§ Order for Second Reading read.4.45 pm
§ The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill forms a major part of the strategy of the National Assembly for Wales to promote and safeguard the rights and welfare of children in Wales. The Bill also has considerable constitutional significance. It is the first Wales-only Bill to be introduced since the establishment of the National Assembly. It also represents the Assembly breaking new ground in devising a policy to create the first Children's Commissioner in the United Kingdom. Its introduction represents a very significant achievement for the devolution process in Wales and it proves that Wales can bring about radical change via Westminster.
Change has been rapid as well as radical. I said earlier that I would set out the consultation process. The Assembly endorsed the report of its Health and Social Services Committee on a Children's Commissioner in plenary session in June last year. Already at that stage, amendments were in hand to give the commissioner initial powers within the scope of the—then—Care Standards Bill. These were enacted, with the result that the Assembly was able to announce the successful candidate to be the first Children's Commissioner for Wales in December. In the same month—just six months after the Assembly endorsed its report—this Bill to widen the commissioner's powers was introduced to the House. The speed of response is a tribute to the t co-operative working relationship between the Assembly and interested people and organisations in Wales, and between the Government and the National Assembly.
The case for establishing a Children's Commissioner in Wales has its roots, before devolution in the Welsh Office social services White Paper "Building for the Future". It was echoed in calls for a commissioner from such bodies as Children in Wales, the Welsh Local Government Association, evidence to the North Wales child abuse tribunal, and the Welsh Affairs Committee of this House.
Assembly manifesto commitments from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru included commitments to consider the establishment of an independent Children's Commissioner for Wales.
I have to say that I am somewhat bewildered by the decision of the Conservative party effectively to oppose the Bill—even if that opposition is dressed up in the disguise of a reasoned amendment. It serves only to remind us all of why the people of Wales returned no Conservatives to this House at the last general election.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)
I ask the Secretary of State not to play politics with this issue. We are all keen to ensure that children in Wales—and everywhere in the United Kingdom—get the protection that they deserve. He well knows that we t tabled the reasoned amendment so that we can properly debate the issues. As I shall make plain in my speech, we want to strengthen the power of the Children's Commissioner for Wales, not to prohibit it.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan I Haselhurst)
Order. May I take the opportunity of that intervention to make 222 good my earlier omission and say that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition?
§ Mr. Murphy
Your ensuring that the House is aware of that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, gives me the opportunity to invite the House to reflect upon precisely what the amendment says. The nature of reasoned amendments—all of them—is that they start with the phraseThat this House declines to give a Second Reading to the … Bill.The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) may be able to clarify and explain that, but the fact that the reasoned amendment is on the Order Paper has caused considerable consternation in Wales among members of my party and his party in Wales. I look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman attempting to reconcile what are clearly major differences between himself and his party in the National Assembly.
§ Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the strengths of devolution is that an Assembly Committee dealing specifically with those issues has been able to discuss with all four parties involved—including Conservative representatives—what is needed to make the Children's Commissioner for Wales effective? Is it not a disgrace that, at this late stage, having had that opportunity in Wales, we see the domination of the Conservative party in England as it tries to put a spanner in the works?
§ Mr. Murphy
As I pointed out to the House a few moments ago, we are all bewildered, perplexed and mystified as to why there has been the obvious change of heart that we shall hear about later from the hon. Member for Ribble Valley when he describes the nature of his amendment. The contrast with Labour is clear and stark; the Bill, like the Care Standards Act 2000, is the product of a strong partnership between the United Kingdom Government and the Assembly Cabinet. That partnership is based on mutual trust and understanding and a shared desire to deliver for the people of Wales.
It seems, however, that the Conservatives have no such desire. Although we await the hon. Gentleman's comments, it would seem, on the face of the matter, that their approach to the Bill is nothing but naked opportunism.
Let me deal, precisely, with the amendment. First, it seems to ignore the nature of the legislation. Today, the House is not debating the principle of whether it is right to create the post of Children's Commissioner for Wales—we have already done that.
§ Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
The right hon. Gentleman will recall that, yesterday in Wales, he took part in the launch of an extremely important document—the social exclusion report of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, which will, I hope, assist children in Wales. Does he want to comment on the fact that no Conservative Member bothered to turn up?
§ Mr. Murphy
I should get into difficulty if I were to refer to the affairs of the Select Committee. However, the point has obviously been made.
The Assembly has already appointed a commissioner. As the House is aware, today's debate is about an extension of the powers of that commissioner, but all 223 those powers are being extended within the same principles as were established by the Care Standards Act: the commissioner should deal with public bodies that are accountable to the National Assembly.
Secondly, the amendment stands in direct contradiction of what Conservative Members have said for some time. It was, after all, one of my predecessors as Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), now Leader of the Opposition, who established the Waterhouse inquiry with the support of both sides of the House. I paid tribute to the right hon. Gentleman when we made a statement on the report. Do he and his party seriously ask us to undermine the first recommendation of that report—the establishment of an independent Children's Commissioner for Wales? Of course, we await the comments of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley on that matter.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)
The Secretary of State mentioned the report of Sir Ronald Waterhouse. It was a catalogue of indictments and of the terrible abuses to which young men were subjected. I refer the right hon. Gentleman to paragraph 52.36, which states:We draw the attention of Parliament also to the abuse suffered by B between the ages of 16 years and 18 years … 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.It is no good the Secretary of State coming to the Dispatch Box to tell us what a wonderful job the Government are doing; they used the Parliament Act to inflict the change in the age of consent—[Interruption]—in direct defiance of the recommendation of Sir Ronald Waterhouse, who believed that it was absolutely necessary to preserve the age of consent to protect children. The Government are thus being two-faced on this matter.
§ Mr. Murphy
I do not think that the people who spent many months—indeed, years—setting up the office of the Children's Commissioner would agree with the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. David Melding, the Conservative Health spokesman in the Assembly, said:A fully effective Children's Commissioner will offer great support to parents without undermining the responsibility of the family in any way. The example of parents of children with special needs illustrates this. They will find a great friend and champion in the Children's Commissioner, and good wholesome family life will be enhanced as a result.That seems to stand in complete contradiction of the reasoned amendment, which suggests that family life will be adversely affected by the establishment of the Children's Commissioner.
So, why has there been that sudden change of mind? Why have Conservative Members waited for five weeks since the Gracious Speech to announce their opposition to the measure? I suppose that desperate men resort to desperate measures. I take the point, but the reasoned amendment cannot be seen as anything other than immature, irresponsible and erratic.
That is certainly the view of the Leader of the Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly, who today told the media in Wales: 224I was certainly not aware of any difference. Subsequently I found out there was a difference of emphasis but we are not going to change our position. We are not going to stand on our heads for anybody.In the Welsh Grand Committee, the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) said:I re-emphasise that there is no conflict between my view and that of colleagues in the Welsh Assembly—[Official Report, Welsh Grand Committee, 11 December 2000; c. 26.]He could have fooled us.
§ Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)
The Secretary of State's revelations are amazing. Does he agree that all that raises the question of who will lead the Conservative party in Wales? Will a Conservative Member for an English constituency decide the policy of the Conservative party in Wales? Does that not show the Conservatives' death wish for any hopes that they may have of winning at least one seat in Wales?
§ Mr. Murphy
I share the hon. Gentleman's ambition in that respect. We need to be told precisely where the Conservative party stands in relation to the Children's Commissioner and the Bill—and especially where its members stand in relation to each other. The Conservative party says one thing in the Assembly and another in the House of Commons, which causes nothing but confusion in people's minds about whether there is consensus about the Bill and the establishment of the Children's Commissioner.
§ Mr. Evans
Never have I heard the Secretary of State spin so much; it is a shame that he has turned this Bill into a political football. I remind him that David Melding proposed the following amendment in the National Assembly for Wales:asserts the importance of the family in protecting and nurturing children and therefore believes that the remit of the Children's Commissioner should relate exclusively to children's services provided by public and other agencies.
§ Mr. Murphy
I understand all that, but the hon. Gentleman must realise that it is not I who has turned the Bill into a party political issue. There is a reasoned amendment before the House, and it is as mystifying and bewildering to the people of Wales as it is to Members of this House, because for months there has been unanimity about the Children's Commissioner, both in the House of Commons and in the Assembly. The hon. Gentleman will have to explain his position later. Indeed, he will have to explain how Conservative Members intend to vote.
The reasoned amendment fails to recognise the huge consultation process that has taken place in Wales over the establishment of the Children's Commissioner. The Assembly's Health and Social Services Committee took on the task of consultation, and the written consultation was followed up by sessions to hear all evidence.
During that consultation, in February last year, the Waterhouse report on child abuse in north Wales was published. As is now well known, the first two 225 recommendations were about the creation of a Children's Commissioner for Wales. The report recommended that the commissioner's duties should include
At that time, as the House will know, the Care Standards Bill was under consideration. The Government moved quickly to amend that Bill to reflect both Sir Ronald Waterhouse's recommendations about the establishment of the commissioner and the Assembly's policy of establishing a commissioner as soon as possible.
- (a) ensuring that children's rights are respected through the monitoring and oversight of the operation of complaints and whistleblowing procedures and the arrangements for children's advocacy;
- (b) examining the handling of individual cases brought to the Commissioner's attention (including making recommendations on the merits) when he considers it necessary and appropriate to do so;
- (c) publishing reports, including an annual it report to the National Assembly for Wales.
The amendments that were tabled extended the commissioner's functions to give him or her a remit as wide as the scope of the Bill allowed—all social care services for children to be regulated under the Act in Wales. Those included children's homes, residential family centres, local authority fostering and adoption services, fostering agencies, voluntary adoption agencies, domiciliary care, private and voluntary hospitals and clinics, the welfare aspects of day care and childminding services for all children under eight, and the welfare of children living away from home in boarding schools.
The commissioner's functions in respect of those services are contained in part IV of the Care Standards Act 2000. They include the review and monitoring of arrangements by the service providers to deal with complaints, whistleblowing and advocacy; the provision of advice and information; the examination, where the commissioner considers appropriate, of the cases of particular children who are receiving or have been in receipt of such services; the provision of assistance, including financial assistance and representation in relation to proceedings or disputes, or to the operation of procedures and arrangements monitored by the commissioner; and making reports, including an annual report to the National Assembly. All those functions and responsibilities, which have been set out in detail in the Care Standards Act, now lie with the Children's Commissioner in Cardiff.
§ Mr. Evans
The Secretary of State referred to part IV of the Care Standards Act 2000. Did he mean part V?
§ Mr. Murphy
The hon. Gentleman is right; I meant part V, and I apologise to the House.
As I told the House last March, the Government recognised that further legislation was needed to achieve the Assembly's aspiration to establish a Children's Commissioner for Wales with a wide-ranging scope. I made clear the Government's commitment to consider the Assembly's proposals urgently and sympathetically. The Bill represents the Government's response to the Assembly's vision of a Children's Commissioner. It is a vision of a champion of children in Wales who will promote their rights, raise the profile of children's issues and take an overview of the impact of policies and procedures across the services that affect them.
I shall now outline the effects of those measures. The Bill is cast in the form of amendments to the existing provisions relating to the Children's Commissioner in the 226 Care Standards Act. That approach has enabled simplicity and concision in the Bill's drafting, given that so much material is already in the 2000 Act. The Bill will set out a ringing declaration of the commissioner's principal aim—to exercise all his functions with the aim of safeguarding and promoting the rights and welfare of children in Wales. There could be no clearer declaration of intent than that the commissioner is intended to be a champion of children's rights with a wide-ranging remit.
The Bill will introduce a power for the commissioner to review the effect on children in Wales of the exercise, or the proposed exercise, of any function by the Assembly and the other public bodies that it sponsors, such as local authorities and health authorities.
§ Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)
I absolutely welcome the Bill and dismiss the nonsense that we have heard from the Opposition, but is not there a possible flaw in the Bill, given that it relates only to services provided by the Welsh Assembly? Is not there a clear problem in that the commissioner, as envisaged in the Bill, will have no role in relation to extremely vulnerable young people, such as those who are dealt with under youth justice legislation?
§ Mr. Murphy
I understand the points that my hon. Friend makes, and I intend to touch on them in a few moments.
The powers include the making or the proposed making of subordinate legislation by the Assembly, which has shown its commitment to the commissioner by opening up its own activities to his scrutiny. The other public bodies involved will be not only those obviously connected with children, but a very wide range of organisations whose actions may impact on them, such as the Welsh Development Agency, Sports Council for Wales and National Museums and Galleries of Wales.
The Bill will extend the commissioner's powers under the Care Standards Act 2000 to examine the cases of particular children and to assist in particular cases. The precise application of that power will depend on regulations to be made by the Assembly, but they could apply to the wide range of bodies to which I have referred, including the Assembly itself.
The commissioner's power to consider complaints, whistleblowing and advocacy arrangements will also be extended under the Bill. That power will be applied to a far wider range of bodies in Wales that provide direct services to children, including local authorities, the NHS, GPs, schools and other education establishments and training organisations. The Assembly will again be one of the bodies subject to that function because, although it does not generally provide services directly to children, it delegates to, or contracts with, other bodies to do so.
The Bill makes provision for the commissioner to require prescribed bodies to provide information to him if they are involved in the investigation of individual cases, or if their arrangements for complaints, whistleblowing and advocacy are being monitored. The bodies involved are potentially all those mentioned in the Bill. Failure to comply would lead to legal sanctions. That is evidence of the Assembly's commitment to creating a commissioner with real teeth, who will have to be taken into account.
227 The essence of the Bill is therefore its extension of the commissioner's functions to a far greater range of bodies and the new power that it introduces to review the effects on children in Wales of the exercise of functions by a very wide range of bodies.
The vast range of services that impact on children and young people have been devolved and will be within the commissioner's formal responsibility. However, I turn now to the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) made a few moments ago in respect of non-devolved bodies.
We must remind ourselves that less than a year ago there was no such person as a Children's Commissioner doing anything in Wales or any other part of the United Kingdom, and that it was only a matter of months ago that the commissioner dealt only with children in care. Now the House is being asked to consider extending the commissioner's powers to every aspect of the functions, responsibilities, duties and powers of the Assembly and every institution in Wales that has responsibility to the Assembly. Nearly all those bodies are devolved. We have gone a long way towards providing for those matters to be dealt with by the commissioner. As I said, a vast range of services are devolved. The appointment of the commissioner himself was the Assembly's responsibility, and the post is very much associated with the Assembly.
Just because a matter is not within the commissioner's statutory remit does not mean that he will be debarred from making any comment whatsoever. He will have power to exercise functions that are incidental to his core functions. For example, in the course of his work the commissioner may receive representations from or on behalf of children about non-devolved matters that he may wish to bring to the attention of relevant Government Departments, and no one, but no one, will stop him indicating his views to those Departments in the process. That power would not give the commissioner substantive functions in non-devolved areas, nor would he have any formal power to require information to be provided in relation to such matters. However, it seems highly likely that Government Departments would react positively, given the profile of the office of the Children's Commissioner for Wales.
The commissioner may also formally bring to the Assembly's attention complaints and information that he receives about non-devolved matters; for example, through his annual report to the Assembly on his activities. The framework for that can be established through Assembly regulations. As a result, the Assembly itself may wish to consider and make representations on such matters to the Government of the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)
Is the Secretary of State unaware that in a communication to all Members about today's debate, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children says:The Bill falls short of the aspirations of the Assembly's vision of the Children's Commissioner as an independent champion …?The first item in the NSPCC's submission is that the Bill fails togive the Commissioner a right to comment on non-devolved matters and cross-border services.228 I remind the Secretary of State that the final part of our reasoned amendment says that the Billfails to take account of the responsibility of UK public bodies and agencies which are not subject to oversight by the National Assembly for Wales.Does not the right hon. Gentleman believe that that shortcoming Bill should be dealt with in Committee?
§ Mr. Murphy
It is a pity that the Opposition did not deal with the matter by amendments in Committee, rather than tabling the reasoned amendment and totally confusing the people of Wales. The hon. Gentleman has a point about the NSPCC. We have all received letters from that important body. However, its submission says also:The NSPCC welcomes the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill. It is a welcome attempt to improve the wellbeing of Wales' children.Children in Wales also wrote to us all, saying:The appointment of a Children's Commissioner in Wales and the broadening of his powers in the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill is unanimously welcomed by children's organisations working in Wales.Of course, there will be differences of view and different aspirations. All those matters involve different aspects that, of course, can be debated on Report and in Committee. Not for one second does that mean, however, that people do not welcome the Bill, which proposes a huge extension in the powers of the children's commissioner.
§ Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)
Does the Secretary of State believe that a single one of those organisations in Wales is inclined to recommend that the House support the reasoned amendment tabled by Conservative Members?
§ Mr. Murphy
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) makes a fair point, and we shall listen with great interest to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley later.
Until now, discussion has focused on the role of the commissioner in respect of child protection and, particularly, children looked after by local authorities. Those vital issues concern some of our most vulnerable children. However, it has never been the intention that the commissioner should take the place of existing statutory child protection bodies, or usurp the planned regulatory role of the care standards inspectorate for Wales. It is not intended that the commissioner should seek to take the place of existing complaints systems or routinely investigate cases directly. Indeed, the Assembly's report indicated that it expected the commissioner to undertake formal investigations only if a matter of principle was at stake; it is not envisaged that such investigations will be a routine part of his work. However, the Commissioner will play an important strategic role in ensuring the effectiveness of child protection systems in Wales.
§ Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful case for the Children's 229 Commissioner for Wales. Given that case, will he talk to his colleagues in the Cabinet about the need for a children's commissioner in England?
§ Mr. Murphy
Inevitably, those points will be made regularly during the passage of the Bill, as they were during the passage of the Care Standards Act. However, it is important that we understand that the creation of the post of Children's Commissioner for Wales sprang from a Welsh source. During the Assembly elections, our party—and, indeed, other parties—made it a manifesto commitment, and it is very much a Welsh-inspired post.
That does not mean that, in the coming months, my colleagues in Government will not look seriously and intensively at the way in which the role of the Children's Commissioner for Wales will work. It is obviously for my colleagues then to consider how best to deal with the matter. The post is, as I say, very much a Wales-inspired appointment, which is why, when the people of Wales went to the Assembly elections, they voted for parties that said that they wanted to introduce such a Bill after those elections.
§ Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the proposal—which, as he rightly said, was introduced under the Welsh Office of a previous Government, and was considered in great depth in Wales—may be looked at in relation to the regions of England, but not necessarily in relation to the whole of England? It would be sensible if the lessons that are learned and the models that are developed through the pattern of devolution in England were allowed to inform the debate that should rightly take place in different parts of England.
§ Mr. Murphy
Far be it from me to continue that trend, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I simply wish to say that there are examples where England can learn from Wales, and vice versa. The existence of joint ministerial committees that deal with all the devolved administrations of Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and, indeed, of the United Kingdom Government, indicate that we take seriously the relationship and partnership with the new Administrations—the Scottish Parliament and the Assemblies—that have been set up in the United Kingdom.
It is also important to emphasise to my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) another major reason why the post of Children's Commissioner was set up: it was established in direct response to the first recommendation of the Waterhouse report, which was a specifically Welsh investigation into appalling child abuse.
The commissioner will have to co-operate with a wide range of different bodies, but the Bill will go much further, by establishing a commissioner whose role could extend to all children in Wales and to all the policies and services for which the Assembly has a devolved responsibility. The Assembly has made it clear that that is where it expects the commissioner to carry out much of his valuable work. He will be able to review the impact on children and young people of the policies and procedures of a wide range of public bodies in education 230 and training, health care, transport, town and country planning, sport and recreation, economic development and many other areas.
That power will enable the commissioner to raise the profile of children's issues and of children and to take an overview of how the actions of public bodies directly or indirectly affect them as they go about their daily lives. That role will distinguish the commissioner from any other public office holder in the United Kingdom.
In line with the devolution settlement, the Bill, like the Care Standards Act, leaves as much as possible to the Assembly to determine in regulations. A key area for regulation is the involvement of children and young people. The commissioner is part of the Assembly's strategy for listening to children and ensuring that their voices are heard, and the report of the Health and Social Services Committee made clear the importance of children and young people informing the commissioner's agenda and being regularly consulted. Indeed, the Assembly has already been innovative in the sphere of public appointments by involving children and young people as an integral part in the selection of the first commissioner. The involvement of young people in the commissioner's work will be for the Assembly to determine in regulations made under the Bill.
As I said, the Assembly has identified Mr. Peter Clarke, currently director of Childline, as the first Children's Commissioner. He is likely to take up the post in the spring and will plan to be fully operational as soon as possible. That process will inevitably take time; there is much work to do. Mr. Clarke needs to find a permanent location or locations, recruit his team and, crucially, establish and implement the mechanisms for keeping in touch with the children and young people of Wales.
The Assembly also faces a considerable task in defining and consulting on the significant issues that have been left for it to determine in secondary legislation. All that means that the Children's Commissioner is likely to be fully functional in the summer or early autumn. Just over a year after the Assembly produced its ground-breaking proposal, that is exceptionally rapid progress.
When the Children's Commissioner takes up his post, he will find that the Bill empowers him to take a pioneering role in promoting the rights and welfare of the children of Wales. He will have in his scope a vast range of activities and at his command real powers to require access to information. That adds up to a commissioner with the opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of all Welsh children.
Wales is leading the way for the United Kingdom in developing the office of Children's Commissioner. I am sure that other parts of the United Kingdom will watch his progress with great interest. I believe that today is a historic day for children's rights, the National Assembly for Wales and the constitution of the United Kingdom. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)
I beg to move, To leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill because it fails to assert the importance of the family in protecting and nurturing children; it fails to give families confidence that the Children's Commissioner will 231 protect the interests of their children whilst not impinging on the rights and responsibilities of parents in their relations with the public and other bodies within the scope of the Bill; because it will lead to duplication and confusion as to where responsibility for the welfare of children in schools lies; and fails to take account of the responsibility of UK public bodies and agencies which are not subject to oversight by the National Assembly for Wales.I am delighted to take part in the debate and welcome the Bill, but it is a great shame that the Secretary of State made his remarks in a manner that we usually associate with Millbank and the high professionals of the spin doctors. He did not need to do so, as he will be able to detect from what I say and from our approach in Committee, which will be extremely constructive to ensure that we have a Children's Commissioner worthy of all the children of Wales.
