§ 5.8 p.m
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I am pleased to be here today to speak about the Government's ambitious agenda for reforming children's services and the important role that the Children Bill will play in those reforms.
The Green Paper, Every Child Matters, and the consultation response, Every Child Matters: Next Steps, which we published at the same time as the Bill, build on the successes and failures of the current arrangements. They build on the report by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, into the tragic death of Victoria Climbié. They build on the significant amount of work that the Government have started, to support children and families and reduce child poverty, through programmes such as Sure Start, Quality Protects and Connexions. They build on innovative practice at local level to bring programmes and services together. They set out our vision to improve life chances for all children and young people, with a particular focus on the most vulnerable, including those who are disabled; those who are cared for by the local authority or are otherwise outside their immediate families; those who have experienced changes in their family circumstances, perhaps through bereavement; or those at risk of abuse or violence.
This is a long-term vision for radical reform. We want to move beyond individual initiatives, however successful, towards a system where universal and specialist services work more effectively together to maximise opportunities and minimise risks for all children and young people. We want to focus on better prevention so that support can be offered early, when it is needed, in a way that responds to the needs of children and their parents and carers.
The work that we are now taking forward, including the Children Bill, has been informed by feedback received from children, young people and adults during the consultation on Every Child Matters. The 1209 consultation revealed wide support for our vision. We received some 1,500 responses from adults and organisations and more than 3,000 responses from children and young people.
Respondents told us that change needed to be inclusive, flexible and well managed. We were reminded that we must recognise the critical role of parents, carers, families and communities in securing the well-being of children, and that one of the great strengths of the system is the way that voluntary and community organisations work alongside the statutory sector in providing support to children and their families. Above all, children and young people said that they wanted to be listened to and to have a clear say.
It is the central thrust of the legislation, and of the wider reforms, that children and young people should be at the centre of our policies. The Children Bill embeds in legislation, as a shared set of goals for all who work with children, the outcomes which children themselves have told us are most important: that is, being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution, and achieving economic well-being.
We have listened carefully to the messages from the consultation respondents and have worked closely with a wide range of stakeholders to draw up the provisions before noble Lords today. The Children Bill is largely enabling legislation that is designed to be a catalyst for improving local partnership and effective practice around children's needs. It is prescriptive only where we believe that this is necessary to ensure accountability or to protect children's welfare.
I hope that noble Lords will agree that this is the best approach to ensure a long term and effective process of transformational change. This legislation has the wellbeing of children and young people at its heart. It establishes a clear voice for children and young people and draws together strong local partnerships around better outcomes, with a tighter focus on safeguarding children, clear lines of accountability and a focus on continuing improvement.
The first part of the Bill makes provision for the establishment of a Children's Commissioner for England who will be a clear voice for children and young people. This will be a powerful, independent position. The commissioner will be charged with representing the views and interests of children and young people and with reporting to Parliament against the outcomes that we have affirmed. The commissioner should engage with all sectors to help to make us a more child-focused society. An investigatory or case-work based role in a country of 11.7 million children would lead to an unmanageable workload. But it will be the role of the commissioner to ensure that complaints procedures are accessible and effective to handle such cases, and to influence at a strategic level the opportunities available to children and young people.
When the NSPCC consulted children on Every Child Matters it found that many want a commissioner who understands and relates to them and who genuinely cares about them. Above all, they want a 1210 commissioner who really listens to them. The commissioner will be free to investigate and report on all areas of the lives of children and young people, including the media and business.
We recognise the important context provided by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Bill reflects that. However, the commissioner will be guided by what children and young people say to him or her, not by what adults—however well meaning—think children want. He or she will be the Children's Commissioner, not the Government's or the lobby's commissioner.
The logic of the devolution settlement means that the commissioner will report on non-devolved issues as they affect children and young people across the whole of the United Kingdom. He or she will work closely with the commissioners in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure that their views and experience are taken into account.
The second part of the Bill sets out the legislative measures that we are taking to improve support for children and young people at the local level. We have worked closely with a wide range of stakeholders, including the voluntary sector and local government representatives, to make sure that our provisions ensure that the new package of duties and powers places children's needs at the heart of local planning and delivery. The provisions recognise the roles of the whole range of agencies and organisations—including criminal justice agencies and the voluntary and community sector—in working together to improve the well-being of children. They allow flexibility in the way that better integrated services are developed in response to local priorities, while ensuring that there are clear lines of accountability.
The Local Government Association has described our proposals as setting the scene for aradical change that will improve the wellbeing of all children and ensure greater protection for the most vulnerable".Partnership working is at the heart of our reforms. Clause 6 embeds better outcomes as the focus of new duties on agencies to co-operate to improve the wellbeing of children and young people. These agencies include health bodies, the police and probation services, Connexions and the Learning and Skills Council, all of which have important contributions to make. It is crucial to engage non-statutory organisations from the voluntary and community sectors, and to ensure that young people and their parents have a say. The clause therefore looks to local authorities to ensure representation from other bodies that work with children and young people locally.
The clause also supports the development of children's trusts, placing decision making in the hands of strong local partnerships able to commission services on a fair and contestable basis against a shared assessment of the needs of local children, their parents and carers. The new pooling power in Clause 6 enables local authorities, primary care trusts and other agencies, such as Connexions and youth offending teams, where agreed locally to pool their budgets more flexibly through children's trusts.
1211 The fundamental purpose of these formal partnership duties is to encourage more flexible and accessible services to meet local needs. Services will be increasingly co-located through children's centres and extended schools. That will be supported by the reforms that we are taking forward outside legislation in order to improve effective working practices across professional boundaries with a common assessment framework and increasing use of lead professionals to develop a relationship of trust with a child and to link him or her, as necessary, to multi-agency support.
While working to improve outcomes for children across the board, we must however have a very clear focus on safety. All agencies must play their part. Therefore, Clause 7 places duties on agencies to ensure that in exercising their normal functions they have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. That duty strengthens the expectation that where a professional in one service area is concerned about a child, he or she will speak to others who can help to find out if there is a problem and take action if necessary.
To ensure better protection, the Bill makes provision for new statutory local safeguarding children boards reflecting a specific recommendation made by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, who highlighted inconsistency in the work of area child protection committees. The new boards will ensure the quality of local arrangements for safeguarding, including staff training, local planning and needs assessment. The Bill ensures that all relevant statutory agencies must be members of the boards and that other important agencies are able to participate, particularly those voluntary organisations which play such an important role in safeguarding children.
Some of the most vulnerable children in our society can be those who, for whatever reason, do not live with their parents but are cared for by the local authority or through private fostering arrangements. Clause 36 responds to strong messages from the consultation by taking provisions to strengthen the current arrangements for notification of private fostering, with the power, if necessary, to move to a formal registration scheme.
As the noble Lord, Lord Laming, stated in his report into the tragic death of Victoria Climbié, it is imperative that we ensure a clear line of accountability for children's services and strong leadership within them. Clause 13 provides for a new post of Director of Children's Services. This will establish a single point of accountability for a local authority's education and children's social services functions. Directors will play a leading role in making partnership arrangements, driving joint working and transformational change on the ground. They will be well placed to drive action on some of the deep-seated problems around the interface between education and social care.
For example, noble Lords will be all too well aware from the report of the Social Exclusion Unit of our collective failure to improve the life chances of looked-after children. These are children and young people for whom the state acts as corporate parent. It is crucial that we ensure that we are giving them the educational tools 1212 they will need to succeed as adults. Clause 43 places a particular duty on local education authorities to promote their educational achievement.
Local political leadership is equally important to these changes. The Bill also provides for a lead council member for children's services, to secure the profile of children's services at the local political level. We expect most authorities to have a director and lead member, and a children's trust, in place by 2006, and all by 2008.
These important reforms of children's services locally will be supported by the new integrated inspection framework and joint area reviews, for which provisions are taken in Clauses 15 to 19. The measures in Clauses 41 and 42 to bring the intervention powers for social services in line with those for education will allow a co-ordinated approach to be taken in response to service failure where other support measures have not been successful.
I am particularly pleased by the great progress that Ofsted and the other inspectorates have made in working together to turn the integrated inspection proposals into a reality. As Denise Platt, chair of the Commission for Social Care Inspection, said recently:We are tackling the same challenges that services have to grapple with, of working together constructively. We have had to unpack the fine words and make a reality of them and we have done this—and will continue to do so—by putting children and families at the centre of all we do".That is what this package of reforms is all about—ensuring that services co-ordinate themselves around the outcomes for children, placing children and their families at the centre of all they do.
I turn now to the issue of sharing information between agencies and professionals. This is something which we would all agree is crucial to effective joint working and to the ability of professionals properly to understand the needs of the children with whom they work. The responses to the Every Child Matters consultation showed a broad consensus that sharing information about children is a vital aspect of safeguarding children and ensuring that they thrive.
The appropriate and responsible sharing of information is something that practitioners make judgments about all the time. It is a part of their jobs. We know that there are concerns about when it is appropriate to share information and often it is difficult for practitioners to get past even the first hurdle of finding out who else has an interest in the welfare or well-being of a child. So the measures we are taking are about supporting people who work with children in exercising their professional judgment. We will make clear that an intrinsic part of fulfilling the duties to co-operate to improve the well-being of children set out in Clause 6, and to safeguard and promote their welfare, set out in Clause 7, is the sharing of information when a professional judges that doing so will contribute to those aims.
Additionally, in Clause 8 we are taking measures to enable the establishment of databases to support and enable effective information-sharing between professionals and services, so that children and young people can get quicker and easier access to the specialist services they need. I cannot stress enough, however, that the IT system will 1213 support professional judgment, not replace it. It will not remove the need for professionals to talk to each other. It will help them to do so more confidently and more effectively.
The database record would be accessible only to practitioners working with the child who need the information to do their jobs. It will not hold case information from a child's files, but the minimum core of information that will enable professionals to establish links—such as the child's name, address, the name of their GP and school or other educational setting, the contact details of any specialist services dealing with the child and the fact that any practitioner has a concern about the child.
So where, for example, a health worker had a concern about a child, they would take any appropriate action in their own area of practice, but would also be able readily to see which other practitioners were involved with that child. In one place they would be able to find the details of a social worker involved with the child or to discover that a housing officer had recorded a concern. They could then quickly confer with those other professionals to identify the child's overall needs and how best to meet them.
It is crucial to get details such as access arrangements and technical specifications right. To do this we need to be informed by experience. As well as learning from the pilots under way in 15 local authorities, we are also seeking expert technical advice. To allow for this work to be done, we think it is right for many of these details to be set out in secondary legislation. But we also recognise that these technical details are sensitive and deserve proper scrutiny by the House. With this in mind we have ensured that they are subject to the affirmative resolution procedures. We are also mindful of the comments made last week by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. Ahead of the Committee stage, we will consider what further detail we might practically include on the face of the Bill.
I turn now to the implications of this Bill for Wales. Under the devolution settlement, health and social care are matters devolved to the National Assembly for Wales. The Assembly shares our commitment to children and young people, and in particular to safeguarding the most vulnerable. It has developed an approach that takes account of their needs and the different policies, priorities, local structures and management arrangements in Wales.
Clauses 20 to 27, in accordance with the devolution settlement, make separate provision for Wales for those matters found in Clauses 6 to 14 in Part 2. Clause 21, in particular, contains unique Welsh provisions regarding the appointment and designation of lead directors and members for children and young people's services by local authorities. The clauses also provide for the appointment and nomination of lead executive and non-executive directors and members by local health boards and NHS trusts. The lead directors and members will be tasked with taking forward those arrangements for planning in partnership to ensure that they act as strategic drivers for 1214 action. The Assembly will be discussing with local authorities the most appropriate way of implementing these requirements.
In line with changes at government level, Clauses 28 to 35 contain the arrangements necessary to transfer the functions of CAFCASS, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, for children ordinarily resident in Wales to the Assembly.
This Children Bill is an important first step in a long-term programme of reforms, to which this Government are deeply committed. Our commitment was underlined recently by the Budget, which means a real-terms average annual growth between 2004–05 and 2007–08 of 3.8 per cent in the children's services baseline for local authorities. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State will be making further detailed announcements in due course to support the children's reform package. We can already point to the allocation of a further £669 million by 2008 to Sure Start, ensuring that by 2008 there will be 1,700 children's centres covering the country's 20 per cent poorest wards.
But while the Government have recognised the need for further investment, the reforms are also importantly about the more effective use of existing resources. To a great extent, our proposals have been inspired by innovative practice on the ground and the enterprise of dedicated practitioners to work together to adopt a more child-centred approach. The whole purpose of this Bill is to embed these approaches consistently across the nation. We are not seeking change for change's sake, but to develop a shared national programme of change that will have far-reaching implications for all children and young people.
We are being rightly ambitious, but from the enthusiasm that has met this vision I am confident that this Bill puts us on course for a generational step change in the quality of help we give to maximise opportunity and minimise risk for every child and young person. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ Earl Howe
My Lords, it is a pleasure for me to begin the debate by thanking the Minister for introducing the Bill with her customary clarity. I am sure we all share the sense that today's Second Reading is an important event—important for the many children and families who we trust will benefit from its provisions, and important, too, for those individuals in the public and voluntary sectors who are tasked with delivering the services upon which those children and families can so often depend.
This is a Bill which is, at heart, about finding better ways of doing what we already do. If it is legitimate to speak of anything good springing out of the death of little Victoria Climbié, I am sure that we all hope that the Bill and the new forms of professionalism that we all want to see emerging from it will be those good things.
1215 Quite apart from our memories of Victoria Climbié, we need be in no doubt that change has to happen. The statistics of misery, injury and death in young children cannot to any feeling person simply be figures on a page. They are just too shocking in what they tell us. It is an appalling fact that every week of the year at least one child dies as the result of cruelty by an adult. Of all the rapes that take place in this country, a quarter are rapes of children.
I am sure that we all know parents who are exceedingly protective of their children and are afraid to let them go out unaccompanied for fear of what might happen to them. Feeling protective towards one's children is an entirely understandable emotion but in fact, if we look at the harm that befalls children, abductions and abuse by strangers form only a small percentage of the total. Most child abuse is committed by someone the child knows well—often, although not always of course, within the close family.
It is very often the case, so the NSPCC tell us, that the abuse is suspected by another adult who could have done something to prevent it. Without any doubt, a great deal of abuse is hidden and never discovered. In the face of such awful truths we have a duty to keep asking ourselves how we can do better.
Over the years, successive governments have put measures in place aimed at improving the welfare of children, the main landmark of the past 20 years being the Children Act 1989. I am proud of that Act but 15 years' experience have, I think, pointed up one or two weaknesses within it. The present Government have built upon the Children Act in useful ways, not least by strengthening the statutory duties of local education authorities and schools in the Education Act 2002. They have also set about strengthening the various inspectorates, in tandem with the new and welcome quality agendas which extend from the NHS into schools and social services.
And yet, as the report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, emphatically brought home to us, none of this has been enough. Over the past 30 years there have been at least 30 inquiries into cases of child deaths known to social services. Every single one of them has spoken of the need for better communication and joined-up working in child protection. None of them has had any noticeable effect. That is why there is a general consensus that this time, in the wake of the Climbié case, things really do have to be different. The emphatic language used by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, was a wake-up call to that end.
Against this backdrop, the Bill before us represents a fantastic opportunity, and I can reassure the Minister by saying that there is much in it that we can welcome. One of the things I welcome most of all is the language of the Bill, which moves us away from the relatively narrow canvas of child protection onto the much wider canvas of children's well-being and support for parents and families. A wider canvas of this kind inevitably means a more ambitious agenda and, for some people, a change of culture. But there is an enabling tone about the Bill which I think is very positive. In one or two areas where the Government might have been overly prescriptive, they have drawn back.
1216 But there is also, I would suggest, an obvious general principle that we should work to as we debate the Bill. That is that new structures and new processes, necessary as we may think they are, are no substitute for good professional judgment and high quality people, in the right numbers, on the ground. In bringing us the Bill I know the Minister means business and I am sure her colleagues in the department do as well. But none of us should allow ourselves to think that, on its own, the Bill represents the gateway to salvation. For legislation will of course do nothing to recruit social workers and health visitors, teachers and school nurses, to fill the many vacancies that currently exist in those disciplines; or to provide those individuals with the right training. These are separate and parallel issues, largely dependent on resourcing.
The main lesson from the death of Victoria Climbié, let us never forget, is that those in the public services responsible for her care simply did not do their jobs properly. Had they done so, Victoria would most probably have been alive today. More than half of the recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, were aimed at correcting failures of professional practice.
In the same vein, as we look at each of the Bill's provisions—for example, the Children's Commissioner, local safeguarding children boards, directors of children's services—the test of those innovations will be whether, and how precisely, they will contribute to improvements in services for children and families. We are not engaged in a glorified box-ticking exercise. A Children's Commissioner for England is someone for whom many people have been clamouring for a long time, and the Bill would create one. But the test of whether a Children's Commissioner is an innovation for which the Government can take credit is not whether he or she exists, but what he or she will be able to do.
In the Green Paper we were promised a "Children's champion, independent of government". A champion is surely a person who can take up a cause and fight for it both freely and powerfully. That is not quite what we appear to have got in the Children's Commissioner as currently proposed. Nor, indeed, do we appear to have someone who is independent of government. The ability of the commissioner to focus on children's rights as opposed to their wishes, and to investigate and report in defence of those rights, will, I think, he matters that we will wish to explore in Committee.
In the same way, local safeguarding children boards, which seek to place area child protection committees on to a statutory footing, have been generally welcomed. The concept is indeed a good one if it genuinely leads to more effective joint working and better delivery of services. But how precisely will the boards achieve this? Clause 10 of the Bill leaves their functions and procedures blank. The Minister will be the first to agree with me that these boards cannot just be talking shops. Their work has to be about hands-on delivery, which means that it must form an integral part of the work of the Children's Services Authority.
1217 That in turn means that there has to be proper accountability, from the boards right to the top of the authority. The accountability of the Director of Children's Services and the lead member is self-evident; but the accountability of and within the boards is not. We need to look at that.
The Government seem to take as read that what is needed to achieve better standards of child protection is greater scope for information sharing between agencies. I do not think anyone would argue, having read the report into the death of Lauren Wright two years ago, or the report into the death of Victoria Climbié, or any of the previous reports, that better communication between professionals was not needed. Of course it was. But if the question is "How do we achieve better communication?", the answer is surely not Clause 8 of the Bill.
Let me say to the Minister that I am not uncharitable. I understand what has motivated the clause. Indeed, one of the recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, was that we should have a national database on to which would be logged the names of all children up to the age of 16. But Clause 8 is a charter for Ministers to devise information-sharing schemes of an unspecified and potentially far-reaching nature, overriding common-law rights of confidentiality and without necessarily paying heed to the fundamental principles of data protection.
I have very serious difficulties with this. In the first place, Ministers are consigning to secondary legislation not simply detailed issues of implementation but major decisions of policy. As a matter of principle, that is unsatisfactory. Much more needs to be spelt out on the face of the Bill. One gets no sense of what information-sharing arrangements the Government regard as being proportional to the problem; who should be allowed access to the databases and in what circumstances; what kinds of information should be stored; or even whether the databases will record details of all children or only those who give rise to a concern. There are numerous practical questions as well which remain unresolved. I am not necessarily resisting the concept of having databases. However, I firmly resist the idea of writing the Government a blank cheque for future regulations.
Once again, the only question we need to ask is: will these arrangements work for the benefit of children and, if so, how? In other words, let us not believe that by creating databases, we are neatly ticking a box and thereby solving a problem. We may not be.
Exactly the same question applies to the proposals in the Bill for private fostering. An enhanced duty for local authorities to raise awareness about notifying private fostering arrangements seems a pretty feeble prescription. I doubt very much whether it would have saved Victoria Climbié. To my mind, nothing short of compulsory registration, with penalties, is likely to begin to address the mischief.
What is absent from the Bill, which I find regrettable, is any mention of the role or responsibilities of parents. The new and welcome aspiration of promoting children's well-being can surely only be brought to fruition in the 1218 fullest sense if we explicitly recognise both the importance of good parenting and the point at which the role of the state should most appropriately begin and end.
We are, I would like to feel, on the threshold of an exciting step change in the care and protection of children. If we approach the Bill, as I am sure we all do, both constructively and in a spirit of consensus, we can make it something to be proud of. I look forward very much to the opportunity of scrutinising it in detail as it proceeds through this House.
§ 5.43 p.m.
§ Baroness Walmsley
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for the very helpful way in which she introduced the Bill. From these Benches, we very much welcome the Government's good intentions in introducing the Bill and if, on occasion, we seek to change it as it passes through this House, that does not indicate any disagreement with our common objective of ensuring the five outcomes for children outlined in Every Child Matters. We will work hard with the Government and others to ensure that the Bill that leaves this House contains measures which are well founded in principle and effective in operation. We are all committed to the protection and safeguarding of children and the promotion of their happy development and welfare.
First, I have a few general points. There are some powers in the Bill, such as those in Clause 8, which are very wide indeed, and many of them will be defined by regulations at some time in the future. Not only does the lack of detail make it very difficult to comment on the Bill today, but in relation to those powers there are no statements of principle on the face of the Bill.
As the Minister mentioned, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee commented on this and suggested that the more significant aspects of the provisions in Clauses 8 and 23 should be included on the face of the Bill. We welcome the Minister's comments about that and look forward to what she has promised to do about it.
Secondly, the Bill is based on the Green Paper Every Child Matters, but unfortunately several groups do not appear to matter quite so much, since little account of their special needs has been taken. I refer to young offenders, refugee and asylum-seeking children, disabled children, runaway children and children from ethnic minorities. My noble friend Lord Dholakia and others will be seeking clarification on how these very vulnerable groups will be helped by the measures in the Bill.
Thirdly, although much has been said about listening to children, there is really not enough in the Bill about the voice of the child and no reference to providing advocates for children who may need them. Even the five outcomes which originated with children themselves have been changed, not just into legal terms suitable for legislation but in ways which subtly change the meaning. For example, the outcome of "enjoying and achieving" has become "education and training". One of the children responding to the Green Paper said that the Bill should, "check children are getting their happiness". I am not sure how this or any other Bill 1219 could ensure that children are getting their happiness, but I think we all know what she means, and we should bear it in mind.
The Government have produced the Bill in response to the issues raised by the case of Victoria Climbié. We will assess it on the basis of whether its provisions would have helped that little girl and others like her escape from their miserable lives and avoid their tragic deaths. If we are critical of the Bill, it is not that we question the Government's good intentions. We evaluate it simply on the basis of whether it will achieve that important aim cost-effectively, without prejudicing the rights of all other children.
Let me turn to some specifics—first, the measures to establish a UK Children's Commissioner. The Minister may recall that since I first entered this House in May 2000, I have campaigned consistently, alongside my noble friend Lord Dholakia, and others across all parties who have worked tirelessly, for children in England to have the same right to their own champion as children in Wales have enjoyed for several years and those in Scotland and Northern Ireland have enjoyed more recently. What good news it was when we heard that the Government were going to introduce the necessary legislation. Our disappointment at the actual powers that the Bill confers on the commissioner is only in proportion to our happy expectation that English children would soon have a powerful champion to protect their human rights. Therefore, while welcoming the new commissioner, there is widespread agreement that the powers are very weak compared with those of the commissioners in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is difficult to imagine why the Government have thought that necessary.
During the passage of the Bill, we will be seeking to strengthen the powers and independence of the UK commissioner so that he can fulfil the demands of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that we should establish a children's rights champion,to monitor protect and promote all the rights of the Convention for all children. They should be easily accessible to children; able to determine their own agenda; empowered to investigate violations of children's rights in a child-sensitive manner: and ensure that children have an effective remedy for violation of their rights".These proposals are out of step with the rest of the UK and international standards. A commissioner who cannot instigate inquiries without the agreement of the Secretary of State is not independent. The UNCRC should be a guiding framework of the commissioner's operation, but a commissioner who only "may" have regard to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child will not be able to safeguard children's rights adequately. A commissioner who cannot bring, or intervene in, legal proceedings will not provide an effective remedy for the violation of children's rights. We do not want the commissioner simply to be a government listening post for the views of children. We need him or her to head a powerful independent institution that must be listened to, with the right to publish reports, without having to lay them before the Secretary of State first, and to whose recommendations the Government and others must respond.
1220 I know the Government have commented that the powers of the new commissioner are different because England is bigger than the other UK nations. Well, I think English children have a right to the same level of voice as those anywhere else in the UK, and the resources should follow them equally. I was horrified to discover that the budget per child for the Northern Ireland Commissioner is £3.80; for every Welsh child it is £2.11; and for every Scottish child the Commissioner has 98 pence to spend. But the anticipated expenditure on every English child by the new commissioner is only 24 pence.
The way to deal with the size of the English child population may not be to establish exactly the same structures as elsewhere. For example, it would probably make sense to have a set of regional children's commissioners. However, it certainly does not make sense to give an English child only one-fifteenth of that resource made available to Northern Irish children. We will lay amendments to strengthen the powers of the new Children's Commissioner.
The relationship of the new commissioner with the other UK commissioners raises questions that my noble friends Lord Thomas of Gresford and Lord Livsey will address in more detail. However, it seems to me difficult for the new commissioner to co-operate effectively with the other UK commissioners when he will have powers that are weaker than theirs, but does have the power to investigate non-devolved matters relating to Welsh, Scottish or Irish children without reference to them. It is not clear whether children in the criminal justice system fall within the remit of the commissioner. Will the Minister clarify that?
My noble friends Lady Thomas of Walliswood, Lady Linklater and Lady Barker will speak about various aspects of the clauses relating to children's services in England, but perhaps I may make just one or two points. A number of pathfinder projects have been set up, some of which are only just getting off the ground. It would seem sensible to give time properly to evaluate how well they have worked before rolling out the ideas nationally. In addition, a great deal of best practice has been established by local authorities across the country in the co-ordination of children's services, but little effort has been made to evaluate it. The changes proposed in the organisation and delivery of children's services will require an enormous and costly upheaval. Can the Minister justify why the Government are proposing those particular ways of doing things before such evaluations have taken place?
There seems to be a tension between the child protection organisations, which tend towards a more prescriptive model, and the local authorities and professional bodies, which prefer local children's services authorities to be allowed to meet the requirements in their own way. However, that tension was resolved yesterday when the LGA and NSPCC issued a joint statement. They agreed on the need for a strong national framework of standards, but not a nationally prescribed single management structure. They agreed also on the need for clear lines of 1221 responsibility and accountability at both political and management level. That strikes me as a sensible way forward.
I shall mention also the importance of voluntary organisations in delivering children's services and the concern expressed in many quarters that they have not been adequately built into the Bill. Those authorities that work well with voluntary organisations obtain excellent value; those that sideline them lose out on behalf of their citizens. What do the Government propose to do about those concerns?
