HC Deb 08 February 2001 vol 362 cc1153-69

'( ) In section 74(3) of the Care Standards Act 2000 (examination of cases) before paragraph (a) insert— (a1) requiring persons to allow the Commissioner access to institutions which include children to whom this Part applies;".'—[Mr. Win Griffiths.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Win Griffiths

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

I am glad that we have the opportunity to debate the new clause. The Standing Committee's debate on access and the helpful letter that the Under-Secretary circulated to its members mean that we can deal with the proposal within the time allowed.

During the debate in Committee, it was recognised that the hierarchy of supervisions, if I can call it that, already contained provision for the social services inspectorate to access institutions in which children were in care. However, one of the points made by the Waterhouse report was that the social services inspectorate sometimes did not do its job properly. Hon. Members were concerned that the commissioner might occasionally find it essential or worth while to visit a children's home to get a feel for the issues at stake in a complaint that he is considering, even though that might not happen often. He might want to visit an institution if a complaint had general ramifications for the way in which children's services are provided in Wales. Although it will not be the commissioner's role to investigate each of the complaints that are received, some of them may involve a general concern. He would be acting well within his powers if he were to make an investigation in respect of such complaints.

The Committee listened to the Under-Secretary's words about the role of the social services inspectorate and his assurances that the commissioner would not need to make such visits very often. He told us that he would consider how the commissioner might ensure that he obtained necessary access. I would like to make other hon. Members aware of the letter that he circulated. In relation to examination of particular cases by the commissioner, the letter states: given the background that will inform the Assembly's regulations on the types of cases which may be considered, I consider the possibility remote. It further states that it would be possible for the Assembly to make orders by virtue of regulations under section 74(3) of the Care Standards Act 2000.

After reading the letter, I went on to read that section 74 of that Act ensures that the Assembly would have power to make provision for the examination by the Commissioner of the cases of particular children to whom this Part applies. It goes on to state: The regulations may include provision about…the circumstances in which an examination may be made and the procedure for conducting an examination, including provision about the representation of parties. On reflection, I felt that the Under-Secretary had pointed out a way in which access could be dealt with.

6 pm

In his letter, the Minister wrote: if the Commissioner considered that his examination of a particular case would be aided by a visit to an establishment that came within his jurisdiction, there would be nothing to prevent him from making an appropriate request to the establishment. Provided the request was reasonable, I think a refusal would be very shortsighted, given the adverse publicity that could ensue.

Could an institution refuse the commissioner permission to visit when his intention to visit related to an issue arising from the public funding of a place in that institution? I am not talking about privately funded institutions, although the Minister might wish to consider issues relating to those. I should not have thought that a publicly funded institution would have the right to refuse the commissioner entry when he was investigating a particular case. However, I am satisfied that the Minister's letter covers the main points.

Mr. Llwyd

Although the hon. Gentleman and I are striving to achieve the same end, I take a contrary view. Surely the inspectorate, rather than the commissioner, would be responsible for any such investigation.

Mr. Griffiths

I was trying to go a step further. We have to assume that the commissioner would want to visit only if there had been a problem with the way in which the inspectorate had conducted its own visit. I want to know whether, in the exceptional circumstances I have cited—given that the places would be publicly funded—an institution could refuse entry to the commissioner. There is also the possibility that the commissioner would want to visit an institution with privately funded places.

I hope the Minister can respond to the points that I have raised.

Mr. Livsey

I want to know how the satisfaction expressed by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) can be wholly realised, and how we can ensure proper access to institutions and proper examination of cases.

In the latter context, the obtaining of information, explanations and assistance is particularly important. Almost regardless of the circumstances, people should have to give the commissioner the necessary information, or require those who hold or are accountable for information to provide the commissioner with explanations or other assistance. That must enable the commissioner to have direct access to institutions.

Standards vary in residential children's homes. Access to such homes is important. The new clause is also relevant to detention centres, although here I am casting the net a bit wider. There are not many detention centres in Wales—I know of only one—and it worries many of us that young people are often miles from their homes, culturally removed and in an alien environment that their parents are unable to visit. That issue—which is currently dealt with under non-devolved regulations—underlines the need in Wales for more facilities of that kind that the Children's Commissioner could examine. The children's ombudspeople in the rest of Europe are empowered to monitor and report on anything affecting children's human rights. Such human rights will be at the forefront of the commissioner's examination of cases that come before him.