A number of comments have already been made. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), who was in the Chamber, is to introduce a ten-minute Bill dealing with a children's rights commissioner, and I welcome the remarks made by the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) in an Adjournment debate on the Children's Commissioner. As the Secretary of State knows, the reasoned amendment is a device that an Opposition use. When he was in opposition and sitting on this side of the House, which he will be doing again shortly, he used that same device. The difference now is that he is sitting on that side of the House and saying, "We are the masters now." That is the only major difference with regard to the device of a reasoned amendment.
§ Mr. Paul Murphy
We await the hon. Gentleman's comments with interest. There is a big difference, and we referred to it in the previous short debate. Since 1997, there has been a devolution settlement, and the Assembly, in conjunction with Parliament and the Government, has sponsored primary legislation. His reasoned amendment could, technically, scupper the Bill and cause difficulties for our colleagues in Cardiff, the people of Wales and those who want a Children's Commissioner.
§ Mr. Evans
I do not accept that. We have tabled an amendment on Second Reading and we will table amendments in Committee. The suggestion that amendments cannot be tabled to improve legislation—which is what we want to do—is an insult to the charities in Wales that have briefed us on the improvements that they want to be made to the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman has said that we will examine non-devolved powers in Committee to ensure that the Children's Commissioner has the proper powers. A number of Labour Members will table amendments in Committee to try to strengthen the Bill, and I look forward to that debate. We do not want anything to delay the passage of the Bill and its becoming an Act. We want to ensure that the children of Wales are properly protected as quickly as possible.
We are all aware that a general election may be only a few weeks away.
§ Mr. Griffiths
The hon. Gentleman has made a remarkable statement Does he want us to vote against his reasoned amendment if he puts it to a vote?
§ Mr. Evans
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will vote exactly as the Government Whips dictate, and that the Bill will go into Committee quickly. Am Ito believe that the hon. Gentleman does not think that improvements can be made to the Bill following the recommendations of the charities that have probably written to him to raise the same issues as they have raised with me? In Committee, we will try to improve the Bill to ensure that the children of Wales get the proper care and welfare that they deserve.
§ Mr. Michael
Does not the hon. Gentleman understand that, given the wording of his reasoned amendment, if he and his colleagues voted for it and they were in the majority, the Bill would die? That is what he has drafted and put to the House.
§ Mr. Evans
The funny thing is that the former Secretary of State for Wales should know from his time in opposition that devices are used to put down markers to show that the Opposition want the legislation to be improved in Committee. Given the Government's majority and the compliant people on the Labour Benches who are prepared to do the bidding of their masters at Millbank, I would be amazed if the amendment had any chance of succeeding.
§ Mr. Evans
We should move on; I want to make some progress.
The backdrop to the Bill is well known. Successive Governments have introduced legislation to protect the welfare of children. When we were in power, we introduced the Children Act 1989. In 1989, the United Nations convention on the rights of the child came into being. It was ratified by a Conservative Government in 1991 and came into force in 1992. The convention holds that children are born with fundamental freedoms and the inherent rights of all human beings.
What we are doing is important not just for the children of Wales, but for the 2 billion children throughout the world. A number of Governments and countries will be watching what we are doing in this country. We have done that ourselves by seeing how an ombudsman or a commissioner operates in other countries. Emerging democracies will look at what we are doing and recognise that it is a mark of a civilised society to have sufficient and proper legislation to protect youngsters who do not have a voice in those systems of democracy. They will see what we do to ensure that the convention's provisions are implemented. It provides for a child's right to survival, health and education, a caring family environment, play and culture, protection from exploitation and abuse and to have his or her voice heard and his or her opinions taken into account on significant issues.
233 What we do today is important for children around the world. We are not the first Government to introduce children's welfare measures and we must work hard to ensure that we are not the last. Other countries, such as Australia, Germany, Canada, Norway, Sweden and New Zealand, have a Children's Commissioner, or a version of as post. This country acted last year by introducing the Care Standards Act 2000. The establishment of the Children's Commissioner for Wales and the children's rights director for England will build on that.
Those provisions followed campaigns by children's organisations and charities, and I pay tribute to their work in pushing the agenda forward. They include Save the Children—Achub y Plant, in Welsh—the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Cymru, Barnados Cymru, the Children's Society in Wales and representatives of professional bodies, such as the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Welsh branch of the Local Government Association and even the Welsh Affairs Committee.
William Utting, in his 1997 report "Taking Children Seriously", stated:We lack an independent office mandated to protect the interests of children in general on all matters of public policy and administration that affect their lives. Children need a strong independent national office to represent their interests comprehensively.Indeed, in July 1998, the Health Committee, to which my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) referred, called for the establishment of the post of Children's Commissioner.
The Waterhouse report was a major catalyst for change. It investigated the abuse of children in care in the former county council areas of Gwynedd and Clwyd since 1974 and was published on 15 February 2000. The inquiry was established by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition when he was Secretary of State for Wales. I know that the House was grateful for his decision to do so, and I welcome the Secretary of State's earlier comments and what he said when the report was published.
The report was harrowing. Some 264 witnesses gave oral evidence and 311 written evidences were received. In his conclusion, Sir Ronald recommended the establishment of an independent Children's Commissioner for Wales, with specific powers on children's rights, the monitoring and oversight of the operation of complaints, whistleblowing and arrangements for children's Advocacy. He also recommended that an annual report should be made to the National Assembly for Wales. I was delighted when the Secretary of State announced on 2 March—the day after St. David's day—that there would be an independent Children's Commissioner for Wales.
Provisions were made in the Care Standards Act. However, the powers were limited and I accept that the changes that we now want were not within the Bill's scope. The Under-Secretary of State promised that the Government would produce more comprehensive proposals, and we will be debating the general thrust of those.
The Bill has a most appalling backdrop. There was the recent murder of Damilola Taylor. A headline in The Independent on Monday 8 January this year was most harrowing. It read: "Serial abuse inquiries 'will top 100'". Nearly 100 inquiries into child abuse are taking place in England and Wales—and that is happening in 2001.
234 There was also the tragic death of Anna Climbie, who was murdered by her aunt and her aunt's boy friend. Following that, the Secretary of State said:This little girl was murdered by people who were supposed to be caring for her, but she was let down by the system that was supposed to be protecting her.He was absolutely right, as I am sure the House agrees. I welcome the speed with which the inquiry into that numbing murder is taking place. We have heard many reports about overworked social workers, her case being closed prematurely and agencies failing to detect abuse, but they must all be thoroughly and quickly investigated. We owe that to the memory of Anna.
It is an appalling prospect that any other child could go through what Anna Climbie went through. The fact that an eight-year-old child could be systematically abused and neglected and left lying in a freezing bath to die of hypothermia defies our comprehension. It is little wonder that children's charities have now called for a comprehensive review of child protection procedures throughout the whole United Kingdom. The NSPCC has called for an independent child commissioner to act as a children's watchdog. If ever there was a time to act swiftly, that time is now.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition pointed out to the Prime Minister on 16 February 2000 that a children's rights director—as the post is now called in England—is not the same as the Children's Commissioner. The shadow Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), said during the passage of the Care Standards Bill:The Government are committed to providing a children's rights director only for looked-after children. We believe that the provision should go further. Almost all children's charities and professionals support the idea of a children's commissioner. The model that I suggest would allow protection and advocacy without interfering in the rights of parents.—[Official Report, 18 May 2000; Vol. 350, c. 496.]During the Committee stage of that Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) said:we have also tabled an amendment that would delete the role of children's rights director and establish separate English and Welsh children's commissioners on an equivalent basis.—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 4 July 2000; c. 663.]Here is the challenge for the Government: let us not delay a day longer. As I shall argue shortly and as the National Assembly for Wales and many children's charities in Wales have argued, the Bill does not go far enough in its provisions for the functions and powers of the Children's Commissioner. Just as events made the Care Standards Bill deficient, so the events of recent months make this Bill deficient in several key regards.
While we have a Children Commissioner for Wales with one set of powers and a children's rights director with lesser powers who will be working fully in 15 months—there seems to have been a delay—there will be confusion and inequality of treatment, and concern for our children will arise. Children are children whether they live in England or Wales, and devolution should not be a barrier to giving all our children full protection and rights. It should be seen as an opportunity and there can be no mealy-mouthed excuses for not acting quickly.
I know that several Labour Members feel exactly the same as I do. We want parity and a children's commissioner with equivalent powers to be established in 235 England as quickly as possible. Those Labour Members may feel awkward about the present position because children from Wales will, for all sorts of reasons, he stationed or placed in England for a period of time. Does that mean that they do not deserve the same protection as they would receive in Wales? Children from England who come to Wales will receive extra protection from an enhanced version of the Children's Commissioner.
There is no excuse for such differences to exist. I know that the Secretary of State said that the proposal is the result of the special needs that exist in Wales. However, of the 100 investigations into child abuse that are taking place in England and Wales, the vast majority—as one would expect—are being conducted in England. That is where the vast majority of children live. We must consider the issue with all seriousness, because there is no justification for not establishing a children's commissioner for England with equivalent powers to the Children's Commissioner for Wales so that all our children are properly protected.
The Government may claim that they do not have the parliamentary time in the next few weeks to do something about this issue, but now is the time to act. Tomorrow, we shall debate a Bill that many people believe will protect foxes. I know that emotions run high on both sides of that debate, but it will seem strange to the nation considering our proceedings that we have time to protect foxes, but not the time to protect children in England. I ask the Government to reconsider and to find time to establish a children's commissioner for England so that children in England and Wales are properly looked after.
In response to the Select Committee on Health in December 1998, the Government stated that they were not minded to create a children's commissioner post in England "in present circumstances". That was in 1998, and I suggest that circumstances have now changed. The Government ought to reconsider the matter.
Non-devolved issues include penal services and youth custody, which the Secretary of State has mentioned. These matters are not covered by the Welsh Assembly, but if an over-arching Children's Commissioner is to be able to deal with all aspects of care for our children, is it not absurd to use the reason that home affairs are not devolved as a bureaucratic barrier to prevent the commissioner from having responsibility for them? That is ridiculous. We must consider carefully in Committee whether the Children's Commissioner would feel uncomfortable—or, indeed, be debarred from—dealing with penal and home affairs matters.
A number of other matters, such as the Inland Revenue and social security, would also fall into the category of non-devolved matters. Children's charities have asked that they should all be examined, and the Government must come up with good reasons for the commissioner being debarred from entering any bodies that hold sway over our children.
The Bill contains an ability for the commissioner to be consulted and to monitor policy as it affects children, but that ability is contained within the straitjacket of the Welsh Assembly. All primary legislation that affects Wales is made here at Westminster. Surely the Children's Commissioner should have some input into primary legislation that will affect the children of Wales—either 236 into Green Papers, White Papers or the Bills themselves. Why should we handcuff or straitjacket the Children's Commissioner into dealing only with secondary legislation affecting Wales? Let us reconsider the Commissioner's powers in relation to primary legislation. If the Government are proposing that the commissioner will be denied a consultative role in any legislation that could impinge on children, simply because it does not originate in the Welsh Assembly, we shall press that issue in Committee.
Concerns have been expressed by children's charities in relation to the requirement to publish an annual report. We accept that, if the commissioner's powers are extended outside the Welsh Assembly, an annual report might also have to come to this Parliament. There would be nothing wrong with that. I am sure that when the Children's Commissioner publishes his report to the National Assembly for Wales, we shall all eagerly obtain copies and read it avidly. We shall want to ensure that the powers of the commissioner will be appropriate to what he wants to do, when he and his office are up and running.
Other concerns are that the commissioner should be able to enter any institutions that contain children, examine the failure of any bodies to exercise their functions and comment on the decisions of courts and tribunals. All those points have been raised by children's charities, and I hope that we can use the Standing Committee to good effect in answering them. Obviously, one would not expect the commissioner to participate in or comment on a court case while it was still going on. However, after the judgment had been made, there should be an appropriate m3chanism whereby the commissioner could comment on cases in which children were involved.
The House welcomes the appointment of Peter Clarke as the new Children's Commissioner for Wales. He will have a lot of work on his plate, unfortunately, and we wish him well. He has a very good pedigree in Childline Cymru. I ask him and the House to consider one aspect of the provision. He is to be called the Children's Commissioner, but the last thing that many youngsters between the ages of 14 and 17 want to be called is children. They would be insulted if one thought of them in those terms, for all kinds of reasons. If we were to call him the children's and youth commissioner, teenagers might feel more included in his work, which would be useful.
I hope that the commissioner will consult us about his powers, and if he feels that we need to reconsider any of them, we should be able to do so. He must be able to act clearly and decisively to protect the rights and welfare of our children. Parents and society must be able to see him performing his tasks without muddied lines. There must be no demarcation problems in relation to the commissioner's role in schools or in institutions that provide services to schools. That must be properly defined, so that people know where responsibility lies.
We want to ensure that the commissioner's role is widely publicised. Wherever young people go, they must know that they have a champion who will fight for their welfare and rights That publicity must be aimed at children in the first place but also, because of their role as whistleblowers, at adults. We must ensure that information about the relevant contact numbers and the commissioner's powers are widely available. In that way, 237 we will have the security of knowing that the commissioner will be the champion even of children who know nothing about him.
The best security for children is a secure, stable and loving family, supported fully by the Government and unhindered by political correctness or misguided priorities. Our youngsters should have a good education, without the fear of bullying. Sadly, today's edition of The Guardian carries another survey showing that a great many children suffer bullying in school. Children need protection from that.
Another aspect of good education is that children must not fear that village schools will be closed. Hon. Members of all parties want schools in and near villages to be protected. Children must also know that teacher numbers are sufficient, and that they will not be deprived of schooling. That happens all too often these days. What children need is a good education, a good education, a good education.
We want the Bill to be comprehensive and to afford proper protection to all our children. We want it on the statute book as quickly as possible. I guarantee that Conservative Members will work with diligence to ensure that there is no delay, and I have already spoken to the Government Whip to that end. There must be no excuses.
We want to strengthen the Bill where necessary, although that does not mean that we will not table amendments. Where appropriate, we want the powers of the commissioner to be extended. However, we must act without delay—our children deserve no less.
§ Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)
Government Front-Bench colleagues deserve praise for introducing this Bill so quickly, as does the National Assembly for Wales, which co-operated so well with other arms of Government in the United Kingdom to make the Bill a reality. In addition, as the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) noted at least tangentially, the Children in Wales Commissioner Campaign Group has provided some thoughtful briefings about how the Bill could be improved.
I remain at a loss to understand why the Opposition have tabled an amendment that would decline to give the Bill a Second Reading. It does not have the slightest chance of succeeding, but if it were to be passed it would prevent all the good things that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley wants to happen from occurring. However, given the source of the amendment, we should not be surprised at that contradiction.
To be fair, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley put the debate in the context of the recent and terrible inquiry into the death of Anna Climbie. We must recognise that the phenomenon is not new: perhaps the first really major outcry about the abominable treatment and death of a child arose in connection with Marta Colwell in 1973. Similar incidents have occurred consistently over the years, and in that context we could mention Tyra Henry, Jasmine Beckford, Kimberly Carlile and Doreen Mason. Unfortunately, many children have met deaths after suffering and torment so terrible that it is beyond ordinary human beings to understand it.
We have heard mention of the fact that about 100 investigations into child abuse are taking place in the United Kingdom now. We need only look at statistical 238 information available in Wales on the number of children on the child protection register to see that child abuse is increasing. Between 1990 and 2000, the figure increased by 5 per cent., from 2,302 to 2,416. Within the figure for 2000 there was a 50 per cent. increase in neglect and emotional abuse; and of the almost 2,500 children who were on the register, more than a third were there as a result of physical abuse.
It is interesting, too, to look at the figures to see how the range can change. In the Vale of Glamorgan, in 1997, only—I say "only" to emphasise the change—37 children in 10,000 were named on the register, but by 2000 that figure had increased to 61. In Wrexham, the low figure of 11 on the register in 1997 had increased to 22 in 2000. The figure for Wales increased from 30 under-18s in every 10,000 in 1997 to 40 in 2000.
However, in Caerphilly the figure has gone up and down. From 39 in every 10,000 in 1997, it jumped to 64 in every 10,000 in 1998 and 62 in 1999, and then went back down to 35 in 2000. We might want to explore and consider the reasons for those fluctuations.
Between 1992 and 1998 in Wales, figures were kept by age groups—under fives, one to four, five to nine, 10 to 15 and 16 to 17. In every age group except for the last, the amount of abuse increased during that period.
We must be keenly aware of the fact that we are considering the Bill at a time when problems of abuse have got worse, despite the fact that there have been all these inquiries, and that we now have a well-established system of child abuse conferences, registers and procedures. We have the Children Act 1989, which gave child protection agencies extra powers, and the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which came into force in 1992, although with some reservations. We have a battery of laws. We are awash with recommendations from numerous inquiries—more than 20 in the past few years. Reams of guidance have been issued, and yet we must face the fact that terrible abuse still goes on.
We should focus not so much on that abuse, but on what it is about our society that causes such things to happen. There is something about children with which, in our adult world, we have not yet come to terms. That is why it is vital to have a commissioner. We need someone who can step back and take a view that is independent from those of the agencies that are charged with ensuring that children are brought up in a healthy environment. There are so many of them—the social services, the police, the hospitals and the national health service—and yet, for some reason, the system is failing, so it is very important indeed to have the Children's Commissioner.
Of course it is not a new or unique idea to appoint such a commissioner. About a dozen countries have had commissioners—some for quite a few years—and they have operated successfully. We should take heart from examples in countries such as Norway, Denmark and New Zealand, to name but a few.
In the United Kingdom, I suppose that it was the 1991 report, which was sponsored by the Gulbenkian Foundation and written by Peter Newell—at least, he was in charge of the process—entitled "Taking Children Seriously" that proposed a children's rights commissioner. The latest edition, which was published last year, has the support of more than 100 organisations that either represent or have 239 dealings with children. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley quoted Sir William Utting's foreword, which noted the important of such an independent commissioner.
In 1998, the Select Committee on Health made some important recommendations about having a children's commissioner who would have responsibilities in England. By that time, it was already known in Wales that we wanted to spearhead the appointment of such a person. When Sir Ronald Waterhouse's report came out last February, he made it clear in his first two recommendations that we should have such a commissioner in Wales. In the meantime, the Welsh Office had published its own White Paper, entitled "Building for the Future", which was about the provision of social services. In that document there was a commitment to consider the introduction of the Children's Commissioner.
We have a well-trodden background to the Bill. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, it will not be creating a Children's Commissioner—we have one already. It is seeking to build on powers in the context of the Bill that we considered last year. The Bill before us is seeking to extend positively the commissioner's powers to enable Mr. Peter Clarke to create an office—we congratulate him and wish him well—to ensure that in Wales we shall have a system and a person to give children confidence that they will be able to make their representations if all else has failed. They will know that if they make representations, there will be recorded comment for the Government to take up, whether it be at Assembly level or United Kingdom level. Children can be confident that they will be taken seriously.
The Assembly and the Minister for Health and Social Services, Jane Hutt, made it plain in July the year before last and in May last year that the Assembly was giving importance and priority to the extension of the commissioner's powers to enable him or her to play a more positive role in Welsh life for Welsh children. The Health and Social Services Committee of the Assembly, chaired by Kirsty Williams, conducted a thorough investigation and compiled a report that contained a series of recommendations. Not all of them are featured in the Bill because there still remain difficulties in some instances about the way in which the role of the commissioner can be approached in statutory terms. However, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear that the commissioner will still be able to pursue quite a broad remit and to make recommendations not only at Assembly level but to the United Kingdom Government and Departments for them to consider where they have responsibilities in Wales.
We have a Bill that extends the commissioner's role. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already gone into some detail about that and I do not feel that I need to go over all of the issues. However, it is worth considering some of the concerns of the voluntary sector in Wales, some of which have also been voiced by the Assembly, about how the commission might operate under the powers set out in the Bill. It is right that we should raise issues about non-devolved matters and cross-border services. It was good to hear my right hon. Friend saying that the commissioner would be able to make comments and recommendations on such issues.
240 It is interesting to know that there are about 220 Welsh teenagers under the care of the youth justice system or in young offenders' institutions in England. There is about the same number in custody in my constituency at Parc prison. Often these children will come out of care and be a part of the commissioner's direct remit. The fact that they are moved into custody should not preclude the commissioner from being able to make recommendations and give consideration to how those young people found themselves in custody. What were the failings of the system, which is now delivered through the Assembly, in the first place?
We must recognise that the statutory duty will still lie with the Home Office, for example, but it is good to be able to raise the issue in this debate, so we can place on record exactly how the commissioner will be able to operate.
§ Mr. Walter
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of young people in custody. I wonder whether he has any more idea than I have about the position of those in custody in his constituency. As I understand it from the Secretary of State, the commissioner would be able to express an opinion about them, despite having no statutory power. The commissioner would not have that power in respect of the hon. Gentleman's constituents who might be in custody in England. Would that be the hon. Gentleman's understanding?
§ Mr. Griffiths
I do not think it appropriate to go into that sort of detail on Second Reading. It is fair to raise it as an issue to be considered. We can probe in Committee to ascertain exactly how the system will work.
