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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
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 matters 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.
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. Llwyd: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, who has experience of such matters, having been a councillor in Ceredigion for some years. I am confident that the Minister will take note of those matters and give a considered response in due course.
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.
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.
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
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 are
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
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.