The Government have made it clear that the commissioner would not necessarily need the power to enter institutions, and that inspectorates already have the right of access. We debated that issue earlier. However, experience has demonstrated that the greatest risk to children exists in the small number of cases in which the parties are obstructive. The Children's Commissioner would not be involved in the work of such inspectorates, except in the case of an alleged failure.

The Children's Commissioner should have the express power to visit, and have access to, institutions such as residential children's homes, and to obtain information from foster parents—an issue that has not been discussed a great deal—as well as to require bodies or persons to provide information. I should be grateful if the Minister would address those points, because they lie at the crux of the new clause. The jury is out on whether he will be able to convince us.

Ms Julie Morgan

Many of the points that I was going to raise have already been covered, so I shall be brief.

The new clause is important, because the Children's Commissioner should have the specific power of access to institutions, both public and private, in which children are cared for. The issue of the care standards inspectorate has been raised in Committee and in the House. We accept that the inspector's role, as part of a separate agency, is to inspect services for looked-after children, and that the commissioner should not duplicate that role. However, the commissioner should have a specific role in relation to failures of the inspection service.

One of the lessons that we have learned from all the tragedies in Wales and throughout the UK is that children are not always listened to, and that the inspection systems can fail. That is why it is so important that the Children's Commissioner should have the right of access in cases where the inspection system may have failed.

I accept what the Minister said in his letter about the refusal of admittance to any establishment being short-sighted and quite unlikely to happen. However, there have been major scandals in the care system. People who sexually abuse often target the care system and try to get jobs that provide access to vulnerable children. We must do everything in our power to prevent that from happening. Although most institutions are very caring places, we know that there is a network of abusers who target the care system. Granting the commissioner the right of access would help in the process of opening up the care system to scrutiny. It would also make a difference to the behaviour of some of the very dangerous people who sometimes get into the system.

The Minister said in his letter that the statutory right to physical access was, by its nature, an invasive power that should be granted only when absolutely necessary. In many cases, the institutions in question would be children's homes, so we should be careful about giving people the power to enter them. However, in view of all the problems that have arisen, an invasive power—as the Minister described it—is necessary. It would not be used willy-nilly. The commissioner will work strategically and would not demand entry to children's homes as a matter of course. The new clause gives the commissioner more teeth and sends a clear signal that we will not tolerate any more abuse in children's homes in Wales. That is an important step towards safeguarding all our children in Wales.

Mr. Llwyd

The third paragraph of the letter that has been mentioned states that the Children's Commissioner's work includes neither regulation nor inspection. I do not take much comfort from that. I accept what is said in a later paragraph about when the inspectorate has failed, but it is a bit late to act at that point, when traumatic reports will doubtless be made.

As the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) said, we need to allow the commissioner to move in sufficiently early. There is nothing wrong with the new clause; it does not involve duplication. The NSPCC is worried about the matter that we are discussing and supports the new clause. Plant yng Nghymru—Children in Wales—also strongly favours including such a right of access in the Bill.

As the hon. Lady said, some abusers are sophisticated, and every possible measure must be used against them. The new clause constitutes a minor amendment. If the Minister claims that it is substantial and that it somehow alters the Bill, I respectfully remind him that at least two measures that are being considered grant an invasive power. For example, the Vehicles (Crime) Bill grants a new, sweeping power to move into scrap yards and places where number plates are produced. If that is allowed, surely we can permit a power that will protect children who may be at risk. I ask the Minister to reconsider.

Mr. Hanson

I have little time, but I shall try to deal with the points as best I can. First, as I made clear in Committee and in the letter to hon. Members, I want to ensure that the Children's Commissioner has all the necessary powers to prevent a recurrence of the circumstances that led to the Waterhouse report.

The Bill gives the commissioner an impressive armoury. First, he will be able to inquire into, and report on, the actions of the care standards inspectorate. As I said in my letter, regulations under section 74 of the Care Standards Act 2000 grant the commissioner the right to information, explanations and other assistance in making such inquiries. He will be able to inquire into the actions of a body that runs a children's home or an institution and the relevant social services departments. Those inquiries can be strongly supported by the right of access to information, explanations and assistance. Such powers will be more than helpful if the commissioner decides that there is a reason to investigate a social services department or even the care standards inspectorate.

If the commissioner believed that it was necessary for him to visit premises, nothing in the Bill would prevent him from requesting a visit. It is unlikely that such a request would be refused. If that happened, I am sure that the commissioner would make a strong report to the Assembly on the reasons for the refusal and the grounds on which he wanted to examine the premises in the first place.

In answer to questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), all premises, private and public, have the right to refuse the commissioner access. However, let us put that in context. The commissioner would make such a request only because of the failure of the inspectorate system, which he examines. That system will undertake regular inspections; it is the commissioner's duty to inspect the inspectors.