§ Mr. Michael
Is it not precisely the nature of the devolution settlement that there are some responsibilities and some locations which are relevant to Wales but outside the Welsh border, and others that are entirely within Wales? Devolution entails a partnership between the United Kingdom Government and other bodies. Given what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said earlier, the power of the commissioner to make comment where appropriate in the interests of children in Wales will help and strengthen the process of devolution as well as promote the interests of children.
§ Mr. Griffiths
My right hon. Friend is right. It will be incumbent on whoever are the members of the Committee that will consider the Bill to tease out some of these issues in more detail. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear that there would be a broader horizon for the commissioner to view, even though in some instances there will not be specific statutory duties for him or her. We can be in no doubt that the commissioner will be able to comment on various issues.
There is a slightly trickier area. The Bill allows the commissioner to take up the cases of young children who are the responsibility of bodies or agencies in Wales. The placement of children will be supported through direct or indirect funding, which can be provided through local authorities. However, there could be questions about the placement by Welsh local authorities of children in English foster homes, special schools and specialist hospitals. As such children are ordinarily resident in Wales, payment for their care and treatment will come 241 from the Welsh purse. It is interesting to reflect on how the commissioner will work in that respect—a matter that should be considered further in Committee.
The issue of dialogue with children also requires further consideration. Should it be dealt with explicitly in the Bill, or can we take it from the tenor of the debate and of the provisions that it will occur automatically? Will the commissioner automatically have regard to dialogue, to promoting and respecting the views of children and to having direct contact with them? As the United Kingdom Government have ratified the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, should the Bill contain specific duties for the commissioner to ensure compliance with the convention by the Welsh Assembly and appropriate bodies and persons in Wales? Should promotion of the convention be a specific part of the commissioner's job, or is there no need for anything else to be done because it has been ratified, is dealt with in other legislation and is automatically a part of the set up?
More serious consideration should be given to issues relating to the commissioner's ability to enter institutions where young people are cared for and to make comments after court cases and tribunals have occurred. I understood from the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that a more liberal approach would indeed apply to those abilities. I further understood that the fears expressed about these issues are not as real as they appear when one first reads the provisions in black and white. Perhaps we can read between the lines and take assurance from his opening remarks on the commissioner's role. Peter Newell is a great expert in these matters and feels that more specific provision should be included in the Bill. I hope that the Standing Committee, on which I hope to serve, will have the opportunity to examine those issues further.
We must avoid the assumption that the creation of a Children's Commissioner is a panacea that will automatically make things better. Although the arrangements have the potential to make things better, the commissioner will still have to work carefully with Welsh bodies, persons and institutions with responsibilities for children. Furthermore, bodies such as social services departments will have to review their recruitment procedures. The training of social workers must be reconsidered, as well as the effectiveness of information gathering and transmission within and between organisations such as the police and the health service. More must also be done in schools.
The Opposition's reasoned amendment—they claimed that they did not want it to be a wrecking amendment—relates to important family issues. For some four years, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Welsh Joint Education Committee have been trying to promote in schools what started as education for parenthood, but has now been revamped into family life education. It is important for us to bring to youngsters an awareness of family issues and of the strains and stresses that can arise in families, in order to prepare them for family life and parenthood.
One of the issues raised in Sir William Utting's report was the need for a compulsory register of private foster care—an issue that is relevant to the recent tragic death of Anna Climbie. I do not know whether the recommendation for such a register can be weaved into the Bill. It was not accepted when it was made, but perhaps the time has now come for us to reconsider it.
242 I hope that we will now act with the alacrity demonstrated by everybody who has so far been involved in the proposals, get the Bill into Committee, examine it thoroughly and use the expertise that has already been gathered. It would be great to see it through the House before the first anniversary of the publication of the Waterhouse report, which did so much to prompt us to take action.
§ 6.7 pm
§ Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)
I am happy to speak for the Liberal Democrats on the Bill. We warmly welcome the measure and believe that it cannot come soon enough for the needs of the children of Wales.
There is no doubt that when the elections to the Welsh Assembly were held, a desire stretched almost completely across the political divide to establish a Children's Commissioner for Wales. However, for some reason, the 1999 Welsh Conservative manifesto, "Fair Play for All", made no mention of such a proposal. It might have been suggested that the reasoned amendment was consistent with that approach, but the tone of the speech made by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) was almost exactly the opposite of that of the amendment.
§ Mr. Livsey
I note the hon. Gentleman's comments; his perception is correct. It was good to hear the remarks of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley in support of the establishment of a Children's Commissioner. Although the Welsh Conservative party's 1999 manifesto did not mention the proposal, it is clear that Conservative Assembly Members' support for the establishment of such a commissioner might have had a subtle influence on his speech.
The other three parties all proposed the establishment of a commissioner for Wales. The Welsh Liberal Democrat manifesto, which promised "guaranteed delivery", proposed the appointment of a commissioner with powers to investigate local handling of any complaint made by a child about a public or voluntary service. That is important because it must be backed up with statutory force. We are fortunate because, as the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) has already stated, Kirsty Williams, who is a member of our party, chairs the Health and Social Services Committee in the Assembly. She and all members of the Committee strongly advocated establishing a Children's Commissioner for Wales.
The Health and Social Services Committee has taken evidence on the creation of the Children's Commissioner from a wide range of organisations, including the NSPCC, Barnardos, the Association of Directors of Social Services and the Welsh Local Government Association. The Committee also noted the opportunity to establish a statutory independent commissioner under the Care Standards Bill, which has subsequently been enacted.
The creation of a Children's Commissioner for Wales is an important matter, especially in view of the Waterhouse report on child abuse in north Wales. Sir Ronald Waterhouse's findings made the creation of an independent 243 Children's Commissioner for Wales imperative. Surely real power means statutory powers to protect children and their rights. The organisations that the Assembly consulted support that and the extension of the powers that are established in the Care Standards Act 2000.
The question that remains is the extent to which we extend the Children's Commissioner's powers. The Health and Social Services Committee and the Pre-16, Schools and Early Learning Committee in the Assembly concluded in a joint meeting on 22 March 2000 that the Children's Commissioner should promote children's rights, raise the profile of children's issues and take an overview of the impact of policies and procedures across all children's services.
The joint meeting also made the point that a Children's Commissioner should represent the views of children and young people up to the age of 18, with exceptions for older young people. The suggestion of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley that "young people" should be added to the commissioner's title provides food for thought. Young people older than 15 are sensitive about being described as children, yet many young people experience great problems.
One of the joint meeting's most important proposals was effective advocacy systems for children and young people. All the points that I have made so far are covered in the Bill, although not all the Health and Social Services Committee's proposals have been included. However, amendments could be tabled in Committee to ascertain whether we can improve the advocacy systems for which the measure provides.
Formal investigations of circumstances in which children's rights have been breached are especially important. The power to disclose information about various circumstances that affect children is vital. Liberal Democrat Members are pleased that many of the ideas that I have described have been taken on board.
An amendment tabled in the Assembly states:the Assembly affirms its beliefs that the Children's Commissioner for Wales should have statutory powers across all areas affecting all children in Wales, and that his or her powers should include:
It is interesting to note that the amendment was passed unanimously by all four parties in the Assembly.
- Power to require inquiries
- Powers to order disclosure of information
- Powers to require action to be taken by public authorities and bodies, in accordance with their own duties.
The official Opposition's reasoned amendment, which appears to express dissatisfaction with the Bill, does not match the views of Conservative Assembly Members or—in the light of his speech—those of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley. The reasoned amendment states that the Billfails to give families confidence that the Children's Commissioner will protect the interests of their children whilst not impinging on the rights and responsibilities of parents …We must take a balanced view, but the reasoned amendment implies that no abuse occurs in families. That does not reflect reality. We know from investigations and the work of social services departments that there are no barriers to abuse, which sadly occurs across a wide spectrum of society.
§ Mr. Walter
The hon. Gentleman is mistaken and reads into the amendment something that is not there. 244 Does not he concur that, in bringing up children, parents' rights are important? Although no Conservative Member claims that child abuse does not occur in the family, the reasoned amendment suggests that the rights of parents should not be subservient to those of the commissioner. The amendment seeks to improve, not limit, the Bill.
§ Mr. Livsey
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that important point. However, we must also ensure that families do not have the right to abuse children. It is a fine line, and the implication that perhaps abuse in families never occurs is wrong; sadly, such abuse sometimes happens. We must achieve a balance, and I am glad that the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) has made his point.
The NSPCC and Children in Wales are worried about some omissions from the Bill, especially the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. We agree that it should be incorporated. We also agree with comments on non-devolved matters and cross-border services. For example, children from Wales can be in the custody of English local authorities. That happens in our part of the world, when children are often are fostered out to Herefordshire and Shropshire.
Some matters relate to the Home Office, especially aspects of court and tribunal decisions. Many of us are worried about young people who are in prison in England, and very far from home. I hope that the Children's Commissioner for Wales will work to establish the right of children from Wales to be in custody near their homes. Parents find it difficult to travel to visit their children who are in trouble and in custody far away. Young people experience much heartache when they are disconnected from Wales, not only physically but culturally. That matter should be addressed and investigated further.
We welcome the appointment of the Children's Commissioner, Peter Clarke, and wish him well. He has a tough job to do, but we know from his record with Childline that he is well able to do it. We also welcome the Bill, and will do all we can to give it a fair wind while also trying to improve it. There is every reason why it should be put on the fast track, as has been demonstrated by many speeches that we have heard this evening.
§ Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)
I am delighted to be able to speak in this historic debate. For the first time since devolution, we in the House of Commons are providing the primary legislative framework for a policy made in Wales and for Wales. This example shows that the Welsh model of executive devolution can work when there is good will on both sides of the Severn.
I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate for another reason. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), I used to be responsible for children in Wales; my responsibility in the Welsh Office immediately preceded the establishment of the Welsh Assembly. I well remember my first briefing, in which some of the less than glorious history of child care in Wales and the responsibilities and failures of the Welsh Office were explained.
I am proud of the fact that during my time in the Welsh Office we published a White Paper on social services for Wales, entitled "Building for the Future", which proposed the option of an independent commissioner for children 245 in Wales. The Welsh Assembly has row developed those proposals, and, by giving such priority to the Bill, has shown that children's needs are—as they should be—a matter of great concern.
I warn my colleagues in Wales that they should not see the role of the Children's Commissioner as solving all the problems. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend pointed out, it is not a panacea that will meet all the needs of children. Although the commissioner will certainly help by acting as an advocate and a watchdog, he will not replace the requirement for all of us to be vigilant in preventing the abuse and neglect that sadly affect too many of our children.
Two recent constituency examples show that it is far too early for us to congratulate ourselves on having learned from past mistakes. As is often the case, the family histories of the children involved are very difficult. I shall not name them, but I think that their experiences will be familiar to members of all parties, because, sadly, they are not rare.
The first case is that of a boy of nine who, for good reasons, was excluded from school in November. He was seen by an educational psychologist during his first year at school and was assessed again during his second year, but he was not "statemented" until his fourth year. He has since been diagnosed as suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and has been prescribed medication. The local authority says that it has no available special-school place for the boy, but has offered one hour a day of home tuition. Since his expulsion in November, however, the child has been given just seven hours—one day—of tuition. His mother is distraught. She needs help and her son needs help, but they are not receiving it.
The second case involves an even younger child—a toddler, or baby, aged two. Her mother voluntarily placed her in care some 18 months ago. The child has since been placed in five foster homes, and no decision has been made about her long-term future. Will she be reunited with her mother, will she be adopted, or will she continue to be passed from pillar to post?
What is so poignant about that case is that the mother, who is not yet 20, was herself in care, and was placed with 10 different foster parents. Her two-year-old daughter is already halfway to meeting the record that she set. It would indeed be a tragedy if today's care system failed the daughter, as the earlier one failed the mother.
I welcome the appointment of the Children's Commissioner, but let us not leave the House this evening with the self-satisfied view that we have done what needs to be done by allowing the Bill a Second Reading. A great deal remains to be done. The Children's Commissioner will aid the process, but his appointment is not the only means by which we must try to help children. I believe that a great deal of current legislation—especially, perhaps, "best value" legislation—gives us scope to ensure that far more is done, effectively and efficiently, in social services and education departments.
Whatever the systems and processes that we enact, however, all of us—as legislators in particular, but also as responsible adults—have a duty to care for children, to be vigilant and to speak up on behalf of children. I hope and believe that the Children's Commissioner will be the greatest advocate for children in Wales, but he or she will not remove the responsibility borne by everyone else.
§ Sir Peter Lloyd (Fareham)
Several years ago, the Utting inquiry revealed an appalling history of abuse in children's homes in north Wales; but more shaming, in many respects, were the disbelief and the brick walls faced by children when they tried to speak up, and also by adults in the system when they sought to voice their suspicions. It took many years for the truth to come out. I fear that, because such a long time had elapsed and because the evidence was so old—and, as it would after all those years, relied so heavily on unsupported allegations—some guilty people have escaped and, even worse, some innocent people have been unjustly pilloried and possibly even convicted.
Certainly, abuses have been committed elsewhere in the United Kingdom and have not come to light because children encountered similar impediments to seeking help or simply being heard. The recent harrowing case of Anna Climbie, which has been mentioned several times today, is an extreme and particularly sadistic example.
It was right to devise a mechanism to check and test the systems of oversight for "looked after" children, and to try to give them a voice—or at least to turn a sensitive listening ear towards them. Legislation passed last year establishing a children's director in England and a commissioner in Wales was an important advance for "looked after" children, although, as the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) pointed out, it is not a panacea. It does not absolve anyone—legislators or citizens—from taking great care.
The Bill breaks new ground. It is, as we have heard, the first legislation promoted by the Welsh Assembly, and it extends the commissioner's remit to services supplied by the Assembly in Wales or substantially paid for from its budget. I should have preferred the commissioner and his staff to take up their original duties sooner, and to wait until they had gained some experience before extending their range. I hope that the commissioner will still regard "looked after" children as the most vulnerable and, therefore, as his immediate central concern. I hope that he will turn his attention to other matters only when he is confident that he has attended properly to those children and their institutional environment.
It makes sense for the commissioner eventually to extend his remit—perhaps, as the Bill does, in time, to all services involving children for which the Assembly is responsible or which it largely funds. However, I hope that the commissioner will use his judgment and find that he does not need to spend too much time on most of those services.
National Museums and Galleries of Wales, for example, caters for children, and in organising itself it should have in mind their interests and opinions. It should also balance the needs and interests of children with those of adults when they differ. If it is run by the right people, the commissioner really should not have to give it too much attention—although I am sure that that body would be grateful if the commissioner were occasionally to suggest ways in which it might better serve child visitors.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) made various searching points at the Dispatch Box earlier in the debate, and he was quite right to do so. However, I think that most of the points could and should be dealt with by amendments in Committee, rather than by rejecting the Bill. I was very glad to hear him say 247 words to similar effect. I therefore hope that, at the end of the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) will say that he sees no reason why the Opposition should press their reasoned amendment.
Nevertheless, I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley was right to suggest that the Bill might be improved if it made it clear that the commissioner should work with parents, who will often be the ones who make complaints on behalf of their children. The welfare of children does indeed depend fundamentally on strong family units. However, regardless of whether such a statement is in the Bill, any half-decent commissioner—and I am sure that Mr. Clarke will prove to be a decent one—will know that, and will wish to operate as an ally and supporter of good and concerned parents, rather than substituting his judgment and authority for theirs.
I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley was right also to be concerned that there could be duplication and confusion. However, that too will depend largely on the way in which the commissioner decides to operate. There is confusion enough in most public organisations about who exactly is in charge and how complaints can be effectively made, especially when children are concerned. I believe that if the commissioner enables the voice of children and their parents to be better heard and the shortcomings of which they complain to receive effective attention, the new system will clarify where responsibility and the power to remedy complaints really lie.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) quite rightly expressed his concern about the possibility that the commissioner will not be able to attend to the situation of Welsh juveniles in young offenders' institutions especially if they are incarcerated across the border, in England. May I suggest that the commissioner could approach that situation by speaking up and indicating the potential problem, and then talking to HM chief inspector of prisons—who, I am quite sure, would undertake any investigation on his behalf that he thought necessary? It has been remarked in the debate also that devolution is an opportunity for authorities on both sides of the border to work together. I think that attending to that situation is one such opportunity, and that such co-operation is one way of dealing with the worry that the hon. Gentleman quite rightly had.
I take it that the commissioner is responsible for his own budgets, as well as for what he says. I hope that the Minister will confirm in his reply that the commissioner will be able to use his budgets, and that he has enough in them to be able to conduct formal research and inquiries at second hand. I think that the commissioner will find that he needs some academic input and has to take on board people from outside to make particular inquiries when sufficient information is not available for him to make a judgment or to put points to the public and to Members of the Assembly.
I was glad to hear the Secretary of State say that, although the commissioner will be formally responsible only for covering the services belonging to the Assembly, there is nothing to prevent him from speaking more widely when he judges it to be necessary. I hope that the Minister will tell me if I am wrong, but I took that to mean that the commissioner can comment, for example, on court cases and on legislation—not merely on 248 devolved legislation from the Assembly, but on legislation that may be passed in this place. Will the Minister confirm that, although the commissioner's formal powers of investigation may be limited, his power to speak out when he thinks it necessary to make a point is in no way inhibited?
The commissioner has to make an annual report to the Assembly. I imagine that he is there to be summoned by the Assembly, to give evidence if the Assembly or one of its Committees so wishes. If he is, I hope that the Assembly and its Committees will make use of that.
Undoubtedly, the Assembly and the Government regard the commissioner as a champion doing battle for children against bad or insensitive people and organisations outside. However, I suspect that if the commissioner does his job properly, as is often the way with inspectors, his revelations and criticisms will occasionally come uncomfortably close to home—as regards the way in which Departments of the Government or the Assembly have behaved and in respect of the services that they offer. I hope so; it will do them good.
I wish the Bill very great success in its passage through Parliament, and look forward to England eventually learning from Welsh experience.
§ Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)
I am very proud to be able to speak in this debate. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales said, the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill is the first legislation considered by the House that has been asked for by the National Assembly for Wales and that deals only with Wales. It demonstrates the true spirit of devolution. The National Assembly for Wales, the Government and Parliament are all working together to produce legislation to improve protection for children in Wales.
I am very proud also that Wales is taking the lead on the issue. Devolution is all about finding the important issues for each part of the United Kingdom, and the Bill offers a shining example of what is important in Wales. All eyes will be on Wales to see how the commissioner deals with the varies challenges facing him. I am sure that he will provide an excellent example of what can be done. I know that he has the good wishes of all hon. Members.
Although this is a welcome day, as other hon. Members have said, it is also a sad day on which we are bound to remember all the children who have suffered, who have been abused and who have needed the voice of a champion. As other hon. Members have also said, although such a champion might not have stopped the abuse, he or she would have greatly improved the chances of its being stopped. We are bound to remember the young people in north Wales who were involved in abuse, particularly the 11 young men who later committed suicide. Several hon. Members have mentioned the horrific recent case of Anna Climbie.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) reminded us that, in addition to the scandals involving institutions, abuse also takes place in families, and that although families are the best places to bring up children, they can also be dangerous. Nor should we forget that domestic violence harms and damages children.
249 Given the background to the Bill, I find the Conservative amendment quite extraordinary. It is certainly out of tune with public feeling and with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). Something must have gone wrong with the Opposition's planning and they probably deeply regret tabling the amendment.
Perhaps Conservative Members should consult their own party more widely. I was staggered by the dismissive way in which the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) referred to his colleagues in the Welsh Assembly almost as if they were beneath contempt. It is no wonder the Conservative party is in such a mess, given what has happened today. To be absolutely fair, however, all that is in contrast with the speech of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley. I believe that there is cross-party consensus and that Conservative Members have made a bit of a blunder by tabling their amendment. What they have said since shows that it was a bit of politicking that did not really come off. They should certainly consult their colleagues in the National Assembly more, and read what they have said. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to David Melding, a Conservative Assembly Member, as saying that the Children's Commissioner would be a great friend and champion of good, wholesome family life.
§ Mr. Walter
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. As we have pointed out on a number of occasions, we tabled our reasoned amendment to improve the Bill. She cannot claim that there is a great consistency between the views expressed by Labour Assembly Members and those of the Government. Article 29 of the report by the Assembly's Health and Social Services Committee suggests that the commissioner should have a remit over non-devolved areas, and continues:However, we recognise that such a proposal would be subject to negotiation with the UK Government.It is quite clear that the First Secretary has been unable to negotiate that. Not only is there no unanimity of view between Labour Assembly Members and Labour Members here, such as the hon. Lady is suggesting does not exist among the Conservatives, but there is in fact a unanimity of view, in that we are all seeking to make the Bill more effective.
§ Mr. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd)
I have here the PA NewsFile report on the relationship between Conservative Assembly Members and Conservative Members in Westminster. It says:Mr. Bourne recently insisted there was no division between Tory MPs and AMs over the Bill.But today he conceded: "I thought that was the case at the time before meeting some of our team at Westminster. They were fully aware of our position and there was no indication at first that there was any difference. When I said that, I was certainly not aware of any difference. Subsequently I found out that there was a difference of emphasis but we are not going to change our position. We are not going to stand on our heads for anybody.That is the position of Conservative Assembly Members in Cardiff.
§ Ms Morgan
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
250 The amendment is also contradictory. On the one hand it says that the Billfails to assert the importance of the family,yet on the other hand it does not go far enough, because it fails to take account of UK public bodies. It is clearly out of touch with the vast majority of right hon. and hon. Members and the public—so today has not been the Conservative party's finest hour.
It is vital that the Children's Commissioner becomes a true advocate of all children in Wales. We do not want the commissioner to be inhibited about what he talks about and in the issues that young people bring to his attention. If children are in desperate circumstances, wherever they are and whether or not they are covered by devolved or non-devolved legislation, and if they approach the Children's Commissioner, it is absolutely essential that he should respond, comment on their case and make sure that something is done about it.
