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4.37 pm

Mr. Paul Murphy: The debate has been useful. It has given all Members an opportunity to understand why circumstances have changed since 1992, when I made my remarks from the other side of the House--which, incidentally, echoed what was said in 1907 by a predecessor of mine, the then Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, who represented North Monmouthshire.

The right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) raised a number of important constitutional issues, as did the hon. Members for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey).

What is the difference? Obviously, the difference is that the world has changed in constitutional terms: the way in which Wales is governed has changed. The existence of the Welsh Assembly and the settlement that accompanied its creation mean that Cardiff will deal with secondary legislation, while primary legislation remains a matter for the House of Commons.

That is the big change, but it must also be said that while some Bills have both an English and a Welsh context--we dealt with a number of such Bills last year--others, such as this, deal exclusively with Wales. In such cases, the procedures followed in the Assembly, and the procedures followed by the Government and the Assembly in drawing up the terms of the legislation, are uniquely different from the position before. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire spoke of an extensive process, to which I hope to refer later.

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The procedures involved are indeed extensive, and have already given all the political parties in Wales an opportunity to deal with the issues in the Bill.

Mr. Simon Thomas: Will the Secretary of State confirm that the legislative protocol between his Department and the Assembly is not quite complete yet? Members might feel more reassured about the change in procedures here when it is complete.

Mr. Murphy: I can confirm that, but the protocol is very close to completion. One of the reasons why it is not complete is that we are using the procedure for the first time only today. Today is the first occasion on which the House has considered an all-Wales Bill--as is its right--reflecting the National Assembly's wishes and desires. We have to learn from our experience. I hope that, within weeks, the protocol will be available for discussion.

The other issue is the nature of the process that will be used during the Bill's passage in the next weeks and months. Although right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned matters that I suspect should be dealt with in a later debate, I shall deal with one or two of them now.

Mr. Öpik: The Minister has clarified why he thinks that the position today is different from that which applied in 1992-93, and I accept the point. However, will today's debates serve as a precedent for similar future debates?

Mr. Murphy: No, but I shall address those issues in a moment.

I should like, first, to deal with the motion, which we shall debate later, and to furnish the House with more details. It is anticipated that, some time after 1 February, the Committee will report the Bill to the House. I understand that the usual channels are considering the composition of the Committee. Nevertheless, it will be composed of 16 members, of whom 10 will be Government Members and four will be official Opposition Members, with two members from each of the other two parties in the House representing constituencies in Wales.

As some hon. Members seem to be concerned about the time issue, I should re-emphasise my remarks on precedent and the nature of the proposed Standing Committee. As I shall explain in much greater detail on Second Reading, the Bill's provisions have not simply just appeared, but were considered at great length, in Cardiff, by all-party Committees of the National Assembly. The Bill does not establish the role of the Children's Commissioner for Wales; that has already been done. Many of the commissioner's functions are already on the statute book, and the provisions that we are discussing will merely extend the commissioner's powers.

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As for the Standing Committee that will consider the legislation, about a year ago, the Procedure Committee considered whether the Welsh Grand Committee is the appropriate place in which to consider specifically all-Wales Bills on Second Reading and in Committee. I think that, occasionally, that Committee might be the appropriate place for such consideration. However, I also think that, at this early stage in the devolution settlement, we have to decide those matters Bill by Bill. We should work with the parties in the House to discover what they believe would be the best course of action in relation to time and to the composition of the Standing Committees, so that they include hon. Members from all parties who wish to be represented.

We should also bear in mind that, in addressing the various issues, ultimately we are a United Kingdom Parliament. Therefore, at this stage in the devolution process, it is not easy to be categoric about precisely how we will address these issues in future. However, in relation to representing the views of all the parties in the House and reflecting previous consultation in the National Assembly, I think that we are proposing the most appropriate way in which to consider the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill.

Mr. Redwood: I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for sharing a little of the Government's confidence with the House; it is a model of how Ministers should do it. It would have been even easier if we had heard his comments at the beginning of the debate. I express sympathy with his view that these are early days, and that he should consider the issues as a United Kingdom Cabinet member and understand that the Bill is United Kingdom legislation. Will he confirm that it is this House that is charged with the sole responsibility for primary legislation, and that this House cannot rely on the debates and views of another place or another Assembly, however good or worthy they may be, because it is this House that has to take responsibility for the resulting legislation?

Mr. Murphy: I confirm that this House, exclusively, deals with primary legislation for Wales. I confirm also that such proposals are the result of a working partnership between the House, the Government and the National Assembly, and that they would not be a matter for the Government's programme unless there were such a working relationship and partnership.

I therefore hope that the House will be convinced by the points that I have made and that we shall proceed to Second Reading.

Question put and agreed to.


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Orders of the Day

Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill

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 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.

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