HC Deb 11 May 2001 vol 368 cc367-75

Lords amendment: No. 4, to insert the following new clause—

"Additional power of consideration and representation

(1) After section 75 of the Care Standards Act 2000 (c. 14) insert—

"75A Additional power of consideration and representation

  1. (1) The Commissioner may consider, and make representations to the Assembly about, any matter affecting the rights or welfare of children in Wales.
  2. (2) The function of the Commissioner under subsection (1) is exercisable only where he does not have power to consider and make representations about the matter in question by virtue of any other provision of this Act or any other enactment."."

(2) In section 74 of that Act—

  1. (a) in subsection (1), after "may" insert ", in connection with the Commissioner's functions under this Part."; and
  2. (b) after that subsection insert—

"(1A) The reference in subsection (1) to functions of the Commissioner does not include a reference to his power to consider and make representations by virtue of section 75A(1)."

9.45 am
Mr. Hanson

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment

Mr. Speaker

With this we may discuss Lords amendment No. 5.

Mr. Hanson

The amendments are more substantial than the technical amendments that we have considered hitherto. The Government have reflected on the issues and taken steps in the other place to ensure that this House has the opportunity to discuss the amendments. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) and for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), who raised the matter in Committee and persuaded the Government to table amendments.

The Government have carefully considered the concerns expressed about the commissioner having no formal role in respect of policies and services that do not come within the responsibility of the National Assembly for Wales. As a result, we tabled the amendment that will empower the commissioner to consider, and make representations to the National Assembly for Wales on, any matter that affects the rights and welfare of children in Wales. That means that the commissioner will have a formal role in matters that do not fall within the National Assembly's devolved responsibilities.

I hope that will reflect the commissioner's relationship with the Assembly and the need to establish a structure for the new function, which has the potential to be extremely wide. The commissioner could, if he wanted, make representations on several matters as a part of his annual report to the Assembly, or ad hoc as he considers necessary. The Assembly will then be able to consider the commissioner's representations on matters that are Government responsibilities, and make representations to the Government under section 33 of the Government of Wales Act 1998.

The commissioner is an integral but independent part of the strategy of the National Assembly for Wales. The Government have been pleased to support the extension of the role and responsibilities of the commissioner. We remain firmly of the opinion that the commissioner's main field of jurisdiction should be bodies that have functions within the Assembly's devolved responsibilities. However, there will be opportunities for the commissioner to consider issues that are Government responsibilities and to make representations to the Assembly so that it can consider them and, if need be, using its powers under the Government of Wales Act, make representations to the Government.

I hope that we shall have cross-party support for the change. I have discussed the matter with right hon. and hon. Members and I believe that it is welcome in both Houses.

Mrs. Browning

I welcome the amendments. The reason that we have not heard about the Bill for some time might be that the Government were busy reading the Committee Hansard and considering the sensible proposals made by my hon. Friends the Members for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and for North Dorset (Mr. Walter). If so, I am pleased to see that the Minister has taken their arguments on board.

The scope for the commissioner and the role that he is to perform on behalf of children in Wales mean that he must have powers that will enable him fully to represent children's interests when they are in question. Representations were made to the Government while the Bill was in Committee: the Minister knows that the National Assembly itself, with many voluntary and charitable organisations, recommended that the commissioner should have a role that extended beyond the constraints of the Assembly.

In its report on the Children's Commissioner for Wales, the Health and Social Services Committee of the National Assembly said: We have given consideration as to whether the Commissioner's remit should include policy and services that affect children in Wales but for which responsibility has not been devolved to the Assembly, such as the benefit system. That is not a devolved matter, but it is easy to see how a commissioner acting in children's interests would need to have influence on it. The report continues: We believe that such jurisdiction would be desirable to promote the rights and welfare of children in Wales. In that connection, I draw attention to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset in Committee, where he argued that it was impossible to legislate on the basis that in investigating child abuse, the only officials with whom the commissioner would have contact were those from organisations that fell within the remit of the National Assembly for Wales. Clearly, people who abuse children may be working for or in contact with agencies other than those for which the National Assembly has responsibility. The measure is a practical one that genuinely represents the interests of children, which is what the commissioner is all about.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

On behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) and myself, I congratulate the Government and thank them for accepting the amendment, for which we argued strongly in Committee and which, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said, was supported by the Opposition. Clearly, that continued in the other place as well.