On the matter of the duty to co-operate to improve well-being, there is another noticeable omission. Schools are not mentioned, except in the 16 references to Ofsted in the inspections clauses. Teachers and school governors have an important role to play in ensuring the well-being of children and it is surprising that no measures are included in the Bill to ensure their duty of co-operation.
Another missing group is GPs. They are not included among those who have a duty to safeguard in Clause 7. That brings me to the issue of confidentiality that has been raised by many organisations. Where does the duty of confidentiality come in when doctors, youth workers, sexual health advisers such as the FPA and the Brook Advisory Centre, Connexions personal advisers and many other are working within the information-sharing proposals in Clause 8? Will children be willing to confide in those people if they feel that the information will be shared?
The measures for the statutory local safeguarding children boards are generally welcome, but many questions still need answering—for example, how young offenders come into the picture—but I am sure that my noble friend Lord Dholakia will have much to say about that.
The new role of director of children's services raises many issues, but I shall ask just two questions. First, is this a move towards a more thematic approach to local services on behalf of the Government and where will it end? Is a director of old people's services also envisaged? Secondly, what kind of person is likely to be recruited for a job where he or she is to become "the name in the frame" in terms of accountability—even for some areas over which he has no management control? There are many workforce and resource issues arising from the need to manage a fundamental cultural change among the various professional groups that deliver services to children. It is essential that those issues are taken into account and that professional turf wars do not get in the way of effective joint working for the sake of children.
I turn to the inspection regime, which is an area to which my noble friend Lady Sharp, who could not be in her place today, will bring her substantial expertise to bear at a future date. The Bill brings together nine inspectorates with very different areas of expertise under the umbrella of Ofsted. Any two or more of them may be asked to conduct an inspection of any children's services authority. It is not clear who will make the decision as to which of them will conduct those inspections and on 1222 what criteria that decision will be based. I know that some cross-agency inspector groups are already working and that joint training is planned, but that will take a long time to bed in. What will happen in the mean time and how will that process be managed? When the need for intervention has been established, how will Ofsted ensure that it is proportionate and that there is no blanket condemnation of an authority that may have shortcomings in one area, but excellence in another?
Finally, I turn to two omissions from the Bill. First, the Government will be aware of the widespread disappointment that they have not seen fit to use the Bill to repeal the 1860 legal defence of reasonable chastisement for violence against children. The Minister will not surprised to learn that a cross-party alliance of Peers intends to introduce a new clause to put that right in Committee. We hope that the Government will look kindly on the aims of that consensus. Giving children equal protection to that enjoyed by adults under the laws on assault is a policy whose time has come. It has attracted a large majority of support among the general public as well as among child protection professionals, academics, politicians and parents. Of course, it has attracted support also among children, who understand more than most how ineffective and potentially harmful physical punishment can be.
That archaic law undermines child protection and flies in the face of our human rights obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We have been severely criticised for our failure to address the matter in national and international arenas. The Bill offers a natural opportunity to address the matter firmly and unambiguously. We need to provide a modern legal framework to support parents and to provide them with effective disciplinary tools that strengthen their loving relationship with their children and serve children better by teaching them effectively how to behave well. It is important to make it clear that the public interest will not be served by prosecuting caring parents for an occasional quick smack, ineffective though it is in delivering good discipline. That is how the law works for assault against adults and the lawyers have confirmed that that is how it would work for children too. A lot of nonsense has been spoken by scaremongers about how removing that defence might work on the ground. However, one has only to look at the sensible way in which similar reforms have been introduced to protect children and support parents in 10 other European countries to see that those worries are totally unfounded.
Secondly, perhaps I may remind your Lordships that we were assured during the passage of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill that the matter of parental contact arrangements to protect the children of broken families would be addressed in this Bill. So far, we have seen nothing, but perhaps the Minister will be able to assure us that the Government will honour that promise by introducing a government amendment at an early stage.
In conclusion, I remind your Lordships of my relevant interests in the NSPCC, UNICEF and the Family Planning Association. I look forward greatly to the 1223 contributions of my noble friends and all others in the House who care so sincerely for the well-being of children. I look forward also to the response of the noble Baroness the Minister, whose credentials in this matter are of the highest.
§ 5.59 p.m.
§ Lord Laming
My Lords, for the record I should begin by reminding the House that I chaired the independent statutory inquiry following the murder of Victoria Climbié. The Government have from time to time since then consulted me on sections of the Green Paper, Every Child Matters, and on parts of this Bill. I am grateful to the Minister for introducing to this important Bill. I am delighted by the general welcome that it has already received.
I am sure your Lordships will understand that the Victoria Climbié inquiry was a gruelling and thoroughly dispiriting experience. That was not only because of what happened to Victoria but also because the seminars in phase two indicated very clearly that the shortcomings of the current arrangements are widespread. I am therefore grateful that the Government, and many of the key agencies, have responded to the report in a robust and determined way.
This Bill holds out the long-awaited prospect of a fundamental change in the ways in which the state provides services for children and families. What is envisaged is a shift from a narrow preoccupation with protection to a commitment to promote the well-being of every child. Surely our ambitions for every child and young person extend far beyond the dreadfully limited perspective that they should be free from deliberate harm.
In my experience the vast majority of parents attempt to provide their children with the best start in life. In general, parents are best placed to do this, so the aim should be to develop new and more creative ways of supporting family life. The state services should not be seen by families as a threat, but rather as offering ways to help parents to develop good parenting skills and to be better able to fulfil their responsibilities to their children. That requires a commitment to prevention and a willingness to become involved much earlier, before events become a crisis, and to enable families to overcome whatever difficulties they may experience. Of course, sadly, in some situations more direct action may be needed to safeguard the child, but the starting point should be to work in partnership with the family rather than set out to do things to them.
Although the Children Act 1989, to which the noble Earl, Lord Howe, referred, requires the authorities to address the welfare of the child by placing the needs of the child at the heart of the process, I fear that what Parliament willed is all too often not delivered. This Bill provides the opportunity to learn from past failure and once and for all to set a course which demonstrates that in our society, to borrow the title of the Green Paper, we can make it a reality that every child does matter.
With that in mind, I commend the general outline of the functions and powers of the Children's Commissioner. In most countries that have such a post of this kind, the 1224 population is much smaller. In England there are more than 11 million children and young people. We must hold on to the belief that the main task of the commissioner is to be an advocate for all children. It is a huge and creative task if it is to hold the Government and Parliament to the ambitions of this Bill.
In my view, the commissioner must avoid being drawn back into concentrating on matters of child protection. That would undermine the unique and distinctive role set out in this Bill. The post should not be used to second guess the decisions of the authorities, not only because there are well established mechanisms in place for that but also because the commissioner post will be worthwhile only if it brings a new dimension to the well-being of millions of children and young people. It may be that from time to time the commissioner will be able to investigate some alleged failure by the services, but the Government are wise to exercise discretion in such matters.
That serves to illustrate why I recommended that the Government should establish a national agency to monitor the performance of the local services, to undertake a developmental role and to report to Parliament on the reality of service delivery at the front door of each agency. I hope that the Government will keep under review the need for stronger machinery to ensure that good quality services to children and families can become the reality for which we all wish.
I congratulate the Government on Clauses 6 and 7 of the Bill, which place a clear duty to care on each of the key services involved with children and young people to promote well-being rather than react only at times of crisis. The easy exchange of information between services is essential but, before it can be realised, the technology across the many hundreds of organisations will need to be compatible, and there needs to be an understanding across each of the professional groups on the essential matters of what information is to be recorded, who is responsible for inputting the information and who will have access to such information. These are matters which will need to be handled with care and sensitivity if they are to command widespread support. It is wise of the Government to keep open the options until the results of the pilot studies are to hand.
I welcome the requirement that each children's services authority must have a local safeguarding children board and the responsibilities and membership of this body are set out. However, I have grave reservations about the freedom given about who might chair those boards. I advocated that such a board should be chaired by the chief executive of the local authority. I did so for three reasons. First, I believe supporting children and families must include many of the services provided by the local authority, and it is one of the most challenging tasks undertaken by local government. If it goes wrong, the consequences are serious. That being so, the chief executive should occupy that pivotal position. Secondly, the involvement of the chief executive is likely to influence the level of representation by the other key services. Thirdly, the director of children's services should report to the board, so cannot chair it. I am wholly opposed to an external person chairing such a board because in this matter there should be no way of 1225 avoiding organisational accountability. To assist the board there will be a director of children's services reporting to it, whose function is well set out.
I refer to something that is not in the Bill but has already been referred to: the defence of reasonable chastisement. Like most people, I abhor violence, and in the Victoria Climbié report I made it clear that I believe that children should be protected under the law in ways which recognise their potential vulnerability. But the reality is that the defence is understood by few parents or carers, and has been used very rarely and with very little success. It is important that if we remove the defence, we should do so in a way that does not run counter to the main thrust of the Bill. It would be a simple thing to remove a defence that is so rarely used—but the reality is that the motivation for removing the defence is to create a general ban on smacking.
We have before us the opportunity to reshape services to children and families around prevention and enabling and supporting parents. We should do so in a way that enables us to work in partnership with parents. The state should be very careful not only of being intrusive in family life but also of doing so in a way that implies a threat to good but harassed and less able parents. I could give many examples of such cases, but I am sure that noble Lords are familiar with them and time does not allow. Suffice to say that removing the defence is one thing, but creating an offence is another. We must be very wary of criminalising otherwise good and caring parents. I much prefer to follow the path of education and support to that of coercion.
In this country we now have the lowest birth rate ever, and there can be no excuse for us to continue to fail the well-being of children. It is a long road from Victoria Climbié to achieving the kind of childcare that we all wish to see. This Bill is an important milestone along that road, and I wish it well.
§ 6.9 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Oxford
My Lords, I warmly welcome the Children Bill and commend the Government on their commitment to improving services for children, safeguarding them and providing for their overall welfare. Every Child Matters: The Next Steps stated:The vision we have is a shared one. Every child having the opportunity to fulfil their potential, and no child slipping through the net".The Church of England shares that vision and has an important role to play in implementing it. The Churches between them are the largest voluntary movement in the country and are weekly in contact with thousands of children. The proposals in the Bill to encourage greater co-operation across services and to provide a truly multi-agency approach to children's services are sound. It was very good indeed to hear the Minister stress that in her opening statement. However, we must ensure that the role of the Churches and of the voluntary sector more broadly is clarified. I refer to Clause 6(3) in particular. As a major provider 1226 of services to children, I would like voluntary sector agencies to be named explicitly as relevant partners for children's service authorities under Clause 6(3). This would include the faith communities. Additionally, I believe that children in trouble with the law are children in need and therefore youth offending teams should also be included in the list of relevant partners. These concerns apply equally to the Welsh section of the Bill in Clause 20.
As other noble Lords have said, there is much to commend in the Bill, not least the proposal to create a Children's Commissioner for England. We can expect a great deal of debate about how far the proposals on the commissioner's role, function and duties take us towards the truly independent rights-based champion for children that is needed. Many people are disappointed that the role of the commissioner has so far not been more clearly focused on children's human rights and that there is no duty placed on him to have regard to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We believe that it is crucial that a children's commissioner should have independent powers of investigation and reporting in order to act as an effective champion for children and young people.
The creation of a clear statutory framework of outcomes for children setting down a positive marker of expectation for children's lives in this country is very much to be welcomed. However, it is to be noted that there is no reference to any opportunity for spiritual development among those outcomes. Education and childcare legislation require statutory authorities to have regard to a child's religion. In contrast to the 1960s, I believe that the vast majority of secular bodies such as hospitals and the new universities take pride in being able to offer what they call "whole person care", which includes a spiritual dimension.
The philosophy that every child matters is an important one and one that we should hold on to as we assess the merits of the Bill and whether it delivers for all children. In many ways it could he said that there are two categories of children to whom we need to pay particular attention: the ones who may be considered to "fall down" most often and who find themselves in trouble with the law, and the ones who are perhaps most "lost", who are seeking refuge in this country with or without their families. The litmus test for the Bill will be whether the needs of these most vulnerable children, those in trouble with the law and those who are in this country from abroad under various circumstances, are met through these proposals.
I welcome the new duty to safeguard and promote welfare and the inclusion of governors of prisons and secure training centres in this duty. However the duty itself must be strengthened if it is to make any difference in the lives of children who are incarcerated or otherwise involved in the criminal justice system. As recent inspection reports have shown, children in the youth justice system are least likely to have their welfare needs met. The list of those who are bound by this duty must be extended to cover all of the services responsible for the welfare of refugee children including, sadly, the immigration removal centres where far too may of them are detained.
1227 We must not forget that many of these reforms have been sparked by the death of a child, Victoria Climbié. Like other noble Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Laming, for his work in bringing forward sound recommendations to try to ensure that no child is left as unheard and unnoticed and as utterly failed as she was.
It is important to note that Victoria Climbié was a privately fostered child. We need a registration scheme similar to that for childminders and statutory foster carers. Therefore, many people are disappointed by the use of a sunset clause that will allow a registration scheme to be established four years after the Bill is enacted in the event that the notification scheme outlined in the Bill is deemed ineffective. It is of some concern that the Government are willing to wait a further four years to establish a registration scheme when one is needed now and could be established immediately.
Finally, I urge this House, as other noble Lords have also urged it, to grasp the opportunity that the Bill presents to equalise the law in respect of protection from violence by removing the current defence of reasonable chastisement. From the Church's point of view, we look to the person of Jesus and the extraordinary respect and high regard that He had for children that is revealed in the New Testament. He emphasised respect for their status as human beings and we in this House will want to do no less.
In her opening statement, the Minister reminded us of the importance of voluntary organisations. I hope that as this very important, epoch-making Bill proceeds through Committee she will listen to the Children's Society, Barnardo's and other children's societies because they have many points of detail about the Bill to which we need to pay attention.
§ 6.16 p.m.
§ Baroness Whitaker
My Lords, I would first like to applaud the thoroughness of the consultation process behind this Bill. And in welcoming the impact the Bill will have on the many ways in which children's life chances are damaged, I feel a sense of relief, as a citizen and as a UNICEF UK trustee, that our Government have done something substantial to safeguard children's happiness and potential.
I propose to focus on two rights-related aspects. The first is the commissioner for children. This is a huge step forward. In the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I was a member, there was agreement over all parties that this would be greatly to the benefit of our children.
I am particularly glad that the function of the commissioner is to promote the awareness of the views as well as the interests of children. We took evidence from children, and they were very sensible, for instance, about traffic planning and very poignant about things like bullying. Their trust that their arguments, which were requests, not demands, would be heard, was humbling. Those of us who think all individuals are of equal worth felt a duty to ensure that those voices would be incorporated into any new 1228 arrangements. It is also important that the Bill includes a duty to promote awareness of the views of children who do not have other adequate means. I hope this means children in care, children in mental hospitals, children in prison, itinerant children, refugee children—especially as the latter group seem to be outside the scope of some of the key parts of the Bill, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said.
As to promoting interests, this needs powers, including the power of independent initiative in setting up an inquiry. It is not clear that the Bill provides for this. The Bill is silent on powers to obtain evidence, to summon people or to require documents to be produced for a general inquiry.
The far-reaching and highly important investigation in Australia on the "lost generation" of aboriginal children that we heard about in the Joint Committee would not have uncovered what it did without such powers. Equally, there should be an unfettered power to publish a report, safeguarding the identity of individuals if need be.
There is, as we know, already a international framework for what children should expect of those in power over them—the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the UK is, of course, signatory. I echo the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the right reverend Prelate that it is disappointing that our Children's Commissioner "may" have regard to the convention, not must; and that there will be no duty to promote and protect the coherent framework of rights it established which the UK has for many years mainly accepted. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which comments on national reports, had some important and constructive points to make about children in the UK, and this could be an opportunity for a commissioner to look into them and indeed to take part in the next UK report under the convention.
I also share some of the concern over structure. In the Bill the commissioner is for the whole of the UK and therefore, presumably, some difference between that role and the role of the separate commissioners for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is envisaged. The commissioners for the devolved nations have themselves expressed some anxiety about this. It would be helpful if my noble friend the Minister could explain this a little more and also say how the children of England will fare in comparison with those of the other UK nations.
My last point is to echo the striking omission in this, I repeat, forward-looking and heartwarming Bill. It is time that the UK dropped the defence of "reasonable chastisement" in cases of assault against children and gave children the same protection against assault as adults have. All the Bill's improvements in state arrangements for children are undermined if children continue to be exposed to violence in their own homes. The Green Paper expressed concern about children witnessing violence in the home. How much more are they affected by suffering it themselves?
For too long under this defence children have been brutally punished by parents with impunity. No one wants to interfere with parents' right to discipline their 1229 children. It is most important for this to remain effective. Parents must be respected. Grandparents should be respected, and here I declare an interest—but there is also a wider social interest. It is the currently permissible physical degree of punishment which is unacceptable—that which amounts to assault—not just to the Joint Committee on Human Rights but to peoples, governments throughout the Western democracies and international bodies. The UK is out of line in this matter, and it is to the detriment of our children. I am sure amendments will be brought forward to suggest reasonable ways out of this quandary without creating any new offence, and I urge my noble friend to listen to the representative nature of the very many voices which will support them.
§ 6.23 p.m.
§ Lord Lucas
My Lords, I, too, welcome the Bill and view it generally in a spirit of optimism. I have been fortunate in my life not to have been in any way the subject of any of the kinds of abuse that are effectively the subject of this Bill, although, having been to boarding school, I have seen a great deal of it happening at close hand. Thirty years ago these things were not regarded with the same seriousness. Currently, particularly due to my wife's work in prisons, I am conscious of how much of it goes on and in particular how many people end up in prison as a result of having their confidence and their lives fractured by this happening to them when they were children. It is an immensely destructive process and one which we are absolutely right to see if we can bear down on.
The Bill is asking a great deal in terms of how things will actually work in practice. We are setting high standards for agencies and organisations working together and working effectively. It is a difficult thing to make happen. It is hard enough to get government departments to work together let alone hope that this is going to happen in more than 100 local authorities with all sorts of different people involved at every level in each local authority. Keeping that all together is going to be a real task. I am not clear who is to do that under this Bill if it is not to be the commissioner. It does not seem to me that the commissioner under this Bill is being granted the right sorts of powers and the right sort of independence to make him a really effective guarantee or advocate for the correct and effective operating of this Bill.
The inspectorate, of course, comes into it. I shall learn a great deal today and as the Bill goes through—because I am not a specialist in this area—of how this whole thing is going to work. I think that I learnt a little from the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, when he talked of the powers of the commissioner. However, I am certainly starting out with the feeling that I would much rather see someone whose independence was akin to that of, say, the Chief Inspector of Prisons; in other words, less hamstrung by the Secretary of State than this commissioner is at present—someone who is more able to take his own decisions.
In the end the Government get their own way. In the same way that they tipped Sir David Ramsbotham out of the inspectorate of prisons, they will eventually deal 1230 with the "turbulent priest" in the traditional manner. However, we ought to have someone who is capable of acting on his own. If something occurs which means that he really ought to look at an individual case within his mandate, to have to tiptoe off to the Secretary of State and ask permission is ridiculous. It puts the whole status of the commissioner at too low a level.
I would also like to see the commissioner being able to gather evidence properly. If you are to have someone operating as I hope he will operate, he has to aim to produce real evidence-based recommendations. That means a power of investigation and a power to get into the depths of what is happening. Again, it seems to me that he is being denied the powers necessary to do that.
I share the concern of my noble friend Lord Howe about the information clauses of the Bill. That is something that I have dealt with on other Bills and at other times. I look at it from two points of view: one is that I want to be sure it will work, because you will need a really effective information system to make all this work well. There will be a database of all pupils. It is something that the Government have already produced in order to compile value-added tables. You cannot do that without having a database of all pupils so that you can follow them from one school to another. So the structure is there somewhere. But to make sure that the thing actually gets the right information put into it in the right way and that the whole thing is consistent and usable is going to be a great challenge. Picking up what other noble Lords have said, it is also going to be a great challenge to make sure that the provision is used fairly and is fair to the child and to the child's parents. That is very hard to see with the Bill in its present state. I very much hope that we shall see some strong proposals coming forward from the Government on how that will operate.
My main concern about this Bill—as it is one of my noble friend's—is the lack of mention of parents and family. We are the ones who have responsibility for these children. We are the ones who have responsibility for their upbringing and all that is happening to them. To quote something said by the Minister, support offered early is what parents and family require. Most of the business of looking after a child is supporting the child within the family, and supporting the family. It is terribly important in all that that the first reaction of the authorities to a problem appearing is almost always one of support—that it should not be a case of saying, "Oh God, have we got child abuse here? Am I ringing the police? Who am I ringing? We must separate this child from the family and make sure nothing is happening".
Nine-tenths of the time, if not rather more, it is a problem that will be curable in the family. It is something which comes of a dysfunction in the family. It does not flow from any inherent wickedness in the parents but from some lack of capacity. That is certainly what one sees watching how prisoners deal with family relationships. They just do not know how to tackle them. The reason they bat their children around the ears is that they are not capable of coherently dealing with their children in any other way. But once you start to show them there are other ways of relating, they will prefer 1231 that. To deal with this problem by way of education and support is absolutely necessary if we are going to try to deal with it.
One statistic produced by the NSPCC, an organisation about which I have great reservations, is that 450,000 children are bullied in school every week. I do not know whether the Minister agrees with that figure; I do not suppose that she does any more than I do. However, even if one stretches the definition of bullying so that it might be true, the response to it ought to be one of support for both children involved and perhaps the families at the back of them. That is what will produce some effective response. At the end of the day, a very small proportion of those children will be subject to severe discipline, because that is what it takes to deal with the problem. Most of the required response is support.
By citing such figures, the whole debate is shifted into one of antagonism. The NSPCC figure on abuse is that one in 10 of us is abused as a child. That means that the average teacher is looking at three abused children in his or her class. If one thinks in that way, the whole thing becomes terrifying, and one gets into the sort of problem that the police have at the moment with the anti-racism disciplines imposed on them, where their response now to a complaint about a black officer is to put it into disciplinary proceedings straightaway. They are terribly cautious about trying to deal with things on a human level and then being caught out by charges of racism.
If one tells teachers that such terrible acts go on and that, at the slightest chance, they have to put the whole thing into the deep mechanisms of dealing with child abuse, one is raising the game to the point where support becomes extremely difficult, and where everyone expects that they will be tipped into the sort of nightmare that so many children and parents have been exposed to as a result of the abuse of the Munchausen diagnosis and similar matters. It is terribly difficult to get everything right. The only way is to make sure in everything we do that support is offered.
As a little illustration of that in practice, I remember looking at Greenhead College in Huddersfield in the early days of value-added statistics. It ran a system that involved measuring children at very regular intervals—twice a term—and using that data to understand who was teaching well and who was teaching badly. That was immensely popular with the teachers, because it was done with support. If a teacher was diagnosed as teaching badly, he or she knew that the response would be support. Immediately, colleagues would gather round and help. so it was a process of making matters better and making the teachers better, not one that would land criticism on them.
We must come back to the business of supporting the family and children within it. I would like something in Clause 2(3), which outlines the duties of the commissioner, to say that one of the factors that they must look at is the mechanisms for supporting children within the family.
I turn lastly and briefly to a couple of points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and indeed by others in the case of smacking and reasonable chastisement. The process has to be one of education. 1232 Why do we smack children? Because we do not know a better way of communicating at that moment. Why do we not know one? Because most of us have never been taught. I have learnt a lot from the programmes of the noble Lord, Lord Winston, about how one can deal with problems arising in children.
Mostly, that is simply a question of experience and having the confidence to deal with such problems in different ways. Then smacking is definitely second-best because of all its side-effects, but otherwise it is the natural reaction. I hate the idea that we get to a point where someone is seen to smack a child and is immediately into proceedings for child abuse. That would be a real abuse of the system and society that we ought to be trying to create. To be more positive about what the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, I entirely support her on parental contact, and I very much hope that we shall get something on that subject from the Minister in the course of the Bill
§ 6.35 p.m.
§ Baroness Thomas of Walliswood
My Lords, I propose to make a few general comments on the Bill and then to concentrate largely on Clauses 9 to 12, which cover the local safeguarding children boards. I shall also say a few words about changes to the administration of local authorities.
I should like to endorse everything that my noble friend and others have already said on the deficiencies of the role allocated to the Children's Commissioner for England as compared to that of the commissioners in other parts of the UK. I am specifically concerned at the absence from the Bill of any overt reference to the international framework of children's rights within which the commissioner should work. That is particularly serious in that the most recent review of the UK's performance as a signatory of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, undertaken in 2002, was pretty critical of the UK record of compliance with the convention.
As many lobbyists have pointed out, the Children's Commissioner for England should really be fully independent of government, able to carry out investigations on his or her own volition, and responsible for presenting the reports of those investigations directly to Parliament. That argument is given added force by comment from the Children's Society, and by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford today, that the Bill needs amendment to ensure that the powers and duties proposed in it address the needs of all children, including the children of refugees, whose treatment within the UK has been specifically criticised under the convention.
The Children's Society also asks whether the duty on all main players to have regard to the need to "safeguard and promote" the welfare of children, as is the wording of the duty in Clause 7, is sufficiently robust to enable courts to test whether acts are consistent with safeguarding children and promoting their welfare. It asks whether there should not be a minimum requirement that decisions in the exercise of functions should not be detrimental to the well-being of children, which is a slightly different and perhaps stronger way of approaching the same problem.
1233 I recognise that not all the Government's policy objectives are reflected in the Bill, as much does not need legislation. However, a little clarification on some of those and the many other issues raised by noble Lords already will, I am sure, bear fruit at later stages of the Bill.
Many people and organisations have expressed worries about the effects of Clause 8, which is on information sharing. Those have already been reflected in the debate. Perhaps the most extreme reaction I have heard was my own, after time spent in two communist countries, that the idea had definite overtones of excess surveillance by public authorities of the citizen—Nineteen Eighty Four in action 20 years later, as it were. That reaction was quite over the top; I am sure that the Government have no intention to do anything of the kind. However, collecting information on every child, giving every child a number, and following them through to maturity has a slightly uneasy feel about it in some senses.
Many others have different criticisms to make, which have already been reflected in the speeches of other noble Lords and will no doubt come up again today. A really important one from the point of view of children themselves is the possible reluctance of young people to tell those in contact with them that, for example, they are taking drugs, for fear of that appearing on the record. Can the Minister reassure us that the point of confidentiality can be satisfactorily dealt with in regulations or by some other means? Like many other Peers, I was disturbed by the report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee on the very widely drawn measures in the Bill on the matter. The Minister reassured us that she would respond to that.
