education is perfectly capable of conducting its own policy, and it would do it a great deal better.
§ Baroness Howe of Idlicote
My Lords, I say extremely briefly that having listened to everything that has been said, but also having been impressed by the briefing that one has been sent, particularly by the Refugee Children's Consortium, I have no hesitation in supporting all three amendments. As we have heard from the noble Lord, they are certainly inter-related and connected. As has been well outlined, the whole business of being in detention as a child with few facilities, nowhere to go, nowhere to play, in detention, and frightened, having come from another culture and another country, all adds up to the fact that they should first and foremost be treated as children. 994 Therefore, they should come under the responsibilities of those who will be given new responsibilities under this Bill.
§ Baroness Howarth of Breckland
My Lords, in the mid-1980s, I found myself working in bed and breakfast hotels where there were hundreds of homeless families. The attitude towards those families at that time was that because they were undeserving, and they had got themselves into these difficulties, they had to be where they were, despite the fact that most of these places were rat-infested, had insecure doors and were lice-ridden. Children were at risk, because there were abusers in the same hotels.
The attitude is now the same for these refugee children. We heard earlier how the Government's attitude had changed in relation to families in bed and breakfasts, and that families with children were no longer to be placed in bed and breakfasts. A new and enlightened view has been taken by this Government. I would hope that they would take the same enlightened view about refugee children, although I fear that the Minister may find herself in a difficult position in the context, as we heard from the noble Earl, Lord Russell, of the wider political agenda.
However, what I said about homeless families, I now say about refugee families. Even if I believed, and I do not, that their parents deserve to be where they are; and even if I believed, and I do not, that those parents got themselves into those difficulties on their own, those children had no responsibility whatever.
Therefore, we who have spoken so widely—and I listened to my colleagues' erudite speeches about the rights and needs of children—are now saying that there is one category of children for whom we will not take the same responsibility. If we cannot do it today, I hope that we will battle on, as we did with homeless families in bed and breakfasts, to make sure that all children have equal opportunity, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, and that we can dispose of what is an absolutely appalling position for some of these refugee children.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, as always, it is true to say that I have listened with great interest to noble Lords, who feel passionately about these issues. As the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said, I have been very responsive where I can. It is important to make the Government's position clear regarding each of these issues, which I shall set out as succinctly as I can. In doing that, perhaps I shall be able to deal with some of the issues that have been raised. Of course, I will reflect on all that has been said.
Although the amendments are grouped, I think of them separately and in three distinct ways. My response is different to each amendment, so it is important to turn to them separately. Amendment No. 40A is about the relevance of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate as a partner to the children's services authority in making arrangements to promote co-operation.
995 Noble Lords have made clear, and I appreciate, that the Immigration Service and the National Asylum Support Service play very important roles in certain areas of the country and their work will impact on services for children within the local area. But the arrangements that we have put in place under Clause 6 have been designed with the intention of ensuring that bodies with responsibility for strategic decision-making and commissioning services at local area level are covered.
The Immigration and Nationality Directorate has a much wider national focus; indeed, there are some local areas where it has no presence at all. To include it would not only be inconsistent with the design of the co-operation arrangements, but would also confuse its focus. However, I recognise that in some areas the activities of the Immigration Service, NASS and others will be major influences on local decision-making. Where that is the case, there is nothing to prevent children's services authorities, where they and their partners think that it is right and proper, including those bodies in their co-operation arrangements.
As noble Lords know well, immigration impacts on different localities in different ways. I would therefore argue that that must be a matter for local discretion. Previously, in connection with the Clause 6 co-operation arrangements, I said that we want to give partners the flexibility to make arrangements that reflect and meet local needs in the best possible way. We will make clear in the guidance covering the co-operation arrangements that the Immigration Service, NASS and other IND bodies should be involved where they have a major impact on local decision-making.
I hope that that addresses the point without making it universal, which we think would be inappropriate for the reasons that I have given about the make-up of different communities. With that new assurance, I hope that noble Lords will be able to reflect on the matter and come back to me to seek greater clarification. But the guidance will be clear, which will help in those cases.
Amendment No. 43 seeks to impose the Clause 7 duty to have regard to the need to safeguard children and promote their welfare in exercising the normal functions of agencies and individuals; namely, regional offices of the National Asylum Support Service, the centre manager of an immigration removal centre and the chief immigration officer at the port of entry.
