Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill

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Mr. Smith: That is a slightly different point which concerns bodies and the possibility of intervening. I am referring to what goes on in the real world—realpolitik. Will the commissioner comment? My experience in politics tells me that there is no way that a commissioner will not have a view, even though he may not have the statutory right to express that view.

I am worried that, in our sincere attempts to get the Bill right first time, we may fail. There are no clear lines of accountability and demarcation in the proposals. I would worry about a commissioner who at one moment was answerable to the Secretary of State for Defence and at another was answerable to the Home Secretary or the Lord Chancellor. I would much prefer a commissioner with a clear relationship and clear line of accountability to the Welsh Assembly. That would work and would be best for Wales and the future and may well be better for England.

Mr. Livsey: It is certainly my party's view that the independent Children's Commissioner should definitely have statutory powers, some of which are in the Bill. In the context of the amendments under discussion, they should be seen in the views of the Assembly's Health and Social Services Committee. After all, it took a lot of evidence from a wide range of children's interests, such as the NSPCC, Children in Wales and Barnados. The consensus across the parties was that the Children's Commissioner should promote children's rights, represent the views of children and young people up to the age of 18, ensure that effective advocacy systems were in place, undertake formal investigations if there wa evidence of a systematic breach of children's rights and have the power to require disclosure of information. We should discuss the amendments in that context.

The amendments seek to address non-devolved issues. However, most of the amendments, some of which are very specific, take the word ``Wales'' out of the Bill. Conservative Members are trying to achieve influence over non-devolved aspects, but that is a long-winded way of achieving their aims. Amendment No. 42, which we may consider later if I catch your eye, Mr. Jones, incorporates in one fell swoop all the amendments tabled by them.

The Chairman: Order. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that he will seek to catch my eye later?

Mr. Livsey: I will indeed, Mr. Jones.

There is much good will behind the amendments which have been tabled. I was particularly pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman whose Christian name and surname I know, but whose constituency in Kent escapes me.

Mr. Rowe: Faversham and Mid-Kent.

Mr. Livsey: Indeed. The hon. Gentleman has a fine track record on the care of children and children's interests.

Cross-border provisions and powers on schooling, homes, courts and children in penal institutions are vital. Such provisions should be incorporated in one amendment which improves the Bill, rather than dealt with piecemeal as the amendments have been this morning.

Legislation is undoubtedly required in England. I suggest that some of the amendments probe in that direction. I can see the need for a children's commissioner in England. However, the Bill addresses the subject of the Children's Commissioner for Wales. As many hon. Members have mentioned, the Bill results from great concern about the Waterhouse report and many other issues in Wales. The matter is urgent.

Mr. Evans: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, although the appalling report that came out last year pushed the legislation forward, we should be talking not about institutions or bureaucracy, but about children? Children should be equally protected by the law of this country, whether they reside in Wales or England.

Mr. Livsey: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's sentiments. Children's rights are crucial, as are consultation with, and the participation of, children. Children actually took part in the appointment of the new Children's Commissioner, Mr. Peter Clarke. We must also recognise that the need for a Children's Commissioner in Wales has arisen because of specific problems in Wales. Through the good offices of Government and the good will of Opposition parties, we have been able to introduce the Bill. It will be a precursor to a Bill in England, where the need is equally great.

Mr. Evans: The hon. Gentleman mentions the specific problems that existed in Wales. If they were only specific to Wales I could understand that; but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent said, a hundred inquiries are taking place throughout the United Kingdom, the vast majority of them in England, and, therefore, because of the necessity for the Bill in Wales, a similar Bill is necessary in England.

Mr. Livsey: I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman. We must all campaign for that to happen in England in this Westminster Parliament. It will only be a short time before that occurs. In the meantime, we are in the middle of devising a Bill proposing a children's commissioner for Wales. I believe that it is possible to have amendments that cover most of the objectives that the hon. Gentleman would wish to see. I am sure that, before long, a Bill setting up a children's commissioner for England will be introduced.

Ms Julie Morgan: I welcome the cross-party support for the Children's Commissioner. I hope that we will have constructive discussions in Committee, because this is an important development.

The Committee must not go away with the impression that this is a limited Bill. We are widely expanding the scope of the Bill beyond the Care Standards Act 2000 remit, which concentrated on children who were subject to abuse and looked at general social services. The schedule to this Bill shows the aspects that will be subject to review, including the national park authority, the Arts Council of Wales, the Care Council for Wales and the Countryside Council for Wales.

The thinking behind the Bill is that the Children's Commissioner will be an advocate who will consider the children who are going about their ordinary lives in Wales. The commissioner's remit has been extended beyond that applying under the Care Standards Act. It is important to remember that at this stage.

It is inconceivable that a young person in a desperate situation in a penal institution in Wales who turned to the Children's Commissioner would be told that the commissioner was not responsible for that penal institution and had to refer him or her somewhere else. I cannot imagine any circumstances in which that would happen. It would be useful if my hon. Friend the Minister would clarify that. We have to look at these matters with common sense. A person in Mr. Peter Clarke's position is not likely to say to a desperate young person, ``I am sending you away to someone else.''

12 noon

Mr. Walter: Does the hon. Lady agree that, given the functions of the House, including Home Office functions, if similar legislation were proposed in England the children's commissioner for England might have statutory powers over children in penal institutions whereas the Children's Commissioner for Wales would not?

Ms Morgan: We are now looking at the Children's Commissioner for Wales and trying to find a way to ensure that his role extends to all children in Wales. I cannot foresee a situation arising where the Children's Commissioner, who will act for the good of all the children in Wales, will not have a way of dealing with children who are desperately seeking help—wherever they are, whatever system they are in. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond on that point.

Mr. Rowe: I should like to look at this matter from the other end. It is not that I am afraid that the commissioner might refuse to speak to a young person because a matter was somehow outside his remit. I am more concerned about what happens when the commissioner decides to comment on something about which he is in sharp disagreement with the Government. If the matter were outside his remit, the Government could say, ``That has nothing to do with you. You may not publish your comments on the issue.'' That is an important matter.

Ms Morgan: It is possible that the Children's Commissioner will be in sharp disagreement with the Government on issues. The whole point of having an independent children's commissioner—rather than a children's Minister—is to have someone who is independent and outside the system and would in no way be influenced by the Government. We have set up that system here. How children and young people in the system access help from the Children's Commissioner is an important matter, and it is important to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say.

Mr. Llwyd: The hon. Lady, from her experience as a Member, will have seen many letters from the local authority ombudsman to constituents. Many of them have had a very rough time, but for some small technical reason they do not fall within the statutory remit of the ombudsman. The ombudsman's letter says, ``I am desperately sorry for you, Mr. and Mrs. Jones, but there is nothing I can do.'' That is what we are concerned about.

Ms Morgan: I agree. Because we are dealing with children and young people and, in the case of Wales, with a background in which horrific things have occurred, where children have spoken out and no notice has been taken of them, this issue must be covered.

People and voluntary bodies in Wales and the National Assembly for Wales believe that the Children's Commissioner should cover all children as they go about their ordinary activities, not just when they are in institutions or subject to the care system. For example, the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent mentioned speech therapy, which is a devolved matter. We hope that the Children's Commissioner will be keen to comment on such matters and to make strong and effective points about the lack of local authority and health provision.

The Committee should remember that it was a Labour party pledge before the National Assembly elections and even before the Waterhouse report that there would be a Children's Commissioner for Wales.

 
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Prepared 23 January 2001