HC Deb 12 July 2000 vol 353 cc1021-6
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

I beg to move amendment No. 8, in page 35, line 23, after "may", insert— '(a)'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 9, in page 35, line 27, at end insert— '(b) make recommendations concerning the operation of arrangements falling within subsection (2), (3) or (4) with the purpose of improving the effectiveness of those arrangements in safeguarding and promoting the rights and welfare of children to whom this Part applies; and (c) when he considers it necessary, or when requested so to do by the Secretary of State or the Assembly, prepare and submit, to the Secretary of State and the Assembly, proposals for amending the provisions of this Act or any other enactment or instrument as they relate to regulated children's services in Wales.'. Government amendments Nos. 83, 84 and 94.

Mr. Griffiths

I welcome the provision for a children's commissioner in the Bill, and the way in which the Government have acted since the Waterhouse report and other reports about the abuse of youngsters in care in Wales. I also welcome the way in which the Government have worked with the National Assembly for Wales in terms of clauses 71 to 77 and schedule 2.

However, I feel that my amendments will help to fine-tune and improve the Bill and the functions of the commissioner. The burden of the clauses is to emphasise the process and the functions that the commissioner will have in relation to individual children in regulated services in Wales.

The clauses are concerned with the duty of the commissioner to review and monitor the effectiveness of arrangements for safeguarding and promoting the rights and welfare of children participating in regulated children's services; the effectiveness of information disclosure; issues relating to criminality; the effectiveness of advocacy and advisory support services to enforce the provision of certain functions with regard to information; assisting a child in making a complaint; and giving advice to any person who requests it. In schedule 2 there is a power to make periodic reports relating to the exercise of the functions of the commissioner.

What is missing is any positive note that the children's commissioner should make recommendations for the improvement of the provisions made in the Bill. In this, I claim no originality; I looked at the remit of the Equal Opportunities Commission, which could, on its own initiative or at the request of the Secretary of State, bring forward proposals to amend the Act or any other Act relating to its functions.

It would strike a positive note in the Bill if we could give the commissioner the power to take such initiatives, which would involve making a recommendation to the Secretary of State in cases of primary legislation—either this Act or Acts related to regulated children's services in Wales. However, recommendations could also be made about secondary legislation, which would be a matter for the Assembly.

In both cases, the commissioner could make recommendations, or either the Secretary of State or the Assembly could request the commissioner to consider whether there was a need to change legislation to make it more effective. I hope that the Government will feel that they can accept the amendments, as that would be a good signal to the National Assembly and people involved in regulated services for children in Wales. The commissioner would be more than a person dealing with process and functions, and would have the positive role of being able to recommend changes in legislation—for this House or the Assembly—to ensure that safeguards for children in care are kept at the highest levels.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I welcome the proposal for the establishment of such an important post. Hon. Members will have some idea of how important my party thinks it is from the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) spoke about it on 17 March. and my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) did so on 18 May.

I had the privilege of moving an amendment—in fact, it was a new clause—to the Local Government (Wales) Bill back in May 1994, with the aim of establishing just such a commissioner. I argued that the commissioner should be responsible for the interests of children at all levels of policy and…ensure that current legislation is enhanced and that the current child-care agencies work together in close harmony in the best interests of children.—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 24 May 1994; c. 627.] The new clause was supported by all child care organisations in Wales and beyond, and by four royal colleges connected with health. Since then, there has been the Waterhouse inquiry. I congratulate the Government on having presented their proposals so promptly.

My new clause relating to the Local Government (Wales) Bill was supported by several Labour Members, and, indeed, by the current First Minister in the Welsh Assembly. It is interesting to note, for historical reasons, that much of the impetus for the creation of the commissioner's post has come from the Assembly, and I have no doubt that it is supported by the First Minister. I am pleased that we have taken this vital step at long last. We need a better understanding of the problems, on an inter-agency basis. "Working Together", the guidance on the Children Act 1989, demanded better inter-agency working, but it has been a while coming. Today's children, obviously, are tomorrow's society, and we owe it to future generations to do all we can to ensure the well-being of society.

I believe that we are striking a blow for our children and for the future, but, as I have said, it has been a long time coming. That is not meant as a criticism of the Government, but there has been a reluctance to recognise the concept of children's rights, as opposed to the Victorian idea that children should be seen and not heard. The establishment of a children's commissioner for Wales was a key recommendation of the recent Waterhouse inquiry into the awful abuse of children in north Wales children' s homes and foster care.

I support the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths). I seem to recall that he supported my new clause back in 1994; no doubt he, too, will be pleased that we have reached this stage.

We should pay regard to what the Welsh Assembly has said. It has said that it wants the commissioner to have a wide remit—not simply to deal with complaints, not even to liaise with various agencies, and not even to issue guidelines to local authorities and so on, but to take a role in the forming of policy that affects children.

On 3 July, I received a helpful letter from the Minister explaining some of the purposes of the Government's amendments and new clauses. I shall not give the details of the letter, but I hope that the commissioner will have a wide remit allowing him to deal not only with children in care, but with, for instance, circumstances in which current agencies and even the courts fail in their duties to children. I am thinking of circumstances in which a child's life is affected in any way. This may be a matter of general policy; it may involve a forum in which young people can discuss certain matters. I appreciate the whistleblowing aspect, to which the Minister's letter refers.