I shall move on to the clauses on the role of local authorities and their officers and members, local partners and local safeguarding children boards. The Government must be pleased with the general reaction of the Local Government Association to their proposals, on which a lot of work was done before they came before us in the shape of a Bill. Nevertheless, a considerable volume of doubt and concern has been expressed by the LGA itself, and by many other people, on how the measures will operate in detail. For example, there are concerns around the funding of the new work, including the IT systems required, the training of staff and how a pooled fund will be constructed and managed.
Can the Minister reassure the House that the growth in national funding of which she has spoken will be sufficient? Perhaps we should remember that the National Health Service, one of the main actors in the implementation of the Bill, is spending £2.3 billion over the next few years on its own IT system. Can we be assured that all those IT systems will meld together in support of the essential work of the LSCBs and of their partner organisations?
What about the geographical scope of the local boards? Some people fear that it will be extremely difficult to put together local authorities with NHS partners, particularly in the case of specialist hospitals 1234 that may take child patients from all over the country, not just from the immediate local authority area. Is that why the Government have suggested the creation of a single LSCB covering more than one main local authority area? If so, how does the Minister envisage the practical working of boards over such a wide geographical area? Or do the Government envisage a future semi-regional organisation of LSCBs to match the future regional organisations of the new National Offender Management Service set-up? In either case, what would be the significance of the word "local" in the title of a new board?
There are also worries about the need for flexibility as to the exact manner in which the boards and the directors of children's services carry out their work. But many local authorities have already gone ahead with implementing, for example, the internal organisation required to satisfy the need to appoint a senior officer as director of children's services. Does the Minister feel that those different responses all satisfy the demands of the Bill? Do the Government welcome some flexibility in its implementation?
The important role of the voluntary sector and the Churches have been mentioned already by several speakers. I add my voice to those who wish to be reassured about how that role is envisaged by the Government and the structures available to help to form that role. Or do the Government expect the local boards to work out their own way of involving the voluntary agencies as part of a locally flexible approach to providing services for children?
Personally, as a former member of a county council, I am not in the least surprised at the appetite for a change to a better system of child protection that has been shown by many local authorities. Many models of the accountability and the status of a director of children's services have been tried by different local authorities. However, I hope that if those forerunners have useful comments to make about their experience, the Government will be willing to learn from them, even if that means—I do not know whether it will—changing the provisions of the Bill.
Another criticism of the list of partners and responsible organisations made by many people is that schools, as opposed to education authorities, are excluded. But as the control of the education authority over individual schools is gradually diminishing, do not those schools need to be involved? What about the private education sector? Children in private schools may come from wealthier families, although that is not always the case. Their right to enjoy the same outcomes as other children must be recognised.
One matter that was understandably not mentioned in the Bill is the status, pay and training of social workers who, whatever the name of the service, will still be dependent on their response to danger signals—albeit in co-operation with other responsible partners. It is well known that social workers are often overburdened with cases, cordially feared or disliked by their clients and are the subject of even more derogatory, unreasonable and less justifiable comments from the press. How will the Government 1235 secure social workers' wholehearted support for that change, which is likely to cause them considerable upheaval? Will the Government be able to explain to the public the value of social services in this context, support them in their new role and inform the public about the extreme value of that role?
The other day I spoke to a lawyer working in the courts on children's cases. She said that, at the end of the day, nothing can replace the contact between the social worker—or other professional—and the child. What can the Government do or advise to reinforce that role?
I look forward to taking part in the future stages of the Bill in the spirit of co-operation that has been indicated by other speakers. I hope that at the end of our work we will have an excellent Bill for this important sphere of activity.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Lord Pendry
My Lords, I am pleased to take part in this debate, which promises to do so much for the wellbeing of children in our society.
I particularly wish to draw the Minister's attention to those parts of the Bill that relate to education and training. I shall refer to those sections in the hope that the Minister will, in the light of representations she has received, reconsider terminology that is too restrictive and allow the terms "play" and "recreation" to be recognised in the Bill to better reflect the outcomes for children that were originally included in the Green Paper. In her response, I hope that the Minister will take on board the importance of that distinction.
I welcome the Bill as an overdue attempt to bring about greater cohesion to the services and partnerships that work with and for children. We must never forget that children are vulnerable and depend upon their elders for many aspects of their development. However, we must not forget also that children are individuals in their own right, with varying degrees of autonomy, learning as they grow and developing their own personalities each day.
One matter is certain—wherever they are and whoever they are with, children will always engage in play. Put them in an empty room and they will play. Give them an empty cardboard box and they will play. Children engage in play as an involuntary instinct, like the blink of an eye, whether they are in the back of their parents' car, on an open beach or even in a classroom.
Through play, children learn their strengths and weaknesses, establish and develop their identity and learn to work with others. Play allows children to explore their imagination; it teaches them empathy, how to interact and make friendships; it teaches them what is socially acceptable and what is not. Many forms of play involve physical activity, improving the health of our children in an age of increasing obesity. Children do all of that for themselves—not necessarily with the help or intervention of other adults. It is a given fact that children will play, but it is not necessarily the case that the necessary environments and opportunities exist for every child to play.
1236 The Government's commitment to school sport goes some way towards creating such opportunities regarding learning through play and recreation. In 2002 the Government pledged to invest £450 million in school sport over three years to ensure that every child between the ages of five and 16 had access to at least two hours of high quality physical education and school sport by 2006. However, children also need access to unstructured play and recreation opportunities outside the school environment, where learning can occur naturally, rather than as a result of tuition, and where children can opt to play voluntarily, rather than through obligation. We need to intervene in safeguarding the opportunities for children to play, particularly for socially excluded children, and give credence to the invaluable role that play has in developing happy, balanced children.
I dearly hope that the Bill will recognise the contribution still to be made by local authorities in safeguarding the opportunities for children's play. The Children's Play Council rightly points out that local people are crying out for places to go and for things for children and young people to do, and yet play hardly features on the targets that the Government set for local authorities. Land-use planning, urban policy, transport, childcare and school-building programmes all shape children's opportunities. Therefore, I hope that, as a result of this legislation, the relevant partners will work together more closely to give children priority in those areas.
Playing fields still need to be better protected and, as the architect of Labour's policy on the protection of playing fields spelt out in Labour's Sporting Nation in 1997, I am yet to be convinced that that pledge has been adequately met.
In addition, there is a huge need for more accessible supervised settings for children in both urban and rural environments where children can play freely under a watchful, caring eye. Those settings, such as adventure playgrounds and after-school clubs, are often a focal point in a community and need highly skilled and qualified staff.
It is with that in mind that I welcome the development of a sector skills council for social care, children and young people, as set out in the paper, Every child Matters: Next Steps. I support the federated approach being taken to workforce development planning through the UK Children's Workforce Network. In my view, it is vitally important that specialist skills can be recognised in a joined-up approach that properly values the contribution that both volunteers and professionals make to the quality of life opportunities for children.
I know that SkillsActive's playwork unit has given a commitment to work with other organisations and sector skills councils in the new network to ensure that the right skills and training exist in the workforce to deliver safe, purposeful and high-quality children's services across both those sectors. I welcome this development as being a positive step for children. Therefore, I hope that the Government will also support the good work in both sectors by recognising play and recreation in the Bill before us.
§ 6.52 p.m.
The Earl of Northesks
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her eloquent introduction to the Bill. We are all only too well aware of how important it is to afford our children the best start in life that we can. With that in mind, the good intentions of the Government with this Bill are beyond dispute. The Government's Green Paper, Every Child Matters, identifies the nature of the problem concisely. I quote from paragraph 2:The common threads which led in each case to a failure to intervene early enough were poor co-ordination; a failure to share information; the absence of anyone with a strong sense of accountability; and frontline workers trying to cope with staff vacancies, poor management and a lack of effective training".It is evident, therefore, that one of the most important tasks before us is to improve the process of sharing information between all the agencies concerned—hence Clause 8, which will be my particular focus today.
I am bound to say that I approached the clause with a great deal of anxiety. There are many aspects to this but it is as well, first, to put it into some kind of context. I applaud the Government's desire to embrace and encourage information technology. As has so often been said, its potential benefits are huge, but that does not mean that we should be incapable of recognising some of the associated risks and pitfalls of too deep an adherence to IT—not least, the potential threats to privacy and confidentiality.
I fear that I detect in the drafting of the clause an assumption, verging on blind faith, that IT and database solutions to the problems of information sharing between the relevant agencies represent in the minds of the Ministers concerned an absolute panacea for all ills. At best, that is wishful thinking. It is as though Ministers, in arriving at their decision, have been dazzled by the lustre of IT without understanding either its limitations or the proper context of their proposals.
Not so surprisingly, IT activity by government, both centrally and locally, has grown exponentially in recent years. Specifically, the proliferation of databases is remarkable. Departmental IT systems holding information about us as individual citizens infest every aspect and level of our lives. Not in any particular order of priority or significance to today's debate, one can cite the Inland Revenue's databases, the Passport Agency, the DVLA, the National Health Service IT plan, the Criminal Records Bureau and so on. Of course, all that is quite apart from the Home Secretary's ongoing infatuation with the national identity card.
The volume of personal data that the Government hold about us, detailing the minutiae of our lives, is colossal. So far as one can tell, the vast bulk of, if not all, the information envisaged as being required under the terms of the Bill is already being collected and stored within existing databases. As is explicit in the analyses of both the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and the Government, the problem here is not necessarily that the data are not available but, rather, that they are not properly shared by the agencies involved.
1238 It follows that the implementation of a stand-alone database, or databases, for the purposes envisaged in the Bill, with all the attendant resource implications, will not, as a matter of course, generate the improvements in information sharing that are so essential. Rather, it runs a huge risk of representing a wasteful and bureaucratic duplication of effort with absolutely no guarantee of measurable benefit.
Indeed, although it is a little confusing on the point, the analysis of responses to the Green Paper from the Department for Education and Skills does not seem to establish a watertight case for the establishment of a database and/or databases. At paragraph 2, rather blithely, it states:There was support for the proposals on information sharing, with a call for the development of national protocols. Most respondents…supported the proposal to introduce a unique identifying number for all children".That is fair enough. It accords with the consensus that sharing of information among the agencies concerned is essential. And yet, at paragraph 22, it observes that,51 (9 per cent) respondents stated that there should be a national database to ensure that any agency involved with a child could update their records regarding concerns".Moreover, paragraph 23 notes that,26 (7 per cent) [respondents] stated that a national database would be a useful tool to collect basic information about children".Leaving aside the discrepancy between 9 and 7 per cent, that cannot be defined as a ringing endorsement of what the Government have come up with in Clause 8. Moreover, contrary to what the Government seem to believe, there is no specific equivalent between "information sharing" and "databases". They do not, of themselves, equate to the same thing.
It might have been possible to be a little more comfortable about the Government's proposals if one could have been assured either that they know what they are doing or that they know precisely what they want to achieve. Unfortunately, neither the drafting nor the explanation of the Minister inspire a great deal of confidence. The Explanatory Notes to the Bill tell us that the intention is that,local authorities or another specified body [will] establish and maintain a database or databases".Those databases,might be set up at a local, regional, or national level".Moreover,The detailed operational requirements will be set out in the affirmative procedure regulations…and as to more technical matters in directions and guidance issued by the Secretary of State".In reality—here, I echo the comments of my noble friend Lord Howe—the Government's intentions have no locus whatever on the face of the Bill. That point was confirmed by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. The clause is an empty shell. Action on Rights for Children is wholly correct in suggesting that,The Government appears to be seeking something of a 'blank cheque' from Parliament".1239 Bluntly, this is unacceptable. The establishment and maintenance of databases of the scale apparently proposed are not narrow technical matters that can be left to secondary legislation. Rather, they have such profound implications for the rights and liberties secured by both the Data Protection Act and the Human Rights Act that the necessity of detailing their structure and scope in primary legislation is paramount.
Margaret Hodge, the Minister for Children, has given us insight into how any database established under Clause 8 may operate. She has suggested that a GP may place a flag on a child's file because of low birth weight. Subsequently, a nursery worker concerned about unexplained bruises may also place a flag on the file. It is conceivable that, taken together, those two incidents could signify abuse or neglect of a child, but equally they do not guarantee it. Nevertheless, it would seem that two flags on a file would trigger an inquiry by the relevant agencies. Whether or not justifiable, a stigma of' suspicion and doubt would, in all likelihood, overlay future judgment about the child's circumstances.
It is hard to see how such a mechanistic approach can properly work in the interests of either the child or the wider context of the family. To my mind it is an example of the tick-box culture writ large. Anyone of a cynical frame of mind could conclude that the proposition has been specifically designed to protect the agencies involved from accusations of negligence, rather than to protect the children who should be their proper focus. That lends particular resonance to the observation of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, that,Bureaucratic activity cannot be a safe haven for poorly performing managers".It has been suggested that one of the major shortcomings of the Climbié case was that none of the professionals involved had a relationship with her; that tragically professional involvement in her case was conducted at a distance. They had information but they did not know her. Put bluntly, a mechanistic approach can lead to a false sense of security. Over-reliance on the automaticity of database systems will, in all likelihood, entrench the failings of the Climbié case rather than correct them. I am much more sanguine than the Minister about how any database regime will operate in practice.
The context in which the interests of a child should be paramount is one that takes full account of the domestic and family circumstances of the child concerned. Relationships, emotions and interactions in such situations are hugely complex and to that extent reliance on IT solutions should not be a substitute for the active participation of all child service agencies in the actual lives of any children under their aegis.
I do not say that IT and databases cannot make a contribution—of course they can. I say that the contribution that they make should be proportionate and, more importantly, a buttress to active and direct participation in the daily lives of children by the agencies concerned. Regrettably, there will be instances when a suspension of the rights conferred by the Data Protection and Human Rights Acts will be 1240 appropriate and justified. On that front, notwithstanding that existing legislation allows for such facility, I await the outcome of the Bichard inquiry with interest. I do not believe that, as inferred by this Bill, such a suspension should be wholesale. Liberty puts the matter thus:The starting point for such consideration should be the presumption that each and every measure allowing rot information sharing needs to be justified rather than the presumption that information sharing is an unqualified good to which exceptions must be justified".Indeed, it would seem that it is intended that unproven and unsubstantiated allegations of criminal behaviour, such as drug abuse, by parents or relatives will be recorded. Moreover, parents and family members would not have access to the files to check the veracity of any data held about them. Against the background of current concerns about the reliability of medical evidence, particularly in cases involving Munchausen's by proxy and shaken baby syndrome, it is as well to remind ourselves that false accusations can, and have, blighted the lives of parents and children. In fact, of course, we already know that the perpetuation of inaccurate data on children's case files, which on the surface would seem to offend against the Data Protection Act, is accepted practice even within the existing system. As Beverley Lawrence Beech of the Association for the Improvement of Maternity Services commented recently:The other problem we have seen is of social services departments blatantly defying the Data Protection Act, so that our clients are refused access to records to which they are entitled in order to challenge errors and misreporting".Moreover, on 2 July last year, the Minister replied to a question from the noble Countess, Lady Mar, saying that,To expunge allegations of child abuse or neglect, including those which subsequently prove to be unfounded, from local authority records would undermine the proper function of social services' recording and the effectiveness of the area child protection committee".—[Official Report, 2/7/03; col 874.]In effect, it is the Government's policy that inaccurate and unfounded data should not be allowed to continue to fester on any given case file. This explicit sanction for and institutionalisation of the stigma of suspicion, especially when the system gives no right of recourse to either correction or verification, is deeply worrying. Clause 8, as drafted, is likely to make the situation very much worse.
In the time available to me I have barely scratched the surface of the considerable limitations of the clause. A host of other issues remain: for example, a more detailed analysis of its interaction with the Data Protection and Human Rights Acts, interoperability and compatibility of IT systems, appropriate setting of the rights and levels of access to data and so on. Come what may, radical amendment will be required during later stages of the Bill. I look forward to that onerous task. For the moment I echo the observation of the Local Government Association:It is critical that in tackling the issue of information sharing, all agencies involved focus on managing cultural and behavioural change amongst professionals as well as technical processes".1241 However it is implemented, the existence of a database will not of itself deliver the improvements in information sharing that are so essential. What matters much more than the technical processes are the cultural and behavioural changes.
§ 7.6 p.m.
§ Baroness Linklater of Butterstone
My Lords, nothing could be more important than the quality of the lives of our children. They engage our present and they are our future. It follows, therefore, that a Bill dedicated to improving the lives of and services for children is greatly to be welcomed, and that is the overwhelming response from all involved with children. However, the next universal reaction is that the powers and authority invested in the Children's Commissioner for England are inadequate and significantly fewer than those of any of the other commissioners in the UK. The powers and effectiveness of this extremely important role should be carefully reviewed and significantly strengthened. The argument for that has already been amply discussed today. After all, a strong and independent voice is being sought. That is the logical outcome from the Climbié tragedy, the Laming report and the subsequent Green Paper. I hope that the Minister can give us reassurances on that.
At the heart of the Bill is the aim of improving the lives of children, young people and their families by trying to ensure that children's services are more effective, better co-ordinated, child-centred and of the highest quality possible. It has the enormously ambitious goal—both culturally and organisationally—of bringing together all agencies under one roof, with the sharing of information and the pooling of resources. While it appears to be both rational and logical, I would like to add a note of caution.
I am sure that I am not alone in your Lordships' House in remembering the social services departments of the 1960s when there was specialisation with child care officers (of which I was one), psychiatric social workers, hospital almoners, welfare officers, family service units, probation officers and so on. Then the Seebohm committee reported and the outcome was the birth of the generic social worker, all in the name of rationality and logic. Someone who had been the master of one trade was now required to be the jack of all. Many colleagues and I felt that something very important was lost; namely the focus and professional expertise which was very important to client and professional alike. It simply could not be forced into a one-size-fits-all service without losing that focus and specific expertise. That was in fact what happened. So when we talk about an integrated service for children and young people I am concerned that we ensure that absolute clarity is maintained on the role of the various service deliverers and that partnership means just that. Otherwise, the potential for the dilution of the service delivery and for confusion abounding is very real.
This concern is voiced by the Association of Chief Education Officers and by the Confederation of Education Service Managers, among others. Indeed, they point out 1242 that there is scant reference to schools in the Bill and no mention of teachers at all. Education is at the heart of children's services, and, given the new and important duty significantly to improve the education outcomes for looked-after children, this is an extraordinary omission. Social services must not engulf children's services, particularly education services, and the GTC pointedly endorses the Government's pledge to retain professionals' "individual specialisms".
In Scotland these days we have a director of children's services in many authorities, but a deputy director of education and a deputy director of social services, who work in distinct partnership, directly support that role. The planning, targets, funding and accountability frameworks and the way the structures finally take shape on the ground will crucially determine the success of the new children's services authorities and their "relevant partners". It will not be easy, and it will need all the current good will to succeed.
I have a particular concern in relation to children who are at risk of, or actually involved in, offending. This Bill has relevance for all children and their wide variety of needs, and it is for those at the most vulnerable end of the scale that this is most crucial. Young offenders are invariably those whose life experiences are the most deprived on virtually every index of measurement. It is possible to predict the path to offending of very many young offenders from an early stage.
The transition from being a troubled child to a child in trouble can be seamless, and the experience of the child as victim and the child as offender is often also seamlessly interchangeable. It is essential therefore that the management of these children's difficulties should also remain seamless. It seems to me extraordinary and highly undesirable that there is a separate companion document to Every Child Matters called Youth Justice—The Next Steps, thus separately identifying these particular children and young people. Not only that, but it refers to a,single main sentencing purpose of preventing reoffending".That is a really regrettable shift away from the principles the Bill is supposed to enshrine.
Article 3 of the UNCRC states unequivocally that in all actions concerning children,the best interests of the child shall be the primary consideration".In Scotland, where children's panels deal with all issues concerning children in trouble until they are 16, the jingle we use is that "the child's need not his deed" is the primary consideration. But here, that apparently is not the case. Of course, preventing offending is vital wherever possible, but a welfare-based approach does not imply that the seriousness of offending is diminished or that soft options are preferred—far from it. In fact, it is in understanding and addressing the causes of the behaviour that prevention is most likely to occur.
Youth justice is also about care, but that is not the message we are getting here. I believe that it is essential that youth offending teams, who are at the sharp end of coping with those children who are both troubled 1243 and in trouble, should be required to be included in all the local partnership arrangements as key partners. I hope the Minister will give that serious consideration. Similarly, they should be on the list of bodies who make up the local safeguarding children boards.
It is to be welcomed that governors of YOIs—young offender institutions—and secure training centres are included on these boards, since it should encourage these institutions to focus clearly on the safeguarding of children and the promotion of their welfare. I hope this responsibility will be clarified and defined as a positive duty. Furthermore, the famous judgment by Mr Justice Munby last year established that the Children Act 1989 applied to children in prison, but not to the Prison Service, which means that the Prison Service does not in fact have a clear statutory duty to safeguard the welfare of children. Is not that shocking?
This Bill offers a real opportunity in Clause 7 to provide the full protection children in prison need. However, I must add, this really begs the question of the acceptability of the imprisonment of young children at all—as we do in this country, putting us at the top of the league of child incarcerators in Europe. With the best will in the world, STCs do not have child welfare built into their ethos in the way that local authority secure units do; and I question the morality of incarcerating children who are at the age and stage in their lives when one of the privileges to be earned for good behaviour is another teddy bear—as was the case in Medway STC when I visited a few years ago. But, at the very least, to include governors of YOIs and STCs in the structure of children's welfare should help to safeguard these most intractable and difficult but also most vulnerable of children.
The Bill covers a wide range of issues. Its aims and ambitions are clearly desirable, but the challenges it also presents are immense. If it succeeds in protecting and enhancing the lives of all children from the least to the most needy in ways which promote best practice and mutual co-operation between all agencies, then it will have achieved something of real importance for our society—its present and its future. I wish it well.
§ 7.16 p.m
§ Baroness Finlay of Llandaff
My Lords, the Government are to be congratulated on the Bill. It is long overdue. My remarks try to suggest improvements, rather than to criticise. I shall try to avoid repeating areas already covered by other noble Lords, although I should like to emphasise some points.
I start by agreeing with the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child should underpin all policies for children and young people. The UK Government should demonstrate a commitment to the full implementation of that by enshrining the convention in the Children Bill and in all legislation pertaining to children.
The UN convention committee has repeatedly stated that the UK Government do not take promotion of the UNCRC or the monitoring of the implementation as seriously as they could. Previous 1244 reasons given for not incorporating the convention into primary legislation have not been observed in other countries, such as Switzerland. It has incorporated this on the face of its legislation.
I should like to point out that in relation to the Children's Commissioner for Wales the Welsh Assembly government enshrined the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in their secondary legislation.
I turn to the issue of maintenance of the child-centred approach and devolution. There needs to be a child-centred approach to all services for children and young people. The issues around devolution are therefore problematic for children in Wales where services are split between devolved and non-devolved departments, not least in the field of youth justice.
There needs to be clarity of responsibility and also opportunities for incorporating the views of Welsh children, Welsh children's organisations and the Welsh Assembly government into departments that devise policies that cover Wales. We await the report of the Richard commission regarding devolved powers because it may well contain comments that are relevant to the way the Bill has been written.
At the time of the establishment of the post of Children's Commissioner for Wales, the approach was to limit his powers to the areas of responsibility devolved to the National Assembly for Wales under the Government of Wales Act 1998 and the National Assembly for Wales (Transfer of Functions) Order 1999.
This means that areas such as youth justice, the benefits system and the police are excluded from the remit of the Children's Commissioner for Wales, although the commissioner does have the power to make representations to the National Assembly for Wales. Perhaps I could remind the House that the National Assembly originally wanted the Children's Commissioner for Wales to have a remit over non-devolved departments, and the late Lord Williams of Mostyn very helpfully worked hard to introduce a government amendment that allowed representation to the Assembly about any matter that affects a child in Wales.
Given that the difficulties experienced by children and young people usually do not fall neatly into devolved or non-devolved areas, or even into one area of service, the commissioner has sought to establish working relationships and memoranda of understanding with a number of bodies technically outside his remit. For example, regular meetings are held in Wales with the police and CAFCASS, and the commissioner has visited prisons. Those working relationships may be undermined if these policy and service areas are formally designated to be ones for which the UK children's commissioner would be the relevant authority.
I shall now discuss the powers themselves. The English model does not appear to be a truly independent structure; thus the commissioner cannot deal with issues over which the Children's Commissioner for Wales has a remit. The Commissioner for Wales should be able to represent the views of all children in Wales. The English commissioner would not have contact with Welsh 1245 children, so how could the post holder be a genuine champion for them? Children move around the UK, and everyone needs to know what they can expect from the commissioner, whichever country they are in. The ability to act on a child's behalf should rest with the commissioner nearest the child, and he or she must be able to do that with independence, wherever the child is. It is up to the commissioners to communicate with one another and with the relevant government departments, whether devolved or non-devolved.
I must ask whether the bureaucracy of the devolution settlement is getting in the way of the arrangements that would serve children best. In the clauses specifically dealing with Wales I generally welcome the decision not to restructure services, as we have suffered many reorganisations, most recently in health, with some loss of skilled staff and possible planning blight. It is therefore wise to build on current structures as they mature with experience.
My final point is on the defence of reasonable chastisement. I return to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its underlying principles of independence, a human rights framework, strong investigatory powers, an impact on law and policy, and an effective remedy for infringement of rights. The physical punishment of children is not smacking. Looking at the data for children seen with bruises, there are those who get bruises from the rough and tumble of childhood, those with clotting disorders who need medical intervention and treatment for the underlying disease and those children who have been abused.
A case control study in south Wales collecting data on physically abused and non-abused children has shown that bruising is the common presentation of physical abuse in children, and that it is difficult to base the diagnosis of abuse on a distribution of bruises, but a formula based on the total length of bruising can give important pointers to the probability of abuse being the cause of the bruises.
We know that children who have experienced corporal punishment have their perceptions of violence altered. Violence escalates; it becomes accepted and normalised. A smack on the ears can result in deafness; a smack with a slipper does not hurt the hand of the person who inflicted the hit. The child becomes numbed emotionally and appears to react less and less to physical hits; yet the person hitting the child can interpret that as "dumb insolence" or the child becoming "impervious to punishment", so he or she hits harder and the violence escalates.
Children do not view smacking as trivial. In the words of a girl aged six, "It is inside your body that hurts". Children find the process of being hit frightening and painful. It teaches them that violence is a societal norm and that a way to cope with pent-up feelings is to hit out. Hitting children is the response of adults who have not learnt to control their own emotional response to what a child has done, and who themselves have not learnt the self-discipline that 1246 allows them to impart good discipline and good standards to children. I fully endorse the need for parenting to be taught to parents.
In January 2004, the National Assembly for Wales debated the subject. By 41 votes to nine, it passed a resolution stating:
The National Assembly regrets that the UK Government continues to retain the defence of reasonable chastisement and has taken no significant action towards prohibiting the physical punishment of children in the family".I will support the amendments to ensure that children are as protected as adults from being hit.