Fewer than 10 per cent. of looked-after children in Wales are in homes; most are in foster care. I hope that the system is sufficiently robust. On the basis of my letter and my comments today, I hope that my hon. Friend will withdraw the motion.

Mr. Win Griffiths

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the reassurance that he has given. Perhaps the Government will reconsider such a provision in another place, but as there are probably powers to enable the Assembly to make appropriate orders, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Order for Third Reading read.

6.15 pm
Mr. Hanson

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Labour party went into the elections for the National Assembly for Wales committed to the creation of an independent statutory Children's Commissioner for Wales. The Government have shared that commitment by acting swiftly and sympathetically to ensure that the required legislation is put in place. I believe that the whole process has been a testament to successful partnership working between the Government and the Assembly, and—to give credit to those who served on the Committee—between the parties in the House and the Assembly. We achieved a speedy passage of the Bill in Committee and on Report.

Last year, the Government acted quickly to amend what was then the Care Standards Bill to establish the office of the Children's Commissioner for Wales and to give the commissioner powers that reflected the recommendations in the Waterhouse report. They relate to children's services regulated under the Care Standards Act 2000, and represented the speediest possible response to Sir Ronald Waterhouse's recommendation of the establishment of a Children's Commissioner for Wales. The Secretary of State's announcement, made so speedily after Sir Ronald's recommendations in February last year, is a testament to the Government's commitment to tackle child abuse, in partnership with the National Assembly.

Wales now has its first Children's Commissioner, Peter Clarke. I take this opportunity to wish him well in his post, which he will take up on 1 March—just over a year after the publication of the Waterhouse report. The Government have introduced legislation to extend the commissioner's powers in response to the Assembly's vision.

By adding to the scope of the commissioner's functions, the Bill will allow the Assembly to achieve its strategy for a statutory, independent commissioner with a wide-ranging role, who can be—I emphasise this strongly—a champion for all the children and young people in Wales.

The Bill has undergone scrutiny in Committee and I thank Committee members for their constructive contributions. I accept that we have made no amendments, but I believe that there has been an exploration of the Bill and that we have achieved broad consensus around the concept of a Children's Commissioner, which has allowed informed discussion and speedy progress.

I recognise that there are some concerns, but I hope that I have dealt with them in Committee and on Report. There will be opportunities for further discussion in another place—to the satisfaction of all hon. Members of both Houses, I hope.

The Bill will introduce a power for the commissioner to review the effect on children in Wales of the activities of the Assembly, local authorities, health authorities and other public bodies sponsored by the Assembly. The public bodies concerned are not confined to those primarily concerned with services for children. They encompass a wide range of organisations whose actions may impact upon children, such as the Welsh Development Agency, the Sports Council for Wales and the National Museums and Galleries of Wales.

The Bill will back up the widened role by extending the commissioner's powers under the Care Standards Act 2000 to examine cases of particular children, and to assist in particular cases. I pay tribute to Jane Hutt and her Committee in the Assembly and to the officials who have supported the progress of the Bill. Assembly regulations will be set out in detail, but the role potentially applies to the activities of all bodies referred to in the Bill.

The extent of the commissioner's power to review and monitor arrangements for complaints procedures, whistleblowing and advocacy will also be greatly increased by the Bill. This power will be applied to a far wider group of bodies that provide direct services to children in Wales, including local authorities.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) because I had intended to refer to him in an earlier discussion. He mentioned the problem of funding for local authorities. I can only say—I mean this genuinely—that the £10 billion that the Government have given to the National Assembly as part of the comprehensive spending review represents the most significant increase in public spending in Wales in my Lifetime—and, I suspect, in the lifetime of every hon. Member. It is for the Assembly to determine its expenditure, but I believe that much of it will go to local authorities to support the work that they are undertaking.

The commissioner's role will extend to local authorities, the NHS, schools and training organisations. Eventually, Assembly regulations will be able to give the commissioner the power to require bodies to provide him with information if they are involved in the investigation of individual cases, or if arrangements for complaints, whistleblowing and advocacy are being monitored. Legal sanctions are already available for failure to comply.

In performing all the functions under clauses 2 and 3, the commissioner will have principal aim of safeguarding and promoting the rights and welfare of children in Wales. That is a major step forward for children in Wales, and for the Assembly and the Government. The new functions proposed in the Bill will enable the commissioner to act as a powerful defender of the rights of children. His field will be the whole range of devolved public services in Wales, and his task will be as challenging as it is worth while. I am confident that the Bill will give him the statutory backing that he needs.

