Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill

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Mr. Hanson: As I said earlier, in creating the role of Children's Commissioner and in seeking the support of the House to give that role powers, the National Assembly has made it clear that it does not anticipate the commissioner investigating individual cases as a matter of routine, but only when an important point of principle is involved. The commissioner will not supplant existing regulatory or supervisory bodies in England and Wales, but will act as a champion of children. He or she can examine policy implications and may draw on individual cases brought to his or her attention, but will not routinely investigate or act on such cases. He or she will look at broad policy obligations or commitments and make general comments about the level, support and type of service provided. Although the commissioner will have the power to examine cases in which a local authority may purchase a service across the border, the Assembly's vision is that he or she will not do so routinely or investigate specific cases in the regulated services in Wales.

That leads me to the point made by the hon. Member for North Dorset about the possibility of parents having a shared responsibility if one parent is in England and one in Wales. Again, I emphasise that the National Assembly does not anticipate the commissioner routinely examining individual cases, but if he or she wished to investigate such a case he or she would have to consider the term ``ordinarily resident'' in the specific circumstances and how that may be defined by other legislation and interpreted by the courts. There may be a range of issues, such as whether the child is resident in Wales and has a parent living in England or vice versa, but in broad terms the intention is not to investigate specific details: it is to consider the overall objectives of the Departments involved.

Mr. Gray rose—

Mr. Hanson: The Whip speaks again.

Mr. Gray: It is difficult to keep good men down.

In the context of the definition of ``ordinarily resident'', would the Minister comment on a group of people who are of concern to me in my constituency just over the bridge from Wales? A sizeable number of travellers or gypsies are resident in Wales for half the year and in England for the other half. Whether they are looked after by English institutions in England or Welsh institutions in Wales, to what degree would they come under the control or care of the commissioner?

Mr. Hanson: For the first time in this Committee, but perhaps not the last, I undertake to look at that important issue and respond to the hon. Gentleman. I will have to take further advice on the definition of ``travellers'' in relation to ``ordinarily resident''. I do not want to give a glib answer today, although I am sure that I could.

Mr. Evans: As the Minister is in an understanding and compassionate mood, as is his wont, I would like to extend the argument to the children of asylum seekers, who may not ordinarily live in Wales but be placed in Wales for a short time before being placed elsewhere. Would the Minister also undertake to look into that matter? We would all want the children of asylum seekers to be protected by the law.

Mr. Hanson: I commented on the issue when it was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North on Second Reading. I suspect—this should not be taken as the definitive answer—that the point that I made then also covers the point raised by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire on travellers. If children receive services in Wales that come under the jurisdiction of the commissioner and are listed in the schedules and the Care Standards Act 2000, the arrangements for complaints, advocacy and whistle-blowing by service providers will also come under the commissioner's jurisdiction. I will reflect on those issues and try to give definitive replies to both hon. Gentlemen in due course.

Mr. Evans: The Minister referred to services available to children of asylum seekers. The reverse of that is a failure to provide them with services, particularly in education, health and welfare. We seek assurances that they will be looked after, too.

Mr. Hanson: I will reflect on those points. I hope that both hon. Gentlemen accept that I will try to be as helpful as I can in Committee, but if there are issues that need to be examined in more detail I will get back to them. I think that I have given an answer that will satisfy them, but I would like to reflect on it with colleagues. If need be I will write to both of them to clarify our intentions.

The internet adoption case was mentioned. That will permeate some of the issues relating to the commissioner's role and responsibilities. First, I should declare an interest: Mr. and Mrs. Kilshaw are my constituents. Obviously, I shall also examine the implications of the case from their perspective. My second interest, which is more relevant, is that my wife, Councillor Margaret Hanson, is the current chair of Flintshire county council social services committee, which is currently involved in the internet adoption case. I thought that I should place that on the record. Any comments that I make as an individual Member of Parliament, as opposed to a Minister, should be considered in the light of those interests.