§ 7.25 p.m.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, we must congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill and demonstrating their strong commitment to children with the establishment of a Children's Commissioner. I was part of the advisory group brought together by the Gulbenkian Foundation when it first published a proposal for a children's rights commissioner in 1991. The report was entitled Taking Children Seriously, and that is what a commissioner should be about. It has taken time to get one. But having promised England's 11 million children,a champion independent of government",as the Green Paper did, we must ensure that the legislation in Part 1 of the Bill really does create an independent champion.
There are worries. The first is the lack of a strong and clear function. The commissioners for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have functions requiring them to safeguard and promote children's rights and interests. Then there is the absurd provision, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, in Clause 2(7), which states that the commissioner "may" have regard to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As if anyone needs permission to have regard to a convention ratified by the UK Government with all-party support in 1991.
Clause 2(6) prohibits the commissioner from initiating investigations into individual cases, and Clause 4 allows the Secretary of State to direct the commissioner to carry out formal inquiries. It is only when following such directions that the commissioner has strong investigatory powers. Independence cannot be compromised, and commissioners cannot be directed by Ministers, of this Government or any future government. We will need to work hard to ensure that the commissioner is fully independent and has the appropriate powers.
Another issue that I wish to raise has a long history, too. We must use the Bill to remove the reasonable chastisement defence and to give children equal protection under the law of assault. That is long overdue. Lord Henderson of Brompton, whom many Members will remember with great affection, and I tried to remove the defence 14 years ago, when what is now the Children Act 1989 was passing through this House. Now we are to have another Children Act, and this reform must be part of it. We cannot keep children waiting any longer; it is embarrassing that we were the last country in Europe to 1247 end school corporal punishment, and we cannot go on defending it in the home. Removing the defence places children in exactly the same position as adults on the law of assault. Of course parents will not be prosecuted for minor assaults; there are adequate hurdles to prevent silly prosecutions. I hope that the noble Lords, Lord Laming and Lord Lucas, will take comfort from that.
§ Lord Lucas
My Lords, I am not expecting prosecutions before the magistrates' court, but I am certain that there will be notes on parents' files when it comes to the question of whether their children should be taken into care.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, I hope that that will not happen. We want to send a clear message that it is no more lawful to hit a child than to hit anyone else. We need the law to provide a safe basis for child protection and for promoting positive forms of discipline that work. That is important.
I hope that we will not hear any accusations that this is a nanny state reform. On the contrary, its purpose is to reduce the need for prosecutions and other formal interventions in family life. We can be confident from the experience of other countries that have reformed their laws that that will be the result. The levels of violence against children in the home in the UK are extremely worrying. The way to reduce that is to have clear law backed up with parent and public education. We accept that this is the way to combat all other forms of domestic violence; now we must accord children equal protection.
I hope that we will not hear attempts to compromise and define at what age children can and cannot be hit; with what implements; and on what part of their bodies. This House led the moves to end corporal punishment in schools, and I assume that the Government will allow a free vote on this issue, as they traditionally have. I am confident that we will finally discard the idea that children, smaller and more fragile than we are, should have less protection from being hit.
I may have sounded rather critical, but this Bill, which puts children at the centre of public services, is very welcome. I believe that the Bill will not only be good for children, but for local government, education, and the National Health Service, because it demands that local bodies co-operate to promote the well-being of all children. The Bill tackles the deficiencies in the co-ordination of local services, so well exposed by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, in his report on Victoria Climbié.
Trying to get public services to work together better has been an agreed objective throughout my public life. The 1968 Seebohm committee, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, the report on local authority and allied social services, records that one of the reason for writing the report was:The problem of co-ordination between related but separately administered services".This Second Reading debate is not the place to consider whether the Seebohm recommendation of a single social services department was correct, but it is 1248 the place to debate why in 2004 this House is still considering the better co-ordination of services, when everyone I know has supported better co-ordination for years. I would be interested to hear from the Minister why progress has been so slow.
It may be because rigid professional distinctions still persist, introduced in initial training of the teacher, social worker, health visitor, nurse and doctor. It may be because some boundaries are created by legislation. Local authorities provide school places for over-fives under education legislation, and children's day care for under-fives under very different legislation, which was originally designed to let local authorities support nursing mothers during the First World War. It may be because services have not been funded sufficiently. Co-operation costs money; locating health services in schools will not come cheap. The commitment by the Chancellor in his recent Budget that there will be 1,700 children's centres by 2008 and that eventually every community will have access to a centre is wholeheartedly welcome.
I hope that schools will be fully committed to the Bill's objective of getting local services to work together better. I was concerned that the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association wrote in the Education Guardian last week:Heads are concerned that the Children Bill will lead to more work, more meetings and even more accountability. However worthy its aims, heads cannot afford to let this wider agenda take their eyes off the top priority of the quality of teaching and learning".I hope that heads will co-operate. In order to keep the quality of teaching and learning as the top priority, it is vitally important for head teachers to work with local authorities and local voluntary associations to ensure that children get good services.
One issue that concerns me about the director of children's services post is that it must essentially be a management post with the prime objective of ensuring that services are well managed and accountable. Such a post holder may not have credibility with head teachers because he/she does not have the necessary professional experience.
As your Lordships will know, I have long been an advocate of children's rights. On the Second Reading of the Bill that became the Education Act 2002, I said:The time is now absolutely right for children and young people to be given a statutory entitlement to consultation about decisions in education that affect them".—[Official Report, 11/3/02; col. 593].The 2002 Act did achieve this in Section 176 by a government amendment. Sadly, I do not find any such general right for children outside their school in this Bill.
We want children to grow up and take a full place in society. The earlier that we give them, through education, the chance to play that part, the more effective they will be when they become adults. We can make this good Bill even better as it goes through its stages. I hope that the Government will be in listening mode.
§ 7.34 p.m.
§ Lord Hanningfield
My Lords, I fully endorse the views of the inquiry team led by the noble Lord, Lord Laming. What happened to Victoria Climbié must point the way to securing the future safety and well-being of the children in our society. The report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, describes a world of almost unimaginable horror. The cruelty described is beyond human comprehension. It demands action, and I am therefore glad that the Government have responded by bringing forward this Bill.
I am also grateful to the Government for taking on board the feedback that they received on the Green Paper. There is no doubt that the Government's original plans put too much emphasis on structural change, and not enough on local flexibility. The danger with emphasising structures is that they become mistaken for the end rather than the means. Improved outcomes must be the measure of success.
I sincerely hope that the legislation that we pass in this House will make a real and substantial contribution to reducing the incidence of violence against children in our society, but I add a word of caution. Good social work ultimately demands good social workers, and there simply are not enough social workers to go round. The workforce issues that the Government have identified are at least as important as what we must do to improve our systems. Vacancy levels, currently 11 per cent nationally and 20 per cent across London, are simply too high for us to be able to say that we are delivering the best possible service for our children and young people. We urgently need to deal with this issue effectively. Otherwise, any changes that we make through this Bill will be seriously undermined.
Part 1 of the Bill establishes the Office of the Children's Commissioner. The establishment of a Children's Commissioner is certainly something that many noble Lords will support. However, it is important that there is an independent children's champion operating at the highest level who can look out for the interests of children. My concern is that the Children's Commissioner is not provided in this Bill with the independence that he or she will need to do the job effectively. In particular, the Bill stipulates areas to which the commissioner should have regard. I should like to know whether the Government specifying particular areas in that way means that there are areas which are beyond the writ of the commissioner.
Furthermore, I suggest that the commissioner ought to be able to initiate his or her own investigations—currently prevented by the Bill—and that the Secretary of State should not have the right to demand that the commissioner carry out particular investigations currently allowed by the Bill. The reporting arrangements of the commissioner are also subject to interference from the Secretary of State. All this is liable to undermine the independent position of the commissioner, and thus confidence in the office.
As currently envisaged, not only would the commissioner have less power than his colleagues in Wales or Northern Ireland, he would also have less independence than some of the existing social care 1250 inspectorates. If we are going to set up an office of this nature, let us do it properly, and give the Commissioner the powers that he needs to do the job.
Part 2 of the Bill puts in place arrangements designed to improve co-operation between different agencies with responsibility for children. As Victoria Climbié and many other cases have highlighted, the work between and across agencies is at the heart of improving the way in which we deliver children's services. The gaps between these bodies are the dangerous places for children. It must be right that this Bill attempts to plug those gaps and ensure proper coordinated and joined-up working. As the leader of a large local authority, Essex County Council, I believe that it is right that local authorities should take the lead on promoting this kind of joined-up working. It is right that there should be a lead agency, and that responsibility can only, realistically, rest with local authorities.
Other than the absence of voluntary bodies, the list of agencies in the clauses of this part of the Bill is basically right. I would be interested, however, in knowing whether under Clause 7, on the duty to promote the welfare of children, the Government considered extending that duty to individual doctors. General practitioners and hospital doctors—as we have seen time and again—are front-line providers of services who have a key role to play in ensuring that children are properly protected. I simply do not know whether imposing a duty on PCTs and NHS trusts is sufficient to ensure that those duties are fulfilled by all doctors coming into contact with children. I should be interested to hear what the Minister has to say on that subject.
Clause 8 presents problems of which, I am sure, the Government are aware. Much of the Bill is extremely sketchy. In some places, that does not matter, but in Clause 8 it is vital. Clause 8 deals with the sharing of information across agencies through the establishment of databases. That is a huge undertaking and one that it will be difficult to get right. There is no doubt that the cost implications are significant. However, it is clear from the Bill that the Government have no policy on that. Clearly, the Government believe that sharing information is a good thing; we all agree with that. The point is how to do it. The Bill does not make that clear, because the Government simply do not know. It would be helpful if the Minister could let the House know, first, whether there is any likelihood of progress being made on that subject while the Bill is going through Parliament and, secondly, whether resources are likely to be committed to that important area in the next round of the Comprehensive Spending Review.
The replacement of the existing non-statutory area child protection committees with statutory local safeguarding children boards will be welcomed by authorities throughout the country. However, there must be a question mark over whether the Government's permissive funding proposals will be sufficient to enable those boards to go. There is no doubt that it is in the areas where relationships are worst that it will be most difficult 1251 to ensure that appropriate funding is forthcoming. In this case, an element of prescription from the Government might in fact be helpful.
The Local Government Association has raised the issue of whether the Government should make sure that all boards operate to national standards. Although I am a committed localist, I agree that some national standards might be helpful, if only to avoid confusion for organisations that have to deal with more than one board. In my county, for instance, the police authority will have to deal not only with the board for the county area but with the boards for Southend and Thurrock. It would be in the interests of all three boards if they operated to the same set of standards.
My only other question is whether the Government have considered whether there is an optimum size for the board. In Essex, with 12 district councils and 11 primary care trusts, the board could have upwards of 40 members. Could the Minister comment on board size?
I turn now to the requirement set down by the Government to have a director of children's services and a lead member for children. In my county, we are somewhat ahead of the game and already have a director of children's services, a position that covers the education authority and the children's social services functions. I recently appointed a Cabinet member for children. We also had one of the first children's trusts, so we are well ahead of any other local authority. We are trying to do the right thing, and we have been keen to take a more strategic, integrated approach to the delivery of services for children. Having said that, I do not think that the same recipe is necessarily right for all authorities. For example, where authorities already deliver excellent services in education and children's social care, how can it be helpful to force on them such major restructuring? It makes no sense.
Those points were made to the Government at the time of the Green Paper. I am pleased to note that the Government have taken many of them on board. The Bill is a lot less prescriptive than many local authorities had feared.
In the case of the lead member role, the Local Government Association has suggested that that duty could be extended to all authorities, not just children's services authorities. I am inclined to support that position, particularly as the Bill provides for local flexibility. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether the Government have considered extending the duty in that way.
There is a lot to be gained from the Bill and a lot to be learnt from what authorities already do. As I said, my authority had taken on board many of the suggestions in the Laming report before we were asked to by the Government. The Minister said at the beginning that all local authorities should do that by 2008; in fact, Essex County Council has done it by 2004. There are several areas in which we might improve the Bill in Committee, so that we can make 1252 certain that there is enough local flexibility to make the Government deliver the services that we want. That said, I support the Bill.
§ 7.44 p.m.
§ Lord Thomas of Gresford
My Lords, creating a Children's Commissioner for England whose job it is to promote awareness of the interests and views of children makes him sound like a public relations consultant. Worse than that, he will be very much under the guidance of those who employ him. He cannot act independently; he can act only on that which the Secretary of State allows him to act on.
We are asked, "We have only £2.5 million to spend; how much do you want?". That was the Minister's answer when we discussed the matter last night. I pay tribute to her for attending the Welsh meeting that we had last evening. How much do we want? I would have thought that parents in England will want as least as much for their children as those in Scotland and Wales do. I will be surprised if the parents of children in England are satisfied with a level of commitment that is one-eighth of the commitment of the National Assembly government in Wales to children in Wales and one-twelfth of the commitment of the Scottish Parliament to Scottish children. That is the level of funding that is being made available.
In February, 2001, we had the Second Reading of the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill. I was proud of that Bill. It was a product of the partnership government in Wales, the Labour and Liberal Democrat government in power at that time. They had promoted it, and I knew fairly well what they wanted. My suggestion that I should address this House from the government Benches, as I represented the government of Wales, was squashed by the usual channels—I really do not know why.
At that time, I said that we wanted a Children's Commissioner who represented the whole child, not just part of the child. Secondly, I said that the Bill was a pale shadow of what the entire Assembly wanted—all parties—in that the Children's Commissioner for Wales was to be excluded from being concerned with devolved matters. I said in terms that the Children's Commissioner for Wales would not be able to comment on child poverty and that he would not be allowed to enter into the sphere of the Home Office. I think that I also said that it was possibly the Home Office that was resisting the suggestion that the Children's Commissioner for Wales should be involved in Home Office matters. The purpose of the commissioner, surely, is to embarrass Ministers and provoke them into action in just the way that the Chief Inspector of Prisons has clone so successfully—the present incumbent and her two predecessors. That was the sort of figure that we wanted.
We ended up with a Children's Commissioner who could, at least, take his own initiatives. We also had a commissioner who would protect the rights of the child. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, reminded us a short time ago, the UN convention was enshrined into the regulations to be made under that Bill. We ended up with a strong commissioner, strengthened by the concession that was made by the 1253 much lamented Lord Williams of Mostyn, who, I am sure, was doing only what he had wanted to do, when he said that the Children's Commissioner for Wales could, at least, address topics that were not devolved and make reports to the National Assembly, which could, if it so wished, carry the matters forward.
It was as a direct result of the amendment made by Lord Williams of Mostyn that, in the first year of his operation, the commissioner in Wales made a report on child poverty, notwithstanding the fact that social security was not a devolved matter. It is because of that amendment made by Lord Williams that in the programme for 2002–03 and ongoing, the commissioner was concerned with anti-social behaviour, which is essentially a Home Office matter. He covered the fields of education, welfare, and so forth. He was an effective and popular figure.
The devolution argument has reared its ugly head once again in the presentation of this Bill. Everyone in Wales—cross-party and the National Assembly—wants a commissioner who has the rights and authority to deal with all the issues that involve children in Wales and not an English commissioner pushing over the border. Someone suggested the words, "Keep your hands off Welsh children", but perhaps that puts it a little bit too far.
We want to ensure that the devolution division is not enshrined further. All the time, Ministers talk about the devolution settlement. The only settlement that there was on devolution was between one half of the Labour Party and the other half of the Labour Party. Ron Davies reminded us that devolution is a continuing process and not an event. The fact that in this Bill we welcome the devolution of CAFCASS to the jurisdiction of the National Assembly is an example of how things are moving on. We on these Benches hope that when the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and his commission report tomorrow, we shall see the way forward for the process to continue, to develop and to give Wales the strong government that its people require.
We are distressed that this division is being emphasised between devolved and non-devolved matters when the Bill is being considered. We find that in Wales, there is no support for it. We find that the jurisdiction of the Welsh commissioner is to be diminished. As my colleague in Cardiff, Kirsty Williams, put it, it is a step backwards or potentially a step backwards unless your Lordships do something about it in the consideration of the Bill.
I am sure that there are many good things in the Bill as regards the provision of services and the integration and co-ordination of issues that concern children, which my colleagues have already addressed and welcomed. For Welsh people in this House and in Wales, there is a very considerable problem if we find that children in Wales will to suffer because of some artificial division between devolved and non-devolved matters. We want a children's commissioner that acts for every child in Wales with every problem that that child has to face. We want someone who is readily available and identifiable to whom children and their 1254 parents can turn for advice and help. With that in mind, I am sure that your Lordships from Wales and elsewhere will support our attempts to amend the Bill.
§ 7.53 p.m.
§ Baroness Pitkeathley
My Lords, I should like to welcome the Bill, which is an ambitious reform of child welfare services. I congratulate the Government on pressing ahead with this much-needed programme of reform to protect the most vulnerable children in our society and to improve universal services for all.
I have particular interest in the Bill because I was recently appointed chair of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS). As your Lordships will know, we work with children and families in the courts to ensure that the decisions that are taken are in the best interests of the children involved. I have come full circle. I started my career as a childcare officer in Manchester. At that time, I had direct experience of working with children and families. I know, at first hand, what an important area of work that is.
I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Laming—I think that I could call him my noble friend—for the work that he did following the tragic death of Victoria Climbié. It is a sad indictment of how little progress has been made in almost 40 years. The same lack of communication between agencies that was common when I was a practising social worker was still all too apparent in that tragic case. I used to supervise children in private fostering and I know only too well how important the proposals to tighten the regulation about that are.
Central to the Government's approach to the reform of public services is that services must change to meet the needs of the people that they serve. That must be the right approach. Integrating services and ensuring that there is more effective communication and information sharing between agencies must happen in order to develop a better service for the children and young people involved.
Clearly, there are concerns about confidentiality. I hope that everyone involved will remember that the welfare of the child must be put above all other considerations when we are considering information exchange. Of course, the establishment of children's trusts should facilitate that.
This is a comprehensive Bill, so I shall comment only on a few aspects. As we have heard, it sets out the transfer of CAFCASS Cymru to the National Assembly for Wales. I assure the House that CAFCASS will do everything that it can to ensure that there is a smooth transfer through effective partnerships between the Welsh Assembly and the staff and managers of CAFCASS. In recent months, there has been huge progress in service delivery in Wales, which is a real credit to the workforce there. It is important that transfer arrangements do not in any way jeopardise that progress.
In addition, in spite of different administrative arrangements, the need for co-operation and comparative quality standards between Wales and England must be assured. I urge the Government to learn the lessons from 1255 the past. It is widely acknowledged that CAFCASS was set up too quickly with inadequate funding. It is important that the transfer to Wales happens in a realistic timeframe, that there is proper consultation with staff and that sufficient funding is allocated for CAFCASS Cymru to succeed. Agreement about final implementation dates at as early a stage as possible will be vital.
As far as local safeguarding children boards are concerned, CAFCASS is delighted to be a statutory member of the boards that will replace area child protection committees. I welcome the measures to increase accountability and ensure the effectiveness of all members of the LSCB.
I should like also to take the opportunity to welcome the Government's response to the consultation on the Green Paper, Every Child Matters. I am particularly encouraged by the proposals on workforce reform. It is vital that the legislative measures we are debating to improve services for children are supported by a drive by government and employers to make social work a more attractive profession. It builds on the excellent work done by the General Social Care Council that was set up three years ago, which I had the honour to chair for six months.
The registration of social workers and other social care professionals, as well as the good practice guidance produced by the GSCC, will not only give the public more confidence but also improve morale in the social work profession. That is very badly needed. As we know, the statistics are worrying. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, quoted that the vacancy rate for qualified social workers stands at 11 per cent. In London, the figure is even higher at 20 per cent.
The Bill is about improving the framework for children's services to create better integration and information sharing. But I must remind the House, as everyone here knows, that no amount of structural change can deliver on its own. It will work only if we have the right calibre of staff in sufficient numbers to do this important work. That requires training and more resources in order to attract the best talent and, more importantly, to retain the best talent.
The poor image of social workers is a real issue. It is a challenging job and it is a profession that should command respect. It is about time that happened. We cannot spend our time complaining about social workers, then wonder why there are not enough to deliver this important service. As in any other profession, there will be poor quality social workers, and we must address that. But the vast majority are highly qualified practitioners who do an excellent job for the children and families that they work with under extremely difficult circumstances.
CAFCASS is an organisation for which standards of social work practice are of the utmost importance. Our practitioners are fully qualified social work professionals who, in the main, have worked in either local authority social services departments or the former Court Welfare Service. I want to pay tribute to our practitioners and the rest of the CAFCASS workforce. They do a difficult job day in and day out, 1256 dealing with the most problematic cases, such as those relating to care proceedings or contact and residence disputes.
The difficult history of CAFCASS thus far is well known, but I must emphasise that this is not the whole story, as the following testament from a parent illustrates:In the mad insane confused situation (in which we found ourselves], you stood back, were not swayed by emotion and took a reasoned approach …your ability to listen was coupled with the equally important one of keeping those involved aware of all that was going on. You managed to speak with the children in a clear and concise manner which they understood …you showed you were non-partisan and had only their best interests at heart. On behalf of the children, I can't thank you enough".I want to touch briefly on two further points. First, I know that concerns have been expressed about the Children's Commissioner. It is vital that the commissioner is seen from the start to be a champion for children. I personally believe it right that the commissioner should not have investigatory powers in individual cases, given the scale of the task which awaits him or her. But the concerns of children's organisations must be addressed and I hope that more clarity about what is and is not expected will emerge as we consider the detail of the Bill.
I also want to draw particular attention to the issue of children with disabilities. It must always be remembered that the parents of children with a physical, mental or emotional disability have added problems. The Bill must take account of those special needs at every stage. For example, local safeguarding children's boards will need special expertise. The charity Contact a Family has stated that 31 per cent of parents feel that having a child with a disability can cause extra problems in a relationship, with the consequent knock-on effects of family breakdown and demand for services.
More certainly needs to be done to improve services for children, and that is what this Bill is all about. In summary, I congratulate the Government on leading this much-needed programme of reform. Putting children first is a vision we all share and must be a priority for this House.
§ 8.2 p.m.
§ The Earl of Listowel
My Lords, I apologise to the Minister for missing the first 10 minutes of her opening speech. I had not expected the previous Bill to complete its course so quickly.
I welcome most sincerely this Bill and the principles it enshrines. The chief principle that I see in it is that of partnership working to achieve the outcomes we want for every child. I should like to take this opportunity to stress the need to achieve those outcomes for every child, including the children of asylum seekers, unaccompanied asylum seeking children, and children who are in trouble with the law. The Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill currently making its way through Parliament causes me a great deal of concern. It is important to bear such children in mind. 1257 I warmly welcome the Bill and I want to cite an example of what may be its effects in changing the culture with regard to the provision of services for children. I recently visited a residential children's home for 12 children. Noble Lords may be aware that, in the past, educational outcomes for children in care have been poor. In 2001, 50 per cent of all children achieved five GCSEs at grades A to C, but the figure for children in care was around 5 per cent.
I paid a visit to the project after having been alerted to the educational success of the children. The south London charity responsible for the home had hired a teacher to tutor the children and to act as their advocate in education. It is the charity's policy always to commence legal proceedings if a school does not accept one of their children. Each year that must be done several times. However, the charity provides schools which take on its children with teaching assistants. Teachers are free to use the services of that assistant as they choose. That is an example of partnership working between the residential childcare worker and the teacher.
Added to that, the charity invests in support from the local child and adolescent mental health service. Once a fortnight, a clinical psychologist meets with the entire staff group to discuss the children and the impact on staff of working with these very troubled young people. Furthermore, a telephone service is provided, making it easy for staff to talk to representatives at CAMHS. The service has also trained the staff in the Webster-Stratton parenting model, with which some noble Lords will be familiar, to help them in their management of the children.
That is an example of partnership in action. What has it delivered? My goodness, last year all 12 children achieved at least one GCSE, while five achieved five GCSEs. In a normal children's home, only two would have passed one GCSE, and one would have achieved five at grades A to C. The project is working well.
As I have said, I welcome the partnership principle enshrined in the Bill. Partnerships between local authorities and the various other agencies working for children in the area will achieve the right outcomes. I welcome too the joint inspection of local authority services by the different inspection bodies such as Ofsted and other social services inspectorates. The Children's Commissioner will be under a duty to monitor the outcomes for children and to look at partnership working. All these things will work together to help to change the culture, encouraging it forward in the direction in which it is already moving. However, the Bill provides the impetus to achieve those aims.
I am concerned that we should not leave out from all these welcome improvements children who are in trouble with the law. I share the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, that there is a separate document on children who are in the charge of the Prison Service. I think there was an acknowledgement in the consultation document Next Steps that, on 1258 reflection, it would have been better to combine all these matters into one document. I welcome that acknowledgement.
We have to be very careful that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past and seek to exclude and put away these troublesome children. It reminds me of the Bible story in which God, if you like, put his children out of Eden. I prefer the New Testament version, maybe not to turn the other cheek but to try to contain such children and work with them, rather than pushing them away into an establishment which cannot meet their needs; which cannot do much more than perhaps "warehouse" them. During the progress of the Bill, I shall be looking at how we can bind in the work carried out in the criminal justice system.
Again with regard to asylum seekers, today half a tonne of bomb-making material was found and several British citizens of Pakistani origin were arrested in connection with that find. At the moment, we are fortunate with the economic climate in which we exist, but if a terrorist atrocity takes place in this country and the economy starts to worsen, there will be all kinds of pressures to be cruel, if you like—or, as some people see it, to be firm—towards asylum seekers and their children. We will need to build sufficient measures into the Bill to ensure that such people are protected in the hard times ahead. The matter needs to be approached carefully and thoughtfully.
It has been brought to my attention that the Seebohm reforms, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, referred, which brought forward the modern social services. may have been in part the reason why in this country, until very recently, 80 per cent of residential childcare workers had no appropriate qualifications for working with children, whereas on the continent most of them have three years' training for working with troubled children. Apparently what may have happened is that the forward-looking and experienced people who were running children's homes were drawn into the leadership of the new social services. These people were the brightest and the best. It was expected that, in a few years' time, children's homes would be staffed by social workers who had obtained the new social work qualification. But that did not happen. It was expensive to train residential childcare workers to that level of qualification and it became the practice to say, "Well, this is really domestic work. It simply means feeding children and looking after them, so we will let it ride".
This has had terrible consequences. It is perhaps the reason why we have so many children in prison today. In this country there are 2,500 children in prison, only 775 in France and the figure for other countries is far lower. We have not invested in the care system in the past; we have not had good children's homes; and we have not equipped staff to provide the containment that such children need.
