Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill

[back to previous text]

Ms Julie Morgan: How will the commissioner operate when giving his views about domestic violence issues, which have an enormous impact on children in families and are linked to local authorities providing hostels and working to combat domestic violence? That is an area of family life that causes enormous distress to children. Does my hon. Friend have any views on how that would be tackled?

Mr. Hanson: I recognise that domestic violence issues impact strongly upon children, and the provision of a secure family life free from violence is one of the great benchmarks that will help children develop positively. Within the statutory services for which the Assembly has responsibility, such as social services inspectorates and other issues relating to social services and local authority provision, the Assembly will be involved in funding a number of bodies potentially to deal with domestic violence issues. The commissioner will have a locus within those areas. He may wish to make informal comments about policy development to the Assembly because, if I am not mistaken, the Assembly is involved in undertaking certain funding to organisations that deal with domestic violence. There is a locus for those particular reasons.

I bring my hon. Friend back to the point—if the Assembly has a locus in that area, under the Bill the Children's Commissioner will have a definitive locus in that area. If the Assembly does not, the commissioner has the opportunity to make informal comments to the Assembly or directly to the Government. I recognise that I have said this several times, but I return to the point. The Bill defines the core functions that are the prime responsibilities of the commissioner. I hope that is of help.

I do not share the pessimism of hon. Members about the likely outcome of the commissioner being able to make representations or comment within the boundaries. I believe that public representations from a figure of the stature of the Children's Commissioner would certainly be listened to, both informally by the Assembly and formally by the Government, because at the end of the day, there is a common interest in helping to promote, protect and develop the rights of children. We must examine the question of the core functions, and I hope that I have shown that the spirit of what is suggested in the amendments is within the scope of what I have tried to say. We must draw a boundary for the commissioner, and that boundary is defined in the Bill. I hope that the hon. Member will withdraw the amendment accordingly.

Mr. Win Griffiths: In the light of the Minister's comments, I shall not press the matter. Nevertheless, I hope that we might consider adopting a similar form of words at a later stage to take account of the views that were exchanged during the debate.

Mr. Livsey: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Evans: I beg to move amendment No. 10, in page 2, line 22, at end insert—`or

    (c) the exercise or proposed exercise of any primary or secondary legislation in Wales'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 45, in page 2, line 22, at end insert—

    `(1A) The Commissioner may also review the effect on children of the failure of the Assembly or any person mentioned in Schedule 2A to exercise any function in relation to Wales.'.

Mr. Evans: Amendments Nos. 10 and 45 are distinct, so I will deal with amendment No. 10 first. Some of my points have already been inferred or stated explicitly in relation to non-devolved areas. In a briefing paper that I received a couple of days ago from Peter Newell, chairman of the Children's Rights Alliance for England, he states that the basic powers of the commissioner

    are to monitor, review and report publicly. There is no possible justification for limiting these powers to devolved matters. Allowing the Commissioner to monitor, review and report on all matters which may affect the human rights of children in Wales does not conflict with the devolution settlement.

I believe that to be true. He refers to section 33 of the Government of Wales Act 1998 and suggests that the Children's Commissioner be governed by a similar provision. He then says:

    It is essential that the Bill is amended in particular to enable the Commissioner to monitor, review and report publicly on any matter which may affect the human rights of children in Wales. The core purpose of the Commissioner should be underlined on the face of the Bill

—which is what I should like the Minister to refer to in his response to my amendments—linking his powers

    ``to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and providing duties to promote respect for the views of children. Petty restrictions on the Commissioner's powers . . . should be removed.

Part of amendment No. 10 relates to that issue.

