HC Deb 08 February 2001 vol 362 cc1144-53

'The Commissioner may at any time give advice to the Assembly on—

  1. (a) any changes which the Commissioner thinks should be made, for the purpose of securing improvement in the quality of services provided by the Assembly or local authorities in Wales in the exercise of their functions; or
  2. (b) any other matter connected with the exercise by the Assembly or local authorities in Wales of their functions,
where the exercise of those functions affects children.'.—[Mr. Walter.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

5.16 pm
Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

As was stated in our deliberations on the programme motion, the basic principle of the Bill is not a matter for great debate across the Chamber. In fact, there was a great deal of agreement in Committee about what we wanted to achieve. However, we failed to get the Government to agree to widen the scope of the role of the Children's Commissioner in a number of areas. New clause 2 is part of our general aim of widening the scope of the commissioner's role.

We believe that the Children's Commissioner should have the widest possible powers available to him to enable him to carry out the role of advocate for children in Wales and to look at cases of abuse and the whole range of children's rights, particularly those contained within the UN conventions to which we have signed up. I shall not deal with those points now, because they are outside the scope of the new clause, but no doubt there will be passing references to them on Third Reading.

The new clause deals with the advice that the commissioner can and should give to the Assembly and to local authorities. The Bill as drafted states only that the commissioner may review the effect on children of the exercise of functions of the Assembly or other people. Our new clause goes much further, allowing him to give advice on changes to improve the quality of services provided. The new clause includes all local authorities, while the schedule refers only to county councils and county borough councils.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

The hon. Gentleman's new clause makes an important statement about the functions of the commissioner. However, as clause 2 gives the commissioner extremely wide-ranging powers, is that not sufficient to cover the points that he raises? The hon. Gentleman will be familiar with clause 2, but I remind the House that it amends section 72 of the Care Standards Act 2000 and that it states: The principal aim of the Commissioner in exercising his functions"—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. This is developing into a speech. I think that the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) will have understood the point that is being made.

Mr. Walter

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Before tabling the new clause, we were of course cognisant of the existing wording of the Bill. However, we did not feel that it was sufficient to achieve the purpose that the new clause is intended to serve. Although I am intrigued by the comments of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), his short intervention does not convince me that the existing clause meets that purpose.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Is not the reason why the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) is wrong that clause 2 is only a statement of the purpose or objective of the commissioner and does not actually give the commissioner powers? It is the new clause that would confer powers on the commissioner.

Mr. Walter

My right hon. and learned Friend has rightly noted that we are trying in the new clause to give the commissioner powers that were not previously conferred.

We discussed the matter in Committee, although we did not force it, or any other matter, to a vote. In Committee, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey)—who is in the Chamber and who may want to speak—moved an amendment stating that The Commissioner may make appropriate representations…about any matter affecting the rights or welfare of children ordinarily resident in Wales. He said: It would mean that the remit of the commissioner could encompass all aspects of the rights and welfare of children who are ordinarily resident in Wales. The amendment would allow the commissioner to be a truly independent watchdog and champion of children, and would strengthen the Bill in four key ways."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 23 January 2001; c. 61.]

We expressed our concern that the definition in that amendment was far too wide. It would have allowed the commissioner to comment on anything, including family life. We have always made clear our anxiety about such an extension to the commissioner's powers.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

The motives behind the new clause are laudable. We want to improve the quality of the services. However, would the provision not create even more confusion concerning who exactly was responsible for certain matters? The new clause refers to giving advice; that is extremely subjective—such advice could easily be ignored. It refers to the quality of services. What is the quality of services? Perhaps the drafting of the Bill is at fault because it is not tight enough but perhaps there should be some reciprocity in the process.

Mr. Walter

The hon. Gentleman is correct that there is a fault in the drafting, which is why we are proposing the new clause. I hope that, as I develop my argument, the hon. Gentleman will understand why it would be a useful addition to the Bill and to the scope of the Children's Commissioner.

