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7.31 pm

Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South): Personally, I am delighted that, by their publication of the Bill, the Government have shown, yet again, the high priority that they place on the care and protection of children and young people in Wales. Judging by the favourable public reaction, there can be little doubt that the Bill has been widely welcomed across the length and breadth of Wales as a positive step. It is a step towards fulfilling the expectations of the Welsh people and the recommendations of the National Assembly for Wales. It is also a step towards meeting the concerns of the House of Commons, following the dreadful events that precipitated the need for the Waterhouse inquiry into child sex abuse in north Wales.

I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland will eye the Bill with great envy. Surely, it forms a blueprint for similar legislation throughout the rest of the United Kingdom in the not too distant future. I am particularly heartened that the Bill has been welcomed by all the main non- governmental organisations specialising in child protection in Wales: NSPCC Cymru, the Children's Society in Wales, Barnardos Cymru and Save the Children. On a personal note, I am pleased because, as far back as May 1999, the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, which I have the honour of chairing, made a clear recommendation in its third report, entitled "Childcare in Wales". It said:

That is not to say that the Assembly is answerable to the Welsh Affairs Committee. However, it listened and responded to the recommendation that we put to it.

It is interesting to note that, when the Welsh Affairs Committee took evidence in producing the report, the message that we received was clear and unambiguous and, I am proud to say, mirrors the essence of what we are debating in the House this evening. For example, the Committee was told that there was a need for a Children's

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Commissioner for Wales who was empowered both to represent the needs and views of children and, importantly, to examine the services provided for children in Wales. The Bill delivers on the explicit demands that the Committee heard.

I should like to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) who, in his role as First Secretary of the Welsh Assembly, has wasted no time since last summer in ensuring that the post of Children's Commissioner for Wales has been filled as quickly as possible. Last month, on the day after the Queen's Speech in another place, my right hon. Friend announced that Mr. Peter Clarke, the former director of Childline Cymru, had been appointed the first Children's Commissioner for Wales. Along with those on both Front Benches and many other Members, I should like to wish Mr. Clarke every success in his new role. I am sure that, when enacted, the Bill will provide him with the necessary legislative framework to fulfil his role in future.

Confidence in the protection of children in care was severely undermined throughout Wales, following the heinous crimes--detailed in the Waterhouse report--which, sadly, were committed in north Wales a few years ago. I believe that the new Children's Commissioner, with the enhanced role that is provided for in the Bill, will have a pivotal role in renewing that confidence for future generations of young people in Wales.

When I read the Bill, I was pleased to see that the new commissioner will not only concentrate on those 3,000 young people in care in Wales. His role will also be extended so that he can act as a promoter of children's rights--the rights of every single child across the length and breadth of Wales--in future. In addition, the commissioner has a role in the oversight of complaints, has powers to undertake formal investigations on matters of principle and will undertake the role of observing child abuse investigations. I believe that we now have in Wales the basis for real and rapid improvement in the protection of children.

I should be grateful, however, if my hon. Friend the Minister would clarify some matters when he sums up later this evening. One such issue relates to the absence from the Bill of the responsibility of the Children's Commissioner for Wales to promote and monitor the implementation of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. The United Kingdom is a signatory to the convention, and we have already heard eloquent and learned remarks on that from the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). I understand that, in other European countries, such a duty is charged to an agency with a role equivalent to that of the Children's Commissioner for Wales. I should therefore be grateful for clarification on that matter. In particular, if that issue is not addressed by the Children's Commissioner for Wales, how does my hon. Friend see it being addressed from a Welsh perspective ?

I should be grateful if my hon. Friend could respond to a concern that has been expressed to me about the Bill regarding the flexibility for future change. If it was felt that the powers and role of the Children's Commissioner needed to be enhanced further at some stage, how easy

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would that process be?Would it require further primary legislation--as in the current instance--for change to take place?

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He asked an important question about the scope of the commissioner's role. Does he feel, like me, that there is a need for clarification of the commissioner's relationship with other agencies? I refer particularly to the relationship between the commissioner and education authorities regarding, for example, children's special educational needs and the protection of their interests. Extra legislation might be required to enable the commissioner to fulfil such a role.

