Legislative Programme and Pre-Budget Statement

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Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): I am sorry that I missed the beginning of the hon. Gentleman's speech. The provision of protection for children who find themselves in difficult circumstances is an interesting and important aspect of the work of the Children's Commissioner.

Is the hon. Gentleman's concern about the commissioner becoming involved in family relationships based on a model from elsewhere in the world, or is it merely an unsubstantiated fear at the back of his mind?

Mr. Walter: I hope that it is a fear that will be allayed when the Under-Secretary winds up the debate, or, if not then, when we see the Bill in the Vote Office. At the moment, we fear that the role of the Children's Commissioner will be extended beyond that which is envisaged in the legislation, with which we have no quarrel.

We are especially keen that the Children's Commissioner should deal with the failures of local authorities. The passing of the Care Standards Act 2000 and the appointment of the Children's Commissioner should be the start of significant progress. We should have a commissioner who will champion children in care, ensuring that people whom the community entrusts with discharging their duties as carers do so effectively, properly and beyond any form of criticism, and that people entrusted by society carry out their duties as caring parents in any normal family relationship. The Queen's Speech implied that the Government intend the Children's Commissioner to be an ombudsman for all children. That may sound good, particularly for children, but is it realistic? What will happen to parents' role in bringing up their children? Do we want a nanny state to supervise the caring, natural way in which we rear our children? Conservative Members support the role of parents, who are the natural advocates for the interests of their children in the vast majority of families.

Mr. Flynn: I am not sorry for interrupting the hon. Gentleman's vacuous speech. Has he forgotten the Fred West case? Many children would have appreciated a nanny in Gloucester and in many parts of Wales.

Mr. Walter: Of course I have not forgotten the Fred West case, but I do not want to analyse every case of criminality to justify an all-embracing, overarching commissioner who knocks on every door to check that everyone is all right. That would be silly, but the Labour party seems to be returning to its roots and the nanny approach in a radical agenda is what we expected from the old Labour party.

Mr. Ruane: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Walter: I am coming to the end of my speech and want to make progress. I have been generous in giving way to Labour Members.

It would be wrong if the new legislation undermined the way in which parents look after the best interests of their offspring. It is the duty of all parents to empower their children with a feeling of personal responsibility that passes from one generation to another.

Mr. Ruane: On the point of instilling pride in a child, is the hon. Gentleman aware that, under the Conservative Government, child poverty trebled in Wales? It is difficult to instil pride and confidence if the family has been racked by unemployment for generations.

Mr. Walter: I could answer that question at considerable length, but we are discussing the Queen's Speech, so I shall limit my comments to that. Perhaps we can have another debate on another occasion.

When we scrutinise the Bill, we shall try to ensure that the responsibilities of parents are not undermined. The Conservative party believes in personal responsibility within families, wholesome families within the community, and a positive community within a united country that is supportive and respectful of family responsibilities.

An independent Children's Commissioner should have the remit to examine legislative proposals throughout a range of Departments and wholeheartedly to represent the interests of children who will be affected by the legislation. The commissioner must be able to deal with any ineffectiveness or injustice to children in corporate care, so that their interests are properly taken into account and the workings of government and local government is more accountable. The commissioner should ensure that any complaints and investigations are dealt with quickly, firmly and fairly. He should cross-fertilise best practice in the best interests of our children to ensure that inter-agency reviews and procedures are followed and updated quickly in today's ever-changing circumstances. He must ensure vigilance and best standards in recruitment of staff and approval of foster parents. He must be the godfather of all children in care. We are at one with the Government and the Welsh Assembly in the belief that those powers should be statutory, but we must allow parents to set good practice and to bring out the best in their children with encouragement and the common-sense Conservative principle of empowering the family without unnecessary Government imposition. We owe that to our children and future generations.

Several hon. Members rose—

The Chairman: Order. I ask hon. Members to make brief speeches. Interventions prolong speeches and many hon. Members want to participate in the debate.

12.15 pm

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda): I thank the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) for introducing the precise role of the Children's Commissioner, because it is important. However, I wish that he had not hypocritically projected his party as the only custodian of children's interests. With all due respect, he came across as a pompous advocate—

Mr. Flynn: He talked sanctimonious piffle.

