Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): It is a pleasure to speak in the debate on a Bill relating to Wales as my last contribution as Member of Parliament for Caernarfon. I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your kind words earlier, and I thank other colleagues for their kindness not only now, but over many years, and their forbearance when we may have expressed ourselves with greater enthusiasm than was considered appropriate.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): No, never.

Mr. Wigley: I am glad that I still trigger the occasional response from Scottish Members sitting for English seats.

I welcome the amendments, as I welcome the Bill. On the comments of the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge), I am under the impression that the amendments under discussion meet the very circumstances that she described, as they broaden the definition of the children who come within the purview of the Children's Commissioner for Wales--we dealt with that in amendment No. 1--and also, through the present group of amendments, broaden the responsibilities in the context of the Assembly and outside it. Taken together, I hope that they address the problem to which the hon. Lady drew attention. The Minister indicates his agreement with that, and no doubt he will comment when he winds up the debate. Those are important points. I imagine that that is why the Government considered it necessary to introduce the amendments.

It is significant that the Bill is the first one that was requested formally by the National Assembly for Wales. We do not yet have the power to pass primary legislation, so until we get such power, I hope that that will be a means of pursuing the legislative needs of Wales, particularly where circumstances are different, as, sadly, have been the circumstances that led to the need for a children's commissioner.

I am interested to hear that hon. Members representing English constituencies hope that those powers will be made available in other parts of the United Kingdom in due course. That is as it should be. If good ideas are progressed from the National Assembly for Wales that can be taken up elsewhere, all the better, as likewise, no doubt, the National Assembly will be looking for ideas that we can implement in Wales.

There is, however, one aspect that leaves me with a little uncertainty. It has been suggested to me by organisations dealing with and on behalf of children that the amendments may have knock-on effects on other parts of the Bill and possibly on the Care Standards Act 2000. There may need to be more consequential amendments in order to put into effect the changes that we are making today. That was pointed out to me last night.

If that is the case, how can small and perhaps technical amendments be introduced? That underlines the need for a fast track for Wales for fairly simple legislative changes to turn powers such as those in the Bill into reality. That

11 May 2001 : Column 371

is particularly necessary if we do not have in the National Assembly the full legislative power that we would like to have had. Perhaps the Minister will give a thought to that.

A further question arises in the context of the changes, as we consider powers to deal with circumstances outside Wales. I refer to the situation in the global world in which we live. Children may move from country to country, and a series of abuses may take place in different countries. Whereas we have a system for registering and identifying the people who may be guilty of abuse, we do not have a system to co-ordinate information about the abuse that may be suffered by an individual child, possibly carried out by different people and possibly in different countries. In the global world that we inhabit, we may have to consider that in a more international context, to make sure that such children are protected.

When I was elected in 1974, I did not know the meaning of the word "paedophile". That reflects some of the sad changes that have taken place over the years, or perhaps, more importantly, the fact that we now recognise unacceptable behaviour, which existed then but may have been swept under the carpet. The development of the office of the Children's Commissioner for Wales and the powers that the House has given to the commissioner is a step in the right direction.

Much has changed since 1974 when I entered Parliament. When I made my maiden speech on 18 March 1974, looking forward to changes such as the establishment of the Welsh Development Agency and the need for answers to our social and cultural problems in Wales, I concluded with the comment that I hoped that I would see, even in that Parliament of 1974 to 1979, the establishment of a legislative assembly that could deliver policies for Wales such as that embodied by the Bill. Although we now have a National Assembly that can do much of the work, more still remains to be done. As I depart from the Chamber, it is my hope that I will have an opportunity to pursue those matters in another place, in Cardiff.

Mr. Forth: I wish the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) very well on his voluntary departure from this place to take up his work elsewhere.

I echo the theme suggested by the right hon. Gentleman. Yes, much has changed since 1974, not least the emergence into our body politic and our lives of commissioners. I am uneasy about that development, and I recently expressed that view in a different context in relation to another Bill. I am slightly reassured that, with this commissioner, we are using Wales as a test case. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), who hoped that the provision would be extended to England as soon as possible; I hope that it is not.

10 am

As I am uneasy about the amendments, I should like an assessment of how the commissioner works in Wales before we dream of extending the provision elsewhere. Having a liberal sprinkling of commissioners all over the place is a dubious idea; it remains to be seen whether it is beneficial. I am worried about the powers that we give commissioners and their apparent unaccountability and unelected nature. Our judiciary has centuries of tradition of independence although, at times, some of us get uneasy

11 May 2001 : Column 372

about even that. Now, however, we have a new breed of officials who are being given increasingly extensive powers--all in a good cause, of course, and always for the best. At our peril, we neglect the other side of the ledger: the possible dangers involved in the exercise of those powers. I am therefore uneasy about the amendment, which seeks to extend the powers even further before the experiment has even started.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): My right hon. Friend looks and sounds sad, which, I am bound to say, is an unedifying spectacle for me and, indeed, the House. He has a naturally suspicious mind; is he inherently suspicious--I am not expressing such suspicion myself--of the concept of the commissioner? Or does he need to express a personal interest, as this is a case of frustrated ambition? Would he not be a magnificent commissioner exercising his functions with skill, wisdom and elan?

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend tempts me, but the answer is no. Until I am much more satisfied with the viability and acceptability of the role, I would not want to be a candidate for it. However, I confess to being suspicious and become even more so when I hear the Minister and, regrettably, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), glorying, nay, wallowing in consensus.

Mrs. Browning: I remind my right hon. Friend that, in Committee, Conservative Members made sensible, practical proposals, which the Government have now accepted. I hope that he appreciates that consensus was not built in Committee; the Conservative party guided the Government along the route down which we are pleased they have now gone.

Mr. Forth: I am half reassured by that, as my hon. Friend is talking about effective opposition, in which I believe and which I wish was exercised more often. I take her reassurance at face value, but I have doubts about my party urging a commissioner on us. The good news is that I am reassured that effective opposition forced the Government to see what my hon. Friends obviously thought was sense. However, the not so good news is that it was not sense at all. We are therefore almost back where we started.

The matter is proceeding in a spirit of co-operation and is about to reach the statute book; there has been a measure of agreement. I accept that right hon. and hon. Members from Wales want such a provision; they think that it is needed and will be beneficial. As a Member representing an English constituency, I shall suspend my judgment. We must see how the commissioner works over, I hope, a lengthy period. We in England may decide that the post is a good idea but, equally, we may decide that it is not; that will depend very much on the way in which the commissioner, whoever he or she is, exercises the extensive powers that we are giving him or her, including the extension of powers in this group of amendments that we are now, apparently, about to approve.

I want to put down that marker or reservation, as we should not rush such things. If we are about to enter a new era of commissioners--if this is the new Britain in the 21st century and new millennium--and commissioners are the answer to all the problems that

11 May 2001 : Column 373

confront us, I, for one, am extremely uneasy. I want us to treat each case carefully on its merits and watch extremely closely the way in which the balance of powers and responsibilities is exercised. I worry about the lack of accountability and what, I suspect, are inadequate opportunities for scrutiny and holding commissioners to account. I hope that my hon. Friends and even the Government will keep those matters under consideration before we rush headlong into a world that will be dominated by commissioners, whose posts were set up for the best reasons but which may, in some cases, end in tears.

Next Section

IndexHome Page