Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill

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Ms Julie Morgan: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that nothing in the Bill would prevent the Children's Commissioner from commenting on the lack of speech therapists in an area of Wales?

Mr. Rowe: I am delighted to say that, as far as I can see, that is true. However, from the interventions that we have heard in the Committee so far, I am concerned that there is an assumption that the principal reason for having a commissioner and the principal work of the commissioner will be to deal with child abuse. That is an important function, but I would be sorry if the volume of work thrown up by that became a reason for limiting the activities of the Children's Commissioner, whatever his statutory functions might be.

In favour of the amendments, I must say that the Ministry of Defence has a welcome involvement in young people's activities. That is potentially controversial, but it would be a pity to exclude the Children's Commissioner from commenting on what is provided by the Ministry of Defence. A host of other services are being developed by the Government, including holiday activities for young people. I happen to sit on the working group that is considering that proposal. That kind of thing may have a potential for abuse, but it has, too, a huge potential for developing young people's capacities and improving their attitude to life, so it would be a shame if the Children's Commissioner had no interest in such issues.

There has been a splendid knee-jerk reaction to the idea of having curfews to protect innocent old people from the ravages of young gangs whirling round the inner cities. A great welcome has been given to that idea, but I suspect that it would impinge directly on large numbers of young people, and that few of them have been asked what they think of it. If we are not careful, considerable alienation may grow among thoroughly respectable young people who see no reason why they should be confined to their homes simply because a minority whom the police cannot control—and nobody else can control, either—are behaving badly. That is another issue of young people's rights. If they are not allowed to go to their choir practice or scout group—

Ms Morgan: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that his description of the way in which the curfew will work is completely out of context. The curfew is planned to address issues of great relevance, especially to old people in some areas where they are, in fact, alarmed by groups of youths on the street. The curfew will work in a positive way by providing activities for young children, involving local authorities and other bodies in the area. There seems no reason why the commissioner should not be able to comment on those issues.

Mr. Rowe: I hope that the hon. Lady is correct about that. It is important that the commissioner should do so. These amendments make the point that not only cross-border services for young people in Wales should fall within his purview, but a whole host of services provided by Government Departments that are at present excluded explicitly.

Mr. Llwyd: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman and I ask him to cast his mind back to the high-profile case of the alleged sale of two children. I will not comment in detail, as it is sub judice, but once those wardship proceedings have been concluded in the High Court, the commissioner cannot comment on the record about the findings or anything to do with that case because it is a reserve matter under UK adoption law. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is entirely unsatisfactory?

Mr. Rowe: I do. Indeed, my understanding is that the Bill in its present form will create a person or an office that is uniquely forbidden to comment on a judicial verdict. That seems extraordinary. If the Children's Commissioner is already an expert in young people's matters and becomes an even more profound expert, it is bizarre that he or she should be prevented from commenting on a judicial decision that has been commented on by every newspaper, voluntary organisation and so on. I am sure that the Minister will address that point.

Mr. Evans: We are talking about the credibility of the Children's Commissioner. In later amendments we impose on the Children's Commissioner an obligation to consult widely with children on a number of issues. They may voice concerns. If the Children's Commissioner is straitjacketed and has to say that he cannot comment on those areas, the bureaucracy of it all will confuse many young people, particularly if those issues are in the papers daily. They will think that the powers of the Children's Commissioner are somewhat muted and may not then go to him with their concerns.

Mr. Rowe: I may be mistaken, but my understanding is that it is intended that children's commissioners should be easily accessible to young people. If after listening carefully to a cross, angry or simply interested young person, the commissioner must say, ``I'm sorry, but that is not in my remit. I cannot possibly deal with that,'' that is the quickest way of switching young people off completely. I hope that the Minister can reassure us, particularly on the substance of the amendments.

Mr. John Smith: We have had an interesting discussion on the amendments, but we must be careful. We want the Children's Commissioner in Wales to work. That should be our over-riding objective. There is a danger in making the Children's Commissioner a catch-all for everything. We as politicians may be happy that we have created this role, but it may not have the desired effect.

One of the interesting things about making legislation is its unintended consequences. It is far better to have a carefully thought out role for the commissioner that works, even if the commissioner is accused of being limited in power. We have carefully defined the relationship with the Welsh Assembly. We have carefully defined the commissioner's role as regards devolved functions. The stature and credibility of the commissioner succeed all the more because we have thought through that role. That is a much better approach than making the commissioner responsible for all aspects of children's lives—for example, as they impinge on the military, the judicial and penal system and cross-border difficulties. Dealing with everything may well sound good, but a commissioner with limited resources might not be able to carry out all the required functions properly.

11.45 am

A much better solution is to agree with the sentiments and principles expressed, but to stick in practice to a clearly defined role. In Wales, the most horrendous cases of child abuse have taken place in the devolved sector. A commissioner with the resources and authority to intervene and speak out on matters for which he has a clear responsibility will have a far greater impact than a commissioner who comments on almost everything that touches on children's lives. The commissioner's role is likely to be empowered in future through further legislation. Perhaps a commissioner with even greater powers will one day be established in England.

Mr. Evans: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that this is already the second change to the commissioner's powers? If the provisions are viewed as a continuation and stepping stone—with the powers of the commissioner changing and perhaps different powers being conferred on the children's rights director in England—will not enormous confusion arise? We have a great opportunity to get the Bill right now, and we should take that opportunity.

Mr. Smith: I believe in good legislation, which is legislation that works. A commissioner in Wales with stature and credibility will be able to comment, albeit informally, on many subjects and will make a great impact.

Mr. Llwyd: On the question of stature, does the hon. Gentleman recall what I said earlier about a high-profile pseudo-adoption case? When all the legal formalities are completed, the commissioner, if invited to comment, will have to say, ``No comment.'' That will do nothing for his credibility or that of his office.

Mr. Smith: I am not sure that that is right. It is hard to believe that a Children's Commissioner in Wales who possessed the powers in the provisions would fail to express a view, even though it might not be formally expressed. The Assembly would not ignore such opinions and could use its powers to make representations as and when necessary.

Sir Raymond Powell: Does my hon. Friend not believe that it is important to examine the commissioner's responsibilities? Would it not better to make him a Minister with full responsibility for children in Wales, so that he was answerable as a Minister rather than as a commissioner—with all the ties that would be placed on his role?

Mr. Smith: That is a very interesting point. It could be the solution, but it is not what we are supposed to be scrutinising today. In a sense, my hon. Friend reinforces my point. If we are to have a commissioner, not a Minister, he must have real power, real authority and a direct line of accountability to a level of government. Our approach to the problem, even though we are accused of being incremental, is better. A clear relationship between the commissioner and the Assembly, which might subsequently be able to make representations, must be defined. Our approach is better than going all-out for everything and failing.

Mr. Walter: To answer the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the commissioner could comment on other bodies, I refer him to proposed clause 72B(6) which our amendment No. 18 would delete. It says:

    The Assembly may not make an order under subsection (2) if the result would be that the Commissioner could review the effect of the exercise or proposed exercise of a person's function in a field in which the Assembly does not have functions.

Therefore, the Assembly is specifically precluded from giving him the power to look at bodies over which it does not have power.

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