I shall not rehearse all the arguments that were used. I am pleased that, in the context of devolution, the Government were sufficiently positive and flexible to give the commissioner the powers that a wide range of individuals and organisations considered necessary for his job to be carried out in a way that would support children's needs in Wales. I thank the Government for introducing the amendment, to allow the Bill to go forward in a more complete form.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

I rise to question the Minister about a matter that concerns my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey), who cannot be present this morning. It relates to Lords amendment No. 4 and the additional power of consideration and representation.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) referred repeatedly to the welfare of children in Wales. We are concerned that a considerable number of Welsh youngsters aged between 16 and 18 are in prison or on remand, but not many are in centres in Wales. The lack of suitable prison and remand accommodation, combined with the fact that the commissioner cannot exercise any power in respect of Welsh youngsters on remand outside Wales, means that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the commissioner to represent their interests.

That is in marked contrast to the case of children who are unfortunate enough to be in hospital, for example. Health is a devolved matter, and the trusts and health authorities are accountable to the Assembly, so the children's commissioner can work to support their welfare. Can we have the Minister's assurance that the Government will do all that they can to facilitate the commissioner's access to children being detained outside Wales, and that they will consider how the commissioner might act as advocate on behalf of such children?

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate on a Bill relating to Wales as my last contribution as Member of Parliament for Caernarfon. I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your kind words earlier, and 1 thank other colleagues for their kindness not only now, but over many years, and their forbearance when we may have expressed ourselves with greater enthusiasm than was considered appropriate.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

No, never.

Mr. Wigley

I am glad that I still trigger the occasional response from Scottish Members sitting for English seats.

I welcome the amendments, as I welcome the Bill. On the comments of the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge), I am under the impression that the amendments under discussion meet the very circumstances that she described, as they broaden the definition of the children who come within the purview of the Children's Commissioner for Wales—we dealt with that in amendment No. 1—and also, through the present group of amendments, broaden the responsibilities in the context of the Assembly and outside it. Taken together, I hope that they address the problem to which the hon. Lady drew attention. The Minister indicates his agreement with that, and no doubt he will comment when he winds up the debate. Those are important points. I imagine that that is why the Government considered it necessary to introduce the amendments.

It is significant that the Bill is the first one that was requested formally by the National Assembly for Wales. We do not yet have the power to pass primary legislation, so until we get such power, I hope that that will be a means of pursuing the legislative needs of Wales, particularly where circumstances are different, as, sadly, have been the circumstances that led to the need for a children's commissioner.

I am interested to hear that hon. Members representing English constituencies hope that those powers will be made available in other parts of the United Kingdom in due course. That is as it should be. If good ideas are progressed from the National Assembly for Wales that can be taken up elsewhere, all the better, as likewise, no doubt, the National Assembly will be looking for ideas that we can implement in Wales.

There is, however, one aspect that leaves me with a little uncertainty. It has been suggested to me by organisations dealing with and on behalf of children that the amendments may have knock-on effects on other parts of the Bill and possibly on the Care Standards Act 2000. There may need to be more consequential amendments in order to put into effect the changes that we are making today. That was pointed out to me last night.

If that is the case, how can small and perhaps technical amendments be introduced? That underlines the need for a fast track for Wales for fairly simple legislative changes to turn powers such as those in the Bill into reality. That is particularly necessary if we do not have in the National Assembly the full legislative power that we would like to have had. Perhaps the Minister will give a thought to that.

A further question arises in the context of the changes, as we consider powers to deal with circumstances outside Wales. I refer to the situation in the global world in which we live. Children may move from country to country, and a series of abuses may take place in different countries. Whereas we have a system for registering and identifying the people who may be guilty of abuse, we do not have a system to co-ordinate information about the abuse that may be suffered by an individual child, possibly carried out by different people and possibly in different countries. In the global world that we inhabit, we may have to consider that in a more international context, to make sure that such children are protected.

When I was elected in 1974, I did not know the meaning of the word "paedophile". That reflects some of the sad changes that have taken place over the years, or perhaps, more importantly, the fact that we now recognise unacceptable behaviour, which existed then but may have been swept under the carpet. The development of the office of the Children's Commissioner for Wales and the powers that the House has given to the commissioner is a step in the right direction.