The House, the Government and the National Assembly for Wales have to do everything in our power to ensure that the horrors dealt with in the Waterhouse report are never repeated. I believe that the establishment of the Children's Commissioner and the powers that the House and the Assembly wish him to exercise will ensure, as far as we are able to, that those horrors are never repeated.

6.21 pm
Mr. Walter

It is unfortunate that our proceedings on the Bill are so rushed. I shall have to keep my remarks relatively brief.

In all our consideration of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and I have been consistent and positive in supporting the concept of establishing a Children's Commissioner. I thought that the Minister was a little remiss in claiming credit for the Labour party, while failing to point out that it was my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition who, when he was Secretary of State for Wales, established the Waterhouse inquiry, which led to this legislation.

Last year, my colleagues who were involved in the consideration of the Care Standards Act 2000 supported the provisions establishing the Children's Commissioner for Wales. Even at that time, however, they questioned the lack of an equivalent provision for England.

The National Assembly for Wales has expressed its concerns about some of the limitations on the commissioner's remit. On Second Reading, in Committee, and earlier today on Report, we have alluded to some of the Bill's remaining defects. There is still a lack of clarity in distinguishing between the rights and responsibilities of parents and those of the Children's Commissioner. I have no doubt that those matters will be revisited in another place.

The Bill's most significant defect, however, arises from the devolution settlement. The public bodies in Wales that fall within the Bill's scope are listed in schedules to the Bill. However, the Government of Wales Act 1998 did not create a world in which all child abuse would be committed only by institutions subject to the supervision of the National Assembly, while those who administer other public bodies in Wales would be sanctified and, by statue, become no threat to children's rights. That is clearly nonsense. The immigration service, the Prison Service, the police and the Army are only a few of the many public bodies that operate in Wales but are not covered by the Bill.

The schedules to the Bill cover the Welsh Language Board, but not Sianel Pedwar Cymru, which is probably the most significant promoter of the language. Such a nonsense would not exist if we had a children's rights commissioner for England and Wales, or for the whole of the United Kingdom. It would not exist, either, if we were to recognise in this limited Bill—it is limited to Wales—that public bodies in Wales are both devolved and non-devolved, and that the commissioner could be responsible not only to the Assembly for activities within its remit, but to the House for non-devolved matters.

We must now look to their lordships to improve the Bill as we seek to improve it. Conservative Members both in Wales and in this place will support such change—which is entirely consistent with what has been said in the Assembly by Members from all parties who want the commissioner's remit to extend not only to public bodies that fall within the scope of the Assembly's powers, but to those within the remit of this place.

We must not lose the plot. The Waterhouse report was about children in care, and the commissioner's primary responsibility must be towards children in care and children at risk. He has to get that right. Then we can look to him to be a key advocate in all other areas of public administration, whether they fall within the scope of the Assembly or of the United Kingdom Departments.

In evidence to the Health Committee in January 1998, the Government said that they were considering the matter as part of a response to the UN committee on compliance with the convention on the rights of the child. The report of the Health Committee, of which I was a member, was more definite. We argued that it was right for the United Kingdom to follow the example of a number of other western countries by creating the post of a children's rights commissioner.

We proposed a commissioner who would have the duty to promote awareness of the rights of the child; highlight ways in which present and proposed policy fails to deliver those rights in practice; conduct formal investigations into alleged breaches of children's rights; ensure that children have an effective means of redress when their rights are disregarded; and carry out and commission research relevant to safeguarding children's rights.

The Conservative party in both Westminster and Cardiff believes that it is appropriate that the commissioner should look after children in the care of local authorities and other public bodies, but we do not believe that the Bill is specific enough about his powers.

The Opposition have specific concerns about protecting the role of the family and of parents. We mentioned some of those on Report. The Bill will give the commissioner a wide remit, and we want to be careful not to allow him to supplant the parent. Parents should always be given the first opportunity to speak up for their children. We have said that, and we will oppose any measure that allows the commissioner to intervene unnecessarily in the family unit.

We also have concerns that the role of the commissioner is confused. For example, he has not been given jurisdiction over many areas in which children may come to harm, but he has specific roles in respect of schools, where teachers already play a vital part in protecting their pupils' welfare.

We feel that the Bill falls far short of the Assembly's vision. The job of commissioner is an independent post, funded by the Assembly, but the legislation makes no provision for him to be made accountable to Parliament. We believe in an effective commissioner who does not supplant parents' role, who has parents' confidence, whose role extends to all public bodies, and whose function could apply as much to England as it does to Wales.