It is important that we consider two specific issues. First, what would the commissioner's role have been in the internet adoption case? The commissioner would not have had any executive function in the case. That is not his role. The issue of the twins' future may go to court, and it will be for the court to decide. If a court case were pending, it would not be appropriate for the commissioner to comment while the case was in the courts.

Once the legal position has been resolved, and a decision has been taken, the commissioner may wish to consider the merits of an investigation into the action of, for example, Flintshire county council social services department, or any other agency regulated by the Bill, if there were lessons to be learned. The commissioner will not be able to inquire or report into any matter that is the subject of legal proceedings before it has been determined by a court or tribunal. That does not mean that he cannot comment informally on the outcome of court cases in due course. He will not be prevented from investigating issues relating to a court case, once it has been completed. I hope that that puts into context some of the concerns that have been raised by hon. Members this morning.

In conclusion, I hope to receive a positive response from the hon. Member for North Dorset. I hope that I have clarified the Government's position on three issues that were raised by all hon. Members: the role of the Children's Commissioner and the potential development in England; the jurisdiction over non-devolved bodies; the extent and nature of cross-border activities provided under the Bill and the commissioner's interface with them. I hope that hon. Members will reflect on what I have said, and will see that there is sufficient common ground to enable them to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Walter: I should like to go back over some of the ground, which can be neatly summarised under three headings—the position in England, non-devolved powers and cross-border issues.

Our amendments would delete the words ``in Wales''. By making the Children's Commissioner responsible across England, they would not necessarily bring about a fundamental change to the Bill. I remind the Minister that clause 8(4) states:

    This Act does not extend to Scotland or Northern Ireland,

which implies that it extends to England. It is an England and Wales Bill, so we did not feel constrained about proposing amendments to give the Children's Commissioner a remit to examine cross-border provision and non-devolved matters for which Departments of England and Wales are responsible. That explains the thrust behind many of our amendments.

As a proviso, the force of amendments Nos. 32, 33 and 35 will hang on our later debate on clause 3. We want to add provisions to that clause to allow the Secretary of State to confer powers on the commissioner to examine non-devolved matters. Our formal votes on those provisions will not take place until later. We prefer to reserve judgment on the three amendments until we debate clause 3.

I shall respond to points in the same order as the Minister. What happens in England is not specifically part of the Bill, and our amendments are not designed to make provision for England, but the consequences of those amendments raise questions for the Government about the English question and the role of a children's commissioner for England--and perhaps for the whole of the UK.

As I said in my opening remarks, the Select Committee on Health concluded that there should be a children's rights commissioner for the United Kingdom. This Bill and amendments to the Care Standards Act 2000 were a response to the National Assembly and the Waterhouse report. I implore the Minister to consider similar provisions for England; we should not wait to see how Mr. Clarke gets on as Children's Commissioner for Wales before we take that step forward. Failure to consider our amendments could cause the Children's Commissioner problems.

At present, the children's rights director, as envisioned in England, would simply be an executive officer of the national Care Standards Commission. When that post comes into being, it will have quite limited powers—for example, powers about children in care, children at risk and children subject to social services departments. I am sure that if a children's commissioner for England were to be proposed under similar legislation—this subject also came to light in the comments of other hon. Members—the Committee considering it would not want to limit itself just to those public bodies that would, in Wales, be the subject of the National Assembly. It would want to extend that role beyond local government, the national health service and some of the public bodies whose remit is established by the National Assembly.

I am sure that that Committee would want to give a children's commissioner for England the power to look at Home office functions and children in custody—in the Prison Service or in police stations, which are not covered at all by this measure. It would want to look at immigration. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley has referred to asylum seekers. Asylum seekers would be covered once they had entered the social services area, but they would not be covered at the point of their coming into this country. The Children's Commissioner for Wales would have no remit over those functions, but I suspect a children's commissioner for England would want such authority.

A children's commissioner for England would want access to other Departments, for example, the Department of Social Security, particularly the Child Support Agency. I am concerned that, if there were a children's commissioner for England, the Children's Commissioner for Wales could have a deficient role.

 
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Prepared 23 January 2001