I was reassured by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when he said that the Children's Commissioner should be able to comment on any matters affecting children in Wales. When the Under-Secretary of State for Wales replies to the debate, I hope that he will reiterate that. It is a matter that has concerned children's charities in Wales. They have a long history of campaigning for this post and they are anxious that we should do the best that we possibly can. If my hon. Friend can confirm that, it will go a long way towards addressing their concerns.
Let me take the opportunity to pay tribute to those charities, particularly Children in Wales, which has worked extremely hard to establish this post. Children in Wales is a conglomerate of children's charities which have long held the belief that a Children's Commissioner who is outside the system will be a true advocate for children in Wales and will help to improve their lives. I held that view for many years when I worked in the voluntary sector, and it is extremely important that we take on board the points that have been raised by the charities; my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has reassured us about one of the main ones.
I should also mention consultation with children. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) said that it was important to highlight that issue and discuss in Committee how it should be done. It will be a key issue for the commissioner. It is easy to say that we will consult children and young people, but it will take money, expertise and a great deal of working out to make certain that the views of representative children in Wales reach the commissioner and that he is able to gauge their views and concerns. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend said that it might be better to put that in the Bill; we could consider that in Committee.
Like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I should like to mention how the commissioner was appointed, as it is something of which we should be proud. I am sure that it is a first for a public appointment, just as the Children's Commissioner for Wales is the first children's commissioner in the United Kingdom. Children were involved in the appointment in a unique way and for the first time in respect of a major public appointment in the United Kingdom. Seventeen children were involved in the process for a whole weekend; they interviewed all the shortlisted candidates and engaged in role play with the candidates. Two young people were voted by that group to be members of the final selection panel, which 251 also included political representatives and, I assume, an independent person—the first time such a major public appointment has been made in that way. That is a great tribute to the Assembly.
Some of the young people were interviewed after that process and were extremely proud of what had been done; they, too, felt that it was a historic occasion and that they had really contributed to making the office of the commissioner happen. They felt that they had a stake in the matter.
The Children's Commissioner will be effective only if he is known throughout the length and breadth of Wales, so that wherever there are children, they will know that the commissioner is the person to go to if they want something taken up, or if they have something to say and it has not been dealt with by more immediate channels. As other hon. Members have pointed out, the first point of access for many young people should not be the commissioner, but much more local bodies—probably the local authority or other channels. It is extremely important, however, that the name of the Children's Commissioner be known and that he himself be known throughout Wales, so that young people know whom to get in touch with. I hope that the commissioner will try to reach out to children imaginatively, to make certain that communication takes place.
I attended a conference at which the Danish Children's Commissioner, or ombudsman, spoke. He involved all the children in the audience in exercises to bring out their views on many issues. That was a tremendously exciting and enjoyable occasion. Although, in discussing the commissioner's post, we have concentrated on abuse, because the post was created as a result of the Waterhouse report and its terrible saga, we should also think about all the hopes and expectations of young people; we in Wales want them to fulfil their potential as much as they can. The role of the commissioner should be just as much to do with that as with the sad findings in Waterhouse.
§ Mr. Simon Thomas
The hon. Lady has given a good and exciting description of how the commissioner could affect the lives of children in Wales. Does she agree that the commissioner needs the right infrastructure and staff to be able to undertake his job? For example, is she aware of the difficulties of the Disability Rights Commissioner? Two of my constituents were told that their problems could not be considered for six months because of the overwhelming number of people who have approached that commissioner. Surely, we must avoid that scenario for the Children's Commissioner. We must impress on everyone the need for the right finances to be available to him.
§ Ms Morgan
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We must ensure that resources are available. Although we refer to the commissioner, we are, of course, talking about the office of commissioner—the system involves more than one person. The hon. Gentleman did not mention that when the office of commissioner was set up under disability discrimination legislation, it was discovered that the vast majority of disabled people in Wales were unaware of the commissioners and of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and of how to use them. We need to ensure not only that the disability 252 commissioners are well advertised, but that the Children's Commissioner is known. The publication of the commissioner's resources is extremely important.
Many of the points I had intended to make have been made by other hon. Members. Will my hon. Friend the Minister clarify whether the commissioner would be able to comment on the results of legal cases? He certainly would not be able to do so before the end of such proceedings, but a major part of the commissioner's role should be to comment on important issues that may be discussed throughout Wales, even if they did not arise from Welsh cases—such as the Venables case or the recent case on the separation of Siamese twins.
It is important that the commissioner should have the power to comment on such matters. There is some feeling among the children's charities that an amendment would be needed to establish that power. Will my hon. Friend reassure me about that point?
The measure refers to children who are "ordinarily resident in Wales". Does that include the children of asylum seekers, for example? In Cardiff, we expect asylum seekers shortly; we want to ensure that they have as good a welcome and are as well integrated as possible. Will the children of asylum seekers come within the remit of the commissioner?
It has been a great pleasure to speak in the debate. The measure is a big step forward. During my time as a Member over the past four years, it has been a great privilege to see devolution and the setting up of the National Assembly in Cardiff, and to see the introduction of the first Bill proposed to this House by the Assembly. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments on the points that I have made.
§ Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
The Secretary of State, who opened the debate, is normally extremely fair and strives to express a reasoned view. He carefully went over the history of the commissioner and the various debates held in this place. Unfortunately, however, he omitted the fact that I was the first to raise the question in 1993, in a Committee of which he was a member. To be fair, both he and his hon. Friends supported my amendment and our discussions at that time, even though, unfortunately, the amendment was not accepted. I am referring to the Standing Committee on the Local Government (Wales) Bill.
It seems that the Conservatives have now decided that the commissioner is a good thing—at least I think they have. There is, of course, their reasoned amendment, but we shall see—the acid test will come at 10 o'clock.
Over the years, efforts have been made by many Members on both sides of the House. In 1993, there was support from the three Opposition parties; together, we did a considerable amount of work on the amendment. I received considerable assistance from Plant yng Nghymru—Children in Wales—to whom the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) referred earlier. Hon. Members will undoubtedly acknowledge the huge efforts made recently by Children in Wales to secure the establishment of the post of commissioner—initially, as an adjunct to the Care Standards Act 2000 and, more recently, to propose that the office and its remit be extended and that the whole issue be moved up the political agenda. Such is the success of Children in Wales 253 that we are discussing the matter toddy. The organisation has worked hard lobbying Members of both the National Assembly and this place.
I unreservedly congratulate Children in Wales and thank its members and all its constituent bodies for all their hard work on behalf of our Welsh citizens of the future. I also congratulate Mr. Gareth Wardell on his appointment as chair of the organisation and wish him well in that office. He was an assiduous Member of this place—a highly regarded man and an excellent Chair of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs. He is an excellent choice to chair Children in Wales.
The amendment to which I referred would have imposed certain duties on the Children's Commissioner for Wales. I shall refer to it only briefly, because there is a feeling of deja vu about it now. We were talking then about the new local government set-up in Wales, and the main thrust of the amendment was that the commissioner should have regard to the principles laid down in the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which has already been mentioned in the debate.
Secondly, there was a need to ensure co-ordination between voluntary organisations providing services for children and the principal councils. Another important factor was the need to consult children, and those who seek to promote children's interests, from time to time. That was the main thrust of the amendment discussed at that time, but although it had support it was not carried.
It is as true today as it was then that children are a special case. They need advocates, and the appointment of a commissioner then would have given them one. Now we shall have an advocate in place for children, who deserve special treatment—and as a Welsh person, I am proud that Wales is showing the way.
The right hon. Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd) made a measured and excellent speech—one of warm and constructive support for the Bill, which made a useful contribution to the debate. He too said that children need advocates and are a special case, and that he hoped that England would emulate Wales in this respect. Like him, I am sure that there is as much need for a children's commissioner for England as there is in Wales. That thought may be appropriate in connection with the debate about devolution in England—I know not—but whether that debate proceeds apace or not, I am sure that at some point the need for a similar office, with similar powers and duties, in England will be recognised.
The House should bear in mind the following principle:The well-being of children requires political action at the highest level.I have probably broken the pledge of a lifetime in quoting those words, because they are not mine but those of Baroness Thatcher. This is probably the last time that I shall quote her.
The obvious point is that today's children are tomorrow's society. Every one of us, whoever we represent, agrees that we owe it to future generations to ensure that our children are properly looked after. We must strike a blow on behalf of children, and I believe that the Bill is one such blow. It is a most welcome step in the right direction.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
Before my hon. Friend goes into the detail of the Bill, does he agree that 254 in setting up the role of the commissioner we must not allow other bodies to believe that the holder of that office is taking the whole responsibility? The commissioner should not offer those bodies a means of escaping the responsibility that a host of local authorities, other public agencies and voluntary organisations now have. I hope that the Children's Commissioner will be able to remind them, co-ordinate them and encourage them, rather than being a means whereby they can avoid their responsibilities.
§ Mr. Llwyd
I entirely agree. I see the commissioner's role as similar to that of the Environmental Audit Committee in this House, which cross-cuts and examines each Department in turn to ensure best practice. That is the way forward. My right hon. Friend is right to say that in no circumstances must we scapegoat the commissioner's office or say that if something has gone wrong, it must be his fault. A lot of cross-cutting work has to be done, with devolved and non-devolved organisations, to establish a holistic approach.
I have already mentioned the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, and I firmly believe, and have believed for some time, that that convention should guide all our thinking on the subject. I agree with the suggestion made by Children in Wales and others, such as Professor Newell, an expert in the field who was mentioned by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), that we should not leave references to rights under the UN convention as implicit. They should be explicit, and mentioned on the face of the Bill. I hope to be able to touch on that issue in a little more detail later, and I hope that we will be able to examine it further in Committee, because it is important.
No one in this place or outside would deny that bolting on to the Care Standards Bill the clauses that set up the role of the commissioner was a positive step in the right direction. To be fair, I must say that that was done with some degree of urgency in this place, in concert with our colleagues in the National Assembly.
We are now coming back, within a short time, to strengthen the commissioner's remit and extend it somewhat. The right hon. Member for Fareham said that perhaps it would be better if the commissioner were left for a while to settle down. With great respect, I disagree. Parliamentary time will always be in short supply, and there is also an urgent need to move on; I know that the right hon. Gentleman also believes that the matter is urgent. I can understand why he said what he did—it is perfectly logical that he should do so—but I cannot agree.
No one would deny that bolting the provisions on to the earlier Act, and then the introduction of this Bill, represent a massive step forward. However, with respect, I have to say that if the National Assembly had had the necessary legislative powers in the first place, no doubt it would have got things right in the first place. One only has to look at the reports and other paperwork that the Assembly produced, saying from the outset that it wanted a wider remit, to realise that that is so. That would have saved time in this place. Of course, for the sake of the children and young people of Wales, I am pleased that we are doing what is necessary now, but I think that had it been within the remit of the National Assembly, everything would have been done in one fell swoop. That may be conjecture, however.
255 On 11 September last year I had the honour of chairing a plenary session of the Human Rights International Alliance conference on children's rights, which was held in Central hall, Westminster. I was pleased to be there, because I was the only Member of this place to have been invited to participate, amid a glittering array of international politicians, sociologists and other academics, High Court judges and lawyers. Of course, I was out of my depth. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no."] That is very kind. This consensus is getting to me; it is not Christmas, is it?
As I extolled the virtues of the Children's Commissioner, and said that we in Wales had led the way, I thought that I was making a good point, which would go down fairly well. Far from it—many members of that knowledgeable audience were fully conversant with the role of the Children's Commissioner, which was then bolted on, as it were, to another Act. To a man and woman, they were quite disapproving, because the remit was such as to render the post a glorious piece of window-dressing.
I shrank in my seat and became less and less obvious as the debate went on. Moira Rayner, the director of the Children's Rights Commission for London, was one of the critics who eloquently described the shortcomings of the office as it was then set up. The criticism—at times, strident—was, however, constructive. I am therefore pleased that the necessary parliamentary time has been secured to address the failings of the current remit.
It is to the credit of the National Assembly that it undertook urgent, in-depth investigations into the issue and considered other European templates for the desired remit. It found that other European countries had commissioners who would act as advocates for children and promote the views of children in society. They would set their agendas as watchdogs and champions for children. They would review and report on aspects of children's matters by reference to the United Nations convention to which I referred.
Perhaps the best way to sum up the main thrust of the commissioner's remit is by quoting Children in Wales, which in its detailed brief states:A Children's Commissioner needs to be able to start from the point of view of the child, and use the statutory powers in order to ensure the best possible outcomes for children.I agree with the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans)—on this point only, I hasten to add—that a name change might be in order. It might be better if the commissioner were called the children's and young persons' commissioner because—this is an obvious point-14 or 15-year-old youngsters find being called a child almost abusive. That might inhibit them from making the necessary contact. I am sure that the Minister will consider such matters in Committee in due course. Such a change would represent a useful step forward.
§ Mr. Simon Thomas
Would it not be useful for the Government to consider that a similar debate occurred in Committee during consideration of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, because of the need to tell young people what their rights are and how they can gain access to advocacy services? The point was made about the need to address children and young people in terms that they 256 understand and think relate directly to them. Will my hon. Friend commend the points made in that debate to the Minister?
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson)
§ Mr. Llwyd
That is a kind response. I obviously got it wrong.
I appreciate that this is a Second Reading debate and that, therefore, it is not desirable, strictly speaking, to examine the minutiae of the Bill. Nevertheless, it is vital that areas of weakness are flagged up clearly, and I hope that I shall do so constructively. I am very much guided by the views of the National Assembly. In particular, I refer to the report of its Health and Social Services Committee, which was adopted by the National Assembly on 7 June 2000. The National Assembly was firmly of the opinion that the remits should be extended to cover non-devolved issues.
We have already debated devolved matters and I do not want to go over them again, but there could be a fundamental flaw in the Bill. The Bill, as I read it, will limit the commissioner's role to devolved matters only, thus reserved mattes s fall outside the scope. The hon. Member for Bridgend referred to some examples, including taxation, and I have mentioned social security, both of which obviously affect young people. With great respect, it is not good enough to say that the commissioner can comment on such matters.
I can comment on things from a standpoint of half-ignorance, and, being a politician, I do so very often. However, the commissioner will not have proper insights into and access to the internal workings of a body, so how can he or she be expected to make a reasoned and dependable comment on anything?
§ Mr. Win Griffiths
We are in danger of having a Committee debate, but I raised the issue and we can explore it in Committee. The commissioner will not be precluded from making intelligent comments because, by virtue of his status, he will have such access and will have compatibility with the similar people, bodies and institutions that exist to serve children in England and Wales.
§ Mr. Llwyd
I am not necessarily talking about institutions that serve children. With respect, we are talking about Departments, which deal with reserved matters. As a former Minister, the hon. Gentleman knows well enough that there are walls, Chinese walls and granite walls. Some Departments in this Administration would certainly not allow anyone to see anything—on a need-to-know basis or otherwise.
§ Mr. Griffiths
Surely the hon. Gentleman must realise that in Wales we are well used to the cultivation of leeks.
§ Mr. Llwyd
257 I shall not deal with the point at length; it was well made by the hon. Gentleman. We have not taken issue with the length of the Standing Committee stage because we want the Bill to proceed with due haste, but without undue haste. I should like to raise such issues this evening so that the Minister will make a brief note of them and we can hear a measured response from him, rather than being told, as is sometimes the case, that the Government will go away and think about them. There is not much time to do so if the Bill is to return to the Floor of the House by 1 February. Unlike a normal Second Reading debate, it is important to deal with some of those details this evening.
I shall not deal with such matters at great length, but I want to flag up some tangible examples. Health, employment and transport are only partly devolved, but may affect children and young people. That could represent a fundamental flaw in the commissioner's role. I stress that I am trying only to be constructive, but if the commissioner is hampered in that way, the proposal will not be the success that we all want.
The commissioner seemingly cannot review or monitor matters such as juvenile justice. The right hon. Member for Fareham, having been a prisons Minister, knows how such things work, but I would prefer the remit to be extended, rather than having to depend on the good will of a Department, so that full information and proper access is given to the commissioner, enabling him or her to carry out the work properly.
Reference has been made to asylum seekers. Family law is currently made here, not in the National Assembly. Nationality, immigration, the environment and family law are all important. The commissioner would presumably not have direct access to the media which is a reserved matter. That is an important point because, like it or not, the media form a big part of young people's education nowadays.
§ Mr. Simon Thomas
I suggest that my hon. Friend add to his list the training for people in the medical profession and the national health service in Wales because the new Health and Social Care Bill—which will set new regimes and professional standards, especially for family GPs—will be decided on an England and Wales basis in the House. Surely, the Children's Commissioner will want to have an interest in how family GPs are trained, for example, to spot signs of child abuse.
§ Mr. Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West)
The right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) has already referred to the need to guard against the dangerous belief that the commissioner will be a panacea for all ills. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the commissioner's role is to be as effective as the strategic role envisaged by Waterhouse, it must be more focused? Although we can accept the enthusiasm of non-governmental organisations to broaden the commissioner's role, we have to be realistic.
The hon. Gentleman's standpoint is entirely logical, but obviously I do not agree with him, because the thrust of my argument is in the other direction.
258 It is a fundamental function of any independent children's champion that he should be able to comment freely on all matters that affect the rights and welfare of children and young persons. That was recognised in paragraph 29 of the National Assembly's report. The Bill broadens the powers of the commissioner, but also limits those powers very strictly to devolved matters—the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman. Although I differ from him, we are both sincere about the need to make the Bill work. I cannot help but think that the commissioner will have one hand tied behind his back if we do not include reserved matters in the Bill.
I suggest that the Bill include a provision similar to section 33 of the Government of Wales Act 1998, to empower the commissioner to comment on matters that are currently excluded. The provision could say, for example, "The commissioner may consider, and make appropriate representations about, any matter affecting children ordinarily resident in Wales." That would put the commissioner on a better footing and give him access to areas that are impenetrable at present. It would also enable the commissioner to take a holistic approach and to investigate or research anything that emerges as a key issue through consultation or other contact, such as letters of complaint from children or young people or matters identified by them as needing special consideration and improvement.
It should be noted that such an amendment would not confer decision-making powers. That would be inappropriate in the current devolution situation. The ability to monitor, report or comment only on the National Assembly's implementation of Westminster legislation is insufficient. I will not labour the point. There are contrary views, and I have no doubt that there will be further discussion at a later date.
The National Assembly's report also refers toan over-arching aim of promoting and upholding the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.As hon. Members have already said, the Bill makes no mention of the convention. There is nothing terribly unusual about requesting such a reference because every Bill now bears a statement of compatibility with the European convention on human rights under section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998. A Bill such as this should encourage all and sundry to act in a manner compatible with the UN convention. When we boil it down there is nothing esoteric or difficult about that convention; it is good common sense and good practice, and part of the commissioner's remit will be to ensure that best practice is adopted, as I am sure we all agree.
Clause 2 refers to the commissioner's duty topromote the rights and welfare of children.Of course that is welcome, but why cannot we add words such as "having particular regard to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child"? That would allay the concerns of many hon. Members. I would like the Minister to deal specifically with that question when he responds because it is of concern to a considerable number of children's organisations and Members of the House.
It is also the declared view of the National Assembly that the Bill should aim to uphold the UN convention. Several hon. Members have said that the Bill is an example of legislating in an area in which the National Assembly has no primary powers. If we make such a 259 clarion call and give ourselves a pat on the back, we should not, for heaven's sake, ignore the declared view of the Assembly. That fundamental point has considerable force. We must carefully take on board the legitimate, consensus view voiced by the Assembly; otherwise, legislating in this place on behalf of the Assembly is a sham. I am sure that we will return to that point.
Another concern is that the commissioner is precluded from commenting on the decisions of courts and tribunals. Other hon. Members have referred to that matter, so I shall not dwell on it. However, although everyone would agree that it would be inappropriate for the commissioner to comment on any cases that are sub judice, it cannot be right to preclude him from commenting on decided cases because law in this state is made not only by Parliament but by precedent in the courts. That is the way in which our constitution evolves. It is therefore as important for the commissioner to be able to scrutinise those decisions as it is for him to comment on the laws that we enact in this place, and his hands may be tied in that regard.
It would be rather perverse if the appointed children's watchdog in Wales were gagged and prevented from making comments on judicial decisions that might affect, adversely or positively, the children of Wales, while every other citizen was entitled to comment on any high-profile case. Reference has been made to the tragic case of young Damilola Taylor and the high-profile Bulger murder. The Bill will preclude the commissioner from commenting on those cases. That does not make sense. It will not only demean the commissioner's office but, more important, it will make his job more difficult. It will not sound good if, when invited to comment on a high-profile case, the guardian of children's rights has to say, "No comment." I ask the Minister to respond to that point.
Will the Minister also elaborate on section 74(3)(b) of the Care Standards Act 2000, with which he is of course conversant? Will that section confer on the commissioner the right of access to information and to people, which is seen as vital to his role? The significant words in that section arerequiring persons … to provide the Commissioner with … other assistance.In the light of the Waterhouse report, many commentators feel that the right should be explicit in the Bill. That would place the commissioner in the same position as commissioners in other states and jurisdictions.
Will the commissioner be empowered to review the effect on children in Wales of the possible failure—dare I say this in the presence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley)?—the National Assembly to take action intra vires its powers on behalf of children in Wales? That power is explicit in clause 4(3), which allows the commissioner to review the failure of bodies to make appropriate arrangements for complaints procedures, advocacy and so on. Will that power extend to the National Assembly? If not, why not?
This has been a long road since the amendment that I tabled in 1993. Of course, I give credit to the Government and the Assembly for acting now and acting urgently, especially in the wake of the Waterhouse report and the horrible abuses that it uncovered. The Government and the National Assembly for Wales have moved rapidly in this instance and I am sure that all hon. Members are 260 grateful for that. However, we should not be too hasty with the Bill, as there are many points to be considered and amendments to be discussed properly in Committee.