If the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire in Committee had been taken at face value, it would have allowed the commissioner to take upon himself powers to act rather like a health education authority. He would have been able to set out what was good practice and to tell parents that good practice was to do X, Y and Z. We do not want him to do that. It is right that he should consider child abuse in the home and, as we argued in Committee, problems in non-devolved bodies and cross-border issues. However, we were concerned that he should not somehow become the arbiter of good practice in bringing up children in normal family situations.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said in Committee, it is clear that, under that amendment, the Children's Commissioner could say anything about anything. We have made it clear that we do not wish the commissioner to be handcuffed, but confusion could arise about whether he could make pronouncements willy-nilly about family life styles and so on. That is not to say that we do not want him to refer to abuse that takes place in the home. We want his remit to cover abuse; what we do not want is for him to have a general remit that covers the various types and qualities of family life styles.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether, under new clause 2, the commissioner could make representations about the adequacy of services for homosexual young people or young people who are seriously questioning their sexuality?

Mr. Walter

New clause 2 would give the commissioner the power to advise local authorities about the services that they provide for children. If a local authority offers services specifically geared towards children who are in the circumstances to which the hon. Gentleman refers, that would fall within the Children Commissioner's remit. However, giving advice in those circumstances to children in a normal family environment would not fall within his remit.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)


Mr. Rogers


Mr. Walter

I am very conscious of the fact that, as we said in the debate on the programme motion, there is only a limited amount of time available. However, I understand that hon. Members want to intervene, so I shall give way—briefly, I hope—to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd).

Mr. Llwyd

Is not the crux of the argument whether the definition of the word "review" includes giving advice? Local authorities and the Assembly are, by virtue of schedule 2, bodies that come under the Bill. If the Minister were to say that the word "review" included giving advice, new clause 2 might be otiose. It is up to the Minister to respond on that point.

Mr. Walter

I shall obviously be interested in the Minister's response, but I do not think that using the word "review" necessarily means that the commissioner can advise local authorities. That is the reason why we have tabled new clause 2. We believe that the commissioner should have the power to give advice to local authorities.

Mr. Rogers

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. I become very disturbed when he talks about closing down the commissioner's remit on what he terms normal family situations. Given that most abuse takes place within families—what happens in institutions is dramatic and should not take place—the general suggestion that families should be left alone will leave many thousands of children vulnerable. I should be very much disturbed if the commissioner's remit were not extend to that

Mr. Walter

What disturbs me is the suggestion that most families are somehow guilty until proven innocent in such matters. Clearly, the commissioner's responsibilities include child abuse that takes place in family situations. Those powers are already vested in local authorities and social services departments; they already exist. The concern that we expressed on Second Reading and in Committee was that the commissioner would suddenly become the arbiter of good practice within a family situation. It is quite right that the commissioner should be the arbiter of good practice for children in care and children at risk, but not in a normal family situation.

5.30 pm

I fear that we have digressed. The new clause would cover the issues that I have mentioned and would deal with any function that the Assembly carried out in relation to children. It would also deal with incidents in which the Assembly failed to carry out a duty. There was broad agreement in Committee on that aim. I recall that the Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru representatives and some Labour Back Benchers all supported the aim and moved similar amendments to try to force this principle through. The Government made little response to our arguments in Committee, but this new clause would strengthen the powers of the commissioner and would be very much in the interests of children in Wales.

Mr. Llwyd

I shall be brief. By virtue of schedule 2A, the National Assembly and local government are bodies that come under the general purview of the clause. Therefore, the commissioner will have a right to review the exercise of functions by the Assembly and other persons, including local government.

I support the general thrust of the new clause; at the very least, it is a good probing new clause. The issue turns on whether the word "review" includes giving advice. In my respectful submission, it is inconceivable that the word "review" would not include giving advice. If the commissioner were to review a situation that was far from tolerable or far from acceptable and he were unable to give advice, his post would be virtually worthless. He would merely report, but would not be able to make recommendations. That would fly in the face of the Welsh Assembly's document, "A Children's Commissioner for Wales", which says: We want the Commissioner to ensure that children and young people are listened to and enabled to play an active part", and that they come into policy-making, planning processes, and provision for all relevant services.