I hope that we will take the opportunity afforded by the Bill. I welcome the partnerships at local level that the Government are enshrining in the Bill. I hope that we will also look to see whether we can enshrine partnerships between different departments at central government level so that they, too, all work towards the common outcome of healthy children. I hope that 1259 the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Health and the Home Office, all of which have the best interests of children in mind, will work together to achieve the outcomes that we all want. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.
§ 8.12 p.m.
§ Baroness Gale
My Lords, many noble Lords have said today how much they welcome the Bill. I, too, welcome it, especially as it will establish a Children's Commissioner for England. Having seen how successful the Children's Commissioner for Wales has been over the past two and a half years since the post was first established, it is good to know that the children of England will now also have a commissioner.
The Welsh commissioner's role and that of his team is very "child focused". The interests of the child or young person are always at the top of the list in whatever work they are carrying out and they are real champions for children.
If you look at the website of the Children's Commissioner for Wales if you have not, you ought to because it is a really good website you will see and appreciate how child centred is the whole approach. The website and the annual report are very attractive, easy to understand and very welcoming. This is very good for the children who use it.
The website gives children a chance to have their say through what is called "backchat", a name devised by children. It gives them a quick way of telling the commissioner's team about what really matters to them and lets them contribute to the work of the team. This is all done via the computer. As most children and young people have access to computers these days, this is a great way for them to communicate with the Children's Commissioner.
The commissioner and his team say:We want children and young people to be kept up to date with what we're doing even if they don't always feel like contributing".They listen to and respect children's point of view. Will the English commissioner be able to do things like this? I believe that a Children's Commissioner should be a voice for and a champion of children. That is what the Welsh Children's Commissioner is. I hope that that is how the Children's Commissioner for England will be regarded—a champion for the children of England.
There are differences in the role of the four commissioners for Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England. One would accept that with the devolution settlement there would not be a "one size fits all". There are bound to be differences between the four countries of the UK.
I am particularly concerned about the differences between the Welsh and English commissioners. The Welsh Commissioner, in many respects, has greater powers to act on behalf of a child in Wales than the English Commissioner has to act on behalf of a child in England. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, suggested that perhaps the Welsh commissioner's powers would be diminished, but in our briefing last night with the 1260 Minister she said that this should not and would not happen. I am sure we will all be watching her very carefully to ensure that that does not happen.
One of the best things about the Welsh commissioner is that he is independent. He is not answerable to politicians, and I believe that that has contributed to his success. One of the best things to have come out of the Welsh Assembly is the Children's Commissioner—it has been a great success. However, this is not the case with the English commissioner. In order to be effective, to work on behalf of children without having to refer back to a politician is, I believe, essential to the success of a commissioner.
The Children's Commissioner for Wales Act 2001 spells out the principal aims and widens the commissioner's role by giving power to review the effect of policies and delivery of services to children. It extends the commissioner's remit well beyond services directly provided for children such as social care, health and education, and includes areas—as it says in one of the reports—such as transport, the environment, economic development and agriculture.
The Children's Commissioner can consider and make representations to the Welsh Assembly about any matter affecting the rights or welfare of children in Wales. This means that he can deal with issues such as Home Office-run juvenile offenders institutions, the family courts—I think everybody is very pleased that CAFCASS will be devolved to Wales—and other benefits, matters not within the remit of the National Assembly for Wales.
The annual report of the Children's Commissioner for Wales 2001–02 states:The powers of the Commissioner are designed to be sufficient for him to act as an informed champion of children and their rights".Does this not say precisely what a Children's Commissioner should be if it is to be effective and work on behalf of children? I believe that that is so crucial for any commissioner—to act effectively in the interests of children. This should be the case for the commissioner for England. I know we are not sure whether it will be the commissioner for England or the commissioner for the UK, because he or she will have powers over the other countries of the UK. The differences between the commissioners for Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland is that each is required, by law, to promote and protect the rights of children and young people, using the framework of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
One of the aims of the Welsh commissioner is to make children and young people aware of their rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. His job is to make sure that children know of their rights. As the Bill stands, I do not believe the commissioner for England would be able to do that. In the annual report of 2001–02, the Welsh commissioner spells out its core values. One is that:Children and young people should enjoy their full rights as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the ChildIn two areas—aims and values—the rights of the child
are underlined. 1261 The focus of the English commissioner is much weaker, with a general function to promote awareness of the views and interests of children. If the commissioner is to become an independent champion for children, the Bill must be made clearer, as it is Wales. As many noble Lords have said, the Bill places no duty on the commissioner to have regard to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Bill should embrace that convention as does the Act for Wales. The Bill makes no provision for government or others to respond to recommendations made by the commissioner, unlike the legislation in Wales and in Northern Ireland.
The Children Bill offers great opportunities to help and assist children in many ways, but it is weak in a number of areas. I am sure that those will be debated further as the Bill progresses through your Lordships' House.
The Welsh commissioner provides us with excellent model. It was the first such post to be established. It has been running for two and a half years and it provides a good model for us to follow in order to see how effective such a commissioner can be, if given the appropriate powers to act on behalf of children and young people. I feel proud of what has been achieved in Wales for children and young people. English children should have at least the same measure of protection and support.
§ 8.21 p.m.
§ Lord Livsey of Talgarth
My Lords, my late-lamented, widowed mother would be absolutely delighted with the gender balance of this debate. I have looked around the Chamber and for most of the time, 14 women have been present and 13 men. I looked then at the order of speakers. Eighteen women and 17 men are speaking. That is particularly interesting because my mother, who brought me up from the age of three after the death of my father, also occupied a senior position in a comprehensive school. We used to discuss at the tea table all the events that affected children of all different backgrounds, many of them extremely poor. In many senses, therefore, I was brought up on this subject.
I warmly welcome the Children Bill and the creation of a Children's Commissioner for England, as well as the infrastructure that its different clauses set in place. Like many other Members of this House, I was personally involved in the House of Commons in Part 5 of the Care Standards Act 2000, which established the Children's Commissioner for Wales. I shall not repeat all that has been said about Wales, but I remind the House that the Children's Commissioner for Wales Act 2001 broadened the aims of the commissioner and promoted and safeguarded the rights and welfare of children in Wales. It is important to recognise that the Children's Commissioner for Wales came out of the terrible child abuse case in north Wales and its investigation by Sir Ronald Waterhouse. Everybody in Wales was absolutely shocked by the findings of that report. When we debated it in the 1262 House of Commons, we took the lead from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and many amendments in the Bill were proposed and carried out according to those principles. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has said, the Welsh Assembly enshrined the convention within its remit. Why not England? I do not understand that. Surely the case in England is great and fundamental. Children's rights must surely be pivotal to the Bill. They must not be diminished. I am concerned by the impact of the Bill on the rights of the child and, specifically, on the operation of the Children's Commissioner for Wales.
We have briefly discussed the whole issue of chastisement. All that I can say about my young education was that the weapon of child destruction was, in one school, a cricket bat. That is a long time ago, but none the less it is still painful to remember it. The importance of consulting children themselves is absolutely fundamental. The introduction of statutory powers to protect them is very important. We must not forget the whole issue of advocacy, which must underpin a lot of these matters.
There are anomalies in the Bill, especially as it affects the Children's Commissioner for Wales. I shall outline some. The system stems from a lack of primary legislative power in Wales. Hopefully, that will be put right by the Richard report. We spent a long time in the other place discussing that lack of power in Wales for the commissioner. We highlighted the fact that at that time, before discussions with Lord Williams, the police, the courts and all Home Office functions could not actually be in the remit of the commissioner. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, said, some of those problems have been overcome, and I am very pleased about that.
The relationship between the powers of the National Assembly for Wales and the commissioner in England, which is contained in this Bill, will need sorting out before problems occur. I refer to the fact that often children from Wales are imprisoned or in care in England. That was of great concern to us in the House of Commons, because the Children's Commissioner for Wales at that time could not investigate the state of the children who originated in Wales but were in care in England.
My main aim will be to assist the process of reform and to try to ensure that the four commissioners can work to the same principles. I am grateful for Parts 3 and 4 of the Bill, which will give the opportunity for constructive reform along with the action, which I believe goes in tandem, on the Richard report, which will greatly assist the process.
To finish, I quote from a submission by the Children's Commissioner for Wales about this Bill, particularly in relation to the devolved assemblies and parliaments in the United Kingdom. He said:A Children's Commissioner for England is likely to be given powers with regard to all bodies, as the devolution argument does not apply, and restricting children's rights by reference to government departments is unfair and cannot be justified. Therefore, it is only equitable that at the time of creation of the English Children's Commissioner the powers of the Welsh Children's Commissioner are extended to cover non-devolved areas. The alternative would be for an English Children's 1263 Commissioner to have powers over non-devolved functions in Wales, which would be inefficient and inappropriate, particularly post-evolution".Those matters should be sorted out during the passage of the Bill. We should end up with a holistic solution.
§ 8.28 p.m.
§ Baroness Stern
My Lords, I am glad of the opportunity to speak in this debate and grateful to the Minister for her convincing and clear exposition. This Bill is not under the purview of the Home Office. The debate was opened and will be replied to by a Minister for Education. In that context, I should like to make a few brief remarks about children in trouble and how far they are in or out of the very positive and encouraging measures that we are discussing today.
Surely the starting point for a department for education or for any educationalist will be, whenever possible, to have schools not prisons and education not punishment. This Bill is an opportunity to try to close the chasm that has opened between what we want for our good children and what we do to our "bad" ones. I echo the regrets of the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, and other noble Lords in this debate that the "had" children get a separate document.
My "bad" children are, of course, in inverted commas. By that, I mean those who, early in life, get a label of "out of control", "troublemaker" or "persistent offender" and everything that we do to them after that reinforces that identity and pushes them through the seemingly predetermined path. How many long-term adult prisoners are the children of broken homes and the result of the failure of children's services? What proportion of the prison population comes from backgrounds where good children's services were needed and somehow failed them? The chasm between services for "good" and "bad" children is quite wide.
Changes in policy over the past two decades, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, so helpfully alluded, have moved policy for children in trouble further and deeper into the Home Office, which is a quite inappropriate location. Sadly, the Bill scarcely begins the clawback that many of us would like to see. The past two decades have also pushed us from being a country with very good procedures for dealing with children in trouble with the law to being a country receiving severe criticism from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and from those watchdog bodies that we have set up to inspect our arrangements, as well as from the Joint Committee on Human Rights of both Houses.
The UK Government have been one of the most stalwart supporters of the United Nations and of its work in setting human rights standards. We have much to be proud of in that regard. It is therefore distressing to be at the receiving end of such strong criticism as we have received from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child for our treatment of children in trouble with the law. It has criticised our low age of criminal responsibility, which it said could be raised "considerably", and it has 1264 criticised the amount of locking up of children that we do. All the international human rights instruments make it clear that locking up children should be a last resort and for the shortest possible time. Yet the number of very young children, 12 to 14 year-olds, in prison-like establishments has increased eightfold in the past 10 years. The committee has criticised the treatment of our children in prison for too much solitary confinement and use of restraints.
Our Government should be showing their support for the United Nations and the international order that it underpins by listening to those criticisms and using the Bill to rectify our deficiencies. It is very encouraging in this regard to hear of the developments in Wales to which several noble Lords have alluded. It is hard to understand why we are not enthusiastically in favour of the recommendation in the 10th report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights that Prison Service custody should no longer he used for Juveniles; that is, those under 18. The committee recommended removing all children under 18 from Prison Service custody into the care of people,whose outlook is firmly grounded in a culture of respect for children's human rights devoted to rehabilitation and care".That recommendation is understandable in view of the reports from the chief inspector of prisons who asked recently:Can the detention of children in units of 60 and establishments of 400 really promote their welfare and development? What is the rationale or the proportionality of routinely strip-searching children on arrival in prison, particularly for a population more likely than the average to have experienced abuse? And if a child resists, can you justify him or her being held down b) adults, in painful wristlocks, and forcibly undressed?A report from eight inspectorates, Safeguarding Children, said:We identified the safeguarding of young people in Young Offender Institutions … as a major concern. Previous inspections have highlighted the very serious nature of the risks many young people face in these institutions and the extent of self-harming behaviour".They go on to say—this is very relevant to our discussions tonight—This contrasts with the reported good quality of care and protection of young people including young offenders placed in secure accommodation provided by social services".I hear that 250 juvenile prisoners have just been shipped out of Onley young offender institution to make way for adults. We need to compare that with the work to create security and stability in a unit or home run by a local area. Would anyone want a child of theirs to be treated like that and to be in a system where those whose short lives have already been full of instability and insecurity can be transported around the country like parcels looking for a depot in which to store them?
To start closing that chasm between services for good children and the others we need to ensure that Clause 6 is fully inclusive and that the arrangements include youth offending teams, and that area child protection committees should ensure that children in custody are safe, which is a recommendation of the eight inspectorates' report. It seems to me strange that a child from a local authority area should be sent to a 1265 state institution which is supposed to fulfil all the requirements of health and safety and has a duty of care and then arrangements have to be made by another body to ensure that the children are safe there.
Clause 7 needs to be strong enough to ensure that the Prison Service—for as long as children are in prisons, which I hope will not be too long—has a duty to safeguard the welfare of children. Perhaps through this Bill, therefore, by making some of these changes, we can begin to repudiate a comment in the Government's response to the Joint Committee on Human Rights regarding our adherence to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In their response the Government did not accept the criticism of the Joint Committee regarding our treatment of children in custody. They said:Children in custody are not just children. They have also committed serious and/or persistent crimes against the community".So, one must ask, what are they if they are not children? The reply implies that they are criminals. However, the drafters of the Convention on the Rights of the Child knew that children could be criminals and that some children would commit acts against the law. That is why they included in the convention specific articles about how such children should be treated. When children are children, they are children, even if they have stolen a mobile phone or burgled a house.
Finally, as it is late, I shall simply signify my support for getting rid of "reasonable chastisement". Most of the children in trouble come from backgrounds of violence. It is hard to punish a child who has been punished all his or her life. That is why the approach in this Bill should be extended to all children, including the Home Office children.
§ 8.38 p.m.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
My Lords, this important Bill is the fourth Children Bill to be introduced since the Attlee government introduced the Children Act 1948. I believe that noble Lords on all Benches in the House share the same basic objectives in our approach to the Bill; namely, to produce a very good Bill which will improve the services for all children throughout the UK and to seek to make sure—I do not think that we can put it any higher—that the scandalous failures of the past are not repeated. The Minister will be heartened that there are no party differences about those objectives. I am sure that she would have been particularly heartened by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Laming.
We welcome what is good in the Bill, and it has many good provisions. However, that does not require us to be silent about those provisions or omissions that are the cause of concern. Most of us will have read the document produced by the commissioner campaign group representing 16 leading children's charities in the UK, the briefing by the Greater London Authority and the joint briefing by the Children's Commissioners. It is fair to say that those bodies believe that Part 1 needs to be strengthened considerably. I hope that the Government will look with the greatest care at their submissions. That need 1266 not in any way be inconsistent with the very clear message that we heard this afternoon from the noble Lord, Lord Laming.
I should like to raise one or two issues that are the cause of concern in Wales and cannot be addressed by the National Assembly for Wales. I hasten to add that it cannot be said often enough that all children matter. Sadly, as has been pointed out, Part 1 perpetuates the distinction between areas of responsibility that are devolved and not devolved, an artificial distinction that emerged four years ago on the then Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill. That division has led to some worrying consequences.
In the time available, I shall give just one example; I could give many. It is to be found in the briefing material prepared by the Wales commissioner, which states:The Children's Commissioner for Wales recently held a public inquiry into how serious allegations of sexual abuse at a secondary school in Wales were investigated. Although he could examine all the documentation held by social services, education, the WJEC"—the Welsh Joint Education Committee—and the school he did not have the power to enforce disclosure of the police internal review of their investigation in 1991. This document could have assisted the Inquiry".The Wales commissioner made two requests to the police for disclosure of their internal review report, but it has not been forthcoming. As the responsibility for police rests with the Home Office and has not been devolved to the Assembly, the Wales commissioner could not demand its disclosure.
I have given that illustration to show that the UK Government cannot pretend that a division between devolved and non-devolved services does not lead to problems, and to show that it is important that the Bill address the weaknesses. However, the weaknesses remain untouched by the Bill. I have the greatest respect for the work of the Children's Commissioner for Wales and his staff, but I observe that his powers are not as extensive as those of the Northern Ireland commissioner. We may well explore that issue in Committee.
The great concern in Wales is that we may be losing an opportunity provided by the Bill to extend the Welsh commissioner's remit to improve the non-devolved services in Wales. I ask myself why the Bill perpetuates that artificial distinction between the devolved and non-devolved matters. My noble friend the Minister, duly briefed, may say, as I have heard other Ministers say, that the division results from a principle that underlines the Government of Wales Act 1998. I could accept everything that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, has said about that and the reasoning needs to be challenged.
I wish to ask the Minister a question about the resources available to the UK commissioner for his work in Wales. In all innocence, I had assumed that he would at least have an office in Wales. But after looking up the final regulatory impact assessment of 4 March 2004 I now seriously doubt whether that is the Government's intention. Paragraph 51 of the assessment says that the annual running costs of the UK commission,are currently estimated at around £2.5 million per annum".1267 That was the figure that the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, gave. That is the budget for providing a service which potentially will serve 13 million children and young people. It is a relatively small sum. It is substantially less than the current total budget of £4.5 million for the Welsh, Northern Ireland and Scottish commissioners.
I acknowledge that it can be said that as long as Clause 2(1) remains in the Bill that the comparison is unfair, because we are not comparing like with like. Nevertheless, it reinforces the important point made by many speakers this afternoon that the role of the England and UK commissioner will be far more limited than those of the three Celtic commissioners. Can the Minister confirm whether it is intended that the UK commissioner will have offices in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland? Information on that issue will be welcome.
In a sense, I am pleasantly surprised when I read in Clause 2(7) and (8), that the English commission,may have regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child",because when the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill was in Committee we heard much from Ministers that it would be "decidedly odd" to put that convention into the Bill, because the convention was not part of domestic law. Some Members present will recall the debate that we had on 3 April 2001. But it is to the credit of the Welsh Assembly that it placed the commissioner under a duty to have regard to the convention. Would it be essential, in pursuit of the paramount interest of the child, to have exactly the same statutory duty placed on the commissioner for England and for non-devolved services?
There is one other matter that I will return to in Committee, regarding Clause 5, which is headed, "Relationship with other Commissioners". It is my understanding that the three commissioners believe that the wording of Clause 5 is inadequate as it stands. With the advent of children's commissioners in each of the countries of the UK, is there not a powerful case for the four commissioners to be consulted as a group by the Government on proposed legislation or the review of the working of existing legislation and policies? Can the commission be directly involved in drawing up the UK report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child who will know better than the four commissioners how well or otherwise the legislation and policies for children are working? That issue has been raised in the briefing material prepared by the Children's Commissioner for Wales and he has a very good point.
Although, like others, I have reservations about some of the provisions in the Bill and its failure to repeal the defence of reasonable chastisement, I have no hesitation in welcoming it as a first step on a long journey towards giving legislative content to the phrase, "Every child matters".
§ 8.49 p.m.
§ Lord Dholakia
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, for introducing the Bill today. She has been a good friend and I know that she 1268 is particularly interested in matters relating to children and young people. She can be assured that many aspects of the Bill will receive broad support from your Lordships' House.
There is a consensus that reform of children's services is long overdue. My own upbringing in an extended family gave me the safety net which ensured that family protection was available throughout the period in which I grew up. I consider myself fortunate. Many children growing up in our communities do not have the same support.
I recall my early days in Brighton when I was a councillor there. Some of us are old enough to remember the name of a young child—Maria Colwell. She was regularly beaten and abused by her parents and step-father and she starved to death. The details are too horrifying. The memory of a child scavenging for food in neighbours' dustbins is one that will remain with me.
That is not all. When I was a member of the Police Complaints Authority, I had the privilege of examining a number of cases involving children who were abused. I looked again and again at the files and found that no mechanism was available whereby we could have protected some of those children because many people simply refused to believe what was happening to them. I have never forgotten that in everything we do children's issues are of paramount importance, and the Bill goes some way towards dealing with those issues.
I have been a magistrate and have served in the youth court and family courts. The tragedy of broken families, abused children and adoption and care orders have made me realise that we need to aspire to the best legislative machinery for the protection and welfare of our children. Children are the unintended victims of our own ills.
As a civilised society, we must accept that, from time to time, cases will emerge which show that an improvement is required in the way that we tackle children's issues. That should not be the case but it will happen. We need to ensure that legislation is in place to minimise the harm done to our children. The Children Bill goes some way towards that and is a step in the right direction, but that does not mean that it cannot be better. For that reason, I shall deal with two areas of concern in the legislation.
The first relates to children of parents who have sought refuge in this country. The second relates to how we deal with children and young people within our criminal justice system. Perhaps I may quote from the briefing supplied by the Refugee Children's ConsortiumRefugee children are children first and foremost and should be accorded the same rights and protection as any other children in the UK".For that reason, as the Children Bill will be running parallel with the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill, we need to ensure that there are no discrepancies in the way that we deal with children's provisions in both these statutes. For example, as mentioned by a number of noble Lords, our 1269 Government have entered a reservation to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, allowing them to pass immigration laws without reference to their obligations under the convention. I wish to ensure that appropriate amendments are made to the Bill, placing an obligation across government to demonstrate compliance with the outcomes framework for children in framing and implementing legislation and policy. Another example relates to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of refugee children. Clauses 7 and 9 are inadequate in this respect. Other matters relating to assistance and advocacy will require clear assurances from the Minister.
I now turn to the matters relating to the criminal justice system. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Linklater and to the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, for raising these matters. On Thursday I shall raise the matter relating to Joseph Scholes. Joseph was a deeply disturbed boy who had disclosed a history of alleged sexual abuse from a very early age. On 24 March 2002 he hanged himself in his cell at Stoke Heath young offender institution in Shropshire. His death occurred just nine days into his two-year sentence for street robbery. Joseph's death and other tragedies like it raise serious issues about the ability of the present system to cope with society's most vulnerable young people and to provide them with a safe and secure environment.
The question that arises is how we can best identify any systematic failings and the lessons that should be learnt from them. It is important to bear in mind that we are talking about a disturbed boy who had a really unhappy childhood. It included his parents' acrimonious divorce, severe sexual abuse by family members; suicidal thoughts; and self harm. At the end of the process, political posturing about street crime and how crime involving mobile phones was distorting the statistics resulted in a two-year detention and training order. The rest is history. Almost everything that could go wrong, went wrong in Joseph's case.
We welcome the establishment of a Children's Commissioner with responsibility for seeking and representing the views of children and young people. However, we regret the fact that the powers of the commissioner will be considerably weaker than those of the commissioners for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Under the provisions of the Bill, the commissioner can carry out only a formal investigation at the direction of a government Minister. The Secretary of State—not the commissioner—will be able to decide whether to publish or to hold back the report of an inquiry by the commissioner. The commissioner does not have independent powers to access information, to enter establishments, to subpoena witnesses and to meet children in private.
We agree with the Government that the commissioner's primary function should not be to deal with individual cases. But the right to initiate and to carry out investigations into particular cases, which the commissioner considers have wider implications for children's rights, is fundamental to the commissioner's independence and effectiveness.
We would like to see the commissioner given independent investigatory powers. Those powers should explicitly include all areas of the youth justice system and 1270 secure establishments for juveniles, as this is an area of public policy that demonstrates particular disregard for the welfare and rights of children and young people. If we look at young people in young offender institutions, we find that half of them have a history of local authority care compared with 2 per cent of the general population; a quarter of them have suffered violence at the home; many (including a third of the girls in custody) have suffered sexual abuse; and many more have suffered emotional abuse from parental neglect. Nearly half have literacy and numeracy levels below those of an average 11 year-old and over a quarter have levels below those of a seven year-old. Eighty-five per cent show signs of a personality disorder; 10 per cent show signs of a psychotic disorder; and nearly half of boys and two-thirds of girls in custody have symptoms of depression, anxiety, and concentration problems, compared with one in 10 children in the general population. Those are shocking statistics.
I declare an interest. I am president of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. In a study called Wasted Lives published in 1998, NACRO researchers interviewed a sample of children under 18 in young offender institutions. They drew up a list of 11 risk factors associated with offending by young people such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, parental neglect, unstable living conditions, misuse of alcohol or drugs, school exclusion and family conflict. They found that on average the children in the sample had six of the 11 risk factors.
How does our youth justice system deal with these vulnerable, difficult and often disturbed young people? First, we use the criminal justice system too much for children. It is pointed out again and again that our age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10, an age that by European standards is astonishingly low. In France the age is 13; in Germany, Austria and Italy it is 14; in the Scandinavian countries it is 15; in Spain and Portugal it is 16; and in Belgium it is 18. In eastern European countries it ranges between 14 and 16. Below those ages child offenders are dealt with as children in need of compulsory measures of care, and where a court is involved it is a family court.
Secondly, we use custody too much for young offenders and on a more extensive scale than other countries in Europe. In most cases that means prison service custody with its 84 per cent reconviction rate within two years of release and its widespread problems of bullying, intimidation and—most tragically of all—self harm and suicide attempts. Most of the young people we detain would be far better dealt with by supervision programmes in the community—where necessary intensive supervision is in the community which can tackle the problems at the root of their offending. We now lock up on any one day around 3,000 child offenders in young offender institutions, secure training centres and local authority secure units, around double the number of a decade ago. Over the past 10 years successive governments have changed the law to make it easier for courts to detain children, both before and after sentence, at increasingly young ages and for less serious offences.
1271 It is true that there have been some specific changes for the better in the youth justice system. These include the establishment of the Youth Justice Board and local youth offending teams, together with the introduction of sentences such as referral orders, reparation orders, action plan orders and intensive supervision and surveillance orders. The Youth Justice Board has worked hard to halt the rise in the use of custody and to improve conditions for juveniles in young offender institutions.
However, important aspects of our treatment of young offenders, and, as has been pointed out, in particular our overuse of custody for young people, continue to flout acceptable standards of children's rights and children's welfare. It is vital that youth justice agencies should be fully involved in the Bill's measures to promote the welfare of children; for example, youth offending teams should be included among the agencies represented on the local safeguarding children boards set up by Clause 9 of the Bill. It is also crucial that the Children's Commissioner should have strong powers to take independent action to investigate all aspects of the youth justice system and to propose changes to meet the needs of society and of difficult, vulnerable and disturbed children.
Perhaps I may take one other issue, which is a matter of serious concern. When we talk about children, let us not forget that all children do not start from the same point. There is no level playing field for many of them. I include black children in care. While chairing a NACRO working party on black people and the criminal justice system, the question often posed to me was: why is it that if society and social workers care there are so many black children in our care homes? We must never forget that if we want a cohesive society, a society that is at ease with itself, lessons show that those at the bottom of the pile receive the most attention.