Much has changed since 1974 when I entered Parliament. When I made my maiden speech on 18 March 1974, looking forward to changes such as the establishment of the Welsh Development Agency and the need for answers to our social and cultural problems in Wales, I concluded with the comment that I hoped that I would see, even in that Parliament of 1974 to 1979, the establishment of a legislative assembly that could deliver policies for Wales such as that embodied by the Bill. Although we now have a National Assembly that can do much of the work, more still remains to be done. As I depart from the Chamber, it is my hope that I will have an opportunity to pursue those matters in another place, in Cardiff.

Mr. Forth

I wish the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) very well on his voluntary departure from this place to take up his work elsewhere.

I echo the theme suggested by the right hon. Gentleman. Yes, much has changed since 1974, not least the emergence into our body politic and our lives of commissioners. I am uneasy about that development, and I recently expressed that view in a different context in relation to another Bill. I am slightly reassured that, with this commissioner, we are using Wales as a test case. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), who hoped that the provision would be extended to England as soon as possible; I hope that it is not.

10 am

As I am uneasy about the amendments, I should like an assessment of how the commissioner works in Wales before we dream of extending the provision elsewhere. Having a liberal sprinkling of commissioners all over the place is a dubious idea; it remains to be seen whether it is beneficial. I am worried about the powers that we give commissioners and their apparent unaccountability and unelected nature. Our judiciary has centuries of tradition of independence although, at times, some of us get uneasy about even that. Now, however, we have a new breed of officials who are being given increasingly extensive powers—all in a good cause, of course, and always for the best. At our peril, we neglect the other side of the ledger: the possible dangers involved in the exercise of those powers. I am therefore uneasy about the amendment, which seeks to extend the powers even further before the experiment has even started.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

My right hon. Friend looks and sounds sad, which, I am bound to say, is an unedifying spectacle for me and, indeed, the House. He has a naturally suspicious mind; is he inherently suspicious—I am not expressing such suspicion myself—of the concept of the commissioner? Or does he need to express a personal interest, as this is a case of frustrated ambition? Would he not be a magnificent commissioner exercising his functions with skill, wisdom and elan?

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend tempts me, but the answer is no. Until I am much more satisfied with the viability and acceptability of the role, I would not want to be a candidate for it. However, I confess to being suspicious and become even more so when I hear the Minister and, regrettably. my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), glorying, nay, wallowing in consensus.

Mrs. Browning

I remind my right hon. Friend that, in Committee, Conservative Members made sensible, practical proposals, which the Government have now accepted. I hope that he appreciates that consensus was not built in Committee; the Conservative party guided the Government along the route down which we are pleased they have now gone.

Mr. Forth

I am half reassured by that, as my hon. Friend is talking about effective opposition, in which I believe and which I wish was exercised more often. I take her reassurance at face value, but I have doubts about my party urging a commissioner on us. The good news is that I am reassured that effective opposition forced the Government to see what my hon. Friends obviously thought was sense. However, the not so good news is that it was not sense at all. We are therefore almost back where we started.

The matter is proceeding in a spirit of co-operation and is about to reach the statute book; there has been a measure of agreement. I accept that right hon. and hon. Members from Wales want such a provision; they think that it is needed and will be beneficial. As a Member representing an English constituency, I shall suspend my judgment. We must see how the commissioner works over, I hope, a lengthy period. We in England may decide that the post is a good idea but, equally, we may decide that it is not; that will depend very much on the way in which the commissioner, whoever he or she is, exercises the extensive powers that we are giving him or her, including the extension of powers in this group of amendments that we are now, apparently, about to approve.

I want to put down that marker or reservation, as we should not rush such things. If we are about to enter a new era of commissioners—if this is the new Britain in the 21st century and new millennium—and commissioners are the answer to all the problems that confront us, I, for one, am extremely uneasy. I want us to treat each case carefully on its merits and watch extremely closely the way in which the balance of powers and responsibilities is exercised. I worry about the lack of accountability and what, I suspect, are inadequate opportunities for scrutiny and holding commissioners to account. I hope that my hon. Friends and even the Government will keep those matters under consideration before we rush headlong into a world that will be dominated by commissioners, whose posts were set up for the best reasons but which may, in some cases, end in tears.

