Previous SectionIndexHome Page

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 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 Haselhurst): Order. May I take the opportunity of that intervention to make

16 Jan 2001 : Column 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 phrase

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

16 Jan 2001 : Column 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:

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:

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:

16 Jan 2001 : Column 224

In the Welsh Grand Committee, the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) said:

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:

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

16 Jan 2001 : Column 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.

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.

Next Section

IndexHome Page