I hope that the commissioner will be able to formulate child-friendly policies in both the voluntary and the governmental spheres. I also hope that the establishment of this post will promote equal opportunities for the children of Wales, and that the commissioner will monitor the production of, for example, child impact statements. Much is expected of the commissioner. I hope that the office will live up to its name. I am delighted that it has been set up today, and I pay tribute to the Government for having moved so quickly.

I hope that, with the National Assembly, we shall be able to make a real go of the initiative. I am pleased that it was first considered in the National Assembly. In a way, it is a first for Wales. I hope that the Minister will assure the House that the office will have a broad remit and be able to take into account the important matters included in the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bridgend.

2 am

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I intend to be brief in supporting the amendments that have been tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths). I am pleased to speak in support of them because he has an excellent track record in working for children in Wales.

I should like clarification on the points that my hon. Friend has made about whether the commissioner will have the power to make proposals to amend the Bill when it has been enacted, or any other legislation that relates to children in Wales. It is important that the commissioner has a proactive role and is able to make positive suggestions; that must be made clear. It is the Welsh Assembly's intention that the children's commissioner and the office of the children's commissioner should develop, and that the commissioner can promote the interests of all children in Wales, not just the children who are referred to in the legislation. It is important that we make the commissioner's powers as wide as possible in the Bill.

It is important to remember that the commissioner's duties already go way beyond children in care. There is a misconception in Wales that the amendments to the Bill would cover only children in care. We are covering much more: children in day nurseries, the fostering and adoption of children, domiciliary services and all the regulated services. All that goes way beyond children in care.

A voluntary body has expressed concern to me about whether the Welsh commissioner can be an advocate and champion for children as well as an impartial investigator of complaints that arise. I would like the Minister's comments on that. As I see it, the commissioner's office will be able to deal with the wishes and concerns of children in the areas covered in the Bill, which obviously goes far beyond simply investigating complaints. I hope that the Minister will be able to comment on that.

The National Assembly intends the office to go far beyond the impartial office of an ombudsman. One of its main functions should be, and will be—the Assembly wants it to be—to promote and monitor the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, to raise the profile, to improve public attitudes towards children and to be a proactive force in Wales. I should like the Minister's assurance that nothing in the legislation would prevent the Assembly from developing a wider remit for the commissioner and from taking on wider functions, initially, of course, on a non-statutory basis.

The establishment of the commissioner is an important development in Wales. This is one of the first pieces of legislation introduced here that has been requested by the National Assembly, and it is an example of the partnership between Westminster and the Welsh Assembly. I understand that the Assembly plans to involve children in the recruitment and selection of the commissioner. That is giving children a voice in the selection, and it is a tremendous step forward. It is important to remember that the commissioner will not be just one person. There will be an office for the commissioner, with different people who can undertake the different functions that we envisage the commissioner having.

I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that the commissioner will have the powers proposed in amendments Nos. 8 and 9, and that further legislation will be introduced as soon as possible, in accordance with the wishes of the Assembly, to extend the commissioner's remit on a statutory basis to all children in Wales.

Mr. Hanson

The Government amendments in this group are minor and technical ones, tidying up the provisions for the commissioner.

I very much welcome the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) and for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan), and the generous welcome given to the Government's proposals by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd).

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North asked about the Bill's development. On 15 February, Waterhouse recommended establishment of the position of a children's commissioner. On 2 March, we stated that we would table relevant amendments. Subsequently, in Committee, we tabled the amendments, and today we are tidying them up.

We shall sympathetically and urgently consider the National Assembly's wish for a wider role. However, I hope that both the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North can accept that, although we are in discussions with the National Assembly, I cannot pre-empt a future Gracious Speech. Nevertheless, we shall certainly examine the possibility of expanding that role and fulfilling the full potential of the Waterhouse recommendations. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend.

Amendments Nos. 8 and 9, which were tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend, would include in the Bill a requirement for the children's commissioner in Wales to make recommendations to the Secretary of State or to the Assembly. I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend that the concepts of reviewing and monitoring such arrangements, and the provision for reports by the commissioner, are intended to encompass the making of such recommendations as his amendments seek to ensure will be made. It is implicit in part V that the commissioner will be able to make the type of recommendations suggested by my hon. Friend. It is therefore not necessary, I hope, for specific provision on the matter to be included in the Bill.

My hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend and for Cardiff, North also mentioned amendments to legislation. They will both be aware that primary legislation remains principally a matter for the Government and the House, whereas devolved secondary legislation is a matter for the National Assembly. I assure my hon. Friends that I am confident that if recommendations are made in reports by the commissioner that relate to changes in either primary or secondary legislation, strong and due consideration will be given to amending that legislation. The commissioner's reports will carry tremendous weight in the matter.

I hope that I have been able to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend on both those points, so that he will be able to withdraw his amendment. I genuinely welcome the general points that have been made in this debate, and I look forward to completing the remaining tasks at an appropriate parliamentary opportunity.

Mr. Win Griffiths

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for that very positive response to this short debate. I am sure that the words that will appear in Hansard will give great reassurance to everyone who works with children in Wales, both on the commissioner's specific power to recommend changes to primary and secondary legislation, and on development of the commissioner's role. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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