|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Llwyd: Is not the crux of the argument whether the definition of the word "review" includes giving advice? Local authorities and the Assembly are, by virtue of schedule 2, bodies that come under the Bill. If the Minister were to say that the word "review" included giving advice, new clause 2 might be otiose. It is up to the Minister to respond on that point.
Mr. Walter: I shall obviously be interested in the Minister's response, but I do not think that using the word "review" necessarily means that the commissioner can advise local authorities. That is the reason why we have tabled new clause 2. We believe that the commissioner should have the power to give advice to local authorities.
Mr. Walter: What disturbs me is the suggestion that most families are somehow guilty until proven innocent in such matters. Clearly, the commissioner's responsibilities include child abuse that takes place in family situations. Those powers are already vested in local authorities and social services departments; they already exist. The concern that we expressed on Second Reading and in Committee was that the commissioner would suddenly become the arbiter of good practice within a family situation. It is quite right that the commissioner should be the arbiter of good practice for children in care and children at risk, but not in a normal family situation.
I fear that we have digressed. The new clause would cover the issues that I have mentioned and would deal with any function that the Assembly carried out in relation to children. It would also deal with incidents in which the Assembly failed to carry out a duty. There was broad agreement in Committee on that aim. I recall that the Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru representatives and some Labour Back Benchers all supported the aim and moved similar amendments to try to force this principle through. The Government made little response to our arguments in Committee, but this new clause would strengthen the powers of the commissioner and would be very much in the interests of children in Wales.
Mr. Llwyd: I shall be brief. By virtue of schedule 2A, the National Assembly and local government are bodies that come under the general purview of the clause. Therefore, the commissioner will have a right to review the exercise of functions by the Assembly and other persons, including local government.
I support the general thrust of the new clause; at the very least, it is a good probing new clause. The issue turns on whether the word "review" includes giving advice. In my respectful submission, it is inconceivable that the word "review" would not include giving advice. If the commissioner were to review a situation that was far from tolerable or far from acceptable and he were unable to give advice, his post would be virtually worthless. He would merely report, but would not be able to make recommendations. That would fly in the face of the Welsh Assembly's document, "A Children's Commissioner for Wales", which says:
The remarks of the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) on the family are a distraction from what the Bill seeks to do. It reflects badly on the Conservative party that it has taken this opportunity to throw up this issue. We should concentrate on the wording of the new clause, and I think that its provisions are covered by the current wording of the Bill. I shall be interested to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister says when he winds up the debate.
Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): I apologise for not taking part in the proceedings on the Bill's earlier stages. I once worked as a social worker in a children's home and, as a member of the Select Committee on Education and Employment, I have taken a keen interest in the early years of children's development. A few weeks ago, the Committee published a report on that subject.
A couple of years ago in the House I raised the issue of au pairs. I mention that for the following reason. There are many areas over which the commissioner has not been given jurisdiction but where, nevertheless, children may be at risk of harm. On the other hand, the commissioner has been given jurisdiction over, for example, the behaviour of teachers. Teachers are governed by the law of the land and are extremely well trained in handling children. One of the advantages of new clause 2 is that it would be possible for the commissioner to advise the Assembly on new areas to which his jurisdiction might be extended. I have in mind the issue of child carers.
During the Select Committee inquiry into the situation in Wales, as well as in England, we understood there to be something of a conflict. On the one hand, there is the need to have the highest quality of child care in the home so that mothers who want to work can do so. On the other hand, many working mothers do not attract a high level of pay. If the costs of paying for child care rise too much because the standards required are so high, many mothers who can now afford child care in the home will not be able to do so. If the commissioner were to recommend that his jurisdiction should extend into that sphere, I hope that that conflict, which is particularly relevant in Wales where low pay is an issue, would be borne in mind.
An issue arose in relation to au pairs two years ago, and I warned the Government about it. It continues in my constituency. Agencies that are active there but serve the whole country tell me that there is a problem. Since August 1997, au pairs have no longer been required to register with the police once they have been here for six months. That has had a bad effect on how we keep checks on that level of child care. Although we want to encourage cultural exchange with other countries--that is the purpose of the au pair scheme--inexperienced young people come to look after our children and the authorities have no idea whether they are doing the job properly. A commissioner given an advisory role in the Assembly could look into such matters and advise the Assembly that, although the Government in Whitehall were not prepared to reintroduce a registration system for au pairs, it might be appropriate in Wales.
While we were reaching that decision, and the Minister concerned knew that we were reaching it, she conducted her own focus group research of a few hundred parents and concluded, based on that very small group, that it would be unpopular. Without waiting for our recommendation, she declared that there would be no such restraint on child carers.
Ms Julie Morgan: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that at this very moment a consultation exercise is taking place in Wales about whether child carers should be allowed to smack children in their care. The indications are that in Wales it will not be allowed.
If we are to have a Children's Commissioner for Wales, we would want the commissioner to be involved in consultation in this area. It is not clear to me whether, in the absence of new clause 2, it will be possible for the commissioner to play a formal role rather than a series of informal roles, which I gather the Minister has intimated during previous proceedings would be appropriate. If we are to have a formal post, and it is to be paid, there should be formal responsibilities.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I have only a few insights to offer. I am sure that we should not be proceeding with such haste in respect of Wales without also considering the situation in England. If the new commissioner were to be given a wider remit under new clause 2, I would hope that he could give advice to the National Assembly for Wales on how to tell the Westminster Parliament--and, so long as we have a Labour Government for the next few months, a Labour Government--how to get its act together so that we have consistent provision of advice and a consistent framework so that children moving from one part of the country to another are given a seamless service by those in charge of them.