asked Her Majesty's Government:
Whether they have any plans to appoint a children's rights commissioner.
My Lords, the Government have made a number of commitments which will enable children's rights and safeguards to be kept under careful scrutiny. These include establishing children's rights officers in each of the eight commissions for care standards in England; joint reporting from all the inspectorates dedicated to children; and continuing the work of the ministerial task force on children's safeguards. The Government are not persuaded that it is desirable to create a national mechanism additional to the existing agencies and arrangements for ensuring that safeguards for children are implemented, and their voices heard.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that women, who represent 50 per cent. of the vote in this country, have a Minister to look after their interests and that the working age disabled, who represent about 13 per cent. of the population, are about to have a disability rights commission to look after their interests? Is it not reasonable that children, who represent 23 per cent. of the population and do not have a vote, should have an ombudsman dedicated to their interests to whom they or their parents can apply for redress when they are let down by officialdom?
My Lords, the Minister for Women has an important role in developing and promoting a whole range of women's issues in government. Dare I say that I think she does that job well? Of course, I very much share the concern of the noble Lord to ensure that children's rights come to the fore. However, one has to consider that as regards the services provided to children, statutory responsibilities go across a whole range of agencies both at national and local level. It is the Government's belief that we need a step by step approach to improving the delivery of children's services within the existing institutions and also in relation to the proposals that were enunciated in the social services White Paper published towards the end of the year. In that way we can give the right focus to protecting the interests of children.
My Lords, over the past two decades Members of both sides of this House and another place have played a significant part in securing arrangements which seek to protect children, including the establishment of commissioners, in several European countries. While one recognises that the Government's commitment to child welfare is undoubted, will my noble friend ensure that the experience in other similar European countries where commissioners have been appointed is monitored to ensure that we at least match the high standards which obtain there?
My Lords, I am happy to accept that we should continue to monitor the performance of children's commissioners in other countries. However, children's commissioners are not the only means to safeguard the rights of children. I believe that the Government's approach in taking decisive steps to improve the quality of services delivered to children, particularly within the remit of social services, is the right one. I draw my noble friend's attention to the proposed children's rights officers who, following legislation, will be established in each of the eight commissions for care standards. They will play a very important role in ensuring that the rights of children are fully taken into account.
My Lords, will the Minister also consider the rights of parents, particularly the rights of responsible parents? Does he agree that if they were given more support, perhaps there would be less need for a commissioner for children?
My Lords, the noble Baroness knows that the Government and I are very keen to support the role of parents. I do not believe that the concept of ensuring children's rights is in contradiction to family life, as I think the noble Baroness implies. Providing rights for children goes alongside responsibility. The more responsible children are. the more they contribute to family life.
My Lords, as a former chairman of the United Nations Children's Fund in this country, may I invite the Government to review their attitude towards this matter? We have, after all, signed and ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and appointing a commissioner would confirm our commitment to the cause. It would be widely welcomed in the United Nations. I hope it will be done.
My Lords, the noble Lord raises the very important issue of the UN convention in relation to the rights of children. The Government are to provide a report to the UN about this country's progress on those matters. In formulating our evidence we are gathering together the views of at least 10 government departments in Whitehall and also those of voluntary organisations with a particular concern in this area. The Government's contention is that we would not necessarily achieve the objectives of the UN convention by appointing a children's commissioner. It is important that we show we are safeguarding the rights of children; I believe that we are.
My Lords, is the Minister aware of some of the horrific modern problems, such as child pornography on the Internet? Would not a commissioner help to highlight some of these problems? Would not fast-track European legislation help in this regard?
My Lords, I am sure that all noble Lords recognise this particularly difficult issue. It is a problem well recognised by parents and the Government. But appointing a commissioner is not in itself the solution. These issues need to be dealt with by the current government departments and agencies. We should put the emphasis on making those departments and agencies work effectively rather than create another post which, in itself, could create boundary problems and duplication of effort.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there are cases which show that existing measures have not proved satisfactory? For example, there has been exploitation of children by parents, notably in entertainment and particularly in television advertising. It is precisely in that kind of area where the appointment of a commissioner would be particularly worth while. On reflection, does not my noble friend agree that that might be so?
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for pointing out a particularly difficult issue. The point I make, as I have done previously, is to say that merely appointing a children's commissioner does not necessarily solve the problems that have been raised. The Government's view is that we have to use our existing mechanisms more effectively. We need to develop the kind of initiatives that the Government are taking—particularly in the area of vulnerable children and children living away from home—to improve the quality and outcome of services and to ensure that the child's voice is heard.
My Lords, my noble friend having pointed out that responsibility for this topic is divided among 10 government departments, does he agree that the primary purpose of the United Nations convention is to address the whole field of children's rights as a unified whole? If so, is not dividing it up into separate topics, each with separate enforcement and monitoring machinery, akin to attempting to read a book one letter at a time?
My Lords, it is certainly very important for government to be aware of the, dare I say it, joined-up nature of the mechanisms required to deal with some of these issues. That is why we established a ministerial task force to look at safeguards for children living away from home. That has produced a number of very important measures which are being implemented, and shows what can be done when Whitehall departments work together. The task force involved 10 government departments. Inevitably, dealing with children is bound to involve many agencies—within government, local and national—and whether you create one child commissioner or continue to develop the services through individual departments, you will always have issues at the boundary, grey areas, which have to be negotiated. I am not convinced at this stage that simply appointing a children's commissioner will abolish at one stroke some of the impediments to a cohesive policy. In relation to the proposals for children's rights officers, we should hope to see legislation enacted as soon as the legislative timetable allows. We should see how that develops and then perhaps come back to the Question.
My Lords, since good parenting is the key to so much of what we want to deliver for children, does my noble friend agree that the establishment of the Institute of Parenting, under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Warner, will have a very important contribution to make in this regard?
My Lords, yes. I think all of us who are parents know the challenges that confront us in trying to be good parents. Any help that we can be given will be much appreciated.
My Lords, with reference to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, does the Minister agree that rights and responsibilities are inseparable whether one is talking about adults parents or children?
My Lords, yes. I very much agree.