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Mr. St. Aubyn: I hope that the Minister will accept my apologies for being temporarily absent from the Chamber.

Mr. Hanson: In the spirit of close co-operation that existed in Committee and on the Floor of the House, I graciously accept that. None of my comments were intended to disparage the hon. Gentleman, but in his absence it was difficult to respond to his comments.

I shall deal now with the hon. Gentleman's point about England. Obviously, the Bill is the product of devolution. The National Assembly and the Government are working in partnership to establish a Children's Commissioner for

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Wales. I understand that the Northern Ireland Assembly has expressed the wish to establish a children's commissioner for Northern Ireland. The British Government will examine the implications and reflect on that as it relates to Government policy for England. The Scottish Executive will also have opportunities to reflect in due course.

I hope that I have reassured the hon. Member for North Dorset. I emphasise my belief that there is no difference of view between the Government and the Opposition on the principle of the new clause. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press it to a Division, that he accepts my explanation and that he will ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Mr. Walter: I am conscious that only 20 minutes remain because of the pernicious guillotine under which we are working, so I shall not say an awful lot. I accept the Under-Secretary's assurances and I hope that the practice of the commissioner will allow him to give the advice that we sought to insert in the Bill through the new clause. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 3

Right of access to institutions

'( ) In section 74(3) of the Care Standards Act 2000 (examination of cases) before paragraph (a) insert--

"(a1) requiring persons to allow the Commissioner access to institutions which include children to whom this Part applies;".'.--[Mr. Win Griffiths.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Win Griffiths: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am glad that we have the opportunity to debate the new clause. The Standing Committee's debate on access and the helpful letter that the Under-Secretary circulated to its members mean that we can deal with the proposal within the time allowed.

During the debate in Committee, it was recognised that the hierarchy of supervisions, if I can call it that, already contained provision for the social services inspectorate to access institutions in which children were in care. However, one of the points made by the Waterhouse report was that the social services inspectorate sometimes did not do its job properly. Hon. Members were concerned that the commissioner might occasionally find it essential or worth while to visit a children's home to get a feel for the issues at stake in a complaint that he is considering, even though that might not happen often. He might want to visit an institution if a complaint had general ramifications for the way in which children's services are provided in Wales. Although it will not be the commissioner's role to investigate each of the complaints that are received, some of them may involve a general concern. He would be acting well within his powers if he were to make an investigation in respect of such complaints.

The Committee listened to the Under-Secretary's words about the role of the social services inspectorate and his assurances that the commissioner would not need to make

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such visits very often. He told us that he would consider how the commissioner might ensure that he obtained necessary access. I would like to make other hon. Members aware of the letter that he circulated. In relation to examination of particular cases by the commissioner, the letter states:

It further states that it would be possible for the Assembly to make orders by virtue of regulations under section 74(3) of the Care Standards Act 2000.

After reading the letter, I went on to read that section 74 of that Act ensures that the Assembly would have power to

It goes on to state:


On reflection, I felt that the Under-Secretary had pointed out a way in which access could be dealt with.

6 pm

In his letter, the Minister wrote:

Could an institution refuse the commissioner permission to visit when his intention to visit related to an issue arising from the public funding of a place in that institution? I am not talking about privately funded institutions, although the Minister might wish to consider issues relating to those. I should not have thought that a publicly funded institution would have the right to refuse the commissioner entry when he was investigating a particular case. However, I am satisfied that the Minister's letter covers the main points.

Mr. Llwyd: Although the hon. Gentleman and I are striving to achieve the same end, I take a contrary view. Surely the inspectorate, rather than the commissioner, would be responsible for any such investigation.

Mr. Griffiths: I was trying to go a step further. We have to assume that the commissioner would want to visit only if there had been a problem with the way in which the inspectorate had conducted its own visit. I want to know whether, in the exceptional circumstances I have cited--given that the places would be publicly funded--an institution could refuse entry to the commissioner. There is also the possibility that the commissioner would want to visit an institution with privately funded places.

I hope the Minister can respond to the points that I have raised.

Mr. Livsey: I want to know how the satisfaction expressed by the hon. Member for Bridgend

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(Mr. Griffiths) can be wholly realised, and how we can ensure proper access to institutions and proper examination of cases.

In the latter context, the obtaining of information, explanations and assistance is particularly important. Almost regardless of the circumstances, people should have to give the commissioner the necessary information, or require those who hold or are accountable for information to provide the commissioner with explanations or other assistance. That must enable the commissioner to have direct access to institutions.

Standards vary in residential children's homes. Access to such homes is important. The new clause is also relevant to detention centres, although here I am casting the net a bit wider. There are not many detention centres in Wales--I know of only one--and it worries many of us that young people are often miles from their homes, culturally removed and in an alien environment that their parents are unable to visit. That issue--which is currently dealt with under non-devolved regulations--underlines the need in Wales for more facilities of that kind that the Children's Commissioner could examine. The children's ombudspeople in the rest of Europe are empowered to monitor and report on anything affecting children's human rights. Such human rights will be at the forefront of the commissioner's examination of cases that come before him.

The Government have made it clear that the commissioner would not necessarily need the power to enter institutions, and that inspectorates already have the right of access. We debated that issue earlier. However, experience has demonstrated that the greatest risk to children exists in the small number of cases in which the parties are obstructive. The Children's Commissioner would not be involved in the work of such inspectorates, except in the case of an alleged failure.

The Children's Commissioner should have the express power to visit, and have access to, institutions such as residential children's homes, and to obtain information from foster parents--an issue that has not been discussed a great deal--as well as to require bodies or persons to provide information. I should be grateful if the Minister would address those points, because they lie at the crux of the new clause. The jury is out on whether he will be able to convince us.

Ms Julie Morgan: Many of the points that I was going to raise have already been covered, so I shall be brief.

The new clause is important, because the Children's Commissioner should have the specific power of access to institutions, both public and private, in which children are cared for. The issue of the care standards inspectorate has been raised in Committee and in the House. We accept that the inspector's role, as part of a separate agency, is to inspect services for looked-after children, and that the commissioner should not duplicate that role. However, the commissioner should have a specific role in relation to failures of the inspection service.

One of the lessons that we have learned from all the tragedies in Wales and throughout the UK is that children are not always listened to, and that the inspection systems can fail. That is why it is so important that the Children's Commissioner should have the right of access in cases where the inspection system may have failed.

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I accept what the Minister said in his letter about the refusal of admittance to any establishment being short-sighted and quite unlikely to happen. However, there have been major scandals in the care system. People who sexually abuse often target the care system and try to get jobs that provide access to vulnerable children. We must do everything in our power to prevent that from happening. Although most institutions are very caring places, we know that there is a network of abusers who target the care system. Granting the commissioner the right of access would help in the process of opening up the care system to scrutiny. It would also make a difference to the behaviour of some of the very dangerous people who sometimes get into the system.

The Minister said in his letter that the statutory right to physical access was, by its nature, an invasive power that should be granted only when absolutely necessary. In many cases, the institutions in question would be children's homes, so we should be careful about giving people the power to enter them. However, in view of all the problems that have arisen, an invasive power--as the Minister described it--is necessary. It would not be used willy-nilly. The commissioner will work strategically and would not demand entry to children's homes as a matter of course. The new clause gives the commissioner more teeth and sends a clear signal that we will not tolerate any more abuse in children's homes in Wales. That is an important step towards safeguarding all our children in Wales.

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