Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill

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Mr. Llwyd: I appreciate the fact that the Minister is taking time to deal with these points, but is it not illogical that an inspector has a statutory power to enter premises, but the commissioner—the guardian, the advocate at the top of the tree—is not allowed to gain access in any particular circumstances? I am not saying that he would often want to have access, but there might be occasions on which the inspector has been obstructed, or the case is a high-profile, very bad one in which, even for the purposes of making a public announcement later on, it would be better if the commissioner could say that he had visited with inspectors. None the less, the commissioner is precluded from doing that, whereas inspectors have the statutory duty and power to do so. That does not make much sense. I am not blaming the Minister, but there appears to be a vacuum.

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman should always blame the Minister, because Ministers are ultimately responsible for determining the policy and the line of Government thinking.

Mr. Llwyd: In that case, I do blame the Minister.

Mr. Hanson: I shall accept the blame. The debate boils down to core functions and their duplication. The purpose of the care standards inspectorate is to inspect and that of the Children's Commissioner to oversee and ensure that lessons are learned, good practices are disseminated and issues arising from inspection reports are considered. The two roles are not contradictory, but I shall reflect on what has been said. I hope that that my hon. Friend will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Griffiths: We have considered new clauses 3 and 4 in detail, but some anxiety about access remains. I am not revealing any secrets, but I read the social services inspectorate reports when I was the Welsh Office Minister responsible for such matters. The questions most often asked during discussions on those reports with senior staff in the Welsh Office were about the physical location—we asked ``Where was this or that located?'' in response to comments made by the social services inspectorate.

In a case in which the inspectorate is accused of not doing its job properly, the commissioner must be able to visit premises, although I appreciate that he can get lots of information about premises in which problems are alleged to have occurred. For now, however, as this is our first run at such an important issue and there will be opportunities to revisit the matter on Report and in another place, I ask the Minister to reconsider whether the access issue can be resolved while avoiding the potential problems of duplication of function. In that spirit, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 5

Consultation by the National Assembly for Wales

    `In section 2(1)(b) of the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 (Central Authorities and accredited bodies) after ``by the National Assembly for Wales'' there shall be inserted ``, after consultation with the Children's Commissioner for Wales''.'.—[Mr. Walter.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Chairman: With this we may take new clause 6—Consultation by the Secretary of State—

    `In section 16(1) of the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 (Devolution) after the third ``the'', for the words ``National Assembly for Wales'' there shall be substituted ``Children's Commissioner for Wales.``.

Mr. Walter: The Committee has spent a lot of time considering the commissioner's powers with regard to institutions, but much less discussing fostering and adoption. The new clauses relate largely to adoption and to enhancing the commissioner's powers in that respect. They touch on the case that is at the forefront of our minds, although I do not want to embarrass the Minister, who has mentioned that the parents in that adoption case are his constituents and that his wife is chairman of the social services committee dealing with it.

We spent a lot of time considering amendments to the Care Standards Act 2000; the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 is also relevant. I want to give the commissioner a key role in setting policy on international adoption procedures. The Act incorporates the 1993 Hague convention into UK law, but the Government have so far failed to implement the Act, which has left the way open for the case that took place in north Wales.

Our amendments would give the commissioner responsibility for advising the Government on the Act's implementation in Wales. It may help if I deal with the provenance of the two new clauses. Clause 1 relates to section 78 of the Care Standards Act 2000 and says:

    ``This Part applies to a child . . .to or in respect of whom regulated children's services in Wales are provided.``

Section 78(2) of the 2000 Act says:

    ``In this Part, [odq]regulated children's services in Wales'' means . . . services provided by local authorities in Wales in the exercise of relevant adoption functions or relevant fostering functions''.

We seek to amend two sections in the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999. Section 2 deals with central authorities and accredited bodies, and subsection (1) says:

    ``The functions under the Convention of the Central Authority are to be discharged—

    (a) separately in relation to England and Scotland by the Secretary of State; and

    (b) in relation to Wales by the National Assembly for Wales.``

New clause 5 would amend section 2(1)(b) and make it say ``by the National Assembly for Wales, after consultation with the Children's Commissioner for Wales.''

Section 16(1) of the 1999 Act says:

    ``Any function of the Secretary of State under section 1 or 18(3), or section 17 or 56A of the 1976 Act, is exercisable only after consultation with the National Assembly for Wales.

New clause 6 would streamline that procedure. If the Secretary of State—in this case the Secretary of State for Health—must consult the National Assembly, which then has to consult the commissioner, that important aspect may need short-circuiting. I do not want to take the National Assembly out of the loop, but the person charged with looking after such matters on behalf of the National Assembly and the people of Wales is the Children's Commissioner. We seek to delete the words ``National Assembly for Wales'' and insert ``Children's Commissioner for Wales.''

The new clauses would beef up the powers of the Children's Commissioner when dealing with international adoptions and particularly the sort of case that we have seen in north Wales. I remind the Committee that the Government signed the convention in 1993, but have not yet implemented it. In schedule 1 to the 1999 Act, the fourth statement in the convention says:

    ``The States signatory to the present Convention . . . Convinced of the necessity to take measures to ensure that intercountry adoptions are made in the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights, and to prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in, children''.