Mr. Rogers: I thank my hon. Friend. Anyone would think that the Conservatives had never been in power and that there was no Conservative Government when abuse was taking place in children's homes in Wales. The hon. Gentleman talked claptrap. However, I am grateful that he referred to the precise role of the Children's Commissioner. As a father of four and grandfather of 12, I have a particular interest in the welfare of children, as does everyone else, and that interest is not exclusive to myself or my party. I do not want the Children's Commissioner to usurp the role of statutory authorities; I want him to ensure that those authorities work effectively, because that has not happened in the past, regardless of which party was in power. Parties of all political hues have tried to deal with the problem of abuse, which often occurs in families. When children have had to be removed and put into residential homes, they have not always been properly looked after and may have been abused when in our care. When we refer to social services and children being abused in homes, we are referring to our social services and our residential homes. We fail as politicians if we do not ensure that structures are in place to look after those vulnerable children. It is our responsibility and I want the Children's Commissioner to work effectively. Structures exist, but they must be made to work properly for the sake of the children concerned.

It was not wise of the hon. Member for Ceredigion to refer to the proposals in the Queen's Speech as Christmas baubles and trinkets. I wanted other measures to be included in the Queen's Speech, but it covered the Children's Commissioner, education, child care and health, which are not baubles or trinkets. When we have got the economy and industry right, we shall not continually tinker with them. We have so many structures in Wales that we shall collapse under them. This is the stage in any Government to improve the quality of life and the measures that we are discussing will do that.

I am conscious of your stricture, Mr. Jones. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will introduce some of the measures that I wanted but that were not in the Queen's Speech. I am confused about who does what to whom in Wales and I am sure not sure how matters will proceed. Many people are asking for more power for the Welsh Assembly, but it only just managed to obtain its present powers. If people such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) want to open the Pandora's box of the Barnett formula and increase the powers of the Welsh Assembly, the people of Wales might like to contribute to the debate on that. The hon. Member for Ceredigion is nodding—does that mean that he would like another referendum? After one year of the Welsh Assembly, my constituents, at least, are saying that they would like another referendum, and I have no doubt how the people of Wales would vote.

Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State raise with the Welsh Assembly the issue of support for indigenous industries? The Welsh Development Agency makes much of inward investment, but many of us know that indigenous and small industries in valley communities and rural areas do not get the support that is given to incoming industries with much higher profiles. As a result, jobs are being lost.

I welcome the forthcoming Bill on homes, which will contribute to the development of our homes infrastructure, but I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to raise with the Welsh Assembly the issue of housing repair grants and the availability of money for refurbishment of older houses. Such funds have been cut, and my local authority is having severe problems providing housing repair grants and support for people who live in older, valley communities. That matter must be addressed urgently.

I hope that we will not go down the path of fully integrating into mainstream schools children with special educational needs. There are great virtues in maintaining the existing relationship between children who need extra care and those who—dare I say it—lead a normal life. For those of us who are fortunate enough to have all our senses, it is good to be in touch every day with those who are less fortunate, but in certain educational situations such children can place a tremendous strain on classroom teachers. If we are to integrate children with special educational needs into mainstream education, appropriate resources must be provided. There must be more care assistants, and more support in the classroom for the teachers who must do this difficult work. In the meantime, we should retain the special schools that do such a wonderful job in our communities. Parents of handicapped children in my constituency are eternally grateful to the Rhondda special school, which has done a great job over many years in helping children with special educational needs.

I welcome the extended new deal for disabled people, which was proposed in the pre-Budget report. However, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will discuss with our colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment their attitude towards sheltered workshops, which were set up to aid the blind and others who find it difficult to secure normal employment. Resources are being cut off, and the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), who represents a London constituency, are arguing that the disabled must be integrated into mainstream industrial activity. That is a wonderful idea when the jobs are there, but when they are not, it is the disabled who suffer, because their productivity is deemed not good enough. They need the cushion that sheltered workshops provide.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli: we are grossly over-governed in Wales. Yet again, government must be reorganised so that resources can get through. I understand that English local authorities have received certain moneys that are still held up by a logjam in Wales because the necessary provisions cannot get through the Committees of the Welsh Assembly quickly enough. I suggest that, instead of beginning at 9.35 in the morning and finishing at 12.35, they start working full time to get rid of the logjam of secondary legislation that it is their job to carry out. It is no good their asking for more powers when they are not even doing the job that they were elected to do.

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