6.28 pm
Mr. Win Griffiths

Getting the Bill through all its stages in the House has been a triumph. The Government responded very quickly to the Waterhouse report, got the post of Children's Commissioner for Wales established in the Care Standards Act 2000 and, following consultation with the National Assembly, introduced the much wider-ranging powers that the commissioner now has under the Bill.

I am pleased that the Children in Wales Commissioner Campaign Group, which encompasses all the major children's charities in Wales, has welcomed the Bill and is pleased with the way in which the Government have acted, although it would have liked the commissioner, in a more focused and statutory way, to have been given a much wider role. Nevertheless, they have welcomed the Bill and want it to be enacted as soon as possible.

I should like to address some of the matters that the members of the campaign group have raised. They felt that under this Bill the Children's Commissioner would be merely an ombudsman for children's services, and that the post did not aspire to being a human rights institution. However, I believe that clause 2 gives the commissioner a basis for such an aspiration. It states: The principal aim of the Commissioner in exercising his functions is to safeguard and promote the rights and welfare of children to whom this Part applies. The schedule to the Bill means that any child treated in the national health service comes under the Bill, so any child in Wales can be considered.

Moreover, children who ordinarily live in Wales but who are treated in England, and whose treatment is paid for out of the Welsh purse, will also be covered. Therefore, I am sure that a commissioner with the necessary drive and foresight will be able to use the legislation to ensure that his office is a human rights institution. I have every confidence that Peter Clarke will be able to do that. Children cannot be divided into devolved and non-devolved parts, so it will be important for the commissioner to take that positive view.

The Children in Wales Commissioner Campaign Group set out five essential characteristics for the commissioner. They were that he should be able to set his own agenda, that he should be able to use the framework of the UN convention on the rights of the child as a guide, that he should have a special obligation to maintain direct contact with children, that he should act as a spokesman for children, and that he should promote respect for the views of children throughout society. I believe that the Bill enables the commissioner to do all those things. There is certainly nothing in it to prevent him from doing them.

In Committee, we discussed the campaign group's concerns about how the commissioner would operate. The group wondered whether he would be able to report on primary legislation and potential primary legislation, and whether he would have the right to comment freely on non-devolved matters and functions when they have an impact on children in Wales.

The group was also concerned about whether he would be able to represent the interests of children who are ordinarily resident in Wales but who receive services, or who are accommodated, outside Wales, and whether he would be able to consider and make appropriate representations on any matters that, through consultation and other contact with children and young people in Wales, emerge as key concerns. The responses given by my hon. Friend the Minister at the Dispatch Box and in Committee have made it clear that the commissioner will be able to perform all the functions set out by the campaign group.

Nevertheless, some concerns remain. The Government want the Children's Commissioner for Wales to be successful, and they have a liberal interpretation of the way in which he will operate with the powers granted by the Bill. Perhaps the campaign group is right to wonder whether in 50 years time or so, a different Government might take a less liberal view. By that time, however, I imagine that the success of the commissioner in Wales, using the powers granted by the Bill, will have meant that there will be a role for a commissioner throughout the United Kingdom, with complete statutory backing and all the powers that any of us would ever want him to have. It needs to be emphasised that the commissioner introduced by this Bill will be independent. That is very important.

In conclusion, the problem of the relationship between devolved and non-devolved matters will mean that it is very important for the commissioner to network with, and work closely with, people such as the chief inspector of prisons. In that way, he will be able to make sure that children anywhere in Wales will have his backing when it comes to dealing with people in independent posts such as that. With close co-operation between the commissioner and those who hold similar offices, I am sure that the Bill will be a landmark in the progress that we are making to redress the terrors that children have suffered for far too long in many parts of Wales under the old system.

A new dawn is coming, and I believe that there will be further progress. Let us give the Bill the strongest possible support, to ensure that it is enacted before the election.

Several hon. Members


Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal)

Order. As many people wish to make a contribution to this short debate, I ask Members to be as concise as possible.

6.35 pm
Mr. Livsey

I will endeavour to abbreviate parts of my speech, Madam Deputy Speaker.

This is an historic occasion, because the Bill is the first piece of primary legislation specific to Wales since devolution. Liberal Democrats welcome the introduction of a Bill to extend the powers of the Children's Commissioner.

Children are a particularly vulnerable group, as has been demonstrated clearly by the Waterhouse tribunal report on abuse in children's homes in north Wales. I commend every member of the Standing Committee that considered the Bill for the sincerity and motivation that they showed in supporting it. It has been excellent. In some respects, however, the Bill has not met the aspirations of the National Assembly. I believe that technical problems were responsible.