I have no doubt that the Minister, whose record for care and concern is second to none, will give serious thought to issues that I have identified.
§ 9.3 p.m.
§ Lord Smith of Leigh
My Lords, before I start I need to declare my interest as leader of Wigan Council. As such, I am a vice-president of the LGA and remarkably I find myself in agreement with its brief, which is not always the case.
As noble Lords would expect, I shall concentrate my remarks on Part 2. Like all in local government, I want to say how much I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Government and my noble friend on the Front Bench on the way the Government have reflected the comments and feedback on the Green Paper. The result is a Bill that focuses on the outcomes the Government seek to achieve, clearly outlined in Clause 6(2), and is less concerned about dictating structural changes. Enabling powers given to local authorities and other partners should help them to produce effective local arrangements to meet the differing circumstances. I hope that spirit will continue in the subsequent guidance.
1272 I shall mention one omission—I think that my noble friend Lord Pendry also mentioned it. We must not forget the broader engaging activities in which children can get involved. I believe that art, music and sport are essential to young people to give them the opportunity to achieve their full potential, encourage personal development and, certainly in the case of sport, achieve healthier outcomes. Any partnership in my authority will certainly value those contributions and involve those, especially in the voluntary sector, who take part in such work.
I intend to concentrate on four aspects of the Bill: information-sharing, which other noble Lords have mentioned; accountability; inspections; and resources. However, before doing so, I shall give an example of good practice that occurs in local government. The report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, rightly focused on the bad, but there is some good practice and, for a change, I shall talk about my neighbouring authority, Bolton.
Bolton is doing excellent work in creating a pilot children's trust concentrating on children with disability in particular and, as a trailblazer initiative, as they say, Bolton Unlimited, for identification, referral and tracking, covering early intervention and prevention through to child protection issues. Its success has been recognised. It has received a three-star social services inspection, which commented that it serves children well, with prospects for improvement. Overall, the authority joins mine as an excellent council.
The key message from the Bolton experience is that it benefited from an incremental approach. Joint working between the council departments and other partners was based on earlier work. Effective integration working on the ground was put before structural change. It still has separate directors of education and social services. Bolton found that the challenge is not structural change in itself but changing working cultures. That is more difficult and needs to embrace the needs of all those who work with children, putting children first, not organisations.
To serve children, we need to build as complete a picture as possible. The experience of Bolton and my authority is that information-sharing is vital to achieve effective, child-sensitive services. For example, persistent truanting may be seen as a problem in schools, but may of course reflect a range of other issues. It may reflect a child with problems with health—perhaps drugtaking—or who is being abused. Of course, there are clear links between persistent truanting and criminality and other forms of anti-social behaviour. Unless the information held by various agencies is shared, the individual needs of any child cannot be assessed.
I understand the concerns expressed in different parts of the House about the development of information-sharing, but it is vital and we must make it a priority. It is an essential tool to achieve what we want. Our task is to overcome difficulties and manage the risk, not to say that it is all too difficult and go away.
The principle of clear accountability for children's services at both managerial and political levels is one with which we all seem to agree. A dedicated director of 1273 children's services and lead member covering the same responsibilities is one solution to clarify such accountability. But there are others. If the ultimate level of responsibility rests at the top of local authorities, a case can be made for the chief executive—an executive leader—taking accountability. So I endorse the Bill in allowing local authorities to make their own decisions, having regard to local circumstances.
However, if directors of children's services are appointed, should they chair the local safeguarding children board? I agree with the comments made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, that they should not and that the chief executive is probably a better person, particularly because one of the board's functions is to ensure the effectiveness of what is done. Directors of children's services would effectively be judging their own performance. In such circumstances, it would not be appropriate for them to chair.
The proposal in Clause 15 to join up inspection regimes is to be welcomed. Of course, whether it works well depends on the inspection framework that is drawn up. It should be clearly focused, as is the Bill, on outcomes, supporting change and providing practical guidance, not on structural management. I have a degree of nervousness that with nine separate inspectorates involved in producing the inspection framework, each hoping to have its own concerns reflected in it, the result may be an exponential rise in complexity. I welcome the comments that my noble friend quoted from Denise Platt. I encourage her to keep her eye on the issue and to ensure that it does not get out of hand.
The achievement of the objectives of the Bill would depend not just on the quality of the legislation, but on available resources. As the person responsible in my own authority for presenting and achieving the local authority's budget, children's social services always cause most concern. With unpredictable numbers of children for which the local authority must take responsibility and unpredictable needs, accurate budgeting is impossible. The recent upward trend in numbers coming to the attention of local authorities may be a reflection of the report by the noble Lord, Lord Laming. Who knows where, or whether, it will reach a new plateau? The complexities of individual cases determine the costs. At an extreme level, my local authority is paying £4,000 a week for an individual case—£200,000 a year. One can imagine that a couple of such cases would blow a hole in any budget. Clearly, we need to be aware of that.
The Government have recognised and responded to the problems of the costs of children's social services in the recent settlements for local government. We should welcome that. However, we need to monitor the situation, particularly if numbers continue to rise, and to respond to pressures in order to ensure that we serve children, particularly those with the greatest needs.
As other noble Lords have mentioned, human resources are also vital. All social services face recruitment difficulties for children's social services and many resort to agency staff in significant numbers. 1274 That is unsatisfactory from every perspective. Again, the Government have recognised that, but solutions will be neither quick nor easy. I urge my noble friend to consider up-skilling existing support staff to professional standards. That is an untapped reservoir of talent, comprising people who understand the needs of children and children's services. We ignore it at our peril. Secondly, we need to develop career progression to enable frontline staff who become experts to stay on the front line and not to move to a back-office management job.
The Government propose radical changes to our children's services. Our task is to ensure that the changes meet the needs of children while ensuring that planning for the future does not damage services for the present. I commend the Bill and am happy to support it.
§ 9.13 p.m.
§ Baroness Howe of Idlicote
My Lords, it must be particularly pleasing to the Minister to know that the overwhelming reaction to this long-awaited Bill is so welcoming, despite some reservations.
Long before the tragic Climbié case, it was clear that nothing less than a complete overhaul and reorganisation of the various children's support services was required. The report of my noble friend Lord Laming did an invaluable job. By exposing so clearly the lack of co-ordination between local authority services responsible for children's welfare, it was the final catalyst for change. Alas, it also exposed the dangerous absence of anyone within those services, even at the very top, who was willing to take responsibility for failure.
The resulting Bill is brave and far-reaching. The real challenge, to quote an apt phrase from the NHS Confederation briefing,is to focus on cultural change within organisations, so as to create and deliver a shared vision of better outcomes for all children and families".As I am certain my noble friend Lord Northbourne will point out, and as other noble Lords have said, that must include those who take the greatest responsibility for children, and who are surprisingly not even mentioned in the Bill—I mean, of course, parents.
Of course, the degree of interaction proposed will require good will and co-operation from all the services and individuals involved. That is not always easy, vital though it may be. I welcome the decision to place a specific statutory duty on local authorities to form multi-discipline, child-centred teams of social services, education, health and other relevant groups, with that duty to work together to promote, as well as safeguard, the well-being of children. That is exactly what is needed. Rightly, the local authority's statutory duty to form such inter-disciplinary teams is absolute. That will, one hopes, reduce the postcode lottery element, and might make better use of the resources that are currently available, as the Minister said.
I am glad to see that there is flexibility in how these teams are to be structured. The Government have clearly listened to the representations that have been made that one size does not necessarily beneficially fit 1275 all. The decision not to be prescriptive about which discipline of the local authority provides the required Director of Social Services also makes sense. Choosing someone with the right personality and leadership skills will be of over-riding importance. However, the relevant partners to be involved and required to work together at this level—and incidentally in the new statutory local safeguarding children boards—should automatically include bodies such as youth offending teams, the voluntary sector, and, crucially, schools and teachers. I think I heard the Minister say that, but judging by some of the representations that have been made to us, it needs saying rather more clearly and specifically.
It is significant that the NUT—as the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater of Butterstone, said—while enthusiastically welcoming the Bill, has pointed out that the role of teachers, like that of parents, is hardly mentioned. Teachers already feel stressed and over-burdened with bureaucratic procedures of many kinds. However, if these ambitious plans are to succeed, the co-operation of teachers and their willing participation will be essential, not least to ensure delivery of plans for the many more extended schools required, together with more concentrated help for more disadvantaged families. It is not only co-operation that is needed, but informed leadership. That is why I find it worrying that an NSPCC survey found that a quarter of newly qualified teachers had not received any child protection training. For those who did, it apparently consisted of just one hour's instruction.
In Every Child Matters, children and young people made plain the five results that they wanted to see. Whether those have been altered in the Bill, they are clearly good targets for everyone involved. I hope that there will be rather more guidance on how to measure success and failure. At present, it seems a little vague.
I am particularly pleased with the proposal that each local authority is to nominate a lead councillor with specific responsibilities for these services. It is important to have at least one local politician, as well as the professionals, identified as responsible and accountable for what is to be provided. This proposal echoes the thinking contained in the report of an inquiry that I chaired some years ago for the Local Government Management Board into the quality of care in residential homes. Our thinking was that if each councillor had adopted one or two such homes, visiting them regularly, sometimes without warning, many of the problems that were subsequently identified might have been prevented. I shall look forward to seeing the guidance promised by the Secretary of State of possible extra functions that the lead councillor might undertake.
Then there is the proposal to establish electronic databases. It is crucial for relevant and appropriate information about a child to be shared within and across agencies; I understand that. Obviously, it is sensible to use modern techniques, to prevent some of the failures of the Victoria Climbié case. However, as other noble Lords have said, that raises human rights issues, especially those relating to privacy, about which, incidentally, children have been particularly concerned. Equally seriously, there are worries about 1276 the speed at which ever new methods of hacking into the Internet are developed. We need to be alert, lest information stored in that way should fall into dangerous hands. I am sure, after listening, in particular, to the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, that we shall need to examine the issue in detail in Committee.
A further important point mentioned by the Minister is the new duty on a local authority to promote the educational attainment of children in its care—so-called looked-after children. As such children are frequently moved from school to school, it will be particularly important to pass on relevant information. The appalling lack of educational attainment in that group of children, who are already disadvantaged, is a disgrace to us all. Access to an independent advocacy service—due, I believe, to commence on 4 April—will be vital for all children but especially, I would argue, to that group. I hope that the service will be sufficiently independent. There is a further missing feature that I would like to see rectified. Surely, school governors, not just local education authorities, should be placed under a duty to promote educational attainment among looked-after children.
Finally, there is the proposal for a Children's Commissioner for England—the long-awaited "children's champion" that we have heard about this evening. First, will the commissioner be sufficiently independent? Like many of your Lordships, I find it puzzling that the powers that go with the job appear to be weaker than those given to the Children's Commissioners already appointed in the rest of the UK. It appears that the commissioner in Scotland not only has a stronger obligation than is proposed for the English commissioner to have regard to the views and best interests of children and young people but is required to adhere to equal opportunities principles and to be inclusive in her dealings. Those last two instructions are missing from the English commissioner's brief
It is essential for the English commissioner to have full powers to investigate individual complaints on his or her own account, rather than only when asked to do so by the Secretary of State. The case described by the noble Lord. Lord Dholakia, gives ample reason why that is so important.
In my equal opportunities days, we had a remit to enforce the law and to promote equal opportunities. We had—needed to have—independent powers to conduct formal investigations and take up individual complaints with wider implications. The only constraint rightly was our budget. The route taken had to be the one that we believed to be the most effective. That is very different from being able to investigate an individual complaint only if the Secretary of State asks for it to be done.
I am also uneasy about the commissioner's apparent lack of independence from the Secretary of State in other ways. A number of children's organisations and some of your Lordships this evening have pointed out that the Bill contains no provision for the Government or others to respond to recommendations made by the 1277 commissioner. Surely, the annual report should go straight to Parliament and not be routed via the Secretary of State.
I end by congratulating the Minister and the Government on such a brave and imaginative Bill. There is much more of importance to mention, and we must all hope that the allocated resources will be sufficient to deliver this ambitious plan. Hook forward with eager anticipation, as, I am sure, do many of your Lordships and the Minister, to the many hours that we will spend examining the Bill in detail, during its progress through your Lordships' House.
§ 9.25 p.m.
§ Baroness Massey of Darwen
My Lords, I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to consideration of a Bill that is specifically about children. I, too, look forward to the many long hours that we shall spend on it. I declare an interest as the co-chair of the All-Party Group on Children, which is following the Bill carefully. It is very encouraging to have so many noble Lords wishing to speak on children's issues. That confirms the interest that is always shown in your Lordships' House about child well-being.
I have rarely received so many briefings on a Bill: I can think of two exceptions. The number of agencies supporting children is impressive. They are always organised and determined. As far as I am aware, they are all delighted that we have a Children Bill to discuss. I know that the Bill will be given thorough scrutiny in your Lordships' House. I know that the Minister is attending a large number of meetings in order to get a sense of the concerns.
The Bill comes as reinforcement to the policies and legislation already put forward by the Government to improve the lives of children, which stretch across a number of areas. I am immensely grateful to the National Children's Bureau in particular, those who service the All-Party Group on Children—for its work in extracting child impact statements from the various legislation. There are an awful lot of them.
We must make sure that it all hangs together. Only yesterday in your Lordships' House, I asked a Question about the National Service Framework for Children, which drew other questions about how policies would be cohesive. Much has been said today, so I shall confine myself to two issues; that is, the issue of confidentiality in relation to information sharing and the issue of where drugs and young people fit in the children's agenda, under Clauses 6, 7 and 9.
I know that appropriate information sharing is essential, but I should like to raise confidentiality. As regards sexual health, which has been mentioned earlier, concerns were expressed by the Brook Advisory Centre, which provides confidential advice and services to young people. Clearly, it has grave concerns. Of course, the voluntary sector often has a different relationship with clients from the statutory sector. It is important that that relationship with young people is sensitive and known to be confidential.
1278 During the well-known Victoria Gillick case some years ago, young people were sufficiently worried about the issue of confidentiality to stop seeking advice on sexuality. As a result, the number of teenage pregnancies rose. The Brook Advisory Centre and the FPA are worried that the intention is to regulate that information about young people in contact with sexual services be shared. The concern would remain, even if only use of the service was shared, without including any case details.
That confidentiality is of great importance to young people has been well supported by research. It is acknowledged by the Teenage Pregnancy Unit. Consensual sexual activity between young people should not be a cause for sharing between agencies. Of course, if matters of child protection are involved, that is a different matter. The young person's consent is vital if we are to be seen dealing fairly and openly with young people.
We have a national sexual health strategy, chaired by my noble friend Lady Gould. That strategy must not be undermined by lack of clarity in the Bill. It is vital to give careful thought about which agencies will be required to contribute to the proposed databases and what information will be collected and shared. I know that we will take that matter into account when amending the Bill or drawing up guidance.
As regards drug use and young people, I must declare an interest as chair of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse. Drug use is increasing and becoming more complex. It is associated with other issues, such as mental health, under-achievement, homelessness, crime, sexual abuse and unemployment. It becomes a social exclusion issue. Among 16 to 24 year-olds, 30 per cent have used drugs in the past year. Those who truant from school are more likely to be users. Crime and drugs are often linked, and I am glad that a number of noble Lords have raised the issue of young offenders.
Many young people experiment and take risks, including with drugs, but do not continue into adulthood. However, some do, and we need not only to emphasise prevention and harm reduction, but also treatment. The Health Advisory Service report on substance misuse in young people recommended that drug misuse commissioning should be integrated into local child and young person planning systems to aid the development of appropriate service provision. Recent educational initiatives on personal, social and health education have emphasised the need to make young people aware of the dangers associated with drug use. "Young people" is one of the strands of the Updated Drug Strategy of 2002. The strategy states:All agencies, whether they be schools, youth offending teams or social services departments, need to work together to solve the whole problem".Progress is being made and further funding of £50 million for drug action teams to be used as a pool treatment budget was announced last week. However, extra funding is not enough without collaborative action. Statutory guidance should include substance misuse references to ensure that local partners such as directors of social services are embedded in the work of local safeguarding children's boards or children's trusts.
1279 Quality and inspection issues should be child-focused and consistent. Integrated inspectorates will be needed to focus on substance misuse issues. In workforce planning, competencies should be child-focused and include substance misuse at all tiers. I have always felt that multidisciplinary training is very effective.
Substance misuse should fall within the development of identification, referral and tracking systems for children, and it will need to be included in the Common Assessment Framework. In the past, substance misuse has not been mentioned and has been lost as any kind of priority. We need to ensure that substance misuse is not forgotten. Perhaps an individual serving on the children's board should take responsibility for substance misuse and should be a member of the drug action team, which already works across agencies.
I am not yet sure how we should organise things for the best within the Bill, or in guidance. I just know that we must be certain that a Bill for children takes substance misuse on board. Parents' organisations are also concerned about the number of parents who are at crisis point because of their children's substance misuse problems. Parentline plus will shortly publish research on this.
This is an important and symbolic Bill and I am optimistic about its outcomes. It reinforces the importance of children at the heart of society and I look forward to participating in all its stages in your Lordships' House.
§ 9.33 p.m.
§ Lord Northbourne
My Lords, I wonder if I could trouble the Minister on an administrative point. Can she give us any guidance on when the Committee stage is to commence? There was a rumour that it would start in the first week after the Easter Recess, in which case we would have to table all the amendments before the beginning of the Recess. The Minister indicates that that is not the case, so I shall carry on with my remarks.
I pay tribute to the Government's commitment to children and I wish that I could feel entirely comfortable with this Bill. However, there is much in it that we shall need to try to amend. As many noble Lords have said, it will give us a castrated Children's Commissioner. While the list of children's priorities is in itself excellent, we must be aware that there may be things that children do not demand as priorities but which are none the less necessary for their welfare in the longer term. It will impose a new layer of costly bureaucracy. If that bureaucracy is to work, it is incredibly important that the Government set aside sufficient funds to remedy the current drastic staff shortages in many social services departments. In that context I shall quote my noble friend Lord Laming in his report on Victoria Climbié:Front-line staff in all the services were said to be under pressure because of increasing workloads, high vacancy rates, inadequate information technology and administrative systems, and inadequate training".My own experience suggests that there are terrible shortages in social services, both in the residential area and in many of the more difficult inner-city areas.
1280 However, I wish to concentrate on one aspect of the Bill which I regard as important. It perhaps relates mostly to Clauses 6 and 8 and to Clauses 9 to 12, which set up structures for children. It seems to me that those structures have two rather distinct objectives: first, to safeguard children at risk, especially those at risk of abuse in the home; and, secondly, to promote the wellbeing of all children, including that of the majority of children who are not at risk of abuse in the home.
In one important respect these two objectives are difficult to reconcile—and that is that, as regards the first objective, parents are, as it were, the potential culprits and therefore cannot be taken necessarily fully into the confidence of social services and the various other authorities; whereas the second objective, that of promoting the welfare of children who are not at risk, can best be achieved by working closely and in partnership with parents, engaging their support and their enthusiasm and listening to what they say their children want and what they want for their children.
For centuries, both the law and practice in England and Wales have relied on parents as the primary providers of care, education and well-being for the nation's children. Over the past 100 years, the state has taken over some of those functions in areas such as education and health. In the Children Act 1989 we find enshrined the concept of "parental responsibility". Today, as we know, parents have rights and duties in law in relation to children, and yet the Bill does not once mention "parental responsibility". It makes no attempt to explore or define the new interfaces it creates between parents with parental responsibility and the various children's services it establishes or which are already in place.
Let us get matters in proportion. There are more than 12 million children in England today; there are fewer than 30,000 children on the child protection register but 30,000 children on the child protection register is 30,000 too many. I would not like noble Lords to think for one moment that I underestimate the importance of the problems created by child abuse, particularly child abuse in the home. For 16 or 17 years I worked in a voluntary capacity with children who had been through such an experience and I saw their lives so often destroyed by it.
It is right that the Bill should do everything that can be done to protect children from abuse, but it tries to do more. As many noble Lords have pointed out, it is exciting that the Bill is trying to do more. It is trying to look outwards and is saying, "Let us try to make life better for all children, including those who are at present at risk of abuse". It aims to promote the safety and best interests of all children.
For the vast majority of children there are huge advantages in being involved with the efforts of the commissioner and the various authorities set up by the Bill to enhance and improve the well-being and best interests of children. It would be a great pity if the Bill ended up sidelining the potential positive role of parents. I believe that, with a little thought, the wording of the Bill can be amended to ensure that the two objectives of the Bill can be reconciled. I hope that we will be able to achieve that at the Committee stage.
1281 Noble Lords have referred to Clause 8 at some length and I shall not enlarge on what they have said, except to say this. Those with parental responsibility for a child are in a special position in relation to information about that child which can be crucial to their ability to help it.
In this context, I quote from the British Association for Adoption and Fostering. It says in its brief:The best information, referral and tracking system we have is parents or other family members who know their children, understand their needs and take action to meet them".it is scarcely fair that parents who are liable under legislation introduced by this Government to go to prison or at least to be fined if their children truant or are responsible for anti-social behaviour in the streets should be denied the information which could have helped them to help their children not to behave in those ways.
Experience of your Lordships' House tells me that when the Minister comes to sum up she will attempt to soothe me with assurances that parents and parental responsibility will be dealt with in guidelines.
§ Lord Northbourne
Well, my Lords, I will say anyway that had she been going to do that, I would be hard to convince. I believe that parents and parental responsibility are crucial ingredients in the welfare of the vast majority of the nation's children. It is not enough that they should be cast a sop in guidance.
Finally, it seems dangerous that the message the Bill is sending to parents is this: "We don't wholly trust you; we think you don't matter very much; we don't think the role you play in promoting the safety and well-being of your children is sufficiently important that you should be mentioned in the In my opinion, that is a very foolish message to send. Parents are already unsure what government and society expect of them. The Bill will add to that uncertainty.
§ 9.42 p.m.
§ Baroness Thornton
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to welcome this Bill and to take part in the Second Reading debate. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will agree with me when I say that I wish it were taking place at a more family-friendly, child-friendly time of day.
Like other noble Lords, I congratulate the Government on bringing forward the Bill and for the process that led to it. Many Members of this House are fond of saying that Bills that are thoroughly consulted upon, discussed by experts and practitioners and, in this case, children and young people, before they see the light of day are better Bills as a result. And I believe that that is the case with this Bill.
I have been particularly impressed by the work of the Interagency Group and by the briefing From Vision to Reality that it has circulated, written as an outcome of its negotiations with the Government. I think it is to the enormous credit of my honourable friend the 1282 Minister for Children, Margaret Hodge, that she has sought to take with her the major players in the statutory and voluntary sector in the development not only of the Bill but of the reform of practice and institutions. This may well have created the basis for real and meaningful partnership, which bodes well for the future.
That is not to say that the Bill is perfectly formed in its present state. I am sure we will seek to make improvements and seek clarification from the Government. But I do believe that in its essential parts and framework, it is pretty good.
I am also grateful for the range and breadth of the briefings that I have received about the Bill, as my noble friend Lady Massey told us. It tells us that there is huge interest in the Bill and places greater responsibility on all of us to get it right.
There are three issues I wish to raise this evening: the role of the voluntary sector; the Children's Commissioner: and the absence in the Bill of making contact safe in situations of domestic violence.
The voluntary sector's role in the planning and delivery of children's services is not visible in the Bill. The voluntary sector does not appear on the face of the Bill, yet voluntary organisations—large, small and medium—play an important role in the provision of services. Indeed, in some fields, voluntary organisations provide the bulk of services—for example, family support. In talking about two cases which illustrate the point well. I declare an interest as someone with a close association with NCH.
NCH, the children's charity, runs the Warren Park children's centre in partnership with the Royal Borough of Kingston. It is a single, purpose-built site offering a range of activities and support services for children with disabilities in the borough and their families. Those services include residential respite, shared care, summer play schemes and after-school provision. About 100 children a week, aged from five to 19, use those facilities. The partnership is with Kingston social services, but the local health authority is also involved and provides paediatric services on the site. That project was set up seven years ago with a 20-year contract. It is a fantastic example of long-term planning. The parents of the children took an active part in the design of the site and the buildings and made a successful bid to the New Opportunities Fund to build a special garden and play space. Indeed, next week, Minister Stephen Twigg is coming to open a new state-of-the-art suite of ICT facilities for the disabled children at Warren Park. That facility is the product of a partnership between a number of large IT companies and NCH. It is a good example of how the voluntary sector can lever in money from partnerships with companies for the benefit of local children who might otherwise lack those opportunities.
The second project that I shall mention is one called "Families First" in Tower Hamlets. It is run through a partnership between Tower Hamlets social services and NCH and it provides support for families and children where the children are at imminent risk of being admitted to care due to crises within the family such as abuse, neglect and family conflict. Just a few 1283 weeks ago, an independent evaluation of the service was launched in the House of Commons and I was privileged to attend it. It showed an 88 per cent success rate with families identified as being at risk in that way and referred to the project. The service thus helped to keep families and prevented children being admitted to care. Many of the project's users are from the Bangladeshi community and its methods have been shown to work well across cultural and other boundaries. The project's three-year contract is coming up for renewal and all parties involved with it wish it to continue. Tower Hamlets and NCH are both pleased with the work done.
The Government say that they wish to promote the role of the voluntary organisations that deliver services and that they will express that in guidance to the Bill. Obviously, though, that will not carry statutory force. NCH and many other voluntary organisations providing similar services are concerned that voluntary organisations of all kinds should be involved in the planning and delivery of children's services. I strongly believe in a level playing field in terms of local commissioning. The commissioning process must be fair, open and transparent, and based on principles that take both quality and cost into account. That is in the best interests of children, young people and their families and I am not yet convinced that the Government's intentions to progress the role of the voluntary sector through guidance will achieve the outcomes that we all seek.
The second issue that I shall raise is the role of the Children's Commissioner. I shall not address the powers of the commissioner as have other noble Lords, but I broadly support the views of the noble Lord, Lord Laming. How will the commissioner for England be able to cater for the large number of children whose views he will seek to access and represent? How will he best be able to reflect the diversity of London's children, for example? There are 1.62 million children and young people in London. That 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. Something similar could probably be said of my home county of Yorkshire. Forty one per cent of London's children belong to black, Asian and minority ethnic groups and, between them, they speak 300 languages. My plea is that aspects of London and regional government are taken on board when the work of the Children's Commissioner is being decided. Perhaps I may suggest that consideration be given to an assistant commissioner for London and for other regions or that appropriate mechanisms to ensure that the particular concerns of, for example, London's children can be taken to a national level. The region represents a practical and effective level at which consultation mechanisms for engagement with children and young people can be developed.
