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6.38 pm

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 various 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.

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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:

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.

Ms Morgan: There seems to be a direct contradiction between the views of Opposition Members and Assembly Members.

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:

That is the position of Conservative Assembly Members in Cardiff.

Ms Morgan: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

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The amendment is also contradictory. On the one hand it says that the Bill

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

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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.

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