The Liberal Democrats had a manifesto commitment in the National Assembly elections to appoint an independent Children's Commissioner for Wales. It is interesting that no amendments have been accepted during the Bill's passage. I believe that many of the amendments tabled in Committee followed pretty closely the wishes of the National Assembly for Wales.

It should be the duty of the commissioner to represent the views of children and to promote, for example, the implementation of the UN convention on the rights of the child. In debates on that issue, we emphasised that such rights were better discharged at small nation level.

The commissioner cannot comment on the decisions of courts and tribunals. That is to do with the fact that the Assembly only has secondary legislative functions and it points to some inadequacies in the Government of Wales Act 1998. The Government should, in another place, try and tease out, among all the parties in that place, the vexed issue of non-devolved matters that impinge upon children in Wales. There is no doubt that difficulties arise in the context of social security problems, legal problems and matters involving children in care outside Wales.

There are strict limitations on the scope of the Children's Commissioner's powers, as they cover only persons and services over which the National Assembly has responsibility. Obviously, I welcome that as a massive move forward. However, we need an independent commissioner who is able to get involved in any matter that may affect the rights and welfare of children.

The Bill broadens substantially the powers of the commissioner. He should be able to make representations on any matter affecting children in Wales, and the Bill goes a long way to achieving that.

The amendments may have been resisted on the grounds that to accept them would in some way undermine the Government of Wales Act 1998. I do not know whether that is true, but I suspect that it may be. It would appear that the Children's Commissioner would be allowed to make representations only about those matters specifically devolved to the National Assembly. If we examine the 1998 Act, the form of the Bill is understandable.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify how that point relates to the commissioner's responsibilities under schedule 2A in respect of matters that might otherwise fall within the ambit of the chief inspector of education in Wales, who reports back to Westminster rather than to the Assembly?

Mr. Livsey

The hon. Gentleman draws attention to several anomalies. The correct assertion that devolution is a continuing process accounts in part for some of them.

Mr. Hanson

To clarify the matter, the chief inspector of schools in Wales reports to the Assembly.

Mr. Livsey

I am not surprised to hear that. I do not have the Minister's resources, so I was not well enough briefed to make that response to the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn).

It is essential that, eventually, the commissioner's powers be extended to cover primary legislation—to encompass aspects such as social security. It has been argued that if the commissioner has statutory powers to comment on non-devolved matters, he will, in effect, have the power to require information from Departments of the UK Government. I suspect that that might be a problem.

Although the power does not seem unreasonable, strict constitutional rules are being rigorously applied owing to the fact that inadequate powers were devolved to the Assembly. It would thus seem sensible to devolve more powers to Wales and amend the 1998 Act in order to include primary legislative powers for the National Assembly for Wales. It is only a matter of time; undoubtedly, that day will come—but possibly not two or three months before a general election!

6.42 pm
Ms Julie Morgan

I am pleased to speak on Third Reading of the Bill. The measure is important for many reasons. As other hon. Members have pointed out, it is the first Wales-only Bill to be requested by the National Assembly for Wales. In that sense, it is historic. It also establishes the first Children's Commissioner in the United Kingdom, although there are children's commissioners and ombudsmen throughout Europe. The Under-Secretary has already noted that Northern Ireland proposes to appoint a children's commissioner—I very much welcome that.

Many children's charities have campaigned for many years for a commissioner. It is important to pay tribute to them and, especially to the Children in Wales consortium, which lobbied hard for a commissioner. It provided information to help members of the Standing Committee and is wholly committed to improving the lot of children in Wales. As hon. Members have said, children's charities in Wales have made a huge contribution to the measure.

I am pleased that it is a Labour Government who have given time for the Bill. I welcome the cross-party support that the measure received in Committee. It formed part of our manifesto commitment, and that of other parties, during the elections to the Assembly. I was disappointed that the Conservatives debated the programme motion for the full time so that we lost valuable time for discussion of the Bill. That was not in the spirit of the Bill's passage through the House so far.

The Bill has been universally welcomed throughout Wales and the UK. Its swift passage and the time allocated to it have been seen as a recognition of the importance that the Westminster Government attach to working with the devolved Assembly. The establishment of a Children's Commissioner is obviously a priority in Wales, but not in England. It is right that devolution should work in that way.