Finally, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, has already said, those of us who are concerned about child contact arrangements are disappointed that that was not taken up in the domestic violence Bill. Progress to ensure children's safety in cases of 1284 domestic violence has been painfully slow, so it is disappointing that the Children Bill does not include a provision to strengthen the safeguards for children in the context of contact following the separation or divorce of their parents when domestic violence is involved.
I support the principle that children benefit from having continued contact with both parents, but it cannot automatically apply in cases of domestic violence and abuse. In such cases, it is universally accepted that the child's welfare must come first. However, the current law is not framed in a way that supports that principle. For it to do so, the Children Act 1989 needs to be amended. I enter a plea that we are joined up about this process and that this issue is satisfactorily resolved once and for all in this Bill, although I welcome the efforts of the Minister for Children to address the problem through the pilot projects that she has launched recently. I welcome the Bill and look forward to supporting it in its passage through your Lordships' House.
§ 9.51 p.m.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, I wish to make just two points about this Bill. First, children in England appear to be less well served than those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Secondly, refugee and immigrant children may be treated worse than all other children.
The commissioners appointed to act as champions of children where devolution applies are required to protect children using the UN convention. The English commissioner, on the other hand, has the weaker task of promoting the views and interests of children. He or she will have no independent legal powers to investigate. That can be done only at the direction of the Secretary of State, who can publish or withhold any inquiry report. Here I agree, in his absence, with the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, but speaking from an English point of view.
The situation seems most unsatisfactory. Why are the Government discriminating against England in this way? What we know about children's needs in England is far from encouraging. There is an uncontrolled explosion of sexually transmitted diseases among young people under 18—a point that has not yet been mentioned in this debate. A large proportion of those in prison or youth custody have previously been children in care. Most residential care workers are unqualified or poorly trained, and we rely too much on agency staff. Here I agree with my noble friend Lord Listowel. There is an acute shortage of good foster parents, more or less throughout England, which leads to breakdowns of fostering placements. We have too much bullying and child abuse, including deaths, and too many serious problems in children's homes.
In those circumstances, one would expect Her Majesty's Government to give more rather than fewer powers to the English commissioner. There is therefore much explaining to be done. In particular, why will the Government and local authorities not have to respond to the commissioner's recommendations? Why can the commissioner not bring legal proceedings on behalf of a child?
1285 On the question of refugee and immigrant children, I emphasise that when they are in this country they are a national responsibility and should be treated and protected as well as any other children. In particular, they should not be detained or separated from their parents, except perhaps in the most exceptional circumstances. The Bill should be widened to include the National Asylum Support Service, accommodation and deportation centres and those who deal with children at ports of entry.
Particular care is needed when children arrive unaccompanied or travelling with an adult who is not their parent or habitual carer. There is a risk that they are being trafficked for purposes of exploitation. To guard against this, the child and the adult should be listened to and spoken to separately and sympathetically, with the help of good interpreters when that is needed.
On all the points that I have mentioned, I trust that the Government will bring forward or accept amendments to improve the Bill. The test of the Government's good intentions regarding incoming children will be their willingness to withdraw their reservation to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child regarding immigration legislation. It is an important point that has already been made by the noble Lord. Lord Dholakia, and I happily and wholeheartedly support it.
§ 9.55 p.m.
§ Lord Jones
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her cogent introduction of the Bill. Perhaps I should declare a possible interest as the chairman of a diocesan board of education. I greatly welcome the Bill. It is good for children and it is good for Wales. It is a Bill with a major, practical and influential input from the National Assembly for Wales. It is history of a kind. It is the National Assembly at its best. The Welsh Office was set up in 1964 and so much has flowed in so short a time-scale from that historic moment in the history of Wales.
Parts 3 and 4 of the Bill, concerning children's services, advisory services, support services and registration, apply to Wales alone. In these parts, the Mother of Parliaments and the National Assembly for Wales have worked together. Parliamentarians, Ministers, professionals, civil servants and parliamentary draftsmen have all brought forward generally wise measures for the greater good of children. This surely enhances the reputation of the National Assembly. Indeed, Parts 3 and 4 are a landmark in the development of the National Assembly. Parts 3 and 4, and the manner by which they were arrived at, undoubtedly enhance the reputation of the Assembly in Wales. In Clauses 20 to 38, the people of Wales, through their National Assembly and through their representatives in Westminster, are making an historic declaration of intent to safeguard the most vulnerable children and young people in our communities.
This Second Reading debate, with its powerful Welsh clauses, is taking place on the eve of the publication of the report of the Richards commission. This is significant in itself. It is also symbolic, whatever the long-term outcome, of the commission's report 1286 which, one presumes, makes proposals for change. For over a thousand years, and many more, the Welsh nation has been in existence in one way or another. Our National Assembly is very young: it is but five years old, if that. Yet it has accomplished much already. Parts 3 and 4 will add to the Assembly's capability and will further facilitate its acceptance by its own people in the governance of Wales. It is only right that the Assembly should have been free in this measure to determine its own approach to enhance children's services in Wales.
I understand that this measure does not in any way erode the existing powers of the Children's Commissioner for Wales. But I think that we need an assurance from Ministers that that is the case, because I would judge it to be a core commitment by the Government and by the department to the people of Wales. I hope that by the end of the Second Reading debate there will be no doubt whatever.
I am glad that England will also have its own commissioner. I pose the question: are the English commissioner's powers sufficient? I pay tribute to the work of Mrs Julie Morgan and her collaborators for their recent work in helping to bring about the post of Children's Commissioner for Wales. This was clearly a decisive initiative. It certainly pointed the way for further legislation.
I also express the hope that Dr Hywel Francis is successful in piloting through another place his Carers (Equal Opportunities) Bill. At the heart of his Bill is great compassion. It, too, could be a landmark, as is this Children Bill, and as were the successive measures concerning disability.
Concerning the Bill overall, are all guardians ad litem, previously self-employed, now to be employed on a contractual basis? Do Ministers believe that there are sufficient guardians ad litem to do the work that is necessary? How will the Welsh language be deployed to the advantage of children and professionals who acknowledge Welsh as their first language?
In the event of family breakdown, are there provisions in the Children Bill to facilitate mediation between parents to reduce the trauma to children over their future relationship with both parents? That is not necessarily a rhetorical question. Regarding the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, commonly referred to as CAFCASS, are there any plans to set up suitable child contact centres under the umbrella of CAFCASS where supervised contact can take place between the child and the non-resident parent, in addition to those currently run on a voluntary basis? What plans are there to provide effective liaison between the Family proceedings Court and CAFCASS area managers?
To reduce delay, what prospect is there of increasing the number of court reporting officers in order that reports to the Family Proceedings Court in respect of private law applications can be completed more quickly? In one county that I know of there is a 12-week delay. I pose that question with regard to England as well as to Wales.
To conclude, when this Bill is enacted, as surely it will be, and after enduring Committee scrutiny, it will face the supreme test in a harsh real world. That is, it 1287 is to be hoped that there will be sufficient moneys to facilitate our objectives. It is to be hoped that on the ground in our county seats of local government there will be sufficient wise and qualified administrators and social workers alongside the excellent voluntary organisations that deliver children's services, for example, the NSPCC. Barnardo's and NCH. Then we shall need time but above all we shall need the financial and professional resources to deliver.
§ 10.4 p.m.
§ Baroness Howarth of Breckland
My Lords, along with many other noble Lords I welcome the Bill and commend the excellent way in which the Minister introduced the issues with such clarity.
It is a small Bill with a large heart for at its core are the good intentions of this Government towards our children for their health, safety, achievement, fun, economic well-being and their right to make their own unique contribution to our society—in the words of Every Child Matters,the right of every child to fulfil their potential".But what we shall be testing during its passage through this House is whether or not the heart of the Bill,—and, dare I say it, that of the Government?—is big enough to ensure that those children who face disadvantage receive the services they need to reach their potential in a timely and appropriate manner.
What will be different this time round, given the years between the deaths of Dennis O'Neill and Victoria Climbié, to stop vulnerable children falling through the net of care? Dare I say that we will not prevent every child's death? We should always remember that. Parents will continue to kill their children. We must ensure that every care is taken and effort made to prevent those deaths where we are in touch with the children and have the capacity to make a difference.
Where then should we place our trust on behalf of those children, and what opportunities are available through the Bill? Much emphasis has been placed this evening on the role of the new commissioner. I shall be somewhat blasphemous and confess to some scepticism about focusing all our hopes in one man or woman. There is a Childline publication entitled Everybody's Business, and child protection is everybody's business, but I welcome the commissioner and hope that he or she—it might just be a woman, despite the language used in the House this evening—will bring a greater urgency to meeting children's needs.
I recognise that England is different from the devolved administrations. Like two noble Lords who have spoken, I would have preferred a commission rather than a commissioner, with assistant commissioners in the regions matching devolution and able to respond to local people and needs. I accept that, at the moment, it is a milestone to have one commissioner. Even that will raise contentious issues. The key question will be whether the commissioner will be free enough from central control to reflect the views of children when they conflict with those of the Government, and to have the ability to press 1288 Ministers into accepting proper responsibility for children in departments such as the Department of Health and the Home Office.
One item that I would identify for the job description would be the achievement of better policy co-ordination. With that, we might have seen the national service framework produced in synchronisation with the Children Bill and the Green Paper. Can the Minister say how that will fit into the overall package? Yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Warner, did not seem to have an answer to a question on that.
Can we place our trust in the new safeguarding boards? Ensuring that the area child protection committees are placed on a more solid and consistent basis is welcome. However, like others, I ask the Minister why the voluntary sector, one of the main primary partners in service delivery, is not m the Bill. It often brings exciting new ideas to the local situation. The "Stop It Now!" programme is an example of working with local services to develop a public health approach to sexual abuse. The programme is not only innovative, but an example of partnership between voluntary organisations at central and local level with government departments. I hope that the omission of voluntary sector services will be rectified through amendment.
The Bill is said to set a framework within which services can blossom, but we should never place our trust in structures. Implementation is what will count and if that is to succeed there must be adequate skills and resources as well as the will to make the approach work. The research of Hedi Cleaver shows how implementation has been adversely affected when staff and working technology are missing. Her work has also shown the impact of constant reorganisation on staff morale, staff commitment and the continuity essential for children and families. Recent writings underline that it is not necessarily co-ordination that will make the difference to improve outcomes, but a well-trained, confident workforce, professional supervision and continuing support. At some point this must provide a review of career progression so that the best practitioners remain in contact with families and are not siphoned off to what someone called a back office. Can the Minister reassure the House that all such issues will be given appropriate attention in the new framework of development? I shall not make any further comment on the shortage of social workers, except that the Bill will not succeed unless that issue is tackled.
There needs to be good working technology. Having had the experience of several failing government computer systems, I remain concerned about the maintaining of databases and the sharing of information. Much personal data are already stored on a variety of systems in local authorities and we must ensure that that information is properly shared. The Bichard inquiry will illustrate that yet again. But I have a real anxiety that information about children is becoming universal and we must not over-react in a way that brings other dangers. All investigations into child deaths show that it was not data that were at fault, but the recognition of what the information 1289 meant, who else should know and how the information should be shared. No amount of clever, over-inclusive machinery will change that. There also needs to be a confident, well trained workforce that is able to recognise danger and how to act upon it.
In my years at Childline, I listened to children's concerns about what was known and being said about them and their families without them knowing the content. They care deeply about confidentiality as well as protection. It is an area to be treated with care and sensitivity, especially when we know there are those who would wish to gain access to that data for very different reasons.
I welcome the broader context of services in which the new framework is set. It is what the old children's departments, where I cut some of my social work teeth, lacked. Partnership has been talked about and encouraged for decades. We have had rafts of working together-type procedures. Again, how does the Minister see that process being different? How will we ensure that children in the justice system are included and given the care to meet their potential when they are separated from the mainstream services? Will the Government address mental health services and the shortage of children and adolescent services for a generation that is in greater need of such mental health support than ever before? Will there be a particular focus on helping disabled children face the barriers to their development and their protection? What about working with leisure and fun services? As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, one of the pillars of the Green Paper was "enjoying". That has been lost in the Bill and it is sad that we cannot find a way of reflecting the joy of childhood on the face of the Bill.
I have some reservations about the strong focus on education. The noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, must have read a different Bill to the one that I have read. It is exciting that there will be more community activity in schools where plant can be used for other purposes. But many children do not want their problems and those of their families to be aired in schools. Indeed, the noble Baroness said as much at a recent meeting. For many people school can be their one safe haven. Others, especially looked-after children, can feel alienated from the school and face further social exclusion. I am also concerned that priorities for children in need of social and other welfare services do not lose out further in the battle for resources, although I strongly welcome the provision to promote the educational achievement of looked-after children. Can the Minister say how welfare services will receive proper priority and will that be influenced by the role of the new director of children's services and the lead member? Will there be greater definition of those roles to ensure the inclusion of the whole spectrum of services?
The dominance of education can also be seen in the inspection regime where, it seems, that Ofsted will lead inspections. The integrated inspection framework must reflect the various skills and knowledge that each inspectorate brings. Together, CSCI, Ofsted, the Audit Commission, CHAI and other inspectorates 1290 provide the first real opportunity to gain a coherent picture of what is happening in a geographical area in all the services that relate to children.
Time is too short to mention private fostering, but that seems always to be its fate. I simply ask how the proposals in the Bill will be monitored and what it will take for the Government to bring in stronger measures, or at least to set up some kind of investigation into the complex issues raised, before another child is harmed.
Children, including the children of asylum seekers, as we shall discuss on Monday, deserve the best that we can achieve for them. This Bill will help, but only if it is set in a sustained package of other activities. I recognise and commend the effort being made by the Government to give all children, together with their families, a better chance in the future. I look forward to debating the Bill further.
§ 10.15 p.m.
§ Baroness Howells of St Davids
My Lords, I am very pleased to be able to speak on this important Bill. Before I entered your Lordships' House, I worked with families whose young children had been brutally murdered. We worked together to see that justice was done and campaigned for reform of our public institutions so that tragedies such as theirs were less likely to happen to any other child.
I refer, of course, to the murders of two young people—Roland Adams and Stephen Lawrence. They were both children. Unfortunately, Stephen and Roland became famous because of the terrible ways in which they died and not because of the remarkable young people that they were. That was very sad: we know the names but not the people. The same can be said of Tyra Henry, who was in local authority care when she was brutally murdered by her father, and I fear that that is now the case with little Victoria Climbié. In life, no one had heard of Victoria but, in death, she has become a symbol for child protection reform in the same way that Stephen and Roland have become a symbol for reform of race relations law.
Victoria's death was not at the hands of racist killers; it was at the hands of family guardians who were entrusted with her care. I want us to think carefully about whether the Bill would have helped in this case because Victoria lived with relatives who were not registered as childminders. I believe that we need to note that point. It is hard to imagine how anyone could subject a nine year-old to the extreme torture that she endured, and how they could hit her with a bicycle chain, tie up her naked body in a bin bag and leave her frozen in her own excrement in a bathroom without heat, light or food. We all agree that it is too horrible to bear, but I believe that we need to remember why children such as Victoria Climbié have become such a focus for the nation's sense that "something must be done".
It is very easy for us to start using these children's names in a matter-of-fact way. They become part of the jargon of reformers and slip into modern discourse, almost coldly, ignoring the human tragedy behind them. We must not forget what horrors lead to 1291 these individual deaths and we should think of those when we, as decision-makers, ensure that lessons are learned and translated into good legislation.
I worry that Victoria Climbié may end up being just another name in the long history of terrible tragedies. There have been many attempts to tackle this issue by making authorities more responsive and more effective. Your Lordships may remember the case of Maria Colwell. She would now be 37 had she not died in 1974 when she was only seven years old. Her bruised and battered body had been pushed down the hill from her Brighton home to the local hospital by her stepfather in a pram that she herself used to carry coal. Her body was described as being painfully thin. She had been subjected to a terrible beating. Her death and the subsequent inquiry became a landmark in child protection reform.
In the 30 years since, countless volumes have chronicled the lives and deaths of children: children killed by adults who were expected to care for them and children failed by agencies who were charged with protecting them. It would be wrong to say that such inquiries have made no difference. As a result of the recommendations, practices have been tightened up and agency co-operation has improved. Sometimes the systems work and yet it has become increasingly clear that, as they failed a child 30 years ago, so too often they fail children today, such as in the case of Victoria Climbié. It is four years since Victoria died and we must ensure that the changes made by this Bill will really protect children better. Let us ensure that the name of Climbié becomes a watershed in child protection reform. Let us grasp the nettle of reform.
I am pleased that under the Bill each local authority will be required to appoint a director of children's services and a lead council member with responsibility for children. I particularly welcome the proposal for a Children's Commissioner for England, which I hope will give England's 12 million children an independent representative and advocate. However. I ask my noble friend the Minister whether the commissioner's powers are to remain less robust than the powers of the other UK commissioners. There seems to be some doubt on that point. I also ask her why the commissioner cannot have independent authority to undertake public investigations and even order judicial inquiries into individual cases where there is relevance to a number of other children who are set upon and who lose their lives simply because of the colour of their skin. Such questions are asked by black British citizens and I should be grateful for a response on their behalf.
I was pleased to hear the Minister say that electronic systems would supplement face-to-face work. Barnardo's warns that the Bill's reliance on electronic and other systems to share information about children at risk of abuse is no guarantee that children like Victoria will be protected in future. Barnardo's, like other noble Lords, says that that is,no replacement for good professional practice",and it argues that face-to-face work between professionals is the key to keeping children safe. Barnardo's says:One of the key failures in Victoria's case was that no one took the time to ask her what was happening".1292 It goes on to say that under the Bill the only person tasked with talking to children is the Children's Commissioner. Replacing one system with another, without attention to high quality contact with children, will not protect them any better and will be no substitute for good professional practice and training. I add that some of those practitioners need to be culturally sensitive in a multicultural society. I shall be pleased to hear the Minister's response.
Overall, I welcome the Bill, but I encourage people to talk not only to registered voluntary groups but also to those from different cultures who are trying, without help from the state, to give support to families whose children suffer from neglect. Some parents do not know how to cope with today's children without using corporal punishment. They do not agree with corporal punishment but they know of no other way.
I make a plea that in passing the Bill we should look seriously at what it will give to parents—especially single parents, who have to keep a roof over their heads, food in their children's stomachs and who do so without much help from the state as to how to bring up their children.
The Bill gives us a chance to create a safe haven on earth for children. Childhood must be a period of innocence and love. I hope that the Bill will protect vulnerable children and prevent terrible deaths like Victoria Climbié's from happening in the future and that it will especially spare the noble Lord, Lord Laming, the trauma he so stoically endured to bring us the report.
§ 10.25 p.m.
§ The Countess of Mar
My Lords, in what has been a very long list of speakers, I had hoped that I would be able to stand up and say that everybody has said what I was going to say and then sit down. But, unfortunately—or maybe fortunately—that has not been the case. I propose to confine myself to concerns about which I have spoken many times in your Lordships' House; those sick children who are not believed. I readily acknowledge the need for this Bill and that it has many good points.
As well as being a joyful and rewarding experience, parenting, and particularly motherhood, can be full of very natural feelings of intense anxiety and of inadequacy. I would ask noble Lords to bear that in mind as we progress through the various stages of the Bill. I would also ask them to bear in mind the fact that all family units are different and that individual members within that unit are likely to be very different. More and more frequently we seem to be expecting parents to be perfect and children to develop uniformly.
Clause 7 of the Bill carries the very laudable heading, "Arrangements to safeguard and promote welfare". I would have thought that this should always be the prime concern of anyone responsible for caring for children. We know and readily accept that a very small number of parents and other informal carers offend against this principle. We seem less willing to accept the possibility that some professionals, to 1293 whom the protection of children is delegated by Parliament, may also offend against children in their care. So often we hear that complaints have been made for some considerable time before an offender who has abused children is brought to book.
Mental and physical abuse by carers, whether they are parents or professionals, will eventually come to light if it is serious. There is, however, what I believe is another form of abuse, which has been going on for a very long time and is only just coming to light. That is the excessive use of the power conferred on professionals and so-called "experts" to condemn families to the most extraordinary strain and privation. Sick, indeed often very sick, children are forcibly separated from their parents on the basis that the child is not really sick; it is the mother's own attention seeking that has caused her to seek the help of the very professionals who condemn her. I recognise that there are occasions when this is true, but I believe that the incidence of what has been known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy—now being discredited—is relatively rare. I accept that in these cases it may be necessary to remove a child from his parent or parents. What I cannot accept is the perpetuation of unsubstantiated data, which is endemic.
False records destroy lives. At the very least, parents are prevented from seeking medical, educational and social services help because they carry the Munchausen syndrome by proxy label; a label which can never, ever be expunged, as I have established in your Lordships' House. Over the years I have encountered numerous heartbreaking cases of extreme deprivation caused by professionals. Attempts on my part to obtain justice for these families have met with statements that all the correct procedures have been followed and that therefore nothing can be done. No one seems able to grasp that the process started from the wrong premise. As we are seeing with recent High Court cases, all is not well and has not been for some time.
Some experts proselytise their own personal view to bolster their reputations, despite copious contrary evidence. What concerns me most is the large number of individuals who will be given responsibility for communicating with each other about children. Currently, even when there is irrefutable proof that an entry on to the social services database, Samson, is incorrect, I have been told that the reason it cannot be expunged is that it was an opinion given by an expert or professional person at a particular time. The fact that the suspicion of that person could not be proven was irrelevant. Will the Minister say whether the new database will replace Samson?
With so many more people being required to record their findings about the welfare of a child, I am seriously worried about the quality, accuracy and relevance of the entries. The roles of officials concerned with current child protection cases are not always clear. They have a long history of failing to co-operate and of communications breakdowns. They also have a long history of failing to protect where they should, and of interfering where they should not.
1294 There seems little in the Bill, just as there is little under current procedures, to allow a parent or other carer to object to the admission of evidence that they believe is untrue or unfair. The Secretary of' State is to control the information to be contained on any database by regulation. He will regulate the individuals who will be given access to the database for the purpose of adding or reading information. Nowhere can I see any mention of a person or persons to be responsible for checking that the information is correct; for dealing with appeals against the entry of incorrect information; or for deleting information that is untrue or inappropriate.
I totally understand the Government's desire to prevent the occurrence of cases such as that of Victoria Climbié. The children to whom I refer do not fall into her category. None the less, there are several thousand families blighted by the stigma of suspicion who have had their home and social lives severely disrupted; children who no longer trust their parents, or, for that matter, any adult; parents who can no longer work in their chosen field if it involves children; and children whose recovery has been seriously retarded, simply because one professional or expert disagrees with another. Let us ensure that we get it right for those families as well as for all the Victorias.
Let us learn the lessons of the recent past. Let us recognise that human frailty may not always be a danger to the welfare of a child. Let us not lose sight of what social work should be. Social workers should, and must, be given the means and be expected to work to support the fabric of our society. Co-operation is so much better than confrontation for all concerned.
§ 10.32 p.m.
§ Baroness Barker
My Lords, as I rise, I notice that we are all in breach of the House of Lords curfew order. It is a somewhat daunting honour to sum up in a debate in which there have been so many distinguished contributions from so many noble Lords with a wealth of experience and expertise. In the time available I cannot span all the contributions made.
I wish to pick up the one constant theme throughout today's debate. Whether noble Lords have been critical—many of them have, on issues such as the independence of the commissioner, the lack of inclusion of refugee children and the omissions of youth justice and youth offending—it is clear that there is common agreement in this place that we wish to seize this opportunity to get it right for all children. I hope that the Minister will accept the criticisms that have been made in that spirit.
The Minister and her ministerial colleagues in another place are to be congratulated on trying to break the ineffective cycle of the past 30 years, in which the tragic death of a child has been followed essentially by one thing: restructuring. It has not worked. What is heartening, particularly for those of us who took part in a debate in this House about a year ago organised by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, is the extent to which the Government have looked at other models, such as those set out in the ADSS paper Tomorrow's Children. It includes models such as those in Vermont 1295 and Missouri, which have taken as their basis the realisation that, for about the past 30 or 40 years, the fundamental premise of social services has been wrong. Many times, social services have sought to replace parents and carers when things go wrong, without recognising that children live in, and will return to, diverse communities after statutory intervention has happened. At the heart of this Bill, there is a welcome recognition that the aim of all statutory intervention ought to be to make all children's lives as normal and happy as possible. That is a very welcome change.
It is easy to forget that good child protection never makes the headlines. Much has been done effectively for children, and there has been a great deal of co-operation between agencies, which by its nature has never received any attention and has been difficult to evaluate. Our fundamental task in this Bill is to look at each proposal in it and to evaluate the extent to which it will enhance or compromise the capacity of staff with experience of working with children—and volunteers working with children—to bring about so much of what they already do in many cases, which is provide good outcomes for children.
In order to do that, there is one thing that we must do right away. We must establish what the word "partnership" means. Partnership is a word that is bandied about extensively these days, and it is little understood. Sometimes, it seems that partnership is a group of people who attend umpteen meetings and eat lots of samosas, in the hope that they will eventually see some of the government money that is on offer. Effective partnerships are meetings of people from different organisations with different skills, different expertise and sometimes different priorities, who come together to contribute and to learn from each other for a particular reason. Our task in this Bill is to enable that to happen as efficiently and effectively as possible.
The Government have rightly been applauded for not attempting to restructure services. I make a plea that they would continue to do that, and not restructure services by default when the resources that should come with this Bill are eventually rolled out to local level. It is easy by default to favour some structures and not others. The key test of whether this Bill works is the extent to which it is noticed and understood by people who in their everyday lives have nothing whatever to do with the care system. They are the people who, by and large, know that children are vulnerable in their daily lives. That is a key test for us.
Clause 6, on the duty of co-operation to improve well-being, has been widely welcomed. However, having had the joy of sitting through many health Bills that have passed through your Lordships' House, there was some familiarity in the proposals. Given that experience, I urge one word of caution. Since 2000, older people's services have been organised under Section 31 Health Act flexibilities. It is evident they have worked best where agencies with different agendas have come together with a clear objective of what they are trying to achieve. In the world of older people's services, the NSF has been the bedrock of good participation. There is no reason to believe that 1296 children's services should be any different. I echo the comments of many noble Lords that one of the acid tests is the extent to which voluntary organisations, which are close to and involve users, are there on equal terms with the statutory services.
Clause 7 places a duty on agencies and their partners to carry out safeguarding activities for children. The area child protection committees worked well, to the extent that the agencies in any area had a commitment to them and had the capacity to be a part of them. There is no reason to believe that the local safeguarding children boards will work any better if the constituent parts do not have the resources to make them work.
Deservedly, Clause 8 is the part of the Bill that has attracted strongest and most comment this evening. I believe, as we all do, that co-operation between agencies is an essential part of child protection. Nobody can argue that timely and accurate communication between parents, neighbours and different authorities is anything but the essence of good childcare. However, we are unconvinced that Clause 8 will ensure that.