It is true that the House sometimes legislates in haste and repents at leisure. We cannot afford to make that mistake with this ground-breaking Bill. My party and I did not challenge the timing and extent of the Committee sittings, and I hope that we shall have proper, reasoned discussion in Committee. Indeed, that is vital. For that reason, I shall break the habit of a lifetime and I, too, shall not vote against the guillotine motion. However, I hope that we will have a meaningful discussion, which is why I have flagged up certain points on Second Reading.
The Bill is not controversial. My earnest hope is that we will have sufficient time to debate the issues that I have mentioned and will strengthen the measure to safeguard generations of Welsh children and lessen drastically the possibility of the hideous events portrayed in the Waterhouse report being repeated. We have a vehicle that will enable us to listen to the views of our children and, more important, to act upon them to our children's advantage. We all owe it to our children and our children's children to get that right, and I sincerely hope that we shall do so.
§ Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South)
Personally, I am delighted that, by their publication of the Bill, the Government have shown, yet again, the high priority that they place on the care and protection of children and young people in Wales. Judging by the favourable public reaction, there can t e little doubt that the Bill has been widely welcomed across the length and breadth of Wales as a positive step. It is a step towards fulfilling the expectations of the Welsh people and the recommendations of the National Assembly for Wales. It is also a step towards meeting the concerns of the House of Commons, following the dreadful events that precipitated the need for the Waterhouse inquiry into child sex abuse in north Wales.
I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland will eye the Bill with great envy. Surely, it forms a blueprint for similar legislation throughout the rest of the United Kingdom in the not too distant future. I am particularly heartened that the Bill has been welcomed by all the main nongovernmental organisations specialising in child protection in Wales: NSPCC Cymru, the Children's Society in Wales, Barnardos Cymru and Save the Children. On a personal note, I am pleased because, as far back as May 1999 the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, which I have the honour of chairing, made a clear recommendation in its third report, entitled "Childcare in Wales". It said:We urge the Assembly to appoint a Children's Commissioner in Wales without delay.That is not to say that the Assembly is answerable to the Welsh Affairs Committee. However, it listened and responded to the recommendation that we put to it.
It is interesting to note that, when the Welsh Affairs Committee took evidence in producing the report, the message that we received was clear and unambiguous and, I am proud to say, mirrors the essence of what we are debating in the House this evening. For example, the Committee was told that there was a need for a Children's 261 Commissioner for Wales who was empowered both to represent the needs and views of children and, importantly, to examine the services provided for children in Wales. The Bill delivers on the explicit demands that the Committee heard.
I should like to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) who, in his role as First Secretary of the Welsh Assembly, has wasted no time since last summer in ensuring that the post of Children's Commissioner for Wales has been filled as quickly as possible. Last month, on the day after the Queen's Speech in another place, my right hon. Friend announced that Mr. Peter Clarke, the former director of Childline Cymru, had been appointed the first Children's Commissioner for Wales. Along with those on both Front Benches and many other Members, I should like to wish Mr. Clarke every success in his new role. I am sure that, when enacted, the Bill will provide him with the necessary legislative framework to fulfil his role in future.
Confidence in the protection of children in care was severely undermined throughout Wales, following the heinous crimes—detailed in the Waterhouse report—which, sadly, were committed in north Wales a few years ago. I believe that the new Children's Commissioner, with the enhanced role that is provided for in the Bill, will have a pivotal role in renewing that confidence for future generations of young people in Wales.
When I read the Bill, I was pleased to see that the new commissioner will not only concentrate on those 3,000 young people in care in Wales. His role will also be extended so that he can act as a promoter of children's rights—the rights of every single child across the length and breadth of Wales—in future. In addition, the commissioner has a role in the oversight of complaints, has powers to undertake formal investigations on matters of principle and will undertake the role of observing child abuse investigations. I believe that we now have in Wales the basis for real and rapid improvement in the protection of children.
I should be grateful, however, if my hon. Friend the Minister would clarify some matters when he sums up later this evening. One such issue relates to the absence from the Bill of the responsibility of the Children's Commissioner for Wales to promote and monitor the implementation of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. The United Kingdom is a signatory to the convention, and we have already heard eloquent and learned remarks on that from the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). I understand that, in other European countries, such duty is charged to an agency with a role equivalent to that of the Children's Commissioner for Wales. I should therefore be grateful for clarification on that matter. In particular, if that issue is not addressed by the Children's Commissioner for Wales, how does my hon. Friend see it being addressed from a Welsh perspective?
I should be grateful if my hon. Friend could respond to a concern that has been expressed to me about the Bill regarding the flexibility for future change. If it was felt that the powers and role of the Children's Commissioner needed to be enhanced further at some stage, how easy 262 would that process be?Would it require further primary legislation—as in the current instance—for change to take place?
§ Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He asked an important question about the scope of the commissioner's role. Does he feel, like me, that there is a need for clarification of the commissioner's relationship with other agencies? I refer particularly to the relationship between the commissioner and education authorities regarding, for example, children's special educational needs and the protection of their interests. Extra legislation might be required to enable the commissioner to fulfil such a role.
§ Mr. Jones
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention: that is precisely the kind of issue to which I am referring. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was present at the beginning of our debate, but the Secretary of State referred to the possibility that the Children's Commissioner would be allowed to comment on other matters. I am not sure whether we need to codify that in law.
§ Mr. Hayes
Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I was here when the Secretary of State said that, which is why I intervened on the hon. Gentleman. Allowing the commissioner to comment on those issues is different from giving him an active role—a proactive role, even—in dealing with them. The hon. Gentleman made an interesting point about the legislation that may be necessary to facilitate such a proactive role.
§ Mr. Jones
I hope that the Minister will respond to that point. We are happy and proud to welcome the Children's Commissioner for Wales as a pilot that, I hope, will be taken up throughout the United Kingdom. The role may have to grow and unforeseen matters may arise. Even in Committee, amendments may be tabled relating to areas to which the hon. Gentleman and I, too, am referring. The commissioner's role may need to be extended. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point at the end of our debate because, as the hon. Gentleman said, it is important.
The Bill is pioneering and is an important first step. However, further change may be required to ensure that Wales—and the rest of the country, if it takes this proposal up—keeps abreast of further developments in the sphere of children's legislation.
Although society will never be able to guarantee the most vulnerable children complete protection from being targets of those intent on committing sexual and physical abuse, I believe that the Bill provides the children of Wales with a fresh start and sends a clear signal to those who prey on our children that their evil ways will not be tolerated.
By giving the Bill a Second Reading, the House can be proud that it is responding to the needs of children in Wales. The Government, to their credit, acted quickly on the recommendations of the Waterhouse and Welsh Affairs Committee reports. By bringing the Bill before the House, the Government have shown that they are prepared to act decisively again—this time to shore up the commissioner's role as laid out in the Care Standards Act 263 2000. I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to give the Bill their unreserved support and to oppose the reasoned amendment, which the Opposition have so irresponsibly tabled. If agreed to, it would block this useful legislation.
§ Sir Raymond Whitney (Wycombe)
I shall make only a brief contribution on the basis of the short time that I spent as a Minister at the then Department of Health and Social Security during the 1980s, when I had responsibility for social services work throughout the country. In that connection, I should say that I was immensely assisted by Sir William Utting, who of course produced such an important report on the problem of boarding accommodation and the treatment of youngsters in Wales.
My own background is that for the past 13 or 14 years I have been chairman of a small national charity that works among young people in 10 cities and towns in England and one in Northern Ireland. That gives me a certain insight from a particular point of view, which I shall discuss in more detail.
Before I do so in terms of the substance of the Bill, I shall comment on a point made by the Secretary of State. He welcomed the Bill, as do we all, but welcomed it as an act of constitutional significance. I have to say, rather sadly and ruefully, that I agree. It is significant that the measure has flowed back to us from the National Assembly for Wales to be dealt with in the Chamber as primary legislation. To put it at its mildest, the Bill leaves so many loose ends. For example, we had to set aside Standing Order No. 86 and we face the issue, which many hon. Members have discussed, of what is or is not to be done with the non-devolved legislation. The Secretary of State said, "The commissioner would not be debarred from comment if it was not in his statutory remit." Big deal, as one might say. None of us is debarred from comment. That is a serious problem that highlights the constitutional inadequacies of what we have created, and it is of course only the latest of many examples.
Although this matter is a long way from children in Wales, I hope that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will allow me a moment to raise it. The other day, a Chinese delegation—remarkably perhaps, a constitutional commission considering ways to run countries—was in this country. When its members arrived in London, they thought that they had found the holy grail or reached Mecca—they were in the most ancient, stable and mature democracy where we have all the experience and all the answers.
Over the delegation's time here, I watched its members as they saw what was happening in Wales and in Scotland—Ireland they knew was a problem—and with the Mayor of London. They also considered whether we are to have regional assemblies and all the rest of it. They were simply staggered that we were in such a mess. Were they listening to the debate, they would realise that we are still tacking the Bill together and leaving those loose ends even though we all agree with and welcome the proposal and know what is needed. That is highly unsatisfactory.
§ Sir Raymond Whitney
No. Had the hon. Gentleman been listening a little more carefully, he would have heard 264 me say that, of all countries, we were being visited by a constitutional commission from China. I think that Hansard will confirm that. I have some background in China, which is why I was involved in that visit. I find the country particularly intriguing and let us have our fun, but I hope that he accepts that my point is a serious one. Indeed, he referred to the unsatisfactory nature of the issue of non-devolved legislation. Having said that, we all agree that the Bill deals with an immensely important matter and anyone who has been closely involved in it for any time and in any capacity knows just how difficult it is.
§ Mr. Hayes
Before my hon. Friend moves on to describe his own insight on those matters, which I know is profound, will he acknowledge that the picture of inconsistency that he paints could be worse than even he foresees? Expectations will be raised by the measure, which is precisely why I posed my question about the scope and extent of the commissioner's responsibilities. If expectations are raised but are then thwarted because the constitutional bars that he describes are in place, we may be in a situation even worse than that which he describes.
§ Sir Raymond Whitney
I would not vie with my hon. Friend to paint the darkest shade of black, but we have the same misgivings.
Work with young people was difficult when I had to deal with it. In my experience, it has become more difficult in the past 10 or more years. For example, until recently, my own charity always targeted young teenagers—the 12 to 14-year-olds. The idea was to spot trouble, head it off and lead their energies into productive rather than destructive areas. We opened a new venture a few months ago and the people on the ground—parents, the residents association, teachers and the Churches—said to us, "No, no, no. It is no good leaving it until the children are 12 or 14. You have to go in much earlier." They suggested five; we compromised on eight. That is a measure of the challenge facing society.
The other challenge is to strike a balance, as always, between rights and duties, in particular those of parents. I always felt great admiration for many and sympathy for all the social workers with whom I dealt. They had an immensely difficult job. Social workers will always get some things wrong. They either intervene too quickly and too strongly or hold back and things go wrong. That results in the terrible reports that we read all too regularly in the press. We were reminded only last week of how bad that can be.
There are great dangers. Knowing of them, I was somewhat worried by another phrase used by the Secretary of State, who said, "The role of the commissioner extends to all children in Wales." Well, yes, but there is an awfully worrying echo in that statement. I do not know Mr. Peter. Clarke, but everyone speaks highly of him, and I am sure that he will be aware of those anxieties. His remit should not, need not and must not cover certain areas, and many children and many homes will not need his intervention. We must ensure that the family is sound and well supported by the other agencies of government. It is open to challenge whether Chancellors of the Exchequer, either of the previous Conservative Government or this Government, and 265 policies concocted in the Treasury are conducive to achieving the objective that we all share: the solid family unit.
§ Mr. Dawson
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that good, decent, ordinary parents want to promote the rights of their children and the participation of their children in society, and want to know that their children, wherever they are inside or outside the home, are protected and have their rights upheld?
§ Sir Raymond Whitney
Absolutely. I spend some of my spare time helping to achieve that very end—there is no doubt about that. We are putting great onus on the Children's Commissioner, which is a good thing, but I strongly endorse the points that many hon. Members have made. This measure is no panacea, and the problem cannot be left entirely to the commissioner. The other agencies concerned must not think that they have been let off the hook. That is the strong message coming out of the debate. I have no doubt that Mr. Clarke does not need to hear that message, because if he is as good as everyone tells me he is, he will know it already.
An important balance must be struck. One can feel the tensions only when one is working on the ground. I have no reason to suppose that this measure will not be a useful pathfinder. I share the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd). There may be a case for going a little slower. My first reaction as an Englishman is to say, "What about England?" Having got to where we are, perhaps we should see how the concept works in practice in Wales, and adopt it or modify it.
The English dimension is important, but it often gets forgotten, and this is a glaring example of that. It behoves the Government to take note of that. So far, they have had a pretty easy ride. The English are very quiescent and quiet, and the eyes of people in the audience often glaze over when I try to warn them about the impact of devolution. So far the penny has not dropped, but it is beginning to drop. There will be trouble ahead when people realise that the Scottish people enjoy different treatment and that there are differences in Wales. It behoves all of us to take note of that danger and to avoid that trouble.
I welcome the creation of this new post, with the caveats that many hon. Members have made. I shall deal with the famous reasoned amendment—[HON. MEMBERS: "Infamous."] I thought hon. Members might say that, as it has come under so much criticism. The procedures of this extraordinary place in which we do our business lead to such oddities. I entirely agree with the thrust of the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). We are trying to probe the Government to ensure that all the issues are brought out into the open and examined, especially in Committee. Before making up my mind about the reasoned amendment, I shall listen carefully to the winding-up speech of my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter).
§ Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy)
I have received many letters and telephone calls about the Bill before and after its publication. I should like to thank children's organisations in Wales—I shall not mention them, in case I leave any of them out—for their highly responsible 266 lobbying of Members of Parliament and Members of the National Assembly for Wales to achieve the aims of the Bill.
The Care Standards Act 2000 was an excellent start and offered protection for children. It has been welcomed by scores of individuals, organisations and local authorities. The Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill is a further measure to protect children, so 12 December, which was when it was published, is another important milestone. The Bill is another clear example of how much the Government care about children's welfare and safety.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales on the speed with which they and the Government responded to the calls for the appointment of a Children's Commissioner. After the Waterhouse report recommended the creation of that post in February last year, the Care Standards Bill was amended. At the beginning of December, Peter Clarke was appointed commissioner. I am sure that the House will join me in wishing him all the very best in his new post. We must not underestimate the enormous task that he faces.
Peter Clarke comes from Childline Wales, which is a successful organisation where he gained valuable experience in dealing with highly sensitive and complex issues concerning children in Wales. The National Assembly for Wales and child care organisations called for an extension of the commissioner's powers, and the Government have responded with this new Bill. That is further proof of how the partnership between the National Assembly for Wales and the Government is working and delivering for Wales. It is an excellent example of devolution working for Wales by responding quickly with primary legislation in Westminster to address the particular needs of Wales.
Wales has led the way in the United Kingdom with the creation of this post. It shows that the Government accept that devolution means tackling problems in different ways in different parts of the United Kingdom.
Yesterday in Cardiff, the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs published its report on social exclusion in Wales. During our inquiry, we took evidence from children's organisations and from young people themselves. We said in our report:The vulnerability of children looked after by local authorities has been highlighted by the North Wales Child Abuse Tribunal. We welcome the National Assembly's swift response to the Tribunal's report and the priority which it is giving to meeting the recommendations made.We also said:We were impressed by the work being done by the Children's Rights Service in North Wales (whom we visited in Wrexham) both in providing advocacy for children looked after, and, more particularly, in assisting them in speaking up for themselves. We suggest that all local authorities—and, more particularly, the children in their care—could benefit from an independent Children's Rights Service similar to those already in operation in some parts of Wales.I should like my right hon. Friend to clarify two matters. First, if a child from Wales receives education, health care or social care outside Wales, what remit does the Children's Commissioner for Wales have to make decisions and consider issues that relate to those providing authorities? My second point is more complex and concerns another vulnerable group in society. Adults with severe learning disabilities might never be able to become 267 witnesses in a court of law. The main fears of a parent of such a child is how that child is protected against possible abusers and who will protect him or her when the parents die.
I speak as a mother of a 27-year-old young man who has the mind of a very young child. He would never be able to tell me if he had been physically or mentally abused. I hope that what we are discussing is welcome on both sides of the House. However, I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend could say whether he is willing to extend the commissioner's remit even further to cover that vulnerable group of people.
§ 8.2 pm
§ Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)
I take the view that children are just like adults who tell the truth about how they feel, and have not forgotten to marvel at the world of people and the nature that is around them. Child abuse is a form of robbery. Abusers often have tremendous problems of their own, such as psychosis. It is almost as if they trade their pain for the innocence of the children they abuse. That pain and abuse can never really be satisfied or resolved in that way and the child who is being abused quickly becomes robbed of his or her happiness. Abused children tend to hide their feelings. In some ways, they live as children who have an almost adult sad attitude to the burdens that they have inherited from their experiences. Sadly, statistics tell us that they may repeat the cycle, which is difficult to break.
The tragic experiences of abused children in Wales have for once not led to a knee-jerk reaction in the Chamber. However emotionally involved we may feel as a society, or how those people who are directly involved may feel, we have taken stock. It is to the great credit of politicians and, in particular, the organisations that attempt to help such victims, often on a voluntary basis, that we have found our way to a truly constructive political opportunity that could make a profound difference to past and, especially, future victims of abuse. The determination of whether the Children's Commissioner has been successful is if we prevent abuse from happening. That is not a short-term goal. We will not know for many years whether his work is successful. It serves as a great source of optimism to me that we are discussing the issue on a broadly cross-party basis and, more to the point, with a genuine insight, which has been fed to us by the many organisations that have probably briefed us all, and from our experience of life.
A number of issues will be raised in Committee. Most have been mentioned. The need for the Children's Commissioner to be empowered to consider and to make appropriate representations on any matter that affects children in Wales was well described and I shall not repeat the argument. The importance of the commissioner having direct contact with children cannot be overstated, not least because there is no doubt in my mind, as the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for young people, that they do not believe that the political system is for them and that there is a voice in the corridors of power for them to turn to or trust to be their advocate.
Children who are put off at a fairly young age from everything that we do here are unlikely to inherit an interest in us or find us appealing later on. If children are 268 victims of abuse and do not have faith in the systems, they will not turn to them for help. If the Children's Commissioner has direct contact with children and progressively builds respect and a culture of hope among them so that they believe that they have a voice, that will be tremendously important. I suspect that amendments will help to achieve that.
It has already been stated that the United Nations convention on the rights of the child should be promoted by the commissioner. The Government might be a little hesitant to allow that to happen because it might have knock-on consequences for the rest of the United Kingdom. It is clear from working on Northern Ireland human rights legislation that some parts of British society do not live up to the full spirit of the convention on human rights. Allowing the commissioner to have such powers in Wales would probably have a ripple effect. We should not be scared of that. We are, after all, signatories and even if there are unintentional consequences, such as not having a differential minimum wage between young and older people, so be it, because it would also be healthy. We would be putting our money where our mouth is if we say that the strategy is to get it right and ensure that we change those aspects of our activities that are some way from our desired goal.
Hon. Members asked for the commissioner to be given powers to promote public awareness of children's rights. That was spot on, but we must ensure that we do not give him a nebulous goal that we do not understand in specific terms or which is not achievable. With such an aspiration, we have to ensure that there are resources and opportunities to go with his responsibilities. For example, if we are serious about a giving the commissioner the power to promote public awareness, he must have access to the highest levels of government in Wales. That would not be hard because the Welsh Assembly is clearly behind the proposal.
We must be holistic about those considerations. Save the Children raised the concept of holism with me only today. Rebecca Hickman, who is one of its key officers on the Bill, rightly explained that we must ensure that we end up with a holistic vision and a job that is internally consistent. As we amend the Bill, we must ensure that we do not tack on everything that we want and create a confusing role that is not manageable by one person.
Other points have been made. I shall refer to only two, because repetition is not always helpful.
§ Mr. Öpik
Repetition is not always helpful. Sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the hon. Gentleman presented me with an irresistible opportunity.
It will be interesting to hear the clarification of what the commissioner is allowed to investigate with regard to devolved powers. The Assembly's report on the Children's Commissioner has been mentioned. Paragraphs 29 and 30 address that matter to some extent. They seem to imply that the commissioner is expected to have reasonably clear powers in that regard. Paragraph 29 states:The widest possible functions in respect of non-devolved policies and services should be explored and, as a minimum, the Commissioner should be able to consider and make representations in respect of any non-devolved matters affecting children in Wales in a way similar to the Assembly's right under section 33 of the Government of Wales Act.269 Therefore, it seems that the Assembly takes a similar view to Members in this House. I suspect that the issue does not cause the Minister and the Government much difficulty, but we must be careful to be consistent in what we ask of the commissioner and ensure that any enabling amendments that we table are consistent with the general constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom.
We must test the Bill and any amendments to it in the light of cross-border provision. That point has already been made, but I highlight it now because it will be a potential source of strain in the commissioner's work if he cannot carry out his desired functions and achieve the Minister's aspirations simply because of something that we have missed at this stage. Given the importance of the issue before us, it would be a travesty if insufficient scrutiny led to a tragedy in the way in which children are treated.
The Waterhouse report and the Children in Wales briefing refer to suicide and the importance of the commissioner having a right of access to institutions. That is vital. Although it may not be pleasant to refer to this issue, the consequences of abuse last a lifetime unless the people involved are treated. Even then, the echoes of their tragic past may recur from time to time. A number of people who gave evidence to the Waterhouse inquiry said that suicide is often a consequence, so the right of access is one insurance policy that we could establish. It is not absolutely reliable, but it would empower the commissioner and his staff and that might ensure that we have a better chance of detecting the problems before they occur.