In essence, one of the core responsibilities of the Children's Commissioner will be to look at secondary legislation as it pertains to the National Assembly for Wales. The Minister related the fact that the Children's Commissioner will have a limited budget of £800,000. There is enormous responsibility on the Children's Commissioner to be effective in Wales—we want that. He may find himself constrained not by the legislation or what he wants to do, but because his budget is limited and he will be restricted within the core powers. If that happens, a substantial number of his interests may not be sufficiently covered. We want part of the core functions of the Children's Commissioner to be to examine the exercise of any primary powers relating to his position. As primary legislation affecting Wales, if that had been contained in the Care Standards Act 2000, the Children's Commissioner would have had to examine the Bill that we are debating today and he would have been able to comment on it. That is the nature of the beast. The devolved settlement in Wales means that all primary legislation affecting Wales comes through Parliament. I applaud and welcome that and would not wish to see it altered in any way.

With regard to secondary legislation, the commissioner will miss an awful lot. Our amendment would make the examination of primary legislation affecting Wales part of the commissioner's core responsibilities. There will almost certainly be changes in primary legislation with regard to the Child Support Agency. We are now told that in the annual report the commissioner can refer to the CSA. He cannot look into individual cases—and I was not asking for him to be able to do so—but there may be a number of irregularities shared by family cases in Wales that could be brought to his attention. Parents will, no doubt, write to him. Children may even write to the commissioner about how the CSA impacts on them. There is a general consensus that the Children's Commissioner should talk to children regularly, keep in contact with them and listen to their views. The CSA may well be one matter to be raised. If we are to see primary legislative changes, I hope that the commissioner will be asked for his views on that legislation. He should be shown a draft or consulted if and when a White Paper is published.

On education, we know that secondary powers rest with the National Assembly for Wales, but primary changes taking place in Westminster could impact on children in Wales. The Welsh Language Act 1993 is a case in point. It is a shame that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy is not present, because I am sure that he would want to comment on Welsh language provision. The commissioner may want to comment if changes were made to the Welsh Language Act regarding the rights of children to access all lessons in Welsh or to ensure that more Welsh language teaching is made available in areas more usually described as English, such as Swansea or Monmouth.

The commissioner may even wish to comment on a lack of legislation. It may well be that nobody in Westminster proposes changes to the Welsh Language Act, yet the commissioner is in receipt of letters from youngsters who feel disadvantaged. In that case, he may want to criticise the failure of the National Assembly for Wales to make representations to Westminster or comment directly on the lack of legislation from Westminster. A number of issues are involved. I have mentioned village schools and the abolition of grammar schools or the failure to have grammar schools, although I suspect that that is not a burning issue in Wales.

Mr. Hanson: Without touching on that politically charged issue, does the hon. Gentleman see the Children's Commissioner having a role in commenting on politically charged issues, either from the Right or the Left?

10.15 am

Mr. Evans: For the Children's Commissioner to be respected, he has to be careful. He will always walk a tightrope. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset and I mentioned the family. If the Children's Commissioner sees himself as a super personality who seeks to comment on highly politically charged issues, he will do no great service to the children of Wales, nor will he enhance his reputation or the position of Children's Commissioner. He has to be careful how he proceeds. He may wish to comment on a number of matters that deal with primary legislation and are not politically charged. I agree with the Minister that the last thing we want is for the Children's Commissioner to be emblazoned, making pronouncements and reports on matters of great party political difference—perhaps even on manifesto commitments of particular parties that have been endorsed by the electorate. That would create problems.

Sports in school are mentioned time and time again. The commissioner will not have a monopoly of comment on that, but a future Labour Government or, in a few weeks, an incoming Conservative Government may wish to introduce legislation on the sale of school playing fields or to revolutionise the provision of sports in schools. The Children's Commissioner might wish to comment on that.

Hon. Members know from their own patch that sports provision in schools—especially in primary schools—varies. In some it is pretty good, in some rural areas it is pretty dismal and the differences in provision in secondary schools can be stark. When I was at Dynevor school in Swansea city centre we had a couple of gyms on site. We did not have a playing field or a swimming pool in Swansea. Every two weeks we had double swimming lessons. The bus had to turn up and take us to Bishop Gore school, which was 15 minutes away. Regularly, the bus did not turn up and we got no swimming lessons. Learning to swim is important for children's safety and I am sure that the Children's Commissioner would want to comment on that.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 25 January 2001