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Mr. Simon Thomas: The hon. Lady has given a good and exciting description of how the commissioner could affect the lives of children in Wales. Does she agree that the commissioner needs the right infrastructure and staff to be able to undertake his job? For example, is she aware of the difficulties of the Disability Rights Commissioner? Two of my constituents were told that their problems could not be considered for six months because of the overwhelming number of people who have approached that commissioner. Surely, we must avoid that scenario for the Children's Commissioner. We must impress on everyone the need for the right finances to be available to him.
Ms Morgan: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We must ensure that resources are available. Although we refer to the commissioner, we are, of course, talking about the office of commissioner--the system involves more than one person. The hon. Gentleman did not mention that when the office of commissioner was set up under disability discrimination legislation, it was discovered that the vast majority of disabled people in Wales were unaware of the commissioners and of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and of how to use them. We need to ensure not only that the disability
Many of the points I had intended to make have been made by other hon. Members. Will my hon. Friend the Minister clarify whether the commissioner would be able to comment on the results of legal cases? He certainly would not be able to do so before the end of such proceedings, but a major part of the commissioner's role should be to comment on important issues that may be discussed throughout Wales, even if they did not arise from Welsh cases--such as the Venables case or the recent case on the separation of Siamese twins.
It is important that the commissioner should have the power to comment on such matters. There is some feeling among the children's charities that an amendment would be needed to establish that power. Will my hon. Friend reassure me about that point?
The measure refers to children who are "ordinarily resident in Wales". Does that include the children of asylum seekers, for example? In Cardiff, we expect asylum seekers shortly; we want to ensure that they have as good a welcome and are as well integrated as possible. Will the children of asylum seekers come within the remit of the commissioner?
It has been a great pleasure to speak in the debate. The measure is a big step forward. During my time as a Member over the past four years, it has been a great privilege to see devolution and the setting up of the National Assembly in Cardiff, and to see the introduction of the first Bill proposed to this House by the Assembly. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments on the points that I have made.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): The Secretary of State, who opened the debate, is normally extremely fair and strives to express a reasoned view. He carefully went over the history of the commissioner and the various debates held in this place. Unfortunately, however, he omitted the fact that I was the first to raise the question in 1993, in a Committee of which he was a member. To be fair, both he and his hon. Friends supported my amendment and our discussions at that time, even though, unfortunately, the amendment was not accepted. I am referring to the Standing Committee on the Local Government (Wales) Bill.
It seems that the Conservatives have now decided that the commissioner is a good thing--at least I think they have. There is, of course, their reasoned amendment, but we shall see--the acid test will come at 10 o'clock.
Over the years, efforts have been made by many Members on both sides of the House. In 1993, there was support from the three Opposition parties; together, we did a considerable amount of work on the amendment. I received considerable assistance from Plant yng Nghymru--Children in Wales--to whom the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) referred earlier. Hon. Members will undoubtedly acknowledge the huge efforts made recently by Children in Wales to secure the establishment of the post of commissioner--initially, as an adjunct to the Care Standards Act 2000 and, more recently, to propose that the office and its remit be extended and that the whole issue be moved up the political agenda. Such is the success of Children in Wales
I unreservedly congratulate Children in Wales and thank its members and all its constituent bodies for all their hard work on behalf of our Welsh citizens of the future. I also congratulate Mr. Gareth Wardell on his appointment as chair of the organisation and wish him well in that office. He was an assiduous Member of this place--a highly regarded man and an excellent Chair of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs. He is an excellent choice to chair Children in Wales.
The amendment to which I referred would have imposed certain duties on the Children's Commissioner for Wales. I shall refer to it only briefly, because there is a feeling of deja vu about it now. We were talking then about the new local government set-up in Wales, and the main thrust of the amendment was that the commissioner should have regard to the principles laid down in the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which has already been mentioned in the debate.
Secondly, there was a need to ensure co-ordination between voluntary organisations providing services for children and the principal councils. Another important factor was the need to consult children, and those who seek to promote children's interests, from time to time. That was the main thrust of the amendment discussed at that time, but although it had support it was not carried.
It is as true today as it was then that children are a special case. They need advocates, and the appointment of a commissioner then would have given them one. Now we shall have an advocate in place for children, who deserve special treatment--and as a Welsh person, I am proud that Wales is showing the way.