I am concerned about the tone of some parts of the Bill. Much of it is about looking for the danger signs and the problems, but I wish to ensure that we do not create a children's police officer—someone who simply polices Wales to ensure that bad things do not happen. We do not want to create a culture of suspicion in which everyone looks over their shoulder and many people fear that a malicious claim could be made against them and that they will be investigated in a high-profile way by the commissioner.
We need to give thought to the precedents that the commissioner's mode of operation will set and to ensuring that we do not create a culture in which we assume that someone might be an abuser or might not be treating children in an appropriate fashion. That is unlikely to happen across the whole of Wales, but, if we are not careful, there may be a residue of concern in places that have historically been associated with abuse if they have not already been closed down. Discussion of possible solutions is more appropriate for the Committee stage, but I mention that as a strategic issue now.
My other concern about the Bill's tone is that, although it mentions empowerment, it is primarily aimed at preventing abuse. Would it not be great if kids could view the commissioner as someone who could help them to make the best of themselves? The commissioner could occasionally present ideas to the Assembly or to this House that could genuinely add value to the opportunities that children in Wales enjoy. That would provide a fantastic opportunity and would put the question of stopping cruelty in context. Society's objective is not to prevent cruelty, but to help people make the best of themselves and to help kids feel that they can achieve their potential. That is the other side of the 270 commissioner's role. I hope that, in Committee, thought will be given to how we can provide him with that positive opportunity.
I suspect that if we do that, young people will become much more inclined to think that they can access the commissioner and participate in his work directly. They will not feel stigma or think that they can call the commissioner only if they have been abused. They will not think that calling the commissioner means making a confession about the suffering that they have experienced.
§ Mr. Evans
The hon. Gentleman speaks passionately about the subject, and rightly so. Has he, like me, received representations from people who work in organisations that deal with young people? In many cases, they find the fee of £11.75 that has to be paid to consult criminal records quite prohibitive. One measure that might help many organisations to weed out the undesirables from working with young people would be to allow them to go through the criminal records without incurring an enormous cost.
§ Mr. Öpik
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, even though he was a little horrible to me earlier. As he suggests, the Children's Commissioner has an opportunity to bring the issue of police checks into his role. Through appropriate lobbying in Wales at least, we might be able to ensure that people do not have to pay for the privilege of proving their innocence. That issue is of great concern to many organisations involved in youth work in Wales. I hope that the Minister and the Committee will consider the suggestion.
I want to make a few observations about the political opportunity that the Bill presents. Although the matter did not appear in the Conservative party's manifesto in Wales, it is a source of great encouragement that, on a cross-party basis in Wales and almost on a cross-party basis in this Chamber, we are achieving a powerful consensus that sends a strong message.
I shall now be a little horrible to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), because he claimed that he was trying to help the Bill. If his approach is his idea of helping the Bill, I wonder what tools are in the Conservative party's repertoire for harming it. There is a consensus and consensus politics might be a little less sparky than opposition politics, so we should perhaps thank him for giving the rest of us the chance to unite in criticising the reasoned amendment. However, will he consider what message will be sent if Conservative Members vote for the amendment? Although it may be a parliamentary tool, it has already been made clear that on this issue, at least, we should not descend into a party political discussion when all of us, including the Welsh Conservatives, have worked hard to create a consensual approach in line with the new politics that many of us sincerely hoped would evolve in Cardiff.
I encourage the hon. Gentleman to reconsider pushing the amendment to a vote. As I said earlier, not a single youth-related organisation in Wales will thank the official Opposition for voting for it. It sends the wrong signals. Although they may have talked themselves into a corner tonight, I hope that, whatever happens, they will take a more constructive approach in Committee. Incidentally, if the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that I join the Labour party reflects the Conservative party's new recruitment policy, it shows just how much its self-confidence has declined.
271 I am almost certain that some Members of this Chamber have been victims of child abuse. I do not know who they are, but it would be statistically extraordinary if, out of 659 Members, not one of us had suffered from such an experience. Guided by our experiences as children, by the experiences of those of us who faced unhappier times and by the experiences and expertise of the organisations that briefed many Members so effectively, I hope that the Bill will achieve three objectives.
First, I hope that it will empower those children's organisations truly to feel that they can participate in the political processes by seeing their suggestions turned into amendments that are accepted on a cross-party basis.
Secondly, I hope that we can show that we sometimes put party politics second to the people's politics. Thirdly, I hope that we can develop a partnership between Westminster and Cardiff. That relationship has occasionally been strained, but on this issue we have the opportunity to work together and to say something encouraging to the Welsh people, perhaps for the first time: when Westminster and Cardiff think together, talk together, argue together and put their heads together to try to do what is right, we shall get better legislation than we would without a devolved Assembly.
That is all being done to achieve a result that we all want and about which we care profoundly. That is to give kids a real chance of a better life and to give kids who have been damaged a chance to heal. To paraphrase the words of the NSPCC—which has coined a phrase about which I feel passionately—perhaps we can also, finally, put a full stop to cruelty to children in Wales.
§ Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)
I start with an apology for being absent from the debate for a couple of hours on some previously arranged business in the House. I am sorry that I missed what I hear has been an extremely good-natured and participatory debate on all sides.
It is a privilege to have the opportunity to take part in the debate, not least as an English Member of Parliament trespassing in a country that I have not visited since I took my kids there on a very nice seaside holiday in the early 1980s. Principally, I am here because I am extremely interested in the development of the Children's Commissioner. The proposal is extremely important, and I hope to elaborate on why it is important as we go on.
We need to acknowledge the progress that the Bill represents. We need to reflect on and savour the aim of this excellent and far-sighted measure. It will enable the commissioner to review the effect on children ordinarily resident in Wales of actions and proposed actions of the Assembly and of bodies and persons operating in Wales that have statutory functions or provide statutory services in functional fields devolved to the Assembly. That is a great step forward for children. This is a real slice of history, and it represents real progress in the way in which we see, serve and protect children.
Many congratulations are due to the people involved in the introduction of the Bill. I have had the pleasure of meeting in the House a number of young people from 272 Wales, usually in the context of the all-party group for looked-after children Invariably, they have been strong, articulate, determined and very committed to the idea of a Children's Commissioner. This measure is one of the fruits of devolution, and the Welsh Assembly is to be congratulated on its work and on the priority that it has given to a social policy issue that has been neglected for far too long. The fact that the Assembly is prepared to give so much priority to the measure illustrates the health and progressive nature of that body.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
The hon. Gentleman waxes lyrical about the Bill, but will he explain why the Government have given priority to the rights of children in Wales but have not been prepared to give the same rights and protection to children in England? Surely children in England and Wales—and, indeed, Scotland and Northern Ireland—deserve the protection that is to be afforded by the Bill.
§ Mr. Dawson
I could not agree with the hon. Gentleman more. That will be the theme of my speech.
To return to the thread of my argument, the Welsh Assembly should be congratulated, but the Government need to be congratulated too. Less than a year ago, even when the Waterhouse report was published—the report is one good reason for the measure being introduced in Wales—the Government were not committed to introducing a commissioner whose remit would go beyond that of the children's rights director, as set out in the Care Standards Act 2000. The children's rights director is a very important post for children who are looked after or who are living away from home, but the Bill goes much further than that.
The Government are to be congratulated on listening to the issues dealt with by the Bill, and on the fact that, in their formal response to the Waterhouse report, they said that they would examine how the post of Children's Commissioner worked out as a result of the Bill, with a view to introducing further legislation for England. I am pleased to hear that, because a Children's Commissioner offers fundamental protection for children, but an independent office with a children's rights commissioner would promote the participation of children in society and awareness of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child among those working with children.
§ Mr. Evans
While the hon. Gentleman was absent from the Chamber, I congratulated him on his private Member's Bill, which deals with that issue. He represents Lancaster and Wyre and I represent Ribble Valley. Will he accept that it is absurd that children in Wales should receive greater protection than children in England? They should all be protected equally, with a children's commissioner operating in Wales and in England. We congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill, but they should also introduce legislation to protect children in England.
§ Mr. Dawson
The hon. Gentleman heard my response to the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). He can take it from me that I agree with that fundamental point.
§ Mr. Dawson
May I carry on for a while before I allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene again?
I have brought to the House twice—in 1999 and 2000—the Children's Rights Commissioner Bill. It proposes the setting up of a children's rights commissioner in England, with linked officers in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. It is 16th in the ballot for private Members' Bills, so I shall reintroduce it tomorrow. Given the Government's attitude to the measure, I think that there might be some progress on it. Their determination to introduce a root-and-branch reform of the child protection system and the Laming inquiry into the horrible death of Anna Climbie, should it come about, could result in further progress on the idea of a children's rights commissioner in England.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
We all agree that the hon. Gentleman's private Member's Bill is a good thing. Will he urge his colleagues on the Front Bench to give his Bill Government time? After all, a precedent has been set by the Hunting Bill. If the Government it can make time for the Hunting Bill, surely they can do so for the hon. Gentleman's Bill. Furthermore, does he agree that, as this is such an important issue—we are all in favour of the protection of children—the Government ought to protect the maximum number of children by extending the Bill to England as well as Wales?
§ Mr. Dawson
There would be no sense in my introducing a private Member's Bill that I did not really want the Government to take on and give their own time to.
The introduction of a children's rights commissioner for England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales would be of fundamental importance in protecting children, promoting the participation of children and encouraging a different way of viewing children, which in itself would aid their protection. It would be a way of viewing children as developing adults with individual human rights, rather than as objects of concern about whom we have great debates and hear terrible shock-horror stories when awful events happen but then neglect and ignore. Children in this country do not have a vote and are, by definition, powerless. They often do not have a voice, and their interests are often set aside.
The Bill could be improved in the way that I described in an intervention on the Secretary of State. A Government who have done such powerfully good work in relation to child poverty should ensure that the fundamental safeguard for children's rights in Wales can inquire into issues surrounding social security. I do not have an explanation of why the Children's Commissioner can examine the position of children who are looked after in Wales, but as yet has no statutory role in relation to young people who are in custody or who are in other parts of the youth justice system. I do not recognise any distinction that explains that.
As many hon. Members have said, the Bill should make reference to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Almost every country in the world has signed up to the convention. Two have not done so: one is Somalia, the other is the United States of America. 274 Anyone who had seen today's disgraceful coverage of the sale of children over the internet in the United States of America would advocate that every state in that union get hold of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child immediately to deal with that appalling situation.
I should like the Children's Commissioner to be able to report freely, to have no limit on the matters to which he may contribute, to be able to represent children's views, to be able to comment on the effects of United Kingdom legislation on children in Wales, to have direct contact with children and to be able to review the effect of a failure of services in Wales as well as the provision of them. Above all, the Children's Commissioner should be someone of whom children in Wales are aware. The commissioner should be able to take on a dynamic role, enabling children's participation.
I was sorry to read the not particularly reasoned amendment tabled on behalf of the Conservative party. It is, quite simply, a ludicrous idea that the Bill could be any sort of attack on parents. I would say to every parent in the land that no ordinary, sensible parent has anything to worry about in relation to children's rights.
I do not often give the Conservatives their due, but in the Children Act 1989, a very fine and noble measure, they abolished the concept of parental rights and introduced the concept of parental responsibility—a way of looking at relationships within families that is fundamentally different from the one that had prevailed previously. The fact that Members of the party that could introduce that legislation less than 12 years ago have now got to the silly scaremongering stage that we see in the reasoned amendment is a reflection of how far they have moved—how far they have fallen.
§ Mr. Evans
The hon. Gentleman is saying that he wants to give some due to the official Opposition, and he has said that he is looking to extend the powers of the Children's Commissioner beyond the devolved areas. Several Labour Members have done the same, as have Members on the Liberal and Plaid Cymru Benches, and that is an integral part of our reasoned amendment. It seems as though everyone agrees with our reasoned amendment but wishes that we had not tabled it.
§ Mr. Dawson
The hon. Gentleman cannot get away with that one. The large part of his reasoned amendment, and the part that leaps off the page, is the entirely unsubstantiated claim that a Children's Commissioner should have no part in family life, and that the commissioner represents some sort of threat to ordinary families. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has read the NSPCC studies that report the extent of abuse within families. If he was really committed to a Children's Commissioner, he would want that commissioner to be involved with all children.
Ordinary parents should be the greatest advocates for children's rights. As I said in an intervention, ordinary parents should want their children to participate in and get the best deal from society, and should want to see their children upheld as free individuals with rights, to whom duties are owed by them and by institutions outside the family home.
This excellent Bill might be improved during its passage. I should like some alterations to be made, but we should acknowledge that the Government have made a 275 great deal of progress in a very short time. I want a network of children's rights commissioners, but the Bill lays a huge duty on the people of Wales to make this excellent institution work and to show the rest of the United Kingdom exactly how it can be done.
§ Mr. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd)
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to take part in this important debate. I welcome the appointment of a Children's Commissioner for Wales and I am proud of the fact that Wales is the first of the home countries in the United Kingdom to appoint such a commissioner.
There is great consensus within Wales—I emphasise, within Wales—on the issue of a Children's Commissioner. The voluntary sector, agencies, local authorities and every political party have worked together in the best interests of the children of Wales. It is very disappointing that the consensus has been shattered by the antics of the official Opposition today, here in Westminster, and I know that their Conservative colleagues in Wales share our disappointment at their behaviour and tactics.
I am pleased that the leader of the Conservatives in Wales, Mr. Nick Bourne, has been quoted on PA NewsFile. I read out the quotation in an intervention earlier, when the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), the Opposition spokesman, was out of the Chamber for an extended period, so perhaps I should repeat what the leader of the Conservatives in Wales said when he found out that the Conservatives at Westminster had shattered the consensus:When I said that there were no differences I was certainly not aware of any difference. Subsequently I found out that there was a difference of emphasis but we are not going to change our position. We are not going to stand on our heads for anybody.That was quite a principled stand.
§ Mr. Evans
The hon. Gentleman has just read out something that purports to come from the leader of the Conservatives in Wales, where we wish to strengthen the powers of the Children's Commissioner. In which way would we be asking anyone to stand on their heads? Indeed, a number of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues have asked for the strengthening of the commissioner's powers. Does he wish those powers to be extended, or does he not?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)
Order. The hon. Gentleman must use correct parliamentary language.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman has been a Member of this place for a little while now. He should do a little better than that. I think that "hon. Gentleman" are the two words for which he is looking.
§ Mr. Ruane
It is the strategy and tactics that the Conservative party is using in Westminster that have upset the hon. Gentleman's colleagues in Cardiff and in every other party in the House.
276 As a north Wales Member, I remind the House that the impetus for a Children's Commissioner for Wales lies in the north Wales child abuse inquiry, and Mr. Justice Waterhouse's recommendation that such a position should be created in Wales. Something good has come out of something evil. The reign of terror that raged in north Wales for 30 years came to an end. We should welcome the fact that we are to get a Children's Commissioner.
Those who suffered I abuse and those who suffer the after-effects of it may take some solace from the fact that the public, including policy makers and elected representatives in Wales, were so outraged when they heard of the experiences of the young people involved that a groundswell of opinion grew to establish a Children's Commissioner. For some, the news of a commissioner comes too late. I refer to those who committed suicide as a result of their experiences, those who died of drug abuse and those who died of alcohol abuse when they tried to escape the nightmares of their experiences.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that the commissioner has yet to set up offices. I suggest that my right hon. Fried use his position to ask the commissioner to consider north Wales as the location for his offices, in recognition of the role played by the north Wales child abuse inquiry and in tribute to young children, alive or dead, who suffered so terribly in north Wales homes.
The Select Committee on Welsh Affairs published the results of its inquiry into social exclusion in Wales yesterday, in Cardiff. During the inquiry, members of the Committee made a deliberate attempt to listen to the youth of Wales. We visited many projects, including one in my constituency that was set up to look after young schoolgirls who became pregnant. That group is in Rhyl high school in my constituency. We listened to the experiences of the young mothers. We held a meeting for youth from throughout Wales at Chynlleth. Young people spoke with passion on a range of issues. A young lad told us that he had left school at the age of 14, having been bullied by his school mates because he was a homosexual. Others spoke freely and openly about abuse, violence, drugs and alcohol.
At first, the young people were hesitant when six or seven Members sat with them. There were about 50 young people from throughout Wales. We split into different groups and listened to them. They were wary of us because we were besuited and came from Westminster. When they knew that we were prepared to listen—we were not talking at them and we were prepared to act—they realised the importance of the session and opened up. The appointment of a commissioner for Wales stems partly from the response of the young people of Wales. It has been welcomed by many children's groups and by children in Wales. The commissioner's position will be made that much better because of the rapport that he will have with young people in Wales.
§ Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the children of England could similarly benefit from a commissioner? Does he welcome Lord Laming's examination of systems? We need a national body for the protection of children. We have put the Protection of 277 Children Act 1999 on the statute book, and Lord Laming was much involved. I welcome his appointment. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?
§ Mr. Ruane
I, too, would welcome a similar commissioner for England, and for Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, that is not what we are debating. I would welcome commissioners being appointed for the other home countries.
The youth of England and Wales will have the opportunity to articulate their concerns. They will speak of their experiences, and perhaps most importantly they will offer solutions to the problems that have been experienced. A key role for the commissioner will be to ascertain the problems and to listen to young people to find out what they consider the solutions to be.
In the inquiry of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs into social exclusion we took evidence from more than 100 groups throughout Wales over 11 and a half days of visits. A recurrent theme in the evidence that we took from the people whom we spoke to and the groups that we visited was the lack of statistics, or the lack of access to statistics, that could help the groups to fulfil their functions. A key task of the commissioner, as set out in the Bill, will be to use his power to gather information, to collate it and to commission statistics. With that information he will be able to influence policy, instigate inquiries and hold to account elected bodies, quangos and others who deal with children.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) said that she felt that the commissioner should be able to comment on any matter that affected the children of Wales, whether that be a United Kingdom function or the responsibility of this National Assembly for Wales. I share my hon. Friend's viewpoint.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that the commissioner will have the right to comment on matters that are the responsibility of the UK Government. If I heard him correctly, I think he said that UK Government Departments would be in difficulty if they did not respond to the Children's Commissioner for Wales. However, those Departments may not be in a position to respond to requests for information and statistics from the commissioner.
I shall give some examples from my recent experience. I have tabled many written questions about children over the past eight weeks to gain an insight into some of the problems faced by children in Wales and the UK. I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Departmenthow many children have been reported as missing in each of the last 20 years.I was told that the information was not centrally available. I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of Statewhat estimate he has made of the number of children involved in prostitution in each of the last 20 years.The Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr a Clarke), replied:The Home Office does not collect data on the number of children involved in prostitution.I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment how many female pupils were excluded from school because of pregnancy in England 278 between 1980 to 2000. I was told by the Minister that the information was not held centrally by the Department. I askedthe Secretary of State for the Home Department how many companies were prosecuted for illegally employed children in each of the last 20 years.The Minister of State told me that limited information was available. Finally, I tabled the following question:To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many children have been reported as missing in each of the last 20 years.I received this answer:Figures are not available to confirm the precise numbers of children reported missing each year …—[Official Report, 11 December 2000; Vol. 359, c. 55–64W.]Those were requests by an ordinary Back Bencher for information that I thought necessary, but which is not available now and was not available under the previous Government. It is about time these important statistics, which influence policy making, were made available. Their availability would make Ministers' jobs in helping to improve the lot of young people and children much easier.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is in a unique position, as he will be fully aware of best practice on children's issues in Wales and can relate that information to his Cabinet colleagues. He can raise with them issues such as those to which I have just referred, which concern the collection and co-ordination of statistics. Such issues are important in respect of problems such as missing children, child prostitution, child labour and domestic violence involving children.
I do not want to be too critical, but I wonder whether the National Assembly for Wales can give the commissioner any detailed statistics that are requested on its areas of responsibility: education, social services, housing and so on. If United Kingdom Departments and the National Assembly for Wales co-operate fully in supplying the commissioner with the statistics and information that he requires, the task of improving the lives of all children in Wales will be more readily achieved.
§ Mr. Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West)
I add my voice to those of other hon. Members who have welcomed the Bill. I share the dismay expressed by many Labour Members at the official Opposition's extraordinary ambivalence to the Bill, which is, from any viewpoint, a genuinely progressive social measure that all reasonable people should accept.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was entirely right to begin his speech by referring to the Bill as an example of the working partnership between the National Assembly for Wales and Parliament. There is a continuing need for a co-ordinated and strategic approach to prevent the widespread and systematic abuse that has occurred in Welsh children's homes and which was only too obvious after the publication of the Waterhouse report. That abuse was, of course, accompanied by a culture of fear that stopped people involved in the system, including victims, speaking out. It deterred them from feeling that they could trust people and tell them what was going on.
It was, therefore, no surprise that one of the main recommendations of the Waterhouse report—the genesis of the Bill and of the campaign for its introduction— 279 was the creation of an independent role to oversee regulated functions relating to children in care in Wales. Of course, the creation of the office of Children's Commissioner cannot guarantee that abuse will not occur, but I hope that it will enable the creation of proper safeguards and encourage a culture of more openness and greater willingness to listen to children.
I was especially impressed by the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), who said that the Bill represents a sea change in the way in which we regard children and that it involves a recognition of their rights within the wider society. I hope that it will engender a culture of greater willingness to blow the whistle and sure and certain steps and procedures to ensure that that happens. That is why the commissioner's key functions—the monitoring and oversight of complaints and of the whistleblowing procedures established by local authorities and other authorities involved with the care of children—are vital.