The Minister would persuade hon. Members fairly easily if he said that the word "review" included the giving of advice. I find it inconceivable that it should not. If it does, I suggest, with respect to the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), that the new clause might be otiose.

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I shall speak briefly to agree generally with the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). I, too, find it inconceivable that the word "review" would not cover the suggestions that are made in the new clause.

The remarks of the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) on the family are a distraction from what the Bill seeks to do. It reflects badly on the Conservative party that it has taken this opportunity to throw up this issue. We should concentrate on the wording of the new clause, and I think that its provisions are covered by the current wording of the Bill. I shall be interested to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister says when he winds up the debate.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

I apologise for not taking part in the proceedings on the Bill's earlier stages. I once worked as a social worker in a children's home and, as a member of the Select Committee on Education and Employment, I have taken a keen interest in the early years of children's development. A few weeks ago, the Committee published a report on that subject.

A couple of years ago in the House I raised the issue of au pairs. I mention that for the following reason. There are many areas over which the commissioner has not been given jurisdiction but where, nevertheless, children may be at risk of harm. On the other hand, the commissioner has been given jurisdiction over, for example, the behaviour of teachers. Teachers are governed by the law of the land and are extremely well trained in handling children. One of the advantages of new clause 2 is that it would be possible for the commissioner to advise the Assembly on new areas to which his jurisdiction might be extended. I have in mind the issue of child carers.

During the Select Committee inquiry into the situation in Wales, as well as in England, we understood there to be something of a conflict. On the one hand, there is the need to have the highest quality of child care in the home so that mothers who want to work can do so. On the other hand, many working mothers do not attract a high level of pay. If the costs of paying for child care rise too much because the standards required are so high, many mothers who can now afford child care in the home will not be able to do so. If the commissioner were to recommend that his jurisdiction should extend into that sphere, I hope that that conflict, which is particularly relevant in Wales where low pay is an issue, would be borne in mind.

An issue arose in relation to au pairs two years ago, and I warned the Government about it. It continues in my constituency. Agencies that are active there but serve the whole country tell me that there is a problem. Since August 1997, au pairs have no longer been required to register with the police once they have been here for six months. That has had a bad effect on how we keep checks on that level of child care. Although we want to encourage cultural exchange with other countries—that is the purpose of the au pair scheme—inexperienced young people come to look after our children and the authorities have no idea whether they are doing the job properly. A commissioner given an advisory role in the Assembly could look into such matters and advise the Assembly that, although the Government in Whitehall were not prepared to reintroduce a registration system for au pairs, it might be appropriate in Wales.

The Select Committee also looked into the issue of smacking children. The all-party Select Committee has striven in all cases to reach a unanimous view by the time we produce a report—despite evidence today on another report. We took a great deal of evidence on smacking by child carers and whether it should be regulated by law. Many of us who instinctively feel that there should never be a law against parents smacking—what parents do to their children will always be restrained by love—nevertheless believe that there should be a legal restraint on child carers. That was the Committee's unanimous decision.

While we were reaching that decision, and the Minister concerned knew that we were reaching it, she conducted her own focus group research of a few hundred parents and concluded, based on that very small group, that it would be unpopular. Without waiting for our recommendation, she declared that there would be no such restraint on child carers.

Ms Julie Morgan

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that at this very moment a consultation exercise is taking place in Wales about whether child carers should be allowed to smack children in their care. The indications are that in Wales it will not be allowed.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I welcome that information. I was not aware of it, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady.

If we are to have a Children's Commissioner for Wales, we would want the commissioner to be involved in consultation in this area. It is not clear to me whether, in the absence of new clause 2, it will be possible for the commissioner to play a formal role rather than a series of informal roles, which I gather the Minister has intimated during previous proceedings would be appropriate. If we are to have a formal post, and it is to be paid, there should be formal responsibilities.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I have only a few insights to offer. I am sure that we should not be proceeding with such haste in respect of Wales without also considering the situation in England. If the new commissioner were to be given a wider remit under new clause 2, I would hope that he could give advice to the National Assembly for Wales on how to tell the Westminster Parliament—and, so long as we have a Labour Government for the next few months, a Labour Government—how to get its act together so that we have consistent provision of advice and a consistent framework so that children moving from one part of the country to another are given a seamless service by those in charge of them.

