Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill

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The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman did not formally move any of the amendments, so he does not require permission to withdraw them.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4

Review and monitoring of arrangements

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: If it would be convenient for the Committee to discuss the proposed schedule 2B to the Care Standards Act 2000 in connection with the clause, I shall be happy for members to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Further functions of the commissioner

Mr. Win Griffiths: I beg to move amendment No. 43, in page 5, line 36, at end insert—

    `(2) After subsection (2) insert—

    ``(2A) The Commissioner shall promote understanding and awareness of the importance of the human rights of children to whom this Part applies and for this purpose he may undertake, commission, or provide financial or other assistance for—

    (a) research;

    (b) educational activities.''.'.

We do not need to labour the point of the amendment too strongly, because my hon. Friend the Minister's comments—especially those made in the previous debate—should reassure us that everything is being done to ensure that any statutory role for the commissioner is provided for in full. We should also be reassured that the commissioner would have a strong voice as regards other bodies that are not part of the statutory set-up for the Assembly but belong to other Government Departments.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister consider the amendment? We appreciate the broad interpretation of the commissioner's role, which allows him to do almost anything in relation to his functions, by giving advice and information, and so on. However, the commissioner's role is extended by giving the broadest possible interpretation to the Care Standards Act, and the explanatory notes state that the Bill

    ``encompasses all children in Wales and different sectors and services.''

The amendment would put some flesh on a substantial skeleton, by giving the commissioner the power to

    ``promote understanding and awareness of the importance of the human rights of children.''

In doing that, he would be able to

    ``undertake, commission, or provide financial or other assistance for—

    (a) research;

    (b) educational activities.''

That would give the commissioner a little bit extra power in his role as independent champion for children.

It is important to

    ``promote understanding and awareness of the importance of the human rights of children'',

because children have been seen as second class citizens, who do not have the same rights as adults, which has resulted in many problems in the treatment of children. Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond positively, either by giving an undertaking that the commissioner can do those things, or by taking the amendment away and framing it in some other way that would be more within the spirit of the Bill.

Mr. Rowe: I hope that among the commissioner's rights and responsibilities will be the obligation to publish his report in terms that are easily accessible to young people. A lot of young people have attended the steering group of United Kingdom Youth Parliament to establish the first Session, which will be at the end of February. That group has urged upon Ministers that White Papers and other policy documents that affect young people should be summarised or put on the web in a form that is easily accessible. I endorse that because, if they can make those documents understandable to young people, they may make them understandable to me. It would be a huge step forward if, as part of his obligations, he were charged to produce a summary report of his activities in a form that young people would find accessible.

Ms Julie Morgan: The activities that are spelled out in the amendment are an important part of the commissioner's role, and it is good to highlight them.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley said that it was not obvious how the Welsh Development Agency and the Arts Council for Wales affected children. The commissioner would have an important role in educational activities and research to promote the fact that all activities have a children's dimension and affect their rights. That needs to be spelled out: it is an important part of his role. I feel strongly about the planning process that has been mentioned. When planners sit down to plan, how often do they take into account how their plans will affect children? In planning terms, how are city centres and towns in Wales geared to children? An important part of the commissioner's role is to promote the way in which children are affected by activities that do not fall within the boundaries of health and social services, such as the activities of the national parks authorities and the Sports Council for Wales. That is an important part of the amendment.

Mr. Llwyd: I fully support the amendment. Research into children's human rights is important. Children in should be educated and encouraged to look outwards. The current excesses in the violation of children's rights worldwide is frightening—torture, child abuse, sale of children, prostitution, child soldiers, children made refugees because of armed conflict, and the many thousands—millions even—of children dying of disease and hunger, poverty, lack of education and homelessness. All those matters are catered for in the UN charter, but are still going on, and in some places increasing. In the new millennium, we should reflect on that. In spite of the UN convention, child labour, prostitution, hunger, disease, inadequate schooling, drugs, homelessness and the curse of AIDS are increasing. We see refugee camps and children disabled by war; we need to put our house in order. The Bill is not a panacea for all ills, but a commissioner in Wales may at least contribute towards educating children in Wales about the problems of children in other countries. Hopefully, we can look towards a better prospect for children generally in terms of the environment, disease and illiteracy. We owe it to the future of humankind to show that children know exactly what is going on in the big, wide world. The amendment helps to define further the role of the commissioner to assist children in Wales and beyond.