I agree with the view expressed by a number of hon. Members that we should guard against regarding the creation and development of the role of the Children's Commissioner as a panacea for all ills. I agree entirely that the briefings that have been submitted to us by charities and non-governmental organisations in Wales are extremely helpful. However, with respect, and as I said in an intervention, I feel that such organisations have been rather too enthusiastic in their wish to extend the role of the commissioner, perhaps unrealistically. I firmly believe that we should stick to the original recommendations of the Waterhouse inquiry. In essence, we should concentrate on children in care and prevent systematic abuse of the sort that occurred in the past.
If the Children's Commissioner is to do his job effectively, he must have a focused role. We should not overburden that role in a counter-productive way. However, I cannot see why the commissioner should be precluded from commenting on the effects upon children of primary legislation. I was pleased that the Secretary of State appeared to accept that there was nothing in the Bill or elsewhere to prevent that from happening. I also see no reason why the commissioner's role should not be extended to allow him to comment on non-devolved matters. I may have misinterpreted what the Secretary of State said but, again, there is nothing in the Bill to prevent that from happening.
Let me add, however, that the commissioner should not supplant the roles of others engaged in policing our society in the widest sense, especially in relation to young offenders and the criminal justice system—let us not forget the important role of Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons.
We must be aware that there is a restriction on resources, and we must be realistic about what the commissioner can do successfully. Nevertheless, I think we should again consider giving him powers to enter, on occasion, institutions that are under investigation. I am sure that that will be discussed in Committee. I also see no reason why the commissioner should not be able to comment on the decisions of courts and tribunals as they affect children in Wales, in so far as that could be allowed without offending the sub judice principle.
280 I welcome the Bill. It constitutes a major step forward in the recognition of children's rights, and is a genuinely progressive piece of social legislation.
§ Mr. Martin Caton (Gower)
I feel that I should declare a parochial interest. My predecessor, Gareth Wardell, who has already received a tribute this evening, currently chairs Children in Wales, which has received even more tributes for its work in advancing the case for a Children's Commissioner for Wales. Its briefing has been cited in many of today's speeches. I have another parochial interest. The newly appointed commissioner, Mr. Peter Clarke, lives in my constituency, in the fine village of Garnswllt.
Let us disregard the unfortunate terminology of the "reasoned" device presented by the official Opposition. I thought that the speech of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) was a positive and useful contribution to our debate about the future of a Children's Commissioner.
Like every other speaker, I welcome the Bill, mainly because it will considerably improve Welsh children's access to their rights. I also welcome the added protection that it potentially gives them. Furthermore, I consider it to be a significant milestone on the road to a more decentralised Britain and an empowered Wales within the United Kingdom.
Some in the media and in politics have tried to set up the Welsh tick box in the national census as a significant indicator of the recognition of Wales in the new constitutional settlement after democratic devolution. I think that the Office for National Statistics should have included a Welsh tick box once the Scots had made their decision, but there is no comparison between the tick box issue and this Bill as any measure of where the governance of Wales is going. The Bill is infinitely more important: it represents a positive response by Government in Whitehall and by Parliament at Westminster to what the elected Welsh Assembly tells us it wants, and, more important, what the children of Wales need. The United Kingdom Government are giving a high priority in their eleetoral programme to the call from Cardiff bay and, indeed, from Wales as a whole.
I think that history will eventually acknowledge that the Bill is something of a landmark in the developing relationship between government in Wales and in the United Kingdom as a whole. Given the Bill's importance both for the children of Wales and for our constitutional development, it might be a good idea for hon. Members to take another look at what the Assembly called for, to reconsider whether, and to what extent, we share the Assembly's vision, and to ask ourselves whether the Bill as drafted can fully deliver that vision.
The Assembly voted unanimously to establish a Children's Commissioner for all children in Wales, with the overarching aim of promoting and upholding the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Assembly Members wanted a commissioner who could consider and make representations on any matter affecting children in Wales. I am quite sure that the Assembly used as a model the type of children's commissioners and ombudsmen that have been created in some other European countries—where commissioners and ombudsmen set their own agenda in championing the 281 rights of children, monitor and review all aspects of children's lives, maintain direct contact with children and speak up for them and promote throughout society respect for children and for their views.
§ Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)
My hon. Friend is a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee, which recently conducted an inquiry into social exclusion in Wales. When we were conducting an inquiry into child care in Wales, we visited Denmark. Does he agree that, in Denmark, family policy was at the very heart of governmental, social and economic philosophy, seeking to ensure the welfare of children from newborns to 18-year-olds? In Denmark, enshrining rights was a fundamental aspect of the overall political philosophy. With the establishment of a Chilriren's Commissioner, could we not emulate that in Wales?
§ Mr. Caton
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I completely agree with his comments. He will remember that in Copenhagen the Select Committee visited Denmark's equivalent of the Children's Commissioner and saw the all-embracing role—which my hon. Friend described—that that commissioner performs.
The child's point of view is the foundation of the role played by commissioners in Denmark and in other European countries, who seek to secure the best outcome for children. I wonder whether the Bill, as drafted, will establish that type of commissioner. As has already been mentioned, the Bill concerns many of the charities working with children in Wales. The type of commissioner that the Bill seeks to create seems to be modelled more on parliamentary, he filth service and local government ombudsmen services. Although all those services are extremely valuable, they are really concerned more with administering or monitoring service delivery by different tiers of government or their agencies.
Therefore, although the Bill will extend the commissioner's remit way beyond its current boundaries as established in the Care Standards Act 2000, it still seems to limit the remit to monitoring and reviewing only those matters that have been devolved to the National Assembly for Wales. It seems that the commissioner will not be able to comment properly on non-devolved matters, regardless of how significant those matters might be in the lives of children or young people who are ordinarily resident in Wales.
Although my concerns about those aspects of the Bill were eased by the Secretary of State's speech, I am still worried that the commissioner's proposed remit may be too restrictive. The commissioner himself will have no powers of control. His power will be in reviewing, monitoring, highlighting and exposing, by bringing matters to the attention of the public or appropriate authorities.
I believe that if it will help to take us forward in achieving children's rights and child protection, the commissioner should as a right be able to comment on non-devolved matters, primary legislation or—as hon. Members have said—court decisions. Indeed, when Parliament is considering relevant legislation, why should we as Members of Parliament deny ourselves access to the expert advice of Wales's Children's Commissioner?
Moreover, how will Welsh children who have been told that the Children's Commissioner is their champion understand it if, when they take a problem to the 282 commissioner, they are told, "Sorry. I think that your grievance is genuine, but I cannot help because it is not included in the Government of Wales Act as a devolved matter."
I hope that the Government will look again at the possibility of redefining the job so that the commissioner can consider and make appropriate representations about any matter affecting children in Wales. Like others who have spoken, I believe that the more specific points that are worrying children's charities should be the subject of more detailed debate in Committee, but it would be useful if my hon. Friend the Minister were to comment on them in his reply to the debate. Some might be best addressed in secondary legislation by the National Assembly; others might be better dealt with in the Bill.
At the moment there is no requirement for the commissioner to maintain direct contact with children, to pay regard to their views and to promote respect for them throughout Welsh society, although from what I know about the way in which the newly appointed commissioner works, he will certainly do that. However, perhaps it would be better to have an exclusive requirement in the legislation to ensure that that approach is maintained.
Several hon. Members have drawn attention to the fact that the Bill makes no mention of the UN convention on the rights of the child. Should the promotion of public awareness of that important convention be part of the commissioner's role?
The Bill gives the commissioner no powers to enter institutions that accommodate children. Should he not have that power? The Bill gives him no ability to review what could be described as sins of omission. He cannot consider the failure of the Assembly or other bodies to exercise any of their functions. Does that need to be addressed?
§ Mr. Edwards
There are three prisons in Wales and a young offenders institution, which is in my constituency. Although I am not aware of any allegations of abuse involving young people in those institutions, does my hon. Friend agree that an independent Children's Commissioner for Wales should have access if there were any such allegations involving children and that he should be able to intervene in such matters?
§ Mr. Caton
I agree completely and I hope that, as the Bill proceeds, that will be precisely the role of the commissioner in Wales.
The Bill is a valuable and historic piece of legislation. However, it could be improved by going back to the philosophy that lay behind the National Assembly's original decision and extending the job of the commissioner to provide him with a more wide-ranging remit. If we do not do that, I cannot help but feel that we may have to address the matter again in the not too distant future and to build further on the responsibility of the Children's Commissioner. Let us make sure that we get it right this time.
§ 9.8 pm
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
I am delighted to have caught your eye in this important debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Listening to some Labour Members, one would think that Conservative Members were not 283 concerned about the nurture and well-being of children. It is absolutely ludicrous for anyone to suggest that any right hon. or hon. Member is not to the nth degree concerned with the welfare of children.
I think that it is quite wrong for the Government to introduce such a Bill only for Wales and not to extend it to the rest of the United Kingdom. That is not just my view. The NSPCC, no less, believes that it is ludicrous for the Governmentto allow children a statutory companion in one part of the United Kingdom, but to deny similar protection to the rest. The NSPCC believes the needs of children do not differ significantly across the United Kingdom and similar posts must be created in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.That was the main tenor of my intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson).
It is quite wrong that the Bill should be devoted solely to Wales. It is the only Bill this Session that is being introduced solely for Wales, and that is quite wrong. Indeed, the Government's Care Standards Act 2000 made provision for a children's rights director for England. The role of the commissioner for Wales is purely to safeguard and promote the rights and welfare of children "ordinarily resident in Wales". No doubt, the Bill's Standing Committee will want to examine closely the meaning of that phrase.
The measure gives rise to a load of conundrums on the protection of Welsh children. We all know of tragic accidents that have occurred when children have been on school trips—for example, canoeing on rivers or sailing at sea. Let us suppose that a group of children from Wales undertook such a venture jointly with English children, organised solely by an English agency, and a tragedy occurred. Would the Children's Commissioner for Wales have a remit in that situation? I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Wales will be able to say something about such conundrums when he sums up the debate.
§ Mr. Hayes
Earlier in the debate, I received some agreement from Labour Members when I repeatedly made the point that the precise scope of the commissioner's responsibilities has yet to be clarified—I will not say that it is ill-defined. For example, a child may have one Welsh and one English parent; the parents may be separated and live close to the border, so the child spends time in England and in Wales. We need much greater clarity about the commissioner's responsibilities in such situations.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, but I do not want to continue in that vein. The message is clear. If the Bill covered England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, such conundrums would not exist. I have no doubt that, when we are returned to power after the next general election—[Interruption.]—we shall address that problem and we shall extend the powers of the Bill to England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
Will my hon. Friend allow me to continue for a few moments? I want to develop an important theme, but I assure him that I will give way to him.
284 My right hon. and hon. Friends were right to table the reasoned amendment because there is a serious problem with the Bill. We all want increased powers for the commissioner to deal with children in care; we can all think of terrible examples of the abuse of such children. Labour Members may scoff at some of my remarks, but I had the misfortune to be in an area where there was one of the worst cases of child abuse in the history of this country—that of Fred and Rosemary West. A dozen or more children endured terrible torture and mutilation, after which many of them were killed.
I have spoken at length to the authorities in Gloucestershire. My remarks do not apply in any way to the present employees of Gloucestershire social services or to any other agencies in the county because those events mainly took place in the 1970s and 1980s. However, in private, they all agree that at that time—as a little rural authority—Gloucestershire was not equipped to deal with that scale of child abuse.
If a children's commissioner had been in place at that time, he would have been able to disseminate best practice throughout the United Kingdom and would have required its adoption by ever local authority. If Gloucestershire had exercised best practice at that time, those terrible abuses would not have a happened and some of the children who suffered and were killed would be alive today.
Our purpose is to look after the interests of our constituents. I never want such abuse to happen again to any of my constituents or to those of any hon. Member, so I think that it is shocking that, tomorrow, the Government are allowing an entire day's debate on foxhunting while children in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland ire unprotected. That is quite unacceptable and the Government should consider the matter carefully.
§ Mr. Hayes
Does my hon. Friend agree that that is an inevitable consequence of considering the component parts of the United kingdom separately, as a result of the Government's unbalanced constitutional reform? I do not want to over-dramatise, but if the price of that is the consequences that he has described, I fear—although in electoral terms, fear is perhaps not the right word to use—that the people of Britain will judge the Government harshly.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
My hon. Friend is right. Not only on that issue but on a number of others, the people of Britain—in not many weeks' time, I suspect—will judge the Government on what they have achieved for this country. The people have paid the tax, but they are not getting the service that goes with it.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
My hon. Friend must have seen some advertisements around the place; I cannot imagine where.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a minute, although I am not sure whether he has been present throughout proceedings on the Bill. 285 [HON. MEMBERS: "Neither have you."] That is true, but I had urgent business in Committee, and it is impossible to be in two places at once.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
I will give way in a minute, when I have developed this part of my speech.
I have another concern about the Bill, which I know is also central to the concerns of my hon. Friends on the Front Bench; it is another reason why our reasoned amendment was moved today. We welcome increased powers for the Children's Commissioner over children in care, but we are worried by the fact that his role is so wide, because we do not wish him to supplant the natural role of parents.
It is natural that parents should have differing views on how to bring children up. That is part of the culture of tolerance, liberation and freedom in this country. Provided that parents do not break the law, we accept the idea that there will be different emphases. We may not always agree with the way in which some parents bring up their children. Indeed, there is a distinct argument to be had about that. Some of the parents of the so-called enlightened 1960s are very deficient in the way in which they have brought up their children. That is a different issue, however. Within the law, parents have the right to bring up their children in different ways.
It would be unacceptable to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench and me if the commissioner started to supplant the role of parents and interfere with the natural bonds within a close family.
§ Mr. Edwards
I think that I was following the hon. Gentleman's argument when he suggested that if there had been a commissioner in England, the rights of children might have been safeguarded— even, perhaps, in Gloucestershire. Will he therefore tell us whether his party went into the general election committed to having a commissioner for England and Wales, and whether it will go into the next general election committed to having a commissioner for England?
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
If the hon. Gentleman had been listening carefully to my speech, instead of chatting to his hon. Friends, he would have heard me say that I personally was strongly in favour of a Children's Commissioner for England— but with the remit and role that I have described.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
I have no idea, and I am not in a position to commit my party. I am not on the Front Bench for this subject, and I have no remit to speak for my party. However, it is my personal wish—I am sure that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends would say the same—that we should have a Children's Commissioner for the whole United Kingdom. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) is nodding. As I said before, I am certain that after the election, when our party is elected, it will wish to revisit this problem.
I do not like praying in aid the European Court of Human Rights, because I do not like it supplanting the law of this country.
286 If a Government of whichever colour do something that I believe to be wrong, I shall say so. I believe that the Government are doing something wrong tonight and that children in England deserve the protection provided by the Bill. It may be difficult for the Secretary of State to sign the declaration that the Bill complies with the Human Rights Act 1998 because it will not apply to the whole United Kingdom. I hope that the Government will consider the fact that citizens of England, Scotland or Northern Ireland, who are aggrieved by the fact that their children will not be protected under the Bill, may be able to take their grievance to the European Court of Human Rights, and their cases may succeed.
I want to make another important point. Many of the Government's Bills usually involve a substantial financial cost implication, but I understand that the entire cost of implementing the Bill will be only £300,000. If it will cost only £300,000 to protect the children of Wales, it seems immoral not to implement similar provisions in the whole United Kingdom. I hope that, if the Government are to comply with the long title, they will accede in Committee to the Opposition's request and extend the power to England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I therefore think that, despite what many Labour Members have said, my hon. Friends were right to table the reasoned amendment, which clearly sets out where the Bill's deficiencies lie. There are some major deficiencies, and I hope that the Government will remedy them.
§ Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)
We have had a fascinating debate, if only because most Members—certainly, those speaking from the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru Benches—have criticised the Opposition for tabling a reasoned amendment, but have then supported the thrust of that amendment. I shall deal with those contributions in a moment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) opened the debate for the Conservative party and was consistent and positive in supporting the concept of having a Children's Commissioner. If we go back a few months to the consideration of the Care Standards Act 2000, my colleagues supported the provisions that established the Children's Commissioner for Wales, but we questioned the lack of an equivalent provision for England. Therein lies part of the problem, and our reasoned amendment highlights what we consider to be two defects in the Bill.
The first defect, with which I shall deal in a moment, is the lack of clarity in distinguishing between the rights and responsibilities of parents and those of the Children's Commissioner. The second defect arises from the devolution settlement. Those public bodies in Wales that fall within the scope of the Bill are listed in the schedules. However, the Government of Wales Act 1998 did not create a world in which all child abuse would be carried out only by institutions subject to the supervision of the National Assembly for Wales while those who administer other public bodies would be sanctified and, by statute, become no threat to children's rights. That is clearly nonsense. I refer to those in the immigration service, the Prison Service, the police or the Army cadet force, to name just a few of the many public bodies that operate in Wales but are not covered by the Bill.
Such nonsense would not exist if we had a children's rights commissioner for England and Wales or the whole United Kingdom; or if we were to recognise in this limited 287 Bill—it is limited to Wales—that public bodies in Wales are devolved and non-devolved and that the commissioner could be responsible not only to the Assembly for its functions, but to the House for non-devolved matters.
We must improve the Bill. Conservatives in Wales and in the House want to do that, and that is entirely consistent with what has been said in the Assembly by Members of all parties who want the commissioner's remit to extend not only to public bodies that fall within the scope of the Assembly but to those that fall within the scope of this House.
We must not lose the plot. The Waterhouse report was about children in care, and the primary responsibility of the Children's Commissioner for Wales must be children in care and children at risk. He has to get that right, and 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 UK Government Departments.
I turn now to hon. Members' contributions to this fascinating debate. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) referred to the 20 inquiries and their recommendations, and made an interesting point about case studies of young people in custody in Wales who would fall within the scope of the commissioner. He referred also to young people in custody outside Wales, and questioned whether the commissioner's remit would include them.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) failed to understand what lies behind our reasoned amendment and went on to make a speech that seemed to support what we say in the amendment. The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) referred to a number of tragic cases of children in care.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd) spoke of the Utting report and some of the harrowing cases with which it dealt. He expressed a well-founded and balanced view. He said that we should see how effective existing legislation is before extending it. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to do that today. Under pressure from the Assembly, the Government, having failed to get things right the first time in the Care Standards Act 2000, have used their powers to seek to improve that Act. They have put before us a Bill that we must consider with the aim of making the Children's Commissioner for Wales a more effective vehicle for protecting children's rights.
§ Mr. Dawson
Given the reasoned amendment and the concerns expressed about the commissioner's involvement within families, is it not specious nonsense for the hon. Gentleman to criticise the Government about the scale of the Bill?
§ Mr. Walter
Not at all. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I shall refer to his speech in a moment.
We are concerned that the right balance should be struck between the responsibilities of parents and the family and the responsibilities of the Children's Commissioner. We will develop that argument in Committee.
288 May I return to the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham, who highlighted cross-border problems, which will arise from those functions that have not been devolved? Those problems are why we shall press our amendment to the vote. The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) was rather confused about our amendment and divisions in her own party. As I pointed out to her in a n intervention, a National Assembly Committee asked for the creation of a children's commissioner with much greater powers—including powers over non-devolved areas—and talked about negotiating on that with the Government. Clearly, the Assembly failed in those negotiations to get the remit of the commissioner extended to those areas.
The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) traced his support for the post back to 1993, and is to be congratulated on that. He felt that we should not enact the Bill too quickly, without proper scrutiny. We shall talk about proper scrutiny in the following debate on the programme motion, which deals with the Committee stage of the Bill. It is right that, on this occasion, we should make sure that the Children's Commissioner for Wales is vested with the powers that are necessary to carry out the job. This will be the second bite at the cherry, as we try to get it right. We do not want a third bite, which is why we shall scrutinise the Bill in Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Sir R. Whitney) pointed out that the Bill has far too many loose ends. He said that there are inadequacies that we have to correct. He emphasised the fact that we must strike the right balance between the family and the commissioner.
The hon. Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) again questioned the commissioner's powers outside Wales. How will the commissioner exert his powers and role on children who are ordinarily resident in Wales but, none the less, are subject to, or are in, care outside the Principality? We shall continue to explore that valid point in Committee.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) looked at the extension of powers. He mentioned the United Nations convention on the rights of the child and called for a holistic approach—which, of course, is a typical Liberal Democrat phrase. We are urged to have a holistic approach involving one thing on the one the hand and something else on the other.
§ Mr. Walter
Right. I am sure that phrase will appear in the next Liberal Democrat manifesto.
As for the contribution of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wynn (Mr. Dawson), his support for the concept of a commissioner is well known and much appreciated in the House. Quite rightly, one of my colleagues asked why, if the measure that we support for Wales is so good, n there not one for England? The hon. Gentleman is about to re-introduce a private Member's Bill, to which the Government could give time; it would extend the provision s of the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill to England.
The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Mr. Ruane) rather lost the plot initially but, towards the end of his speech, came back to the basic thrust of his argument. I look forward to him joining us in the Lobby tonight.
289 The hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas) made rather a worthy contribution on the partnership between the Assembly and Parliament. Such a partnership is between the Assembly and all of Parliament, not just the Government. Parliament is here—it represents all shades of opinion throughout the United Kingdom and I believe that if the Assembly is to strike a partnership, it should be a cross-party one. However, the hon. Gentleman made a telling comment about the commissioner having a focused role, which returns us to my point about not letting the commissioner lose the plot. We are discussing primarily children in care and children at risk.
The contribution of the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) was unique in its lack of criticism of our amendment. It dealt with some serious reservations and I look forward to receiving his support in the Lobby.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) made a most useful contribution dealing with the absence of any equivalent post in England. He made a most passionate speech about child abuse in Gloucestershire, and sought a commissioner for England who could deal with those matters.
Members on both sides of the House seemed to think that there was some virtue in displaying manifesto commitments. It was suggested in an intervention that we had no manifesto commitment in 1997 to introduce a Children's Commissioner. The Labour party had no such manifesto commitment either.