This amendment came up in Committee. Noble Lords have referred to some of what I said then. We have been very careful in the way in which we have worded this clause: we do not put a duty on agencies that would make them unable to fulfil their primary functions.
The Immigration and Nationality Directorate carries out an essential task in providing immigration control for the United Kingdom and in ensuring what would be described as a tightly managed asylum system. It is probably unavoidable that in performing that task IND may do things that would be judged 996 inconsistent with a duty to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. I know that noble Lords find it difficult, but I said in Committee, and I repeat now, that that could be exploited in ways that the drafters of this amendment would not support by those seeking to abuse the system. We also have to be careful about what we expect individuals who often work in difficult circumstances to be able to do. It is very important that we are clear in the focus of the work that we expect people to undertake in those services.
Noble Lords know that the National Asylum Support Service does not support unaccompanied asylum seeker children who are supported by local authorities under the Children Act. Some children are directly referred to local authorities by the Immigration Service. Indeed, I have spent time talking to young people who are unaccompanied asylum seeker children about some of the work that is going on in Kent. In the main, that has been extremely good in dealing with a whole range of children who have very different needs.
NASS provides accommodation and cash support for families with children. In these functions, NASS acts in the same way as any other provider of accommodation or subsistence for families and seeks to respect the right of families to a private and family life. It plays a key role in ensuring an effective asylum system and we must ensure that, in everything we do, we do not undermine the system. It is important to recognise that were we to accept Amendment No. 43, we would be providing greater scope for challenge, thus possibly undermining that system.
In relation to the Immigration Service, again we fear that the amendment would provide another basis that could exploit the appellate and judicial review systems to argue that the detention of asylum seeking families is not compatible with safeguarding children or protecting their welfare. The Government's position is that it is an unfortunate but necessary element of our immigration control procedures.
However, noble Lords know that we do not detain unaccompanied children for any longer than overnight except in exceptional circumstances where there are concerns for the child's welfare. In the overwhelming majority of cases, those families with children who are detained have had their applications to remain in the UK refused and have removal directions in place. Children are therefore detained in these circumstances only for the shortest possible time. Moreover, we have introduced rigorous and enhanced arrangements and have put in place a system of regular ministerial authorisations for any detention of children beyond 28 days.
§ 7 p.m.
§ On the question of the IND, I hope that noble Lords can agree that a duty to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children could severely compromise our ability to maintain an effective asylum system and strong immigration control. But that does not mean that we do not think 997 that these services have a role to play in safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children; rather we think that this Bill is not the right vehicle to ensure that. We believe that those working in these services take their responsibilities for children very seriously. Both NASS and the Immigration Service have well-established working relationships and arrangements with local authorities so that concerns are dealt with swiftly.
§ The noble Earl, Lord Howe, mentioned in Committee the results of the ECPAT report in terms of some of the measures that have been taken. I shall not repeat those because I dealt with them in Committee, but I shall be happy to do so at a later stage if noble Lords wish. We believe that Amendment No. 43 would compromise the ability of these services to maintain the system that we need in place.
§ I turn to Amendment No. 52. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, we dealt with this in detail in Committee when I said that these arrangements are well established and that they could link into the new boards. However, her specific question to me was whether that would apply to the centre manager of an immigration removal centre. The answer is yes, it would.
§ On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
§ Baroness Walmsley
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in support of this group of amendments, and the Minister for her response. On Amendment No. 40A, I welcome the confirmation from the noble Baroness that the Immigration and Nationality Directorate can be brought in as a partner with a children's services authority and that this will be clearly outlined in guidance.
On Amendment No. 43, the noble Baroness said that our amendment would put duties on these organisations that would be incompatible with their other core functions. However, if they do things that are inconsistent with safeguarding children, my aim is to ensure that they do not. Putting this provision on the face of the Bill would stop them. I believe that the asylum system is more undermined by slow or poor decision-making than anything that this amendment would do. A strong and fair asylum system is not inconsistent with treating children humanely and I really cannot understand why a caring government could not find it in their heart to add these organisations to the list of those who have a duty to safeguard children.