Mr. Jones: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention: that is precisely the kind of issue to which I am referring. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was present at the beginning of our debate, but the Secretary of State referred to the possibility that the Children's Commissioner would be allowed to comment on other matters. I am not sure whether we need to codify that in law.

Mr. Hayes: Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I was here when the Secretary of State said that, which is why I intervened on the hon. Gentleman. Allowing the commissioner to comment on those issues is different from giving him an active role--a proactive role, even--in dealing with them. The hon. Gentleman made an interesting point about the legislation that may be necessary to facilitate such a proactive role.

Mr. Jones: I hope that the Minister will respond to that point. We are happy and proud to welcome the Children's Commissioner for Wales as a pilot that, I hope, will be taken up throughout the United Kingdom. The role may have to grow and unforeseen matters may arise. Even in Committee, amendments may be tabled relating to areas to which the hon. Gentleman and I, too, am referring. The commissioner's role may need to be extended. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point at the end of our debate because, as the hon. Gentleman said, it is important.

The Bill is pioneering and is an important first step. However, further change may be required to ensure that Wales--and the rest of the country, if it takes this proposal up--keeps abreast of further developments in the sphere of children's legislation.

Although society will never be able to guarantee the most vulnerable children complete protection from being targets of those intent on committing sexual and physical abuse, I believe that the Bill provides the children of Wales with a fresh start and sends a clear signal to those who prey on our children that their evil ways will not be tolerated.

By giving the Bill a Second Reading, the House can be proud that it is responding to the needs of children in Wales. The Government, to their credit, acted quickly on the recommendations of the Waterhouse and Welsh Affairs Committee reports. By bringing the Bill before the House, the Government have shown that they are prepared to act decisively again--this time to shore up the commissioner's role as laid out in the Care Standards Act

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2000. I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to give the Bill their unreserved support and to oppose the reasoned amendment, which the Opposition have so irresponsibly tabled. If agreed to, it would block this useful legislation.

7.40 pm

Sir Raymond Whitney (Wycombe): I shall make only a brief contribution on the basis of the short time that I spent as a Minister at the then Department of Health and Social Security during the 1980s, when I had responsibility for social services work throughout the country. In that connection, I should say that I was immensely assisted by Sir William Utting, who of course produced such an important report on the problem of boarding accommodation and the treatment of youngsters in Wales.

My own background is that for the past 13 or 14 years I have been chairman of a small national charity that works among young people in 10 cities and towns in England and one in Northern Ireland. That gives me a certain insight from a particular point of view, which I shall discuss in more detail.

Before I do so in terms of the substance of the Bill, I shall comment on a point made by the Secretary of State. He welcomed the Bill, as do we all, but welcomed it as an act of constitutional significance. I have to say, rather sadly and ruefully, that I agree. It is significant that the measure has flowed back to us from the National Assembly for Wales to be dealt with in the Chamber as primary legislation. To put it at its mildest, the Bill leaves so many loose ends. For example, we had to set aside Standing Order No. 86 and we face the issue, which many hon. Members have discussed, of what is or is not to be done with the non-devolved legislation. The Secretary of State said, "The commissioner would not be debarred from comment if it was not in his statutory remit." Big deal, as one might say. None of us is debarred from comment. That is a serious problem that highlights the constitutional inadequacies of what we have created, and it is of course only the latest of many examples.

Although this matter is a long way from children in Wales, I hope that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will allow me a moment to raise it. The other day, a Chinese delegation--remarkably perhaps, a constitutional commission considering ways to run countries--was in this country. When its members arrived in London, they thought that they had found the holy grail or reached Mecca--they were in the most ancient, stable and mature democracy where we have all the experience and all the answers.

Over the delegation's time here, I watched its members as they saw what was happening in Wales and in Scotland--Ireland they knew was a problem--and with the Mayor of London. They also considered whether we are to have regional assemblies and all the rest of it. They were simply staggered that we were in such a mess. Were they listening to the debate, they would realise that we are still tacking the Bill together and leaving those loose ends even though we all agree with and welcome the proposal and know what is needed. That is highly unsatisfactory.

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