Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Hayes: Earlier in the debate, I received some agreement from Labour Members when I repeatedly made the point that the precise scope of the commissioner's responsibilities has yet to be clarified--I will not say that it is ill-defined. For example, a child may have one Welsh and one English parent; the parents may be separated and live close to the border, so the child spends time in England and in Wales. We need much greater clarity about the commissioner's responsibilities in such situations.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, but I do not want to continue in that vein. The message is clear. If the Bill covered England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, such conundrums would not exist. I have no doubt that, when we are returned to power after the next general election--[Interruption.]--we shall address that problem and we shall extend the powers of the Bill to England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hayes rose--

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will my hon. Friend allow me to continue for a few moments? I want to develop an important theme, but I assure him that I will give way to him.

16 Jan 2001 : Column 284

My right hon. and hon. Friends were right to table the reasoned amendment because there is a serious problem with the Bill. We all want increased powers for the commissioner to deal with children in care; we can all think of terrible examples of the abuse of such children. Labour Members may scoff at some of my remarks, but I had the misfortune to be in an area where there was one of the worst cases of child abuse in the history of this country--that of Fred and Rosemary West. A dozen or more children endured terrible torture and mutilation, after which many of them were killed.

I have spoken at length to the authorities in Gloucestershire. My remarks do not apply in any way to the present employees of Gloucestershire social services or to any other agencies in the county because those events mainly took place in the 1970s and 1980s. However, in private, they all agree that at that time--as a little rural authority--Gloucestershire was not equipped to deal with that scale of child abuse.

If a children's commissioner had been in place at that time, he would have been able to disseminate best practice throughout the United Kingdom and would have required its adoption by every local authority. If Gloucestershire had exercised best practice at that time, those terrible abuses would not have happened and some of the children who suffered and were killed would be alive today.

Our purpose is to look after the interests of our constituents. I never want such abuse to happen again to any of my constituents or to those of any hon. Member, so I think that it is shocking that, tomorrow, the Government are allowing an entire day's debate on foxhunting while children in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland are unprotected. That is quite unacceptable and the Government should consider the matter carefully.

Mr. Hayes: Does my hon. Friend agree that that is an inevitable consequence of considering the component parts of the United Kingdom separately, as a result of the Government's unbalanced constitutional reform? I do not want to over-dramatise, but if the price of that is the consequences that he has described, I fear--although in electoral terms, fear is perhaps not the right word to use--that the people of Britain will judge the Government harshly.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend is right. Not only on that issue but on a number of others, the people of Britain--in not many weeks' time, I suspect--will judge the Government on what they have achieved for this country. The people have paid the tax, but they are not getting the service that goes with it.

Mr. Hayes: I have heard that somewhere before.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend must have seen some advertisements around the place; I cannot imagine where.

Mr. Edwards: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a minute, although I am not sure whether he has been present throughout proceedings on the Bill.

16 Jan 2001 : Column 285

[Hon. Members: "Neither have you."] That is true, but I had urgent business in Committee, and it is impossible to be in two places at once.

Mr. Edwards rose--

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I will give way in a minute, when I have developed this part of my speech.

I have another concern about the Bill, which I know is also central to the concerns of my hon. Friends on the Front Bench; it is another reason why our reasoned amendment was moved today. We welcome increased powers for the Children's Commissioner over children in care, but we are worried by the fact that his role is so wide, because we do not wish him to supplant the natural role of parents.

It is natural that parents should have differing views on how to bring children up. That is part of the culture of tolerance, liberation and freedom in this country. Provided that parents do not break the law, we accept the idea that there will be different emphases. We may not always agree with the way in which some parents bring up their children. Indeed, there is a distinct argument to be had about that. Some of the parents of the so-called enlightened 1960s are very deficient in the way in which they have brought up their children. That is a different issue, however. Within the law, parents have the right to bring up their children in different ways.

It would be unacceptable to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench and me if the commissioner started to supplant the role of parents and interfere with the natural bonds within a close family.

Mr. Edwards: I think that I was following the hon. Gentleman's argument when he suggested that if there had been a commissioner in England, the rights of children might have been safeguarded--even, perhaps, in Gloucestershire. Will he therefore tell us whether his party went into the general election committed to having a commissioner for England and Wales, and whether it will go into the next general election committed to having a commissioner for England?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: If the hon. Gentleman had been listening carefully to my speech, instead of chatting to his hon. Friends, he would have heard me say that I personally was strongly in favour of a Children's Commissioner for England--but with the remit and role that I have described.