On the last amendment in the group, I thank the Minister for confirming the answer to my question. However, many noble Lords feel very strongly about Amendment No. 43. After consultation with others, it is highly likely that we will bring it back at Third Reading. However, in the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland moved Amendment No. 41:
Page 5, line 11, after "section" insert—
(a) provide staff, goods, services, accommodation or other resources;
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 41, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 54 and 55, and the Welsh equivalents, Amendments Nos. 86, 92 and 93. The amendments concern the ability of partners to make non-financial contributions in support of co-operation arrangements and the activities of local safeguarding children's boards.
§ In the amendments we respond to concerns expressed in Committee by, among others, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley, Lady Sharp and Lady Byford. Noble Lords rightly emphasised that the contributions partners can make to the exercise of functions under Clauses 6 and 9 need not only be financial. During the Committee stage I undertook to take the issue away and examine how we might make provision for this in the Bill.
§ As the Bill stands, it gives children's services authorities and any of their relevant partners the power to pool funds to support arrangements made under the duty to co-operate. As well as supporting co-operation arrangements through funding, however, it is clear that agencies can also provide non-financial resource to facilitate joint working—for example, accommodation in order to locate a multi-disciplinary team.
§ Amendments Nos. 41 and 86 are necessary to make it absolutely clear that partners can support their cooperation arrangements with contributions of non-financial resource. In doing so they can strengthen their commitment to the activities of the partnership. We need local partners to be aware that pooling their budgets as part of their co-operation arrangements can be complemented by providing non-pecuniary resource. This includes staff, goods, services, accommodation or other resources. Similarly, Amendments Nos. 54, 55, 92 and 93 will also clarify to local partners that they can make non-pecuniary contributions to the activities of their local safeguarding children board.
§ I am grateful to noble Lords for clarifying our thinking on this matter and I hope they will feel able to support the amendments. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for bringing forward the amendments. They answer the question that we posed in Committee when we raised these issues. Quite clearly, voluntary and other agencies can contribute in kind rather than always in cash. This is a significant recognition of the role of the voluntary and 999 community sectors in relation to the provision of children's services. I thank the Minister for her response.
§ Earl Howe
My Lords, as the noble Baroness said, we tabled a similar amendment in Committee. I am grateful to the Minister for listening to the points that we put to the Government.
It is an encouragement to a voluntary organisation if it feels that it is fully in a partnership and can contribute in a material way, regardless of whether it is in money or in kind. I fit is in kind, though, it will feel that it is a partner in the fullest sense. There is a definite psychological benefit as well as material benefits in the changes the Government have agreed to. This is a change for the better and I thank the Minister for listening.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford moved Amendment No. 42:
Page 5, line 21, at end insert—
( ) A children's services authority may, if the authority considers it expedient to do so for the purpose of promoting co-operation between schools, the authority and relevant partners under this section, issue guidance which governing bodies of schools maintained by the local education authority, and the proprietors of academies and city colleges located in the area of the authority, shall have regard to.
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, we moved a similar amendment in Committee. It is an attempt to make absolutely clear on the face of the Bill that schools should have a role in delivering the Government's reform under Every Child Matters.
Some noble Lords may have read this week in the Guardian, on Tuesday, 16 June, an article by Fiona Millar in which she asks,
Why are schools not explicitly mentioned as having a 'duty to co-operate' in the children bill. It may seem a small technical point now but in 10 years' time, when we reflect on whether we have truly integrated services for children, it might be one of the factors that determines the success or failure of the Every Child Matters strategy laid out in the green paper by ministers".
This amendment would meet the concerns expressed by the Minister in response to an amendment that we tabled in Committee. The Minister stated on 20 May that expecting schools to comply with guidance from the Secretary of State on co-operation,
would create unnecessary bureaucratic burdens and would distract schools".—[Official Report, 20/5/04; col. 949.]
However, she also said:
For schools generally, it would be more appropriate for the education authority to issue tailored guidance that reflects the local arrangements that have been set up for co-operation".—[Official Report, 20/5/04; col. 948.]
It is to meet this suggestion that we have expressly tailored the amendment. It would ensure that schools take account of the guidance from the children's services authority, which is a more appropriate body than the local education authority.
§ It is accepted that 99 per cent of schools will wish to work with their local education authority and other local bodies in driving forward the Government's 1000 reforms. There will be some schools, however, which are reluctant to do so, for whatever reason. That is why it is imperative to put in the Bill a duty on schools, even if it is only to take account of local guidance. Without such a duty, the only way that reluctant schools can be persuaded to join local efforts is either through the discredited "name and shame" techniques or through a direction from the Secretary of State under Section 496 of the Education Act 1996. That gives the Secretary of State the power to prevent the unreasonable exercise of functions in individual cases. This is a very long-winded procedure which the Government could circumvent in most cases by agreeing to this amendment. I beg to move.