All the children's charities welcome the Bill; the debate has been confined to the range of its powers. Although many and varied amendments were debated in Committee, the main thrust of the discussion throughout has been the commissioner's relationship to non-devolved matters. We have made progress in that respect. For example, we now know that the commissioner can comment on any matter that affects children in Wales. Of course, that includes non-devolved matters, such as children in prison. That issue has been raised frequently, because there is enormous concern in Wales about children who are in prison—in some cases, in England and far away from home—and someone must be able to speak on their behalf. We have been able to make it clear that the commissioner can comment on those issues as well as others, such as social security.

We want the commissioner to tackle the curse of poverty that affects children in Wales. Obviously, he is to do that, he must be able to comment on the benefits system and other non-devolved issues. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) said, it is difficult to split children's issues into little pieces. The Government's thrust is to try to work with the whole person and all aspects of children's lives.

Mr. Rogers

I am sure that my hon. Friend does not intend to suggest that the Bill has been introduced simply because of devolution in Wales. Obviously, the mechanics of devolution have allowed the Bill to be introduced, but the real reason for its existence has nothing to do with Government structures; it has to do with the fact that a horrendous scandal took place in Wales, and with the child abuse that led to the report.

Ms Morgan

The Bill is certainly a response to the scandals in Wales, but it is not possible to deny that devolution produced the Assembly and that it has seized the opportunity to set up the commissioner. We want to treat the problems of children as a whole, so the commissioner has to have responsibility for all children in Wales, not just those who receive certain services. I would welcome further clarification on how the commissioner can respond to non-devolved matters and on how he can comment on them.

Tremendous progress has been made. The Bill began with the proposal's inclusion in the Labour party manifesto. There has been an extensive consultation process in Wales. The National Assembly's Health and Social Services Committee's in-depth consultations led to its report, and the proposals have now reached the House. The House has extended the powers to include not only social services and children in regulated care, but all the Assembly's devolved areas.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend said, we hope that the Bill makes speedy progress so that it can be in place before a possible general election. That we have come this far is a triumph of everyone's working together. I wish the commissioner all the best in his new job. One of the most important things that I hope he will be able to do is communicate with the children of Wales—an issue raised by all the members of the Committee. We want him to hear what they have to say, because they do not have a voice or a formal means of putting forward their views. We want him to be in dialogue with the children of Wales and thus to inform life in Wales.

Commissioners and ombudsmen in other European countries have been very successful in getting children's views heard and using them to influence legislation. Although the Assembly cannot legislate, I hope that the commissioner will influence how we run things. I wish Peter Clarke all the best and pay tribute to the Committee and all the Ministers who have brought the Bill this far.

6.49 pm
Mr. Llwyd

As I was the first person to mention a commissioner, back in 1993, I too am very pleased that the Bill has completed its passage through the House. However, the work has not finished. On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) said that I was pessimistic about the prospect of amendments being accepted, but I am afraid that I was right. None of them were accepted.

I shall rush through briefly some of the points that concern the very children's charities to which the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) referred. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Cymru has written to us this week on two sheets of A4 paper expressing its concerns about the Bill. Although it welcomes the Bill, it does so with grave reservations.

A provision similar to that in section 33 of the Government of Wales Act 1998 should have been included in the Bill to enable the commissioner to speak about any matter affecting children resident in Wales. The commissioner will not be able to talk about any tribunal or court decision that has been made. That is bizarre and ridiculous, and the problem still has not been addressed. Cross-border issues have not been addressed, nor has the point about including the United Nations convention in the Bill. The Assembly requested action on all those points, but that has not been accepted by this House.

I do not wish to sour the atmosphere, but this whole back-slapping business is getting to me a little bit. We have not done half the job yet, and I hope that the other place will complete the work on several issues that concern organisations such as NSPCC Cymru. It is not politically motivated but, like reasonable hon. Members, it is concerned about the well-being of children and young people.

I have mentioned the UN convention, and there are concerns about whistle blowing and the remit on non-devolved matters, which is covered by the provision in the Government of Wales Act 1998. All those points are important and, on Second Reading, I told the hon. Member for Bridgend that there were four principal matters for debate. Those matters remain. I do not doubt the Minister's sincerity for a second and we have received assurances from him. However, I would always prefer matters to be made clear on the face of any Bill that deals with such an important subject.

Earlier, it was suggested that the commissioner will have access to institutions, but he will have access to them only when the system has broken down. Plainly, that will be too late. There would be nothing wrong in allowing the commissioner to have access alongside members of the inspectorate. That would have provided further supervision over the inspectorate, which would know that, at any time, the commissioner could move in.

