The government is not convinced that the establishment of a children's ombudsman or commissioner is the best way of protecting the interests of children in care, health minister John Hutton told MPs.
Replying to the adjournment debate - coincidently at the end of the day when parliament heard details of the report into the North Wales child abuse inquiry - the minister said the government's decision to appoint a children's rights director as a senior member of the planned National Care Standards Commission 'captures the spirit' of the report's recommendation to appoint an independent children's commissioner in Wales.
He said listening to children made sense not only in terms of improving services, but it could promote their safety an welfare. 'However, it should not be the job of one person - a commissioner, an ombudsman or anyone else - to listen to children. We need a culture change for children's social services which is powerful enough to ensure that listening to children is the job of everyone who is involved with their care', said the minister.
The appointment of the children's rights director will be a real breakthrough for looked-after children, said Mr Hutton. The person appointed would, for the first time, be able to take a national overview of the rights of children and the way in which they were being cared for by local authorities.
Explaining why the government had rejected calls for a children's rights commissioner with responsibilities extending beyond children in care, he said: 'The government are not convinced that it would be desirable to create a new national mechanism additional to the courts, the police and prosecuting authorities, the various existing commissioners, including the parliamentary commissioner and the health and local government ombudsmen, the responsibilities of local and health authorities to deal with complaints, and the various inspection and regulatory arrangements for ensuring that safeguards for children are properly implemented and that their voices are heard'.
Tom Cox, Labour MP for Tooting, who chairs the social, health and family affairs committee of the Council of Europe, urged the government to follow example of other countries to appoint an ombudsman or commissioner to consult with children and to protect their interests. Countries which had such appointments included Norway, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, germany, Luxembourg, Iceland, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Costa Rica and Guatemala. Such an ombudsman would be there to consolidate the views of various children's organisations.
Not enough attention was given to the importance of respecting the best interests of children in legislation. There was no independent system of monitoring how legislation worked for the benefit of youngsters.
He said there was no great support for the appointment of the children's director in the Care Standards Bill. The organisations working with children had clear reservations. 'They think that the terms of reference are too narrow and they remain committed to the establishment of an independent ombudsman', added Mr Cox.
[COMMONS:15 FEBRUARY 2000:LAST TAKE:ENDS]