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Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge): Does my hon. Friend agree that the children of England could similarly benefit from a commissioner? Does he welcome Lord Laming's examination of systems? We need a national body for the protection of children. We have put the Protection of

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Children Act 1999 on the statute book, and Lord Laming was much involved. I welcome his appointment. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?

Mr. Ruane: I, too, would welcome a similar commissioner for England, and for Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, that is not what we are debating. I would welcome commissioners being appointed for the other home countries.

The youth of England and Wales will have the opportunity to articulate their concerns. They will speak of their experiences, and perhaps most importantly they will offer solutions to the problems that have been experienced. A key role for the commissioner will be to ascertain the problems and to listen to young people to find out what they consider the solutions to be.

In the inquiry of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs into social exclusion we took evidence from more than 100 groups throughout Wales over 11 and a half days of visits. A recurrent theme in the evidence that we took from the people whom we spoke to and the groups that we visited was the lack of statistics, or the lack of access to statistics, that could help the groups to fulfil their functions. A key task of the commissioner, as set out in the Bill, will be to use his power to gather information, to collate it and to commission statistics. With that information he will be able to influence policy, instigate inquiries and hold to account elected bodies, quangos and others who deal with children.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) said that she felt that the commissioner should be able to comment on any matter that affected the children of Wales, whether that be a United Kingdom function or the responsibility of the National Assembly for Wales. I share my hon. Friend's viewpoint.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that the commissioner will have the right to comment on matters that are the responsibility of the UK Government. If I heard him correctly, I think he said that UK Government Departments would be in difficulty if they did not respond to the Children's Commissioner for Wales. However, those Departments may not be in a position to respond to requests for information and statistics from the commissioner.

I shall give some examples from my recent experience. I have tabled many written questions about children over the past eight weeks to gain an insight into some of the problems faced by children in Wales and the UK. I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department

I was told that the information was not centrally available. I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State

The Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), replied:

I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment how many female pupils were excluded from school because of pregnancy in England

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between 1980 to 2000. I was told by the Minister that the information was not held centrally by the Department. I asked

The Minister of State told me that limited information was available. Finally, I tabled the following question:

I received this answer:

Those were requests by an ordinary Back Bencher for information that I thought necessary, but which is not available now and was not available under the previous Government. It is about time these important statistics, which influence policy making, were made available. Their availability would make Ministers' jobs in helping to improve the lot of young people and children much easier.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is in a unique position, as he will be fully aware of best practice on children's issues in Wales and can relate that information to his Cabinet colleagues. He can raise with them issues such as those to which I have just referred, which concern the collection and co-ordination of statistics. Such issues are important in respect of problems such as missing children, child prostitution, child labour and domestic violence involving children.

I do not want to be too critical, but I wonder whether the National Assembly for Wales can give the commissioner any detailed statistics that are requested on its areas of responsibility: education, social services, housing and so on. If United Kingdom Departments and the National Assembly for Wales co-operate fully in supplying the commissioner with the statistics and information that he requires, the task of improving the lives of all children in Wales will be more readily achieved.

8.50 pm

Mr. Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West): I add my voice to those of other hon. Members who have welcomed the Bill. I share the dismay expressed by many Labour Members at the official Opposition's extraordinary ambivalence to the Bill, which is, from any viewpoint, a genuinely progressive social measure that all reasonable people should accept.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was entirely right to begin his speech by referring to the Bill as an example of the working partnership between the National Assembly for Wales and Parliament. There is a continuing need for a co-ordinated and strategic approach to prevent the widespread and systematic abuse that has occurred in Welsh children's homes and which was only too obvious after the publication of the Waterhouse report. That abuse was, of course, accompanied by a culture of fear that stopped people involved in the system, including victims, speaking out. It deterred them from feeling that they could trust people and tell them what was going on.

It was, therefore, no surprise that one of the main recommendations of the Waterhouse report--the genesis of the Bill and of the campaign for its introduction--

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was the creation of an independent role to oversee regulated functions relating to children in care in Wales. Of course, the creation of the office of Children's Commissioner cannot guarantee that abuse will not occur, but I hope that it will enable the creation of proper safeguards and encourage a culture of more openness and greater willingness to listen to children.

I was especially impressed by the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), who said that the Bill represents a sea change in the way in which we regard children and that it involves a recognition of their rights within the wider society. I hope that it will engender a culture of greater willingness to blow the whistle and sure and certain steps and procedures to ensure that that happens. That is why the commissioner's key functions--the monitoring and oversight of complaints and of the whistleblowing procedures established by local authorities and other authorities involved with the care of children--are vital.

I agree with the view expressed by a number of hon. Members that we should guard against regarding the creation and development of the role of the Children's Commissioner as a panacea for all ills. I agree entirely that the briefings that have been submitted to us by charities and non-governmental organisations in Wales are extremely helpful. However, with respect, and as I said in an intervention, I feel that such organisations have been rather too enthusiastic in their wish to extend the role of the commissioner, perhaps unrealistically. I firmly believe that we should stick to the original recommendations of the Waterhouse inquiry. In essence, we should concentrate on children in care and prevent systematic abuse of the sort that occurred in the past.

If the Children's Commissioner is to do his job effectively, he must have a focused role. We should not overburden that role in a counter-productive way. However, I cannot see why the commissioner should be precluded from commenting on the effects upon children of primary legislation. I was pleased that the Secretary of State appeared to accept that there was nothing in the Bill or elsewhere to prevent that from happening. I also see no reason why the commissioner's role should not be extended to allow him to comment on non-devolved matters. I may have misinterpreted what the Secretary of State said but, again, there is nothing in the Bill to prevent that from happening.

Let me add, however, that the commissioner should not supplant the roles of others engaged in policing our society in the widest sense, especially in relation to young offenders and the criminal justice system--let us not forget the important role of Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons.

We must be aware that there is a restriction on resources, and we must be realistic about what the commissioner can do successfully. Nevertheless, I think we should again consider giving him powers to enter, on occasion, institutions that are under investigation. I am sure that that will be discussed in Committee. I also see no reason why the commissioner should not be able to comment on the decisions of courts and tribunals as they affect children in Wales, in so far as that could be allowed without offending the sub judice principle.

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I welcome the Bill. It constitutes a major step forward in the recognition of children's rights, and is a genuinely progressive piece of social legislation.

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