The right hon. Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd) made a measured and excellent speech--one of warm and constructive support for the Bill, which made a useful contribution to the debate. He too said that children need advocates and are a special case, and that he hoped that England would emulate Wales in this respect. Like him, I am sure that there is as much need for a children's commissioner for England as there is in Wales. That thought may be appropriate in connection with the debate about devolution in England--I know not--but whether that debate proceeds apace or not, I am sure that at some point the need for a similar office, with similar powers and duties, in England will be recognised.
The obvious point is that today's children are tomorrow's society. Every one of us, whoever we represent, agrees that we owe it to future generations to ensure that our children are properly looked after. We must strike a blow on behalf of children, and I believe that the Bill is one such blow. It is a most welcome step in the right direction.
Mr. Llwyd: I entirely agree. I see the commissioner's role as similar to that of the Environmental Audit Committee in this House, which cross-cuts and examines each Department in turn to ensure best practice. That is the way forward. My right hon. Friend is right to say that in no circumstances must we scapegoat the commissioner's office or say that if something has gone wrong, it must be his fault. A lot of cross-cutting work has to be done, with devolved and non-devolved organisations, to establish a holistic approach.
I have already mentioned the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, and I firmly believe, and have believed for some time, that that convention should guide all our thinking on the subject. I agree with the suggestion made by Children in Wales and others, such as Professor Newell, an expert in the field who was mentioned by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), that we should not leave references to rights under the UN convention as implicit. They should be explicit, and mentioned on the face of the Bill. I hope to be able to touch on that issue in a little more detail later, and I hope that we will be able to examine it further in Committee, because it is important.
No one in this place or outside would deny that bolting on to the Care Standards Bill the clauses that set up the role of the commissioner was a positive step in the right direction. To be fair, I must say that that was done with some degree of urgency in this place, in concert with our colleagues in the National Assembly.
We are now coming back, within a short time, to strengthen the commissioner's remit and extend it somewhat. The right hon. Member for Fareham said that perhaps it would be better if the commissioner were left for a while to settle down. With great respect, I disagree. Parliamentary time will always be in short supply, and there is also an urgent need to move on; I know that the right hon. Gentleman also believes that the matter is urgent. I can understand why he said what he did--it is perfectly logical that he should do so--but I cannot agree.
No one would deny that bolting the provisions on to the earlier Act, and then the introduction of this Bill, represent a massive step forward. However, with respect, I have to say that if the National Assembly had had the necessary legislative powers in the first place, no doubt it would have got things right in the first place. One only has to look at the reports and other paperwork that the Assembly produced, saying from the outset that it wanted a wider remit, to realise that that is so. That would have saved time in this place. Of course, for the sake of the children and young people of Wales, I am pleased that we are doing what is necessary now, but I think that had it been within the remit of the National Assembly, everything would have been done in one fell swoop. That may be conjecture, however.
On 11 September last year I had the honour of chairing a plenary session of the Human Rights International Alliance conference on children's rights, which was held in Central hall, Westminster. I was pleased to be there, because I was the only Member of this place to have been invited to participate, amid a glittering array of international politicians, sociologists and other academics, High Court judges and lawyers. Of course, I was out of my depth. [Hon. Members: "No, no."] That is very kind. This consensus is getting to me; it is not Christmas, is it?
As I extolled the virtues of the Children's Commissioner, and said that we in Wales had led the way, I thought that I was making a good point, which would go down fairly well. Far from it--many members of that knowledgeable audience were fully conversant with the role of the Children's Commissioner, which was then bolted on, as it were, to another Act. To a man and woman, they were quite disapproving, because the remit was such as to render the post a glorious piece of window-dressing.
I shrank in my seat and became less and less obvious as the debate went on. Moira Rayner, the director of the Children's Rights Commission for London, was one of the critics who eloquently described the shortcomings of the office as it was then set up. The criticism--at times, strident--was, however, constructive. I am therefore pleased that the necessary parliamentary time has been secured to address the failings of the current remit.
It is to the credit of the National Assembly that it undertook urgent, in-depth investigations into the issue and considered other European templates for the desired remit. It found that other European countries had commissioners who would act as advocates for children and promote the views of children in society. They would set their agendas as watchdogs and champions for children. They would review and report on aspects of children's matters by reference to the United Nations convention to which I referred.