Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill

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Mr. Win Griffiths: Amendment No. 18 would delete clause 3(6). The hon. Gentleman has been party to tabling that amendment, but if the subsection were deleted, the commissioner could not, under the powers in the Government of Wales Act 1998, automatically operate in non-devolved areas. I suspect that it would lead to a hiatus. For the amendment to work properly and the Assembly to act as the hon. Gentleman intends, we would need to amend the Government of Wales Act.

Mr. Walter: If the hon. Gentleman read some of our later amendments, particularly to clause 3, he would see that we have dealt with that problem by allowing the Secretary of State to lay orders before the House to grant the commissioner the requisite powers in non-devolved matters. We have made provision to allow the Assembly to carry out certain functions with the consent of the Secretary of State, who could make any representations to other members of the Cabinet.

Mr. Griffiths: I am conscious that we may be straying out of order, which is why I did not mention the issue earlier. I have the same questions to ask about amendment No. 30, which amends clause 4 and gives order-making powers to the Secretary of State for Wales. I believe that, under the Government of Wales Act, for devolved matters, such powers are vested in the Assembly, so could the Secretary of State assume such powers. Perhaps we should debate that later.

Mr. Walter: The hon. Gentleman highlights the dilemma before the Committee, which stems from having a Children's Commissioner for Wales whose remit extends only to devolved public bodies. As I said on Second Reading, child abuse is not unique to bodies that are devolved to the National Assembly. It can just as easily occur in non-devolved bodies. Limiting the remit of the Children's Commissioner to devolved bodies does a disservice not only to the concept of a commissioner for children, but to children living in Wales. That is why we tabled the amendments to give the commissioner a remit over non-devolved bodies. The amendments might seem, in isolation, to knock a hole in the Bill, but our amendments to clause 3 fill that hole by giving the Secretary of State powers to make orders, giving the Children's Commissioner power over non-devolved matters.

I hope that the Minister and the Government will be minded to consider those. As I said in my opening remarks, that is exactly what the National Assembly asked for, and that is why the National Assembly's report states:

    We recognise that such a proposal would be subject to negotiations with the UK Government.

Obviously, the Assembly has been unsuccessful in those negotiations so far, so it is entirely appropriate that the Opposition should now conduct those negotiations in this Committee in order to give the Children's Commissioner powers over cross-border activities and non-devolved matters.

Mr. Llwyd: I support the thrust of the Opposition's argument. As currently drawn, the Commissioner's role is far too limited to cover all the services and, thereby, the well-being of the children of Wales. For example, why is it considered appropriate that the commissioner system in Northern Ireland can consider non-devolved matters? For example, its first piece of research was into the judicial system as it impacts upon juveniles. Why is it right for that body to do that while the Commissioner in Wales is specifically barred from considering that particular aspect? As has been said, there is no youth prison in Wales and, therefore, detainees will inevitably be kept in England or elsewhere. That is an important matter. Unfortunately abuse does occur in institutions such as that.

Joint custody is another point which should be addressed specifically. There are numerous points here. I do not wish to see holes drilled in the Bill, nor, I think, do the Opposition. There are flaws in the Bill and it is in all our interests to consider them as soon as possible. Some of those were flagged up on Second Reading. The hon. Member for Bridgend thought that my points were too detailed for a Second Reading debate, but I simply sought to enable the Minister and his advisers to give a reasoned and considered response in Committee.

The Minister will know that section 33 of the Government of Wales Act 1998 is an umbrella clause, empowering the Assembly. It states that the Assembly

    may consider, and make appropriate representations about, any matter affecting Wales.

That was considered appropriate in the Government of Wales Act, and it would cover the general points that we are considering now as they relate specifically to children and young people. If a similar wording were adopted by the Committee and the Government, the point would be well made. To express the point another way, on Second Reading the Minister said that the Commissioner would be able to comment informally on matters not falling within the devolved powers. But the Minister probably appreciates that a comment made informally on virtually anything of substance will hardly be worth the paper that it is written on.

