Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Hanson: My interpretation—and I am speaking on behalf of the Government—is that the commissioner should be able to comment on the implications of the case for the agencies for which he has jurisdiction. I hope that that is the clarification that my hon. Friends have sought in tabling the amendment. sought. That has always been the Government's interpretation of this particular aspect of the legislation.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): There does seem to be confusion between the wording in the Bill and the Government's intentions. We agree with the Minister and would like to see what he said in the Bill. However, what we see in the Bill is not, in our interpretation, the same. When the Bill passes to the other place, the Government will have an opportunity to examine the wording of the clause again.

Mr. Hanson: I would like to reflect further on what the hon. Gentleman said, but I have made the Government's intentions clear. Hon. Members still have their views, but I am trying to define the Government's understanding.

Mr. Livsey: Will the Minister reconsider my point about advocacy? Young people of a low IQ who cannot express themselves or communicate adequately are denied assistance in court. Could they not have some form of counselling because after the court's decision, some of these people may be put in jail or a detention centre in inappropriate circumstances? That is the court's decision. Without an advocate, the right result is sometimes not achieved. I do not expect an immediate answer from the Minister, but would he raise that matter with his colleagues? It is an important point.

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments. I cannot provide an immediate answer, but I will reflect further. If necessary, we can correspond on the issues.

Mr. Win Griffiths: I mentioned earlier that I had been in touch with the Library to examine the powers of the ombudsman in general and to ascertain what happened in the past. The same issue came up when the Care Standards Bill was in Committee. I was not a member of that Committee and do not know whether anyone present here was—

Mr. Hanson: I was.

Mr. Griffiths: My hon. Friend can answer my point, then. To the best of my knowledge, no major debate of this matter took place in that Committee. It may have come to the fore because of subsequent concerns. I accept the Minister's argument about why the commissioner cannot examine the verdict, only the services responsible for providing the care. A cast-iron guarantee would make me happy with the outcome of the debate.

Mr. Hanson: I was a member of the Committee considering the Care Standards Bill last June. I was also a member of the Committees considering the Local Government Bill and the Learning and Skills Bill at the same time. I spent most of last June flitting between three Committee Rooms to speak on matters relating to those Bills. I hope that my hon. Friend will excuse me if I cannot recall in exact detail what was debated then.

I hope that my explanation of the commissioner's role and of his responsibility for matters going before a court will meet my hon. Friend's request for clarification and assurance. I know that he has liaised with many children's groups outside this House; I have met them, too, and given them the same explanation prior to this Committee stage. I hope that my hon. Friend and those groups will consider the implications of what I have said, and reflect on the matter when it goes to another place, as it will very shortly. I am confident that what I have said today will allow the commissioner a positive role in those areas.

On the issue of physical access to institutions, the Bill reflects the disclosure arrangements for other ombudsmen and commissioner-type officers in the United Kingdom, who have no specific powers of physical access to institutions that come under their jurisdiction. Nevertheless, the Bill extends the right to information, explanations and assistance under the Care Standards Act 2000, to ensure that the commissioner's investigations will be as effective as possible.

The Assembly will be able to make regulations that enable the commissioner to require information to be provided in respect of the bodies that will be subject to the function of reviewing and monitoring arrangements for dealing with complaints for whistle blowing and advocacy. The regulations made by the Assembly will give the commissioner strong powers to require that information, explanations and assistance be provided in respect of the relevant bodies when the commissioner examines individual cases. The new powers that we have given, both under the Care Standards Act last year and under the Bill today, will allow the commissioner to be able to demand information on a range of issues that he is not able to demand under the Care Standards Act.

The extra powers enhancing the commissioner's responsibilities will be of particular importance to cover the areas mentioned by my hon. Friend. The power of access in particular is more appropriate for bodies that have direct inspection powers, such as the proposed care standards inspectorate for Wales. I confirm that the care standard inspectorate will have the right of access to premises to undertake direct investigations, as that is in the nature of its roles and responsibilities as distinct from those of the commissioner.

I am confident that the commissioner will want to establish close working relationships with the inspectorate, and that he will give it advice and support on issues relating to inspections that that it has undertaken and reports it wants to produce. However, there is definite distinction between the two roles. The commissioner will have the power to ask for papers and information and make demands on organisations accordingly; the new care standards inspectorate for Wales will be able to make visits to premises and to undertake that type of inspection visit, because that is in the nature of its responsibilities. The two roles are distinct and both will enhance the protection of children.

Ms Julie Morgan: I accept that there are two distinct roles, but we all know that inspectors do not always get it right, so it is desirable that the commissioner has the right of access to institutions. Will the Minister agree orally, now, or will he make appropriate provision in the Bill? We have had so many scandals and tragedies in institutions in Wales and throughout the United Kingdom that it seems unfortunate that we do not spell out such a provision in the Bill.

Mr. Hanson: I hope that can reassure my hon. Friend. There are two distinct roles: the care standards inspectorate is responsible for inspection and has the right of access to premises; that is its distinct role, whereas the Children's Commissioner is responsible for broad areas. For example, if the care standards inspectorate chooses not to make an inspection, the Children's Commissioner can, using his jurisdiction as the person responsible for such issues, comment and report on that failure to carry out an inspection; he can also encourage the carrying out of inspections. However, there is a distinct difference between the day-to-day responsibilities of the inspectorate and the commissioner. Although my hon. Friend's probing amendment would allow the commissioner to have that right of access, it is, in fact, part of the general division of labour in terms of child protection.

5.15 pm

Mr. Win Griffiths: I appreciate everything that the Minister is saying about the differing roles of the inspectorate and the commissioner, but let us take a hypothetical case in which the failure lay with the inspectorate to carry out their inspection of a children's institution properly; and there was a cosy relationship between the head of the institution and the inspector. Let us say that someone blew the whistle on what was going on, with the result that the commissioner wanted to investigate, visit the institution and question the staff to get to the bottom of the whole affair. Does the Bill as it stands give the commissioner untrammelled access, or could the head of the institution say ``Sorry, you're not coming into my place. That's the inspectorate's job and they have been and I do not want you here.''? Can the Minister assure us that, either because the Bill does not prevent the commissioner from doing that, or because the National Assembly could make regulations giving him that power, that all would be well if the commissioner were to act in the hypothetical circumstances I have described?

Mr. Hanson: The commissioner, as I said earlier, will be able to require information to be provided in respect of bodies, he will have powers of general review and he will be able to ask for information about those bodies, the care standards inspectorate and the institution that may be being inspected, but he could not undertake a direct visit for the reasons that I have stated: there is a division of responsibility. However, the commissioner could report on the care standards inspectorate's failure to act and he could indicate to the Assembly his concern following the receipt of information about the inspectorate's failure to act on a particular case.

There are different and distinct responsibilities. The commissioner has overarching responsibility to review the level of services and type of service provision, whereas the job of the care standards inspectorate is to inspect. I do not know whether that satisfies my hon. Friend, but that is the view shared by the Government and the Assembly those roles and responsibilities.

We have fully discussed both of the amendments. I have tried to explain the Government's view on core aspects, I hope that the Committee is satisfied that the commissioner will have a responsibility to look at the implications of cases. I also hope that I have satisfied the Committee on the question of powers of access. There are mechanisms in place to ensure access.

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 30 January 2001