Mr. Edwards: What about your party?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I have no idea, and I am not in a position to commit my party. I am not on the Front Bench for this subject, and I have no remit to speak for my party. However, it is my personal wish--I am sure that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends would say the same--that we should have a Children's Commissioner for the whole United Kingdom. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) is nodding. As I said before, I am certain that after the election, when our party is elected, it will wish to revisit this problem.

I do not like praying in aid the European Court of Human Rights, because I do not like it supplanting the law of this country.

16 Jan 2001 : Column 286

If a Government of whichever colour do something that I believe to be wrong, I shall say so. I believe that the Government are doing something wrong tonight and that children in England deserve the protection provided by the Bill. It may be difficult for the Secretary of State to sign the declaration that the Bill complies with the Human Rights Act 1998 because it will not apply to the whole United Kingdom. I hope that the Government will consider the fact that citizens of England, Scotland or Northern Ireland, who are aggrieved by the fact that their children will not be protected under the Bill, may be able to take their grievance to the European Court of Human Rights, and their cases may succeed.

I want to make another important point. Many of the Government's Bills usually involve a substantial financial cost implication, but I understand that the entire cost of implementing the Bill will be only £300,000. If it will cost only £300,000 to protect the children of Wales, it seems immoral not to implement similar provisions in the whole United Kingdom. I hope that, if the Government are to comply with the long title, they will accede in Committee to the Opposition's request and extend the power to England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I therefore think that, despite what many Labour Members have said, my hon. Friends were right to table the reasoned amendment, which clearly sets out where the Bill's deficiencies lie. There are some major deficiencies, and I hope that the Government will remedy them.

9.21 pm

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): We have had a fascinating debate, if only because most Members--certainly, those speaking from the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru Benches--have criticised the Opposition for tabling a reasoned amendment, but have then supported the thrust of that amendment. I shall deal with those contributions in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) opened the debate for the Conservative party and was consistent and positive in supporting the concept of having a Children's Commissioner. If we go back a few months to the consideration of the Care Standards Act 2000, my colleagues supported the provisions that established the Children's Commissioner for Wales, but we questioned the lack of an equivalent provision for England. Therein lies part of the problem, and our reasoned amendment highlights what we consider to be two defects in the Bill.

The first defect, with which I shall deal in a moment, is the lack of clarity in distinguishing between the rights and responsibilities of parents and those of the Children's Commissioner. The second defect arises from the devolution settlement. Those public bodies in Wales that fall within the scope of the Bill are listed in the schedules. However, the Government of Wales Act 1998 did not create a world in which all child abuse would be carried out only by institutions subject to the supervision of the National Assembly for Wales while those who administer other public bodies would be sanctified and, by statute, become no threat to children's rights. That is clearly nonsense. I refer to those in the immigration service, the Prison Service, the police or the Army cadet force, to name just a few of the many public bodies that operate in Wales but are not covered by the Bill.

Such nonsense would not exist if we had a children's rights commissioner for England and Wales or the whole United Kingdom; or if we were to recognise in this limited

16 Jan 2001 : Column 287

Bill--it is limited to Wales--that public bodies in Wales are devolved and non-devolved and that the commissioner could be responsible not only to the Assembly for its functions, but to the House for non-devolved matters.

We must improve the Bill. Conservatives in Wales and in the House want to do that, and that is entirely consistent with what has been said in the Assembly by Members of all parties who want the commissioner's remit to extend not only to public bodies that fall within the scope of the Assembly but to those that fall within the scope of this House.

We must not lose the plot. The Waterhouse report was about children in care, and the primary responsibility of the Children's Commissioner for Wales must be children in care and children at risk. He has to get that right, and then we can look to him to be a key advocate in all other areas of public administration, whether they fall within the scope of the Assembly or of UK Government Departments.

I turn now to hon. Members' contributions to this fascinating debate. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) referred to the 20 inquiries and their recommendations, and made an interesting point about case studies of young people in custody in Wales who would fall within the scope of the commissioner. He referred also to young people in custody outside Wales, and questioned whether the commissioner's remit would include them.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) failed to understand what lies behind our reasoned amendment and went on to make a speech that seemed to support what we say in the amendment. The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) referred to a number of tragic cases of children in care.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd) spoke of the Utting report and some of the harrowing cases with which it dealt. He expressed a well-founded and balanced view. He said that we should see how effective existing legislation is before extending it. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to do that today. Under pressure from the Assembly, the Government, having failed to get things right the first time in the Care Standards Act 2000, have used their powers to seek to improve that Act. They have put before us a Bill that we must consider with the aim of making the Children's Commissioner for Wales a more effective vehicle for protecting children's rights.

Next Section

IndexHome Page