Mr. Hanson

Generally, hon. Members—even the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)—have given a broad welcome to the amendments. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) made a valuable point about her backing and the strong support from children's charities in Wales and elsewhere for the amendments. I pay tribute to their efforts in promoting the measures that we are considering today. In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) spoke strongly about those matters, and I welcome his support for the amendments.

Briefly, in response to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge), the key point of Lords amendment No. 4 is to tackle the very issues that she raised on behalf of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey), who is retiring. It will empower the commissioner to consider any matter affecting the rights and welfare of children in Wales and make representations to the Assembly. As the hon. Member for Richmond Park rightly said, children in Wales will occasionally be sent to young offenders' institutions in England, but the commissioner will now be able to look at and monitor the performance of those institutions; he will also be able to make representations to the Assembly about whether it wishes to make representations to the Government about how they are impacting on children from Wales in those institutions. I hope that that answers her points; indeed, the amendment was introduced in response to those very concerns.

The right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) raised several issues. First, however, may I wish him and his wife Elinor well in retirement? I am acutely aware that, although he is retiring from the House of Commons, he will still be a Member of the National Assembly for Wales for the foreseeable future. I pay tribute to the work that he has done during his 27 years in the House; I acknowledge the efforts that he has made and the co-operation that we have achieved on some joint objectives. We have had differences, and will continue to do so, but he can be proud of things to which he has contributed during his time in the House.

As I am mentioning retiring Members, I should also mention my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands). He has not contributed to our debate but I know that he is proud to sit in the Chamber today for, possibly, the final time as a Member of Parliament. He has represented his constituency for 30 years, since 1971, and experienced the pain of defeat in 1970 in Cardiff, North, whose constituents he had served since 1966. I pay tribute to his work; I know that many Labour Members have welcomed his contributions, value his integrity and appreciate his work as a Minister; we are sorry to see him go. I make one prediction about the forthcoming election; Labour will hold Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney.

The right hon. Member for Caernarfon raised the question of international co-operation. He spoke about the possibility of children being abused in different countries and the difficulties that will arise. By virtue of this key amendment to the Bill, the commissioner will he able to consider any issue affecting children in Wales and make representations to the Assembly. If, for example, a child in Wales suffers abuse in another European country or, indeed, elsewhere in the world, the commissioner can make representations to the Assembly and, via that body, the Government about the way in which those rights and welfare issues can be tackled.

The Government recognise the need for international co-operation and co-ordination in identifying child abusers to reduce the risks to children in this country and abroad. We are working, for example, with an Interpol specialist group on crimes against children and with the United Kingdom National Crime Squad. There are also bilateral negotiations and initiatives involving UK agencies and other countries, both in Europe and elsewhere, to tackle the issues raised by the right hon. Gentleman. Much of that will be an informal network, but the Government certainly recognise those issues.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned that further technical amendments may be necessary as a result of the Lords amendments I have looked into the matter and do not believe that they will. Obviously, we shall review the matter. If he wants in his last 48 or 60 hours as a Member of Parliament to write to me with details of his concerns, I shall certainly consider them and reflect on them in due course.

I welcome, as ever, the contribution of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst to the debate. I say to him what I said earlier: the Government will reflect on and consider the experiences in Wales. The Minister of State. Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), will be examining the matters, and the Government will reflect on them.

Mr. Bercow

Where is the Minister of State?

Mr. Hanson

I suspect that he is busy governing on behalf of the people of Britain. We speak for the Government as a Whole.

Mr. Bercow

There was a reason for my inquiry. I very much hope that the Minister of State will not be doing that for many minutes because he is supposed to be replying to my Adjournment debate.

Mr. Hanson

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that it is possible to govern from Whitehall as well as from the House of Commons. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be here shortly to contribute to what might be quite a lengthy Adjournment debate if the business of the House is completed speedily.

I very much Welcome the Bill. It is historic and ground-breaking legislation. As the right hon. Member for Caernarfon said, it is the first Bill produced in partnership between the National Assembly and the Government. I very much welcome and appreciate the spirit in which the House and, indeed, the other place have considered the amendments. We have a particularly strong working relationship with the children's charities. I pay tribute to the officials of the National Assembly and of the Wales Office. I wish Peter Clarke, who has recently been appointed the first Children's Commissioner for Wales, every success, and look forward to working with him during—dare I say it—the new Parliament.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 5 and 6 agreed to.