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Baroness Andrews: Although it is usually the task of an office of this House, which is by nature unpopularthe Whips' OfficeI take this opportunity of saying something that is not popular before I start. We had some excellent debates this morning, but we are lagging behind on our timetable slightly. I will try to set a good example, as other noble Lords have done, by speaking to the amendment fairly swiftly. I hope that we can make faster progress this afternoon, otherwise it will be a long time before we reach some of the Bill's very interesting and difficult aspects.
The amendments all relate to the publication of the commissioner's annual report, apart from Amendment No. 31, which relates more generally to the material. Of course we see the annual report as a highly significant public document. It is an opportunity for the commissioner to record in a formal document, laid before Parliament, what he has done and what he has found out in the course of his work, the issues he has prioritised, the actions he has taken to improve outcomes and the responses he has had to those actions. It will be an extremely important document; we want it to be read as widely as possible and to inform public debate and public policy. We have the example of how the Welsh commissioner, on the evidence of the Minister for Health and Social Services, has already, in his very robust fashion, made such an impact.
The case made by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on Amendment No. 31 is completely accepted and understood. There is no doubt that we want the commissioner's report to be read by young people, whatever their situation and capabilities. That is the purpose of creating the office of the commissioner in the first place. They will have informed his work; they will inform the way in which he presents the argument. I am absolutely sure that if he is going to take any evidence on how best he should produce the report on the Internet and put it on the website, the greatest experts in the world will be 12 year-olds. They will tell him exactly how to do ithow to make the links, do the graphics, get the sound, and so on.
We are intent on involving children and making sure that disabled children, who, in many cases, have a particular facility for hand-held technologies, will be able to access the report as much as possible.
We would be wise to see it as an absolute priority that the commissioner should do that but not put it on the face of the Bill. We do not want to prescribe what the commissioner will do; we have confidence in him or her meeting the point with enthusiasm and ingenuity. We would expect the commissioner to produce at least one version for children or young people.
The problem of prescription is illustrated by Amendment No. 48, which is quite prescriptive in seeking to produce a version for children aged 12 and above. We have to ask: why 12? We could all produce a 12 year-old who is very different from every other 12 year-old. Some will have a reading age of seven, while others will have a reading age of 27. It is quite difficult pitching the age right. We could argue that what is needed is a report which would be available to those with the youngest reading age. I am thinking especially of looked-after children, for whom the reading facility is not always there.
I think we have to leave it to the commissioner's discretion and judgment to decide exactly what he needs to produce to get the key points of his actions and concerns over to children. I restate my conviction that he will do this.
The noble Baroness's point about minority languages is extremely important. I dispute the assertion that Welsh is a minority languageit is, of course, the language of heaven, so we have to be very careful how we describe it.
To be frank, we did not expect Amendment No. 45 to be linked to Amendments Nos. 50 and 51. As we will be having a very long debate on information sharing, I hope that the noble Baroness will not mind if we postpone that debate for now and refer to this amendment when we come to the later ones.
Amendments Nos. 47 and 49, in the names of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, would provide that the commissioner report directly to Parliament, bypassing the Secretary of State. I believe that the noble Earl is the least sinister person in the House; I am sure that he does not mean me to interpret the amendments in any sinister fashion. I can assure him that we have no intention of compromising the independence of the commissioner. It is normal parliamentary procedure and applies to other annual reports which are a record of work programmes and work achieved. It does not amount to a means of censorship. Indeed, we will measure the report's independence by its robustness. Again, I refer to the Welsh commissioner, who has produced some very robust reports.
Baroness Andrews: I believe that the commissioner's report was very robust. The Minister for Health and Social Services, Jane Hutt, says quite explicitly in her evidence that he has helped to inform public policy in Wales and is doing the job he is there to do in representing Welsh children. I will not reopen the debate we had on Wales at this point, if the noble Lord will forgive me. We will have opportunities to return to that later.
The fact that the commissioner's annual report goes to the Secretary of State is a matter of courtesy and practice. It is not an opportunity for alteration and delay. I am sure we would all agree that a Secretary of State would not dream of delaying or interfering with the nature of the Ofsted report, for example.
This annual report is a different animal from the others that the commissioner will be making available and putting on the website. Noble Lords have expressed a concern that the Secretary of State may sit on or delay a report. I do not believe that that would happen, and he certainly cannot change its contents, but there is nothing in the Bill to say that he must lay it before each House within any set period.
Clause 3(4) requires the commissioner to publish his report in general as soon as possible after the report is laid before Parliament. It is not unreasonable to accept a similar condition on the Secretary of State's duty under Clause 3(3)(b). If the Committee will permit, I will return with wording to that effect on Report. With that assurance, I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Walmsley: I thank the Minister for her response. By withdrawing Amendment No. 31, I have to accept for the moment that the Government will not put the issue of appropriate material on the face of the Bill. However, I hope that they will undertake at least to include in the job description for the Children's Commissioner that information should be provided to the children in all accessible formats.
I accept the common sense of debating Amendment No. 45 later on. I will leave to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, the task of deciding what to do with the other two amendments. However, it may be all right for the Minister to promise on behalf of her Government that there is no sinister intent and that there would be no deliberate delay in publishing the commissioner's report. Certainly, when the Liberal Democrats come to power, I will make a similar promise on behalf of my own party. I will leave it to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, to say what he would do were the Conservatives ever to gain power again. With those comments, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: We debated this amendment earlier, and I want to thank noble Lords who spoke to it. I have a suggestion for the Minister. I thank her for her acceptance that all children will be included in all relevant stages in the Bill. I accept the reservations made by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, with regard to identifying each group, although I do not necessarily agree with him. The Minister told the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that she would consider young people between the ages of 18 and 21 in relation to the amendments that he moved. That is equally relevant to disabled children between those ages, who would rather be called disabled young people.
I hope that this is a helpful suggestion. We tried to include "disabled" in subsection (3)(e). If the Minister cannot accept that, she may be willing to consider between now and the next stage including a new paragraph (f) reading "equality and opportunity", which would cover all of the discussions we had earlier on. I beg to move.
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