Although I know that it does not sound like it, I welcome the Bill. I served on the Committee to improve the Bill. I have spoken to various children charities and they welcome the Bill as far as it goes. This is the second bite at the legislative cherry, but I hope that we do not have to return in another 12 months to find yet more time to deal with shortcomings in the Bill. None of us wants that. There are flaws in the Bill, and I hope that their lordships in the other place will address them.

I hope that any amendments tabled in the other place will not be stamped on in pre-emptive fashion by this House. That would be wrong and contemptible. We are part way to producing a good Bill but much more work needs to be done. Despite the consensus in Committee, I am disappointed that the Government did not consider any amendments. The most glaring example is the amendment that would have included a provision similar to that in section 33 of the Government of Wales Act 1998. It would have gone a long way to allaying all the niggling fears that charities still have.

Mr. Win Griffiths

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that we discussed outside Committee what would happen if there were a legal challenge to any of the commissioner's work that was based on what appears in the Bill and what has been said about it? If there were a dispute about the meaning of the Bill, the Minister's words could be prayed in aid to clarify its intention. A much wider view can therefore be taken of what appears in the Bill.

Mr. Llwyd

Yes, I agree, and a 1992 case makes that point. However, is it not always better to provide clear legislation that does not have to go to the courts for consideration? Surely our job is to make plain on the face of any Bill what we want to say. We should not leave it to the whim of a High Court judge to consider what the Minister said at the time. It is far better to do things properly the first time round.

6.54 pm
Mr. Dawson

I will be brief, as time is extremely short. I welcome this fine Bill. We should heed some of the wise words of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), but I hear the optimism and good will expressed by my hon. Friends the Under-Secretary and the Members for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) and for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths).

The only issue that I want to raise is whether my hon. Friend the Minister considers that the Children's Commissioner as currently constituted meets the Paris principles for human rights organisations set down by the United Nations in 1993. At the heart of this is a human rights issue.

6.55 pm
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

It looks as though the last word will fall, paradoxically, to an Englishman. That may be no bad thing because although this is a uniquely Welsh Bill, it may well prove to be a pilot for wider replication across the United Kingdom. All of us, then, would be affected.

I chide the Minister somewhat for claiming exclusive credit for the Government for implementing this measure. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) made clear, it was as a result of the tribunal set up by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition in 1996 when he was Secretary of State for Wales that Sir Ronald Waterhouse reported his findings.

Mr. Win Griffiths

May I point out that, although my hon. Friend the Minister may not have mentioned that on Third Reading today, he referred on Second Reading and in Committee to the role played by the former Secretary of State for Wales, who is now the Leader of the Conservative party?

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman is extremely charitable and I take his point entirely. I thank him for it. I acknowledge that the measure enjoys the support of all parties, even if there are remaining concerns.

The first recommendation by Sir Ronald Waterhouse in his report was that there should be a Children's Commissioner for Wales. Anybody who has read the report cannot have been other than moved by the sheer magnitude of the abuse that was being inflicted on young people who were often placed in the Principality not by Welsh authorities, but by English ones. I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Member for Bridgend that social services did not do their job. I hope that social services departments throughout the country and particularly in Wales do not regard the appointment of the Children's Commissioner as a substitute for the need for them to exercise vigilance themselves. That would defeat the whole object, which is to improve protection for our children. They must note that it is our intention that they should continue to do the job that the public has charged them with.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset issued a caveat that I also share, which is that the commissioner should not supplant the role of parents. All of us in the House believe that it is the principal role of parents to bring up children. We do not wish the commissioner to supplant them.

Mr. Dawson

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that any decent, ordinary parent would welcome their children's rights being expanded, enhanced and developed by this sort of post? Does he further accept that any ordinary, decent parent has nothing whatever t o fear from the Children's Commissioner?

Mr. Howarth

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is right. I am most grateful to him for being sparing in his remarks to enable me to contribute. Yes, of course, I am sure that concern for children is the principal motive. However, it is important to get the balance right between the responsibilities of parents and those of society at large, to ensure that the wider needs of children are recognised.

I am sorry if I end on a slightly discordant note. I raised this point with the Secretary of State on Second Reading and I mention it in passing in the hope that the other place may be able to deal with it. The report states: We draw the attention of Parliament to the abuse suffered by B between the ages of 16 years and 18 years in circumstances which appear to have made him question his own sexuality for a period. Much of the later abuse was not inflicted by persons in a position of trust in relation to him and there can be no doubt that he was significantly corrupted and damaged by what occurred.

That was the way in which the tribunal—

It being Seven o'clock, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Order [this day].

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.