§ Earl Howe
My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with the amendment and would have added my name to it if I had been quicker off the mark. I agree with everything the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, has said in support of it.
At the end of the Committee stage, some of us were left feeling decidedly uncomfortable that, despite the Bill's huge and welcome emphasis on co-operative working, many of the key individuals who will, in practice, be expected to breathe life into this concept, have been omitted from the Bill. Perhaps the most extraordinary instances of this omission are schools and GPs.
The kind of co-operation and co-ordination in the Bill is at strategic and policy level. That is certainly necessary, but it is surely as good as useless if those on the front line, such as schools, are not signed up to joint working as well. It is not enough to say, as the Minister did before, that the views of front-line staff would be sought when policy was being framed at a strategic level. That is quite different from saving that schools and doctors are under a positive duty to work co-operatively where such co-operation is helpful to meeting the needs of a particular child. However, I suspect that we need not hold our breath for the Government to abandon their opposition to augmenting the list of partners in Clause 6. As an alternative, I hope that they will consider this amendment, which seems to provide a neat way forward.
The Government are clearly expecting a great deal from schools and the teaching profession in helping to deliver their wider agenda to improve the overall well-being of children. I have no objection to this idea—indeed, I think it is entirely logical, given that teachers and school staff spend more time with children up to the age of 16 than any other professional people. They are ideally placed to help children in a broader sense than just educationally by acting as the gateway to other public services where those are needed.
I fear for the way in which teachers and schools may react if they are not given some support in becoming a part of this new co-operative culture. The road will not be easy. I am sure that many teachers feel ill equipped and under-resourced to take on this enhanced and very responsible role. More and more schools are becoming community-minded and looking beyond the narrow 1001 confines of exam results, but to implement the well-being agenda, there surely have to be clear objectives for schools and teachers.
Co-operation is a fine word, but it has to be recognised that members of different professional disciplines are accountable in different ways and very often do not share the same understandings, language or practice. Addressing and overcoming these differences cannot be left to chance. It has to be planned. By that, I mean that professional development and training need to be put in place to ensure that common standards and practices become the norm and that there is mutual understanding between partners. Given half a chance, I am sure that many teachers will be very excited by this new wider role but, unless they are properly signed up to the big objectives and understand what they are about, they will not be in a position to sign up to the day-to-day implementation.
If schools are to be involved in this way we ought, at the very least, to find out what the pitfalls are. I am quite surprised that there has been no suggestion of pilots or an evaluation strategy to see what works and what does not. It is surely not sensible to encourage many dozens of local authorities to go down this track unless we can be more confident of the best route to take.
§ Baroness Howe of Idlicote
My Lords, I am going to be very brief, as I know that we are well past the time that we normally rise. Over these months, I have been rather impressed by the lack of involvement of the teaching profession and, having recently had a meeting with the General Teaching Council, I was equally impressed by the extent to which it is aware of the amount that needs to be done. It is already working at local level to try to get the co-operation that we are all hoping to achieve.
I think that some form of structure, which welcomes rather more their fairly large role in delivering what we all want to deliver, would be helpful and would be some form of encouragement. It may be that this particular amendment cannot be endorsed but later on, when we are talking about the detailed methods whereby the different members of the group can work together and share certain agreed objectives, it will be important. That is the end.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, for raising this issue. I have not read Fiona Millar's article—she is a great friend of mine—but I shall do so with great interest because she writes extremely well and interestingly on these issues. I shall draw her attention to my remarks in Hansard.
I recognise noble Lords' concern that we should ensure that schools, academies and technology colleges should be in the right framework. However, the amendment is problematic and I am confident that we have better methods of achieving the ends that we all share.
1002 I accept what the noble Earl, Lord Howe, said: educational establishments and schools are absolutely key. Because they have the same contacts, they often know children and young people extremely well. We have children captive—in the best sense of the word—for a day. Being able to work with schools is critical.