Mr. Livsey: My name appears on the amendment and, clearly, I support it 100 per cent. An understanding and awareness of the importance of children's human rights is vital, and we should push that further. The children's rights commissioner for the Flemish community in Belgium has specific powers in relation to the Flemish Parliament and Flemish legislation. He has a general duty to defend the rights and interests of the child.

We must remember that, as a result of the Good Friday agreement, there is a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission that includes the rights of children. If that exists in one part of the United Kingdom there is no reason why it should not exist in another part. It is important to initiate research and educational activities in that respect so that we all understand commitment to children. Creating independent human rights institutions is a mark of a Government's commitment to creating a human rights culture and being accountable for human rights obligations. Setting limits on monitoring and reporting powers defeats the object and calls in question the commitment. The amendment will thus go some way to strengthening the Bill in an important respect.

12 noon

Like the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, the never-ending series of scandals involving gross violations of children's rights dictates that there must be no compromise whatever in creating a children's champion who can be fearless and unfettered in defending children's rights and welfare. Amendment No. 43 pushes that agenda considerably in the right direction and there is a strong case for the Government to accept it.

Mr. Hanson: Again, we have had useful contributions from hon. Members. In an effort to be helpful to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, the fact that we have not yet accepted amendments does not mean that our debate has not been useful. I hope that it has clarified the intentions of hon. Members, the Government, and the Assembly with regard to the role and responsibilities of the Children's Commissioner. I hope that I can reassure both my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend, who moved the amendment, and other hon. Members who have spoken.

I understand that the commissioner can already provide advice and information to any person in connection with his functions by virtue of section 76(3) of the Care Standards Act. There is every reason why such advice and information should extend to the human rights of children. I can put it no more strongly than to say that such rights are central to the commissioner's role and to our role in protecting the rights of children.

    Clause 2 sets out the principal aims of the commissioner. I emphasise them because they are key to today's debate. Section 72A of the Care Standards Act states: ``The principal aim of the Commissioner in exercising his functions is to safeguard and promote the rights and welfare of children to whom this Part applies.''

That principal aim is a strong signal to the commissioner, and to children and community groups, that the commissioner should play a strong role in underpinning the rights of children and be central to those rights.

The way in which advice and information is delivered will be a matter for the commissioner, but I am confident that that principal aim will not leave any doubts at all that the rights of children—as mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend and Cardiff, North and the hon. Members for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, for Faversham and Mid-Kent and for Brecon and Radnorshire—are central to and at the forefront of everything the commissioner does.

The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent made a valuable suggestion about the nature of reports and we will deal with matters relating to reports later. In due course, it will be for the Assembly to specify in regulations the requirements for reports, but I am sure that it will welcome his suggestion, and I shall certainly pass that on for its consideration.

The amendment also refers to the undertaking and commissioning of research and educational activities. The commissioner's general powers under paragraph 5 of schedule 2 to the Care Standards Act 2000 allow him to do anything that seems necessary or expedient for the purpose of, or in connection with, the exercise of his functions. They are important powers. There is also a provision under section 76 of the Act whereby the Assembly can make regulations to confer further functions on the commissioner, provided that they are in connection with his core functions.

It will be a matter for the Assembly to consider whether to make such regulations and whether to define them, given that the commissioner has the overarching power that allows him to deal with matters in connection with his functions that seem to him to be necessary and expedient. I hope that members of the Committee will be reassured that the combination of provisions under the Care Standards Act and those in clause 2 of the Bill will provide a framework within which their aspirations are fulfilled.

I wish to place on record that there is no doubt in my mind that the Government believe that, under clause 2, the commissioner can consider the issues that have been raised in Committee. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy referred to child soldiers, prostitution and slavery. If such issues pertain in any way to those that relate to the commissioner's core responsibilities in Wales, he will consider them. Some matters that have been raised are international issues, so there will be less scope for the commissioner to make representations about them. But let there be no doubt that the word ``rights'' in the Bill will be sufficient for the commissioner to exercise his powers accordingly. I hope that my response has satisfied my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend and that he will withdraw the amendment.

 
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