§ Mr. Jon Owen Jones
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to be corrected when he is wrong. The Labour party in Wales had a manifesto commitment to introduce a commissioner for Wales.
§ Mr. Walter
I shall stand corrected if necessary, but I think that the Labour party in Wales had such a commitment in the 1999 Welsh Assembly manifesto, not in the 1997 general election manifesto for Westminster.
The Government, in evidence to the Health Committee in January 1998, 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 a duty to promote awareness of the rights of the child, highlight ways in which present and proposed policy failed those rights in practice, conduct formal investigations where breaches of children's rights were considered to have taken place, seek to ensure that children had an effective means of redress when their rights were disregarded and carry out and commission research relevant to safeguarding children's rights. The Health Committee concluded:We recommend that there should be a Children's Rights Commissioner within the UK …The Conservative party here at Westminster and in Cardiff bay believes that it is appropriate that a Children's Commissioner should look after those children in the care of local authorities and other public bodies. However, we do not believe that the Bill is specific enough about the powers of the commissioner. As a result, we have tabled our reasoned amendment and in Committee will continue to seek to improve the Bill.
290 The Opposition have specific concerns about protecting the role of the family and of parents. The Bill will give the commissioner a wide remit and, as such, may allow him to supplant the role of the parent. We believe that that would be wrong, and I have already raised that concern with the Government. The Secretary of State will recall that in December I asked him where the dividing line was between the role of the commissioner and of the parent.
§ Mr. Walter
No. I have only a few minutes because I want to allow the Minister to make his winding-up speech.
The Secretary of State's reply was not reassuring. He said:I do not believe that there is any dividing line as such … I believe that the appointment does not supplant, but enhances the role of the family …—[Official Report, 13 December 2000; Vol. 359, c. 624.]We believe that parents should always be given the first opportunity to speak up for their children. We have stated that, and we will oppose any measure that allows the commissioner to intervene unnecessarily in the family unit or take over the role of the parent.
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. By contrast, the commissioner has been given a role in schools, where teachers already play a vital part in protecting the welfare of their pupils. The NSPCC in Wales has stated that the Bill falls far short of the Assembly's vision.
The Children's Commissioner is an independent post funded by the National Assembly. However, the legislation makes no provision for the commissioner to be made accountable to Parliament. We believe in an effective Children's Commissioner: a commissioner who does not supplant the parent's role and who has the confidence of parents, whose role extends to all public bodies, and whose role could apply equally in England as it does in Wales.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson)
We have had an interesting and considered debate, and Members have expressed strong views. It has also been a thoughtful debate. I am replying to the debate not only as a Minister, but as a north Wales Member of Parliament, some of whose constituents have suffered child abuse or have been involved in the north Wales child abuse scandal. Like my hon. Friends from north Wales, I recognise the original concerns that caused the Waterhouse report to be commissioned by the current leader of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), and I give him credit for that.
I have listened to the debate, and I shall certainly read the report tomorrow. I hope that we will shortly have a useful discussion in Committee on some of the issues that have been raised. However, I shall try to respond to some of the key points. Most of the comments made, even those made by Opposition Front Benchers, show that the Bill is 291 widely welcomed in the House, so I regret the Conservative party's reasoned amendment. I shall touch on it briefly, because it is important to consider the issues.
The amendment says:That this House declines to give a Second reading to the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill.I recognise what the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and other right hon. and hon. Members have said, but the amendment says something about the condition of today's Conservative party, which is willing to oppose this measure. Let us make no mistake: if I were to invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to join the hon. Member for Ribble Valley in the Lobby to vote for his reasoned amendment, there would be no Committee stage, because there would be no Bill as the House would have declined to give it a Second Reading.
With due respect to the hon. Member for Wycombe (Sir R. Whitney) and the right hon. Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd), it is a sad exposé of the state of the Conservative party that it fell to the Opposition Whip, the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), to be the only Conservative Back Bencher to speak in support of his Front-Bench team. That says something about the state of the Conservative party.
§ Mr. Evans
The hon. Gentleman knows that we tabled our reasoned amendment because we want the Bill to be strengthened. Like some Labour Members and Members of other Opposition parties, we want the powers of the Children's Commissioner to be strengthened and replicated in England when the Bill goes into Committee—as it will. The reasoned amendment has given us the opportunity to put that proposition.
§ Mr. Hanson
When the hon. Gentleman wakes up in the morning and reads the headlines in the papers, and when he sees what the Conservative party in Wales has said about his amendment, he will, on reflection, recognise that he has made a catastrophic error. If I invited my right hon. and hon. Friends to join him in the Lobby, there would be no Bill. He knows it, and I know it.
Whatever the hon. Gentleman has said—I accept the spirit in which he said it—the fact of the matter is that his amendment states:That this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill.
§ Mr. Jon Owen Jones
Has my hon. Friend received any indication, perhaps through the usual channels, that the official Opposition will not press to a vote the amendment that they say they do not agree with?
§ Mr. Hanson
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I was going to plead with the hon. Member for Ribble Valley to withdraw the amendment because we will certainly discuss the issues that it raises in Committee. He knows we can do that, and it would allow us to progress on the basis of having a consensus on children in Wales so that we secure a better deal for them. I invite him to 292 consider that. The shadow Leader of the House is present. Perhaps he could talk to her and the Chief Whip about not pushing the amendment to a vote.
§ Mr. Hanson
It would be a strange Minister who supported a Bill that he believed to be deficient. The issues that have been raised can be considered and discussed in Committee, but the amendment declines to give the Bill a Second Reading. The leader of the Conservative party in the National Assembly for Wales has said that the amendment appals him.
However, let us move on. The hon. Gentleman has had an opportunity to withdraw the amendment, but instead he will ask his hon. Friends to vote for it. We will see how many of them agree with it and I shall look at the Division list tomorrow to see whether the right hon. Member for Fareham and the hon. Member for Wycombe joined him in the Division Lobby.
The Bill is a superb example of devolution working at its best.
§ Mr. Hanson
No, we have to make progress.
Many hon. Members who represent Welsh constituencies made fine contributions. They supported the establishment of the Children's Commissioner and the extension of his remit. I, like my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Clwyd (Mr. Ruane), for Conwy (Mrs. Williams), for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones), for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas) and for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey), have praised the voluntary sector for its contribution to the Bill.
The Bill will give effect to extending the powers of the Children's Commissioner. As my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) and for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) said, the Bill's principal aims are to strengthen the exercising of rights by the Children's Commissioner to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.
The Bill will give additional powers to support functions in devolved matters that are covered by the National Assembly. Those are quite extensive and a range of issues, including health and education, will be covered. They are important additions to the commissioner's role. I very much agree with what my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff, Central and for Bridgend said: we should consider the issues, not as a panacea for tackling child abuse at the end of the road, but as a way in which to strengthen and support the Bill.
I believe that all hon. Members who spoke welcomed the summary of the Bill's effects on improving the conditions and support for children in Wales and elsewhere. However, some important issues have been raised, which I want to cover in detail.
The key issue—jurisdiction over non-devolved issues—was raised by the hon. Members for Ribble Valley, for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and 293 for Brecon and Radnorshire and my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend and for Gower (Mr. Caton). The commissioner and his office will be part of the Assembly's strategy for listening to children and ensuring that their voices are heard. It is not consistent with the devolution settlement—I hope hon. Members accept this—for the commissioner's jurisdiction to extend to United Kingdom Departments. Although he will be limited to reviewing the exercise of Assembly functions or functions of the public bodies listed in the new schedules, that does not mean that he will be debarred from commenting on other matters, such as youth justice and other issues that hon. Members have raised.
The commissioner will have powers to exercise functions that are incidental to his core functions, and he can bring those to the attention of relevant Departments. There is no question of him being gagged on issues that are outside his jurisdiction. The Bill would not give him substantive functions in non-devolved areas, nor would he have a formal power to review, report or require information. However, I believe strongly that Departments would react positively, given the commissioner's profile, on issues that he brought to the attention of the Government. The commissioner will report to the National Assembly for Wales, so he will be able to comment on non-devolved matters in his report, and the Assembly's framework means that it will be able to make representations about those issues to the Government.
The hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and my hon. Friends the Members for Clwyd, South, for Gower and for Lancaster and Wyre and many others referred to the commissioner having responsibility under the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. As hon. Members will be aware, the convention is not part of domestic law and I do not consider it appropriate in primary legislation to link the commissioner's principal aim of safeguarding and promoting the rights of children specifically to the convention. However, the Assembly has taken the convention into account in designing the job description and the advertisement for the post and the commissioner will have regard to the UN convention in exercising his functions. Again, we can explore these issues in Committee. Although the convention is not on the face of the Bill, its spirit is reflected by it.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North for the work that she has undertaken in the House to support the establishment of the commissioner. She mentioned the issue of commenting on the decisions of courts and tribunals. Although the commissioner may receive representations about such decisions, it is not appropriate for him to comment on them while the issues are before the courts. Obviously, once a decision has been taken, he has the right and responsibility to bring to the Assembly's attention any issues that he feels are important.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
Will the Minister consider in Committee whether it will be appropriate for the commissioner to assist a child financially when a case is taken to a tribunal and an important point of principle is at stake?
§ Mr. Hanson
I shall certainly reflect on that point in Committee. The commissioner's budget will be limited—it will be £800,000, which answers a point made by the 294 right hon. Member for Fareham—and it is within the commissioner's jurisdiction to determine how he spends it on his role and responsibilities.
The right hon. Member for Fareham mentioned primary legislation. It is not within the commissioner's statutory remit to be able to influence and direct primary legislation; that is a matter for the House, which is why I am pleased that the Bill is before us. However, the commissioner will be able to use his judgment about which issues to express his view upon. He will be free to express his view on those issues accordingly, and I hope that the budget of £800,000 will assist him to do that.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy referred to court cases. The commissioner is not an alternative to the courts, but he has a clear separate role as a children's champion. He will therefore not be able to inquire formally into, or report on, any matter that is the subject of legal proceedings or has been determined by a court or tribunal. However, that will not prevent him from making informal comments on the outcome of court cases or considering such issues.
Interest and concern have been expressed about the commissioner's role for children who live in Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff. North mentioned asylum-seeking children, and the key test is whether children in Wales receive regulated services. An asylum-seeking child who receives such services will fall under the commissioner's scope if he lives in Wales. That is set out in section 78(1) of the Care Standards Act 2000, which is to be amended by this Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Conwy and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire referred to the commissioner's jurisdiction over services provided in England for children who live in Wales. It is important that we recognise that the Bill relates to services received, so if a person lives in Wales, is sponsored by an authority outside Wales and receives a service from it, he will fall within the commissioner's potential jurisdiction. It is important to consider the context, and we shall have an opportunity to return to all the issues when we debate the Bill in Committee.
Much has been said about support for families. The reasoned amendment invites us to decline to give the Bill a Second Reading for several reasons, one of which isbecause it fails to assert the importance of the family in protecting and nurturing children …The hon. Member for Wycombe was among those who mentioned support for the family. The role of the Children's Commissioner is not incompatible with support for the family. People involved in families, sadly, occasionally commit abuse, and abuse may be rife in certain families. It is not incompatible to have a Children's Commissioner who examines regulated services as well as family issues.
It is strange to be asked to decline to give a Second Reading to the Bill because of its lack of support for the family, when the Government have introduced the working families tax credit, given record increases in child benefit, extended maternity leave and introduced the right to parental leave and the new children's tax credit. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley—in addition to making a big mistake in declining to give a Second Reading to the Bill—has also failed to recognise the support that the Government have given to the family. The welcome that the measure has 295 had from Children in Wales, the NSPCC and a range of children's voluntary organisations illustrates their support for the Government's proposals.
My hon. Friend the Member for Conwy asked whether we could extend the scope of the Bill to cover adults with severe learning disabilities. I recognise her concerns, her circumstances and those of many of our constituents. It would not be appropriate for the commissioner to concentrate on adults with learning disabilities because he will be a children's and young person's commissioner. However, he will be able to consider how such individuals need to be protected when they are children, and what steps need to be taken to support their progress to adult life.
The possibility of a children's commissioner for England was raised by a number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre and the hon. Member for Cotswold, who again found himself the only hon. Member speaking in support of his Front Bench. The Bill illustrates the success of devolution, and the whole point of devolution is that different parts of the United Kingdom should be able to find solutions to their own problems.
The National Assembly has worked up detailed proposals for the Children's Commissioner, and I pay tribute to Jane Hutt and her team in the Assembly, including the many officials who have worked on them. The Commissioner will undertake the task of listening to children, promoting their interests and ensuring that they have a voice for their grievances. The Bill fulfils a Labour manifesto commitment made during the Assembly elections of 1999.
I recognise the concerns that have been expressed about the lack of a children's commissioner in England and Scotland. The Government will consider carefully the Welsh experience before deciding whether having a commissioner for children in England would add value.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley had the cheek to raise those issues, because I do not recall the Conservatives introducing proposals for a Children's Commissioner once in all their 18 years. In fact, during the passage of a Bill in 1993 the Conservatives voted down a Labour amendment to introduce children's commissioners in Wales, so let us not have the cant and hypocrisy of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley saying, "We would have done it." They did not do so when they had the opportunity.
The Bill offers an opportunity to ensure that the lessons of Waterhouse are learned, that we protect children and young people in the future and that we introduce in Wales a positive model for child protection. I have lived with the north Wales child abuse inquiry in constituency terms, and seen the effects of it. We are doing all that we can to support the commissioner. I ask the hon. Member for Ribble Valley not to press the amendment to a vote, and not to vote against the Bill. I ask him to support the Government.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The House proceeded to a Division.
§ The House having divided: Ayes 139, Noes 339.299
|Division No. 57]||[11.2 pm|
|Abbott, Ms Diane||Butler, Mrs Christine|
|Ainger, Nick||Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)|
|Allan, Richard||Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)|
|Allen, Graham||Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife)|
|Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary|
|Ashton, Joe||Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)|
|Atherton, Ms Candy||Campbell-Savours, Dale|
|Bailey, Adrian||Cann, Jamie|
|Banks, Tony||Caplin, Ivor|
|Barron, Kevin||Caton, Martin|
|Battle, John||Cawsey, Ian|
|Bayley, Hugh||Chaytor, David|
|Begg, Miss Anne||Clapham, Michael|
|Beith, Rt Hon A J||Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield)||Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)|
|Best, Harold||Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)|
|Betts, Clive||Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)|
|Blackman, Liz||Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)|
|Blears, Ms Hazel||Clelland, David|
|Borrow, David||Clwyd, Ann|
|Bradshaw, Ben||Coffey, Ms Ann|
|Breed, Colin||Cohen, Harry|
|Brinton, Mrs Helen||Coleman, Iain|
|Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)||Colman, Tony|
|Browne, Desmond||Corbett, Robin|
|Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)||Cotter, Brian|
|Buck, Ms Karen||Cousins, Jim|
|Burstow, Paul||Cox, Tom|
|Cranston, Ross||Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)|
|Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)|
|Cryer, John (Hornchurch)||Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark)|
|Cummings, John||Jones, Helen (Warrington N)|
|Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)||Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)|
|Davey, Edward (Kingston)||Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)|
|Davidson, Ian||Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)||Joyce, Eric|
|Davis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H)||Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)|
|Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)|
|Dawson, Hilton||Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)|
|Dean, Mrs Janet||Kidney, David|
|Denham, John||Kilfoyle, Peter|
|Dismore, Andrew||King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)|
|Dobbin, Jim||Kirkwood, Archy|
|Dobson, Rt Hon Frank||Kumar, Dr Ashok|
|Donohoe, Brian H||Ladyman, Dr Stephen|
|Doran, Frank||Lammy, David|
|Drew, David||Lawrence, Mrs Jackie|
|Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)|
|Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)||Lepper, David|
|Edwards, Huw||Levitt, Tom|
|Efford, Clive||Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)|
|Ellman, Mrs Louise||Lewis, Terry (Worsley)|
|Ennis, Jeff||Livsey, Richard|
|Etherington, Bill||Llwyd, Elfyn|
|Fearn, Ronnie||Lock, David|
|Fitzpatrick, Jim||Love, Andrew|
|Flynn, Paul||McAvoy, Thomas|
|Follett, Barbara||McCabe, Steve|
|Foster, Rt Hon Derek||McCartney, Rt Hon Ian (Makerfield)|
|Foster, Don (Bath)|
|Foulkes, George||McDonagh, Siobhain|
|Gardiner, Barry||Macdonald, Calum|
|George, Andrew (St Ives)||McDonnell, John|
|George, Rt Hon Bruce (Walsall S)||McFall, John|
|Gerrard, Neil||Mackinlay, Andrew|
|Gibson, Dr Ian||McNamara, Kevin|
|Gidley, Sandra||McNulty, Tony|
|Gilroy, Mrs Linda||MacShane, Denis|
|Godsiff, Roger||Mactaggart, Fiona|
|Goggins, Paul||McWalter, Tony|
|Golding, Mrs Llin||Mallaber, Judy|
|Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)||Marshall, David (Shettleston)|
|Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)||Martlew, Eric|
|Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)||Maxton, John|
|Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)||Meacher, Rt Hon Michael|
|Hancock, Mike||Merron, Gillian|
|Hanson, David||Michael, Rt Hon Alun|
|Harris, Dr Evan||Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)|
|Harvey, Nick||Mitchell, Austin|
|Healey, John||Moffatt, Laura|
|Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)||Moonie, Dr Lewis|
|Hendrick, Mark||Moore, Michael|
|Hepburn, Stephen||Moran, Ms Margaret|
|Heppell, John||Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)|
|Hinchliffe, David||Mountford, Kali|
|Hodge, Ms Margaret||Mudie, George|
|Hoey, Kate||Mullin, Chris|
|Hood, Jimmy||Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)|
|Hoon, Rt Hon Geoffrey||Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)|
|Hope, Phil||Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen)|
|Hopkins, Kelvin||Naysmith, Dr Doug|
|Howarth, Rt Hon Alan (Newport E)||Norris, Dan|
|Howells, Dr Kim||O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)|
|Hughes, Ms Bevertey (Stretford)||O'Hara, Eddie|
|Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)||Öpik, Lembit|
|Humble, Mrs Joan||Osborne, Ms Sandra|
|Hurst, Alan||Pearson, Ian|
|Hutton, John||Pickthall, Colin|
|Iddon, Dr Brian||Pike, Peter L|
|Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)||Plaskitt, James|
|Jamieson, David||Pollard, Kerry|
|Jenkins, Brian||Pond, Chris|
|Pope, Greg||Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)|
|Powell, Sir Raymond||Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)|
|Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)||Taylor, David (NW Leics)|
|Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|Primarolo, Dawn||Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)|
|Purchase, Ken||Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)|
|Raynsford, Nick||Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)|
|Rendel, David||Timms, Stephen|
|Robertson, John (Glasgow Anniesland)||Tipping, Paddy|
|Rogers, Allan||Tonge, Dr Jenny|
|Rooney, Terry||Touhig, Don|
|Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)||Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)|
|Roy, Frank||Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)|
|Ruane, Chris||Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)|
|Russell, Bob (Colchester)||Turner, Neil (Wigan)|
|Ryan, Ms Joan||Twigg, Derek (Halton)|
|Salter, Martin||Tyler, Paul|
|Sanders, Adrian||Tynan, Bill|
|Savidge, Malcolm||Walley, Ms Joan|
|Sedgemore, Brian||Wareing, Robert N|
|Shaw, Jonathan||Watts, David|
|Sheerman, Barry||Webb, Steve|
|Shipley, Ms Debra||Welsh, Andrew|
|Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)||White, Brian|
|Singh, Marsha||Whitehead, Dr Alan|
|Skinner, Dennis||Wigley, Rt Hon Dafydd|
|Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)||Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)|
|Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)||Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)|
|Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)||Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)|
|Smith, John (Glamorgan)||Willis, Phil|
|Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)||Winnick, David|
|Squire, Ms Rachel||Woodward, Shaun|
|Steinberg, Gerry||Woolas, Phil|
|Stewart, Ian (Eccles)||Worthington, Tony|
|Stinchcombe, Paul||Wray, James|
|Stoate, Dr Howard||Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)|
|Stuart, Ms Gisela||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Stunell, Andrew||Mr. Robert Ainsworth and|
|Sutcliffe, Gerry||Mr. Jim Dowd.|
|Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)||Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)|
|Beggs, Roy||Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)|
|Bercow, John||Loughton, Tim|
|Blunt, Crispin||Luff, Peter|
|Boswell, Tim||McIntosh, Miss Anne|
|Brady, Graham||Maclean, Rt Hon David|
|Brooke, Rt Hon Peter||McLoughlin, Patrick|
|Cash, William||Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian|
|Chope, Christopher||May, Mrs Theresa|
|Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe)||Nicholls, Patrick|
|O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)|
|Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)|
|Collins, Tim||Ruffley, David|
|Cran, James||St Aubyn, Nick|
|Davies, Quentin (Grantham)||Shepherd, Richard|
|Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)||Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)|
|Day, Stephen||Soames, Nicholas|
|Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen||Spelman, Mrs Caroline|
|Evans, Nigel||Spicer, Sir Michael|
|Fabricant, Michael||Spring, Richard|
|Flight Howard||Steen, Anthony|
|Forth, Rt Hon Eric||Swayne, Desmond|
|Gill, Christopher||Syms, Robert|
|Gorman, Mrs Teresa||Tapsell, Sir Peter|
|Green, Damian||Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)|
|Taylor, John M (Solihull)|
|Grieve, Dominic||Taylor, Sir Teddy|
|Hammond, Philip||Thompson, William|
|Hayes, John||Townend, John|
|Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)||Trend, Michael|
|Leigh, Edward||Tyrie, Andrew|
|Walter, Robert||Wilshire David|
|Waterson, Nigel||Young, Rt Hon Sir George|
|Whitney, Sir Raymond||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Whittingdale, John||Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown|
|Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann||and|
|Wilkinson, John||Mr. James Gray.|
§ Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 62 (Amendment on second or third reading), and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.