First, unlike a Minister, the Commissioner would not be able to obtain the evidence from the body concerned in a proper manner. He would not be able to inquire deeply enough into these matters to give a proper response. I say again that he will be gagged.

11.30 am

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if a person of the Commissioner's standing in Wales made any comment at all about any of the issues to which he refers, they would be treated seriously by anybody considering such issues?

Mr. Llwyd: I sincerely hope that the hon. Lady is correct.

Mr. Win Griffiths: She is.

Mr. Llwyd: It is all very well saying that the hon. Lady is correct, but how do we know? I hope that she is, for the best reasons that she and I believe in, but I have grave reservations about it. There are civil servants and there are civil servants, and there are walls within this place that are impenetrable, and matters will be known on a need-to-know basis each time. Even Ministers are sometimes not fully informed. I am dubious about the whole thing. I hope that she is right and that I am wrong, but wording similar to that in section 33 of the Government of Wales Act could be provided in this Bill, thereby strengthening the commissioner's power, ensuring that he receives the information that he requires, as rapidly as necessary, and that, in due course, he can respond fully, after mature reflection on all the necessary facts, performing his duties in a far better and fuller manner on behalf of the children of Wales. I have flagged up the matter with regard to juveniles and schooling has been mentioned. Plenty of other areas could be considered, but the inclusion in the Bill of wording similar to section 33 would reinforce the commissioner's role immensely and would enable better access to be given, where it is required, in cross-border activities and in reserved matters.

Mr. Rowe: I have been a long-term protagonist of a children's commissioner. My belief, contrary to that of many young people in the UK Children's Parliament, is that it is infinitely better to have a Commissioner than a Minister, because, as we all know, Ministers' responsibilities become tremendously demarcated. If a Minister is given a general responsibility, such as women's matters, the moment something controversial turns up which could conceivably be regarded as part of women's' matters, it is sent off to the junior Minister concerned and is often not properly regarded. I have always supported the idea of a Children's Commissioner, but to make some manifest improvement only in the devolved parts of the United Kingdom is an interesting way to run the nation's affairs. There is a growing feeling among a number of English constituencies and Members of Parliament that we are rapidly becoming second-class citizens and it is high time that something was done about it.

Mr. John Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that particular circumstances led to the demand for this measure in Wales much sooner than in other parts of the country?

Mr. Rowe: I am conscious of the fact that the situation in Wales was horrific, and received a huge amount of publicity, but I think that I am right in saying that something like a hundred inquiries are under way in the UK as whole, and heaven forefend that they find anything as horrific as was found in Wales, but one has an uneasy feeling that that may arise.

Ms Julie Morgan: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the reason we are considering the matter today, is because the National Assembly for Wales has made it a major priority and has pressed for the Children's Commissioner? The commissioner is not being given to Wales; the pressure has come from the National Assembly.

Mr. Rowe: It would have been a leap of imagination, which is possibly beyond Ministers, to have applied the measure to the UK as a whole.

Mr. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): The hon. Gentleman mentions that, in England, there are a hundred current inquiries into child abuse. Does it not make sense for those inquiries to run their course and make their recommendations, and then to have a Child Commissioner in the light of those inquiries?

Mr. Rowe: I understand clearly that the principal motive for the introduction of a Children's Commissioner has been the incidence of child abuse and the desire to prevent that in future as far as possible. I, of course, welcome that, but it as a great pity that the Children's Commissioner may be corralled by public opinion into dealing almost exclusively with child abuse.

The whole point of the commissioner is that he should be able to examine, consider and monitor policies that affect children across the board. As I suggested in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset, the Children's Commissioner should take a serious interest in matters such as the lack of certain services. For example, in my part of the country, the absence of speech therapy for children is a serious problem. That kind of thing affects children's development and would be a valid matter for comment by the Children's Commissioner.

 
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