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She suggested that the amendments that are grouped together in my name and the names of others were defective. If that is so I will not press them to a vote. We will no doubtboth here and in another placelook very carefully at these amendments and at the observations made by the noble Baroness.
She indicated that there was still work going on to resolve the particular issue that has developed between the powers and functions of the Welsh commissioner and the English commissioner. Helpfully, she said that the Welsh commissioner would be the first stop for children in Wales on all issues, devolved or non-devolved. I welcome that.
She also said that the work is considering where the Welsh commissioner should report. I had a feeling that she was suggesting that the English commissioner in non-devolved matters would act as a valve or barrier or conduit between the findings of the Welsh commissioner and the government departments with which he is concerned. A specific example would be the Home Office, where most of the issues are non-devolved. I hope that that is not the situation. We have urged that the Bill should be used to extend the powers
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of the commissioners in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland so that they can investigate, review and report on all matters, regardless of whether they are devolved or non-devolved.
As I have said at earlier stages of the Bill, we should not get tied up in the devolved/non-devolved division. It is nothing to do with the powers of the Welsh commissioner. The Welsh commissioner can act independently if Parliament says that he can, whatever the position between the National Assembly for Wales and Westminster.
If work is continuing along these lines, I ask that these principles be borne in mind. They are, after all, principles to which all parties in the National Assembly ascribe, including the Labour Party, which presumably has some communication with the Labour Government at Westminster. I beg to move.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords the purpose of this amendment is to ensure that the Children's Commissioner has the necessary independence of action: to replace in the Bill the power of the Secretary of State to "direct" the commissioner to carry out a formal inquiry with a power to "request".
Your Lordships will, I am sure, welcome and pay tribute to the Government for the addition of what is now Clause 4 of the Bill. At Report stage the Government conceded very positively that the commissioner must be able to carry out formal inquiries on his or her own initiative. The requirement in Clause 4 to consult the Secretary of State is reasonable. But the Government have resisted removing the power of Ministers to "direct" the commissioner to carry out an inquiry under Clause 5, despite very strong criticism from children and young people, from children's organisations and from noble Lords in all parts of the House.
The supporters of the amendmentthere is considerable support from all sides of the House as well as from many children's organisationsargue that ministerial direction in this context is a fundamental violation of independence. Unlike my amendment at Report stage, I am not proposing the deletion of the whole clausethat would probably not be properbut merely to substitute the word "direction" with "request". My hope remains that in the fullness of time the Government will recognise that Clause 5 is unnecessary and inappropriate.
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We all of course hope for a close and constructive relationship between the commissioner and Ministers. Within such a relationshipand given the existence of Clause 4it is plainly possible for the government of the day to encourage the commissioner, both informally and formally, to carry out formal inquiries which are in line with the office's general function.
So in effect the only purpose now of Clause 5 is to enable the Secretary of State to force the commissioner to undertake a formal inquiry when it is not perceived by the commissioner to be a priority in the light of the general function of the office.
The commissioner will inevitably have limited resources and it seems wrong that a Minister should be able in this way to impose on the office one or more very substantial inquiries when these may not, in the eyes of the commissioner, form an appropriate and necessary priority. Even if, as Ministers have suggested, additional funds come with such a directionwhich can by no means regarded as a certaintythe demands on the commissioner's own time, on human resources, would be enormous.
The power of the Secretary of State to "direct" the commissioner in this way was highlighted as of particular concern in the letter sent by the president of the European Network of Ombudspeople for Children to the Joint Committee on Human Rights. It is plainly incompatible with the standards adopted by the UN General Assembly for independent human rights institutions and with the standards developed by ENOC. None of the ombudsman-like offices established for children across the UK and Europe can be directed in this way.
The Government have made much of the views of children being one of the foundations for the Bill and the design of the commissioner. Those of us who have met children and young people to discuss the proposal for a commissioner will know that their greatest concern is that the commissioner should be a powerful and independent champion. Clause 5symbolically and in fact contradicts that necessary independence. This power to direct the commissioner has been of particular concern to the many organisations that have come together to campaign for a powerful and independent commissioner which the Government also want.
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