Clause 8 is founded on the misconception, which was reiterated in paragraph 1.46 of the Laming report, that data protection and human rights legislation inhibits the exchange of information about people, particularly about vulnerable children. That is not true. Schedules 2 and 3 to the Data Protection Act 1998 explicitly state that information sharing is permissible to protect the vital interests of the person in respect of whom the information is held. The case of Victoria Climbié demonstrated that the lack of knowledge and understanding among care professionals of the Data Protection Act got in the way of good practice. More than anything, it demonstrated the dangers when professionals do not communicate effectively with each other. We believe that a database on which there is vague, unsubstantiated information that is not acted upon could compound the problems, rather than solving them.
I read Clause 8 several times. Each time, I tried to read it as though I were a different person: a parent, a health visitor or, crucially, a neighbour worried about a child. I cannot see how there is, anywhere in the system, a clear path between a vulnerable child and an outcome that would help them.
Nowhere in Clause 8 is consent mentioned. Inevitably, there will be times when agencies cannot talk to the children or to their families. Increasingly, good children's services are based on user involvement and on consent. The clause will act counter to that. The provisions in Clause 8 are unnecessary. Resources would be better spent enabling professionals in different organisations to understand the workings of the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998 and how they can be used to help vulnerable children.
Finally, I turn to Clauses 37 and 38, which relate to private fostering. The noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids, was right: private fostering always gets left off the end. Not this time. At last, those of us who 1297 sat through hours and hours of the Adoption and Children Bill can see that private fostering, which Sir William Utting, BAAF and others have struggled for so long to bring to our attention, is included. We know that children from some communities, particularly west African and Chinese communities, are sent here by their parents. Their parents are not neglectful or careless; they are people who, in their own tradition, understand that looking after children is the responsibility of the whole community. For whatever reason, they do not understand how dangerous that can be in our community, which is very different. They are people like Victoria Climbié's mum and dad, who sent her here because they believed that she would have a better life.
The longer we dodge the issue of full registration of private fostering, the longer we will be guilty of condemning some children to being the most vulnerable in our society. It is crazy that, if someone wants to leave a child with a childminder for a day, the childminder must be registered. If they leave the child with somebody else for an extended period, nothing need be done to make sure that the child is safe. In those clauses, the Government have registered an interest, but that is not strong enough.
We will be happy to support the Bill, but we will not do so uncritically. It is a good Bill, but, after 30 years and so many attempts, we owe it to children to send not a good Bill but a fantastic, effective Bill to another place. For those reasons, I too look forward to many hours in Committee.
§ 10.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, we on these Benches also welcome the Bill. But the Minister will not be surprised to learn that there are parts of the Bill about which we shall need to talk in greater detail in Committee. All in this Chamber welcome the Bill. The briefing papers that I and, I suspect, all noble Lords have received, indicate that everyone welcomes the Bill.
However, as we know and as our overcrowded prisons testify, the law does not stop wrongdoing. Perhaps it is laziness, poor management and, in some instances, a shortage of care workers that causes some of the problems. While the Bill will rectify some problems, there are practical implications that will arise from the Bill. Sadly, children have always been abused, unduly chastised and neglected. No law—not even swingeing penalties—will completely stop that. Good law can ensure that people of conscience, members of social services and other authorities have the power to intervene, to stop and sometimes to prevent the ill treatment of children.
The Bill presents a framework that has the potential to make considerable improvements. We welcome that. The establishment of the Children's Commissioner and the naming, at the local authority level, of a director of children's services will enable greater cohesion of the efforts to help children at risk. Indeed, that has been welcomed all around the Chamber.
1298 However, the Minister will have realised immediately that there are many noble Lords who are disappointed by the restrictions being placed on the Children's Commissioner for England. My noble friends Lord Howe, Lord Lucas, Lord Hanningfield and many others—I cannot name everyone—highlighted that point in their comments. Why has this decision been taken? Why? should England be different? I know that the numbers are greater, but that does not belittle the problem: probably, it accentuates it even more. I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us why that decision has been taken.
Many noble Lords have referred to the fact that the first stop should be with the parents or family. However much legal framework we try to put in place, it is important that we do not fail to recognise that. I shall return to that issue shortly. My noble friend also clearly expressed concerns that around one child dies each week as a result of abuse, totalling about 80 deaths each year, which is 80 too many, and that a quarter of child rapes are carried out by someone known to the family. That is terrible, and, whatever else we may be able to do in the Bill, we must try to rectify it.
Many noble Lords referred to individual cases from personal knowledge where abuse and failure of the system has been highlighted. I cannot pick up on all of them. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said that we must trust families and that we must help and support them in any way we can. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, said that if we are not careful, we will send out the message that we do not trust families. I know that the Government do not intend to do that, but we must be aware of that as we go into the detail of the Bill.
Many noble Lords expressed their disappointment at the restrictions being placed on the Children's Commissioner for England. Perhaps I may now pick up some direct points. I shall not go any further into the issue of the UN convention except to say that we have concerns. I was particularly pleased that so many noble Lords referred to the role of voluntary organisations, which have a very important part to play. It is implied that they will be included, but they are not actually referred to in the Bill, as was mentioned by many noble Lords.
The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, mentioned in particular the need to include the youth justice system. I totally agree with her. Having read the report of the debate held last Friday, which I was not able to remain for, I saw that some very sound words of advice were included.
I was pleased to note that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford reminded us that the Churches are some of the largest organisations dealing week in and week out with thousands of children. Churches and other communities have an important role to play in helping to tackle these tasks. We need a much better understanding of the relationship between voluntary organisations and charities which, over recent years, has improved.
1299 I turn to the question of children at risk. I was very moved by the contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, in particular when he referred to refugee families. To that I want to add a word on behalf of the children of disabled families. In some ways they are the most vulnerable children and often cannot speak up for themselves.
The fact that we have over 3,000 children in prison was referred to both in the debate last week and again today. That number has doubled over the past 10 years, which is most troubling. I, too, am disappointed that the two issues have been separated in this way.
I turn to the financial implications of the Bill, an issue that was mentioned by several noble Lords. I have to put the question to the Minister: is she confident that sufficient money will be allocated to local authorities to enable them to deliver the hopes and aspirations laid out so clearly in this legislation?
The aim of "education, not punishment" is quite right, so perhaps the Minister—it is appropriate that she is responding because she is responsible for schools—can explain why schools have been almost excluded from our debate. Schools play an extremely important part in children's lives and often provide the only place where, in some cases, a child may find a little sanctuary. I would be grateful if she could refer to that point.
I turn to the issue of information sharing before moving on to information and data, about which several noble Lords expressed their concerns. A difficult balance will have to be struck between making sure that sufficient information is available for the task in hand to be completed and maintaining the privacy and security of the data. That is a huge challenge for the Government to undertake. Perhaps the Minister will enlarge on that point when she winds up the debate. I shall be interested to hear what she has to say.
My noble friend Lord Northesk raised several issues on this matter in his very full contribution, and I shall not repeat what he said. However, he also raised the question of flags to define when children are at risk. As an amateur, my concern is that while a flag may be flown, I am not sure how you then assess whether any action has been taken. It does not matter how many flags are flying if no action results; it is a wasted opportunity. Again, I would be grateful if the Minister could give us a little more detail on that point.
I want to ask one or two direct questions about Clause 8. There are gaps here. Too much is to be left to regulation and guidance, without parliamentary input. No doubt we shall cover that in Committee. I am concerned that the establishment and operation of the various databases is not to be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. Indeed, it appears that we are not to have any influence over the four data processes: the creation, amendment, access and destruction of data held on children. Who will be responsible for setting up each of the databases and the rules governing their operation? Will it be a national database or will there be local databases feeding into a national base? That is not made clear. Who will be allowed to add, amend or 1300 delete information? Who will be able to access the information held on the databases and what rules will govern that access? Who will delete the completed records'? What rules or anticipated rules will there be? Will they be mandatory or will exceptions be made?
More importantly, will young people have access to their own information? What access will families have to the information held on the lists? Is it envisaged that each LEA will have a local data base containing information on each child at the authority's schools? Will the name of a child coming to the attention of one of the other authorities for a serious reason "go forward" to the national data base'? I realise that we will debate these matters at length in Committee, but they are so important that it would not be right if I did not refer to them now.
Who will ultimately expunge the records, or will they carry on throughout a child's life into adulthood? These are questions which are certainly not tackled within the Bill. I am not the only one who is frightened that these personal records may be held by the state for time immemorial. This could have real repercussions on jobs, insurance and many other aspects of daily living. I believe that the Bill has great possibilities and that it is in all our interests to make sure that we get it right.
But let me put in another plug for the voluntary organisations. From 1961 until 1976 I worked with the Women's Royal Voluntary Service in Leicestershire, where we established many projects with children and families, whether they were to do with clothing, hospitals, holidays or the setting up of a new centre at the Glen Parva borstal. Then, as now, families and particularly children were in need of help, but it was so important that we helped families to help themselves. In that respect, I pay tribute to Margaret Harrison who, during my time in Leicester, formed Home-Start, from which an immensely important organisation has grown.
We are today addressing a real need. I accept that it is an appalling commentary on a civilised country that such a Bill is necessary but, sadly, it plainly is. The Bill has many good intentions. Many queries have been raised during this Second Reading and we look forward to debating them in Committee. I believe that we are all determined to produce a sound, workable Bill that will improve the safety of, and provide a real opportunity for, all our children. I support the Bill.
§ 10.57 p.m.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, it has been a privilege to spend these hours in your Lordships' company debating this important Bill. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Byford, Lady Walmsley and Lady Barker, have ranged across the issues and raised their concerns; they have argued within a supportive framework and environment and it will be a privilege to debate the Bill with them.
We have had the expertise of the noble Lords, Lord Laming and Lord Dholakia, of my noble friends Lady Pitkeathley, Lady Massey and Lady Howells of 1301 St Davids, and of the noble Baronesses, Lady Howarth of Breckland and Lady Stern. Their expertise is based on experience and I pay tribute to their work. They will contribute greatly to our deliberations.
My noble friends Lady Whitaker, Lady David and Lady Thornton, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, Lady Linklater and Lady Howe of Idlicote, are all campaigners who are persistent in their determination to pick up issues of concern. They will make me work harder and will challenge your Lordships' House to ensure that the Bill is as good as it can be.
My noble friend Lord Pendry, the noble Lords, Lord Lucas and Lord Hylton, and the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, all come to us with a particular expertise that adds new dimensions to the work that we have ahead of us. I welcome their contributions in terms of those additional dimensions.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, always raises issues as a champion of looked-after children. Long may be continue in that role. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, equally plays his part as the voice of parents. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, always raises the issue of the particular families with whom she is most concerned and I pay tribute to her for that.
Many noble Lords focused their attention on our links with the Commissioner for Wales. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, the noble Lords, Lord Thomas of Gresford and Lord Livsey of Talgarth, and my noble friends Lady Gale, Lord Prys-Davies and Lord Jones all gave important insights into how they think the relationship will work—or, dare I say, will not, in their view, work as effectively as it might. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford made, as always, a unique and special contribution. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, and my noble friend Lord Smith of Leigh represent, in a sense, our crucial partners in this enterprise—local government. I pay tribute to their work in their local authorities of Essex and Wigan and for the remarks of my noble friend Lord Smith of Leigh about his colleagues in Bolton.
Noble Lords raised many overarching issues: the Commissioner and the role of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; the role and the chair of the local safeguarding children boards; the involvement of the community and voluntary sector; information-sharing powers and how they will work; reasonable chastisement; play and enjoyment; who is required to co-operate and who is required to safeguard our children; the criminal justice system and its place in this; and the role of our relationship with our colleagues in Wales. I shall reflect on all these points; I shall not endeavour to deal with all of them this evening or we will be here far too long. I will comment on some and will, as is my wont, write to all noble Lords who raised any questions that are not dealt with.
I begin with the Children's Commissioner, because many noble Lords raised concerns connected to this post. I recognise the tireless campaigning of such as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. I begin by saying how happy I am that we are creating this position. I aspire, as the noble 1302 Earl, Lord Howe, suggested, to having a children's champion, independent of government, promoting the awareness of the views and interests of children, raising the profile of issues, paying particular attention to gathering and representing those views and making sure that they are accessible to all children, particularly, as many noble Lords outlined, those who are most vulnerable and least able to have their voice heard. I refer to children who are disabled, children in care, children in the mental health care system, children who are refugees, children in the criminal justice system. We do not seek to define vulnerability in set terms, but we wish the commissioner to be proactive in gathering and representing the views of these children.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Livsey of Talgarth, that we want children and young people to be directly involved in the recruitment of the commissioner. We will aim to make that group as representative as possible.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Laming, that the Commissioner is a crucial driver in our agenda for transformational change in children's services. We have discussed the importance of the outcomes that children identified. It is imperative, as the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, said, to focus on the outcomes rather than the process if we are serious about placing children at the heart of what we do. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, referred to the changes in interpreting the outcomes that children identified within the way in which the Bill has recognised them. This is the first time that what children have said has been directly translated into a Bill, and I am sure that noble Lords welcome that—it is important. However, I understand what the noble Baroness has said—we are after the same thing, dare I say, and I am, as always, happy to discuss this.
My noble friend Lord Pendry reminded us about play; my noble friend Lord Smith of Leigh talked about arts, music and sport being important. We believe we capture those in the language of social wellbeing, but, again, we are happy to discuss this and make it as clear as possible.
The powers we give the commissioner are in relation to the strategic role he or she is meant to play. The commissioner will decide his or her own work plan—it will be based on the views of children and will report to Parliament via the Secretary of State in the normal procedural arrangements for laying reports before Parliament.
I can assure the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Howe, that the Secretary of State will not amend the report in any way. It is also an arrangement that we believe will encourage parliamentary debate which we think is a critical part of the overarching way in which we approach this.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Finlay, and my noble friend Lady Gale spoke about the importance of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I can assure your Lordships that this will form the backdrop for the commissioner's work if he thinks it 1303 appropriate. But we strongly believe that the views of children rather than the rights agenda should drive the commissioner's work. I say to my noble friend Lady Whitaker that we expect that the commissioner will play a role in advising the Government as they produce their report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
Noble Lords spoke about the relationship with the Children's Commissioner for Wales. I join them in applauding his work and I look forward to seeing more of the work of the recently established committee in Northern Ireland and soon-to-be committee in Scotland. The job of the Children's Commissioner is different. We have made that clear in the way that we have framed the Bill and I am sure that we will deal with those differences in great detail in Committee.
However, the establishment of the new commissioner will advance the interests of children not only in Wales but also in the devolved administrations. I point out to my noble friends Lord Jones and Lady Gale that the post will not ill any way undermine the service that children in Wales receive from their commissioner. The Welsh commissioner will not be prevented from commenting on non-devolved matters, as he does at present. However, I submit that children in Wales will have an enhanced voice in Westminster.
The proposed legislation places a duty on the English commissioner to take into account the views and work of the other UK commissioners when looking at matters which affect children in their areas. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, that we will expect the commissioner to work closely with the devolved commissioners, taking advantage of all that there is to learn from that expertise. We believe that he is likely to choose to formalise that consultation through methods such as a memorandum of understanding. That is a matter on which the noble Lord. Lord Thomas of Gresford, and I touched in our meetings yesterday.
I assure my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies that we have no plans for offices in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland for the English commissioner, which may be a relief to some noble Lords. I take on board the remarks of my noble friend Lady Thornton about regional commissioners. Local government can do what it wishes to enhance the way in which it supports child protection, but we will of course keep all of those issues under review and no doubt return to them.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Linklater and Lady Stern, raised the issue of a separate consultation on youth justice. We want to make it clear that we published the documents the one alongside the other. They are "a suite of documents" and are not meant to be seen as separate. They were published in that way so as to be more accessible and to make clear the different elements of the Bill. However, in Every Child Matters: Next Steps, we summarised the plans for youth justice in that one document. We believe that the Bill ensures that police and youth justice systems are included in local partnerships. The duty to co-operate covers the police authority and the local chief officer of police, local probation hoards, and youth offending teams via the local authority. The duty on agencies to safeguard 1304 also includes police authorities, local chief officers of police and soon. I refer noble Lords to the Bill to see how we have brought together the concerns that noble Lords have raised about those working with offending or at-risk-of-offending children.
As noble Lords have said, co-operation to improve the well-being of children is an important part of the Bill. I acknowledge the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, about the word "partnership" and I agree with her that what happens is important. However, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said, "partnership" is a critical word, because we are trying to establish the way in which agencies will work together on the commissioning, delivery and integration of services for children.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford indicated too that we should make it clear that we need to involve a wider group of partners than that named in the Bill. Our statutory guidance—it will be statutory—on the new duty will make it clear that local authorities should involve others appropriately. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, that there will be an appropriate engagement with schools. As I have already indicated, youth offending teams, which will be multi-disciplinary, will be represented through their constituent bodies.
It is very important to us that we recognise the voluntary and community sector. That point was raised by many noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, and my noble friend Lady Thornton. They are key players in ensuring that our partnerships work and that we bring specialist skills together, as well as in understanding where needs are not met. I accept the remarks of my noble friend Lady Howells of St Davids about culturally appropriate approaches to children and young people and recognise all the points that she raised.
We also expect to ensure that children and young people and their families, as well as schools and faith organisations, have a strong voice in those partnership discussions. A number of noble Lords raised that as an important point. It is impossible to capture them on the face of the Bill. It is much better to do so through statutory guidance.
Noble Lords generally welcomed the safeguarding duty. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, was concerned about schools. In fact, schools are already covered by Section 175 of the Education Act 2002. Noble Lords will remember that the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, who is not in her place, was instrumental in bringing that forward in the light of the Lauren Wright case.
The noble Lords, Lord Hylton and Lord Dholakia, referred to duties on asylum and immigration services. We believe that they have to be balanced against the need to maintain effective immigration control. We take seriously their responsibilities towards children, but we would have concerns about a specific duty in legislation, which we believe might cut across existing procedures. We shall be happy to discuss the issues, but we do not believe that that would be the right way forward. 1305 The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, referred to primary care trusts and GPs. The duty sits with the primary care trusts, but through the contracts that exist with GPs, we shall ensure that the terms require safeguarding and protection of welfare. They will cover all professionals who are delivering primary care, not only GPs. Equally, the noble Baronesses, Lady Stern and Lady Linklater, were concerned about prisons, secure training centres and youth offending teams. They are specifically within the safeguarding duty.
The information-sharing clause, Clause 8, may take up several hours of debate in your Lordships' House. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that it is important that we recognise that under the Data Protection Act information sharing is possible. I agree with that wholeheartedly. However, the purpose of Clause 8 is to ensure that professionals know who to talk to to allow them to exercise their functions.
Victoria Climbié was known to two housing departments, four social services departments, two child protection teams of the Metropolitan Police Service, a specialist centre managed by the NSPCC and was admitted to two different hospitals because of suspected deliberate harm. We are all agreed that we need to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. As my noble friend Lady David said, there has been slowness in progress in this regard; one of the reasons is that we need to get better at finding ways in which people may find out who else is involved with a child and its family.
The purpose behind this part of the Bill is to improve the ability for those professionals to be able to communicate with each other and to be able to do that effectively. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, said clearly that we need a cultural change, and I could not agree more. We need to support that. These databases are one part of what needs to happen, to ensure that we are giving the information so that practitioners feel able to find out who else is involved.
I disagree with the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, who I notice is shaking his head. I am not dazzled by IT—I never have been. It is a tool that we should use, because it can be very effective in helping professionals who need to know information and to be able to use it properly. It is an important tool. The noble Earl described the number of consultation respondents who did not like information sharing. However, crucial consultation responses came from the Local Government Association, the NHS Confederation and the Association of Directors of Social Services. They said that the proposals on identification, referral and tracking are fundamental to achieving the maximum benefit for vulnerable children and their families. Identifying children across the spectrum who are in need of service provision is crucial to ensuring that children receive an appropriate service.
I cannot stress too strongly that the purpose of having information on the database is so that all practitioners involved with a child can work together 1306 to address the child's needs. In that spirit, we hope that voluntary sector agencies will provide their details when dealing with a child and contribute to discussions about concerns according to their professional judgment. Our intention is to permit that through the clause. There will be no requirement in law for them to do so, except of course when they are carrying out statutory functions through a contract with a children's service agency.
We realise that signalling a concern can be seen as a sensitive issue. We will make clear in regulations how access to information over and above the basic details can be made available only to those for whom it is in the child's best interests to see it. I stress again that there will be no case information on the database: no part of any case record relating to young people of organisations such as the Brook Advisory Centre—to mention an organisation that the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and my noble friend Lady Massey referred to. None of that information will go anywhere near the databases, which will be accessible only to practitioners working with a child who need information about who else is involved in order to do their job. No substantive information from practitioners will be filed on the database. As I indicated in my opening remarks, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, reminded me, we are mindful of the comments of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and, as I said to noble Lords, we will consider them in detail before Committee and come back to your Lordships' House.
Local safeguarding children boards are an important part of what we are attempting to do in the Bill. I understand what my noble friend Lord Smith of Leigh and the noble Lord, Lord Laming, said about the way in which these should be chaired. We have decided that that should be a locally decided matter. Each board will need to think very carefully about who is most appropriate. We are encouraging local agencies to think about that now. We believe that it is very important.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, asked about the ability to cover more than one area. This a common piece of legislation, meant to deal with the issues of very small areas. I shall give specific examples of that in Committee.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Linklater and Lady Howe of Idlicote, and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, spoke about youth offending teams. The parties within youth offending teams are covered within the local children safeguarding boards. Therefore, de facto, youth offending teams are too.
I turn in particular to those involved with drug action teams and working with children and young people in substance and drug abuse raised made by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey. The constituent organisations involved in drug action teams, who the noble Baroness knows are the police, local authorities, probation services and primary care trusts, will be bound by this new co-operation arrangement and will therefore be represented. We envisage that the substance misuse agenda and the relevant support 1307 services for children and young people will be given due attention locally and will be embedded into that wider partnership.
I say to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, and the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that parents are the most important influence in a child's life. We need to provide backup and support to help parents and carers to support their children. However, as noble Lords would agree, ensuring that we support parents is not really a matter for legislation. In the Department for Education and Skills, we are rightly proud of the work that we are doing in this area through Sure Start, the family support grant programme and the new provisions in Clause 47 that enable us to pay into the parent fund, which will help to build capacity in the community and the voluntary sector and help us to recognise parents. I shall say that at all stages of the Bill if that will help noble Lords to understand that is critical. There is no desire to move away from that.
In answer to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, we expect that the director of children's services appointments will be made at chief officer or deputy chief executive level. As the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, rightly pointed out, we have good examples where these positions are already in place. There is some flexibility in the way in which different authorities have approached this. For example, there is one authority where the position covers all of education and social services, for both children and adults, and others where libraries or adult education have been brought in to it. These are good examples and I commend the examples given by the noble Lords, Lord Hanningfield and Lord Smith of Leigh, as being places that the noble Baroness might visit to see what is happening. In that context, we welcome the statement put out by the NSPCC and the Local Government Association. We believe that it supports the vision behind the Bill.
A number of noble Lords talked about issues around inspection and lead members. With permission, I shall write to them on those particular issues as they were specific and not matters of great concern. Copies of my letters will be placed in the Library of your Lordships' House.
On the issue of private fostering, I say to the right reverend Prelate that it is important that he understands that the four year sunset clause is the end. It is not that we will wait for four years. We have thought very carefully about whether to go for a registration scheme, with the possibility that it might drive people underground, or to look at some good examples where, by appointing people directly responsible for this, local authorities have dramatically increased the number of people coming forward. We have decided to look at that first. We reserve the right to take action, if need be, to do what we have said we will do within that sunset clause.
The national service framework is critical. As the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, will know, it is now jointly owned by the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills. It will play a key role in driving up standards. It is a critically integrated part of the work that we are doing.
1308 I shall not allow myself to finish without mentioning looked-after children as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, rightly referred to them. We need to ensure that local authorities do the things necessary to support the achievement of looked-after children well, consistently and in a sustained way. We believe that the guidance and the duty that we have laid on local authorities will make our expectations very clear. We think that is the most appropriate way forward. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, that we believe local authorities are the right place to put that duty. They all work closely with schools and will be aware of what is happening.
Both the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Thornton, raised the issue of child contact and their concern that they had wanted it to be brought forward. We have no 'plans to legislate on that in this Bill. We are committed to contact between children and parents where it is safe and in the best interests of the child. As noble Lords will know better than I, it was picked up in the Adoption and Children Act 2002. Section 120 amends the definition of "harm" in the Children Act 1989 to include, for example,impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another".I gather that during the recent Report stage of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill my noble friend Lady Scotland announced that Section 120 will commence in January 2005. That will mean that courts will need to take these matters into account when making contact arrangements.
A number of noble Lords raised the issue of the defence of "reasonable chastisement". It is vital that children are protected from violence and abuse with adequate safeguards—a point made by many noble Lords. In fact, the current legal framework provides that protection. The kind of punishment that results in injury is clearly not reasonable chastisement and as such is already against the law. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Laming, that the Government do not want to interfere with the legitimate and necessary rights of parents to create a supportive environment for their own families in their own way. As noble Lords have recognised, discipline and self-discipline are essential parts of that. We shall not legislate to create any new offences in that regard. Nevertheless, I understand the concerns that noble Lords have expressed. We are prepared to give careful consideration to any amendment brought forward on that issue. In particular, we shall want to consider whether they constitute a ban on smacking, which we would not support. Depending on their effect we shall consider allowing a free vote at the relevant stage of the Bill.
We shall have many more and interesting discussions on these provisions. To help with the process I shall share with noble Lords further written information on the proposed content of guidance and regulation in time for Committee stage. I am confident that the expert scrutiny that is the hallmark of this House will ensure that the legislation meets our high expectations.
Throughout this debate we have talked about the importance of listening to children and we have reflected on what they are telling us that they need. I 1309 was much taken with the test set by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and reflected in the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids: whether this Bill would have helped Victoria Climbié. I think that the information sharing databases would have enabled the many agencies that came into contact with Victoria to have made contact, and not least identified that she was not at school. I believe that the duties on individual services to promote children's welfare—police and nurses on the ward—would have encouraged these professionals to pay more heed to Victoria and her needs, not just those of the adults. I believe that the establishment of the post of Director of Children's Services would have led to a stronger culture of multi-agency working as part of the wider reforms referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, and the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. The workforce strategy that we are developing would have improved supply, skills, leadership and the motivation of those who dealt with Victoria. I also believe that the common assessment 1310 framework would have helped agencies to share information which would better have supported that cross-agency support.
None of us underestimates the importance and challenges of the agenda, but taking these steps is crucial. It is vital that we succeed. As my hero Nelson Mandela says:There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children".I believe that the Bill reveals us in a good light. I commend it to the House.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time.