Mr. Rogers

As the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) said, the new clause is useful in that it enables us to consider various issues. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will acknowledge that any review should mean advice, or that the commissioner has the right to give advice beyond that. However, I am disturbed by some of the supporting arguments of Opposition Members, especially the continual reiterating of the argument that the commissioner does not really have a role within the family structure.

My first reservation, as I said in Committee, is that I would hate to see a tsar of child care telling local authorities that they must do this and that. Local authorities must be left to do their job, but they have manifestly failed to do so. That is why we are introducing the post of Children's Commissioner for Wales. If the commissioner is to be able to do anything, he must be in a position to lay down what is good practice. He must then ensure that local authorities implement at least that minimum level of good practice.

The Opposition are putting forward the idea that there will be somebody knocking at the door of family homes in the middle of the night and prying. That is nonsensical. As most child abuse takes place in families, there must be a way of adopting that approach eventually, but the commissioner does not need to do it. We must ensure that local authorities carry out their duties.

Mr. Walter

By means of the new clause, 1we want the commissioner to be able to give advice to local authorities on good practice. Part of good practice is being able to pick up at an early stage any cases of child abuse which, under current legislation, would come within the remit of the local authority's social services department. My references to the commissioner not being intrusive on the family were with respect to an amendment tabled in Committee which would have given him the power to lay down good practice within families, which I think is inappropriate.

Mr. Rogers

I beg to differ on that issue.

I return to the substance of the new clause. I have reservations about just giving advice and the quality of the process. I hope that the Minister will take cognisance of the fact that there is not any feedback or reciprocity in the suggested process. One can give advice ad nauseam, but whether it is taken up and acted on is another matter. Until the commissioner has a specific function in that respect, there will always be a weakness in the general process.

5.45 pm
Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)

I shall make just a few points, as most of those that I was going to make have already been made. I stress that it is important that the new clause broadens and extends powers. The hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) rightly pointed to amendments that I tabled in Committee, which extended powers much more widely than does new clause 2.

Obviously, "advice" is the key word. Reference has been made to the quality and standard of services provided by the Assembly and local authorities. If there is to be a children's champion—a Children's Commissioner for Wales—he must oversee a service with an extremely high standard. My experience of local authorities in Wales is that, on the whole, they are conscientious and want to carry out their tasks. Very often, however, they are underfunded. The standards and improvements that the commissioner would, I am sure, wish to instate will sometimes not be attainable because of lack of funding.

Two issues are involved. Crucially, funding of the National Assembly for Wales, which comes via the Welsh block, is decided here through negotiations and is eventually negotiated by the Secretary of State with the Assembly. There ought to be provision in the Welsh block to achieve adequate funding of local authorities and social services departments within those authorities. That funding often varies because of the different priorities of different local authorities in Wales.

The role of the Children's Commissioner should include being able to give advice so that standards are maintained and improved. I should like to think that the new clause is a probing one, which tries to ensure that that would be brought about. By the same token, that could be solved by the Minister responding to our debate with a clear statement that "review" and "advice" are virtually the same thing, and that advice can be freely given by the Children's Commissioner for the benefit of children.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson)

I hope that I will be able to satisfy hon. Members on the points that they have made to the Government. I respect the views of the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) on the matters that he raised. However, on reflection, I hope that he, other Opposition Members and my hon. Friends will accept that there is little difference of view—dare I say, no difference?—between the Government and Opposition Members on the principle behind new clause 2. I hope that the hon. Member for North Dorset will accept my assurance that the power to give the advice envisaged is already encompassed in the Bill.

Clause 3 introduces a new power for the commissioner to review the effect on children in Wales of the exercise of any function of the Assembly and of any function of local authorities, as well as other public bodies listed in schedule 2A. That power includes reviewing the effect of the provision of services. Indeed, as has been mentioned, clause 2 states: The principal aim of the Commissioner is to safeguard and promote the rights and welfare of children to whom this Part applies.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) mentioned, the Government believe both that the commissioner will be able to report on the outcome of his reviews and that his reports can include recommendations and advice for action. I very much share the view of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy—and the spirit in which it was expressed—that that is the intention of the Bill; I hope that it reflects the intention of the Opposition's new clause.