I also recognise that if we are to pursue our agenda of standards in education and increasing the opportunities for education and training for children, we must look more broadly than at what I call the "9 to 3.30 experience". We must consider what happens to children before they arrive at school and when they leave and establish what role we can play in providing services around schools.
I could talk for at least 25 minutes on extended schools because that is one of my policy areas. As noble Lords know, I do not often get a chance to do so. However, I sense—particularly with the arrival of the Chief Whip—that that would be resisted in this Chamber. However, I wanted noble Lords to know that I could do so without using notes, which makes me feel very good.
I accept all that the noble Earl said about involving the profession—he said that there should not be a burden on teachers and that teachers already feel sometimes that they are social workers. We want to remove the burdens by bringing in support and expertise and enabling children to be seen in a more rounded way. There are some exciting developments: there are many pilots and projects all over the country, but I shall not discuss them at length. We are doing a huge amount of work.
The amendment is technically flawed. We did not put a legal duty on schools to co-operate because the arrangements are strategic. As noble Lords said, we placed the duty on education authorities because we felt that that was right. There is nothing to prevent children's services authorities putting out guidance on co-operation arrangements. Because of the Bill's approach to putting a legal duty on schools to co-operate, it is not appropriate to apply a duty to have regard to the guidance. Technically, the amendment does not work.
Behind the amendment lies the view that we may need some compulsion. Some noble Lords suggested that some schools will not do that. The framework is provided by our actions in terms of the new inspections, area reviews, the new relationship we are seeking with schools and extended schools and our ambition to support schools to offer services and see the child in a broader way. That is the framework in which to achieve what the amendment seeks.
Schools are already judged by the extent and effectiveness of their partnership with others. In particular, inspectors must evaluate and report on the quality of links with local communities and other schools. There is much more to do in that regard. The difference between us is that we think that in our work with schools and extended schools, we have the right approach. Using the framework of inspection and what we expect of schools without placing the 1003 burden—it would be resisted with good reason by this House—we can secure the cultural change and engage schools properly through the co-operation agenda.
On that basis—and because children's services authorities can issue guidance if they believe that that would be helpful—I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw the amendment.
§ Earl Howe
My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, I should be very grateful if I could ask her one question that I forgot to ask relating primarily to GPs. In Committee, she explained that the co-operation duties in Clause 6—she made similar points in relation to Clause 7–apply to the relevant partners at strategic level but that independent practitioners such as GPs will not be required to co-operate. However, I think she said that there will be arrangements to direct primary care trusts to ensure that the contracts for primary medical services include a condition requiring the contractor to safeguard the welfare of children and to provide supporting guidance as appropriate.
If the noble Baroness cannot answer that now, I should be grateful if she would write to me. The contracts for GPs are, of course, negotiated nationally and the contract is in place, so I am not quite sure how this kind of arrangement will be built into the contract given that, as I say, the GMS contract is already signed and sealed.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, the noble Earl is reading the same briefing as I read last night going home; I recognise some of the wording. I am confident that we have addressed this matter through the PCT contracting arrangements I described in Committee. However, I shall write to the noble Earl as I was struck by the fact that the NHS Confederation briefing said that as the contract was national it could not quite see how the measure would work. I am confident that we have addressed the matter but, if I may, I shall write to the noble Earl about that to ensure that he understands how we have addressed the matter 1004 rather than pretend I know the answer. I passed the briefing to officials this morning and asked them to look at it. As there were no amendments on the matter on the Order Paper I did not think to obtain the relevant briefing in time. However, I should have known better.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. There is a little bit of a problem here. She talks about getting a cultural change. The question is whether we can get that cultural change without the extra "kick" that comes from having a measure in the Bill.
I recognise that, particularly in relation to Clauses 6 and 7, we are looking at the strategic partners rather than those who actually deliver. There is a similar problem in relation to schools, in the sense that not all schools come under local authority auspices. A number of schools these days, particularly new city academies, are semi-autonomous.
I am not totally happy about the fact that there is no mention of schools as the co-operation partners, given that the schools have the day-to-day dealings with children, and have the responsibility, through their governing bodies, for looking after the children. We may well return to the matter again. I will read what the Minister said with care and look at the different aspects of it in relation to the Bill. Perhaps she and I can have some discussion about it as well. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 7 [Arrangements to safeguard and promote welfare]:
§ [Amendment No. 43 not moved.]
§ House adjourned at twenty-seven minutes past seven o'clock.