That is exactly what most hon. Members want to prevent. We have seen evidence of that practice in the case in north Wales.

The Government have so far failed to implement the Act. The Bill could give the Children's Commissioner power as an advocate for children and their rights, including those who are being adopted. If we as Members of Parliament cannot persuade the Government that they should implement that convention, perhaps by giving the Children's Commissioner for Wales a power as an advocate for children—including those who are being adopted—and children's rights, we will enable the commissioner to convince them to implement both the 1993 Hague convention and an Act that was passed by the House two years ago, which would have prevented what I can only describe as the obscene internet procedures that have recently taken place.

The new clauses would enhance the role of the Children's Commissioner and that of parents in the safe adoption of children across frontiers. They would have enabled the Flintshire social services committee to oversee the home study report in the case of the Kilshaws. That report could have been lodged with the Secretary of State for Health and with the court in the United States, with the result that the adoption, if it were ultimately approved, would have been made with the approval of all the authorities involved. However, it was not. I should prefer that and similar adoptions to have approval and that is why I commend the new clauses to the Committee.

5.30 pm

Sir Raymond Powell (Ogmore): We must be careful when dealing with new procedures for the adoption of children. In the past two years, I have seen great problems when adoptions are allowed without full investigation of people who are adopting children throughout the country, particularly in Wales. We must have provisions and people who are able to ensure that a proper inspection takes place of the homes where those children are going to live and the background of the people who want to adopt.

More often than not, we have the problem of trying to intervene in cases that have already been decided. Once the decisions have been taken and the children have been adopted, we face great difficulty. It is high time we had far stricter laws on and greater resources going into adoption. Many children are seeking adoption but are not finding homes because we do not have the inspectors to conduct the research that is necessary before adoption can take place. However, I appeal to the Committee not to take a quick decision on the suggestions that have been made until we have examined in more detail the safeguards that we should impose in respect of adoption.

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful for the comments from the hon. Member for Dorset, North. For the record and for the sake of clarity, I should declare again two interests that are connected with matters that he has raised: first, Mr. and Mrs. Kilshaw are my constituents; secondly, my wife, Councillor Margaret Hanson, is chair of Flintshire county council social services committee and is dealing with that case.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that one of the Assembly's key functions will be to act as a central authority for the purposes of the 1993 Hague convention on the protection of children and co-operation in respect of inter-country adoption. New clause 5 would impose upon the Assembly an obligation to consult the commissioner in respect of the discharge of its responsibilities as the central authority in Wales for the purposes of that convention.

Continuing the sympathetic approach that I have tried to take in Committee, let me say that I have no problem with the commissioner having a view on how the assembly exercises that function. Under clause 3, he already has the power to review the exercise of all of the assembly's functions: he will be able to report on the outcome of the reviews and will be able to take a primary role in influencing and informing the way in which the Assembly exercises its functions in respect of adoption and the convention.

Where the hon. Gentleman and I differ, if we differ at all, is that I do not believe that it is sensible to confuse the commissioner's roles by making him a formal consultee on the discharge of functions that he could subsequently review. Clause 3 gives the commissioner the power to examine all those issues accordingly. The new clause would highlight the commissioner's adoption role, over and above many other roles that he will have, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on that. That is not to deny the necessity for the commissioner to take a strong interest in adoption issues; it is simply that the commissioner will and should have a range of roles. His involvement in adoption issues will simply be one of many areas on which he can comment.

In order, I hope, to help the hon. Member for North Dorset, I shall give the Government's view on the important issue that he raised of the Hague convention and its implementation. He will agree that that is a complex area of legislation and that it is vital to ensure that the provisions properly protect the interests of children in the United Kingdom. Section 14 of the 1999 Act, which inserts a new provision in the Adoption Act 1976, makes it an offence to bring a child into England and Wales for the purposes of adoption unless requirements prescribed in regulations have been complied with. The Government intend to enact the provision in advance of the main body of the 1999 Act to tighten controls over the assessment procedure. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), will consult on the draft regulations shortly. I understand that the Assembly will also be involved in that consultation. I hope that that covers new clause 5, but I would welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments in due course. I emphasise that the new clause would elevate the adoption issue above many of the other issues with which the Children's Commissioner will have to deal.

New clause 6 would remove the National Assembly's statutory right to be formally consulted on the implementation of the 1999 Act. I understand why the hon. Gentleman tabled the new clause; obviously he wants to beef up, in his words, the commissioner's role on those issues. However, new clause 6 would remove the right of formal consultation from the Assembly and vest it in the commissioner, and that would be inappropriate, for several reasons. As I have tried to explain during the course of the Bill, the commissioner should be independent of the Assembly—he is a creature of the Assembly, funded by the Assembly, but is independent of the Assembly. The Assembly and the commissioner may take different views on a particular issue, which is right and proper. It is certainly right for the Assembly to hold strong views on such issues, but if we accepted new clause 6, the independent Children's Commissioner could have a view on an issue while the elected National Assembly did not. That is an important point.

5.39 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.54 pm

On resuming—

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