The commissioner may also give advice and information to any person in connection with his functions. The Bill therefore provides fully for the intention of the new clause. Indeed, I envisage that giving such advice will be one of the commissioner's central functions. That is the hope of the Government and the National Assembly.

I shall try to cover the points raised in the debate. The key point, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for North Dorset, relates to family policy. The National Assembly for Wales considered the matter. In its report on the Children's Commissioner, the Health and Social Services Committee recommended that the commissioner should focus on policies and services that affect children.

In the Assembly debate on the report, which took place on 7 June last year, it was accepted that it was not the intention that the commissioner should exercise functions, such as investigations, in respect of families. Those powers are rightly held by different bodies accountable to the Assembly.

That does not mean that the commissioner will never comment on issues that affect family life. There are many issues affecting children on which he may want to bring broad conclusions to the attention of the Assembly or, informally, to the attention of Government. I remind the hon. Member for North Dorset that his colleague in the Assembly, David Melding, helpfully clarified the fact that a fully effective Children's Commissioner will be available to offer great support to parents, without undermining the responsibility of the family in any way. Given the general principle that we held throughout Committee—that it is not the prime function of the commissioner to investigate individual cases—I hope that I have dealt with the point.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) has left the Chamber, as he contributed to our short debate. He mentioned a range of issues relating to child care. I hope that he will reflect on what I shall say when he has an opportunity to read Hansard on the train in the near future.

Provided that the services are regulated by the National Assembly, the commissioner has a direct responsibility, under the Bill, to examine those areas. For areas not regulated by the Assembly, he does not have that direct responsibility, and those are areas that we can consider.

I had intended to answer the point made by the hon. Member for Guildford about England, but as he is not present I shall leave that for another day. Perhaps he will reflect on his contribution and consider whether he wants to write to me about those matters. He spoke only seven or eight minutes ago, so it is important that he should allow the Government the opportunity to respond.

The final point relates to the fact that the post of commissioner is a statutory office. It therefore has functions conferred upon it by law, but those functions are guided by the principle that the National Assembly for Wales has responsibilities, which are the areas that the commissioner will examine.

As I said repeatedly in Committee, in the course of his work the commissioner may receive representations on a range of issues, including non-devolved matters. The commissioner is perfectly entitled to bring those matters to the attention of the relevant Government Departments. That does not give him substantive functions in non-devolved areas, nor will he have formal power to require information in relation to such matters, but he will be able to make informal comments.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Guildford is back. I was not trying to disparage him in his absence, but I have responded to some of the points raised in his contribution. I hope that he will read my response.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I hope that the Minister will accept my apologies for being temporarily absent from the Chamber.

Mr. Hanson

In the spirit of close co-operation that existed in Committee and on the Floor of the House, I graciously accept that. None of my comments were intended to disparage the hon. Gentleman, but in his absence it was difficult to respond to his comments.

I shall deal now with the hon. Gentleman's point about England. Obviously, the Bill is the product of devolution. The National Assembly and the Government are working in partnership to establish a Children's Commissioner for Wales. I understand that the Northern Ireland Assembly has expressed the wish to establish a children's commissioner for Northern Ireland. The British Government will examine the implications and reflect on that as it relates to Government policy for England. The Scottish Executive will also have opportunities to reflect in due course.

I hope that I have reassured the hon. Member for North Dorset. I emphasise my belief that there is no difference of view between the Government and the Opposition on the principle of the new clause. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press it to a Division, that he accepts my explanation and that he will ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Mr. Walter

I am conscious that only 20 minutes remain because of the pernicious guillotine under which we are working, so I shall not say an awful lot. I accept the Under-Secretary's assurances and I hope that the practice of the commissioner will allow him to give the advice that we sought to insert in the Bill through the new clause. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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