Has a commissioner ever been removed by Her Majesty after an address from both Houses of Parliament?
I cannot recall any such occurrence. It might be interesting to speculate, although, again, I will not dwell on the matter, about the circumstances behind the resignation of Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools recently. He was not a commissioner, but he was a sort of equivalent person and eventually decided that he could no longer live with the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, if I may put it that way. Such things can happen, although I cannot recall such a removal. I suspect that the provision would be redundant or otiose from the start, although it must be put in the Bill to give us a bit of reassurance.
The answer, I think, is that no one has been removed. It is a uniquely powerful position. It is equivalent to being a canon of Lincoln cathedral, who cannot be removed and who is in office for five years. Therefore, Parliament has no control over those people.
I do not know where firearms come into this, but I shall leave that to my hon. Friend.
Is not an alternative interpretation that Parliament has done rather well in appointing commissioners because it has not removed any so far?
I wish that I thought that that were so. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I am not as reassured by what he says as he would hope.
The Bill states:
"The Commissioner may appoint such staff as he thinks fit to assist with the discharge of his functions; and any function of the Commissioner may be performed by any member of his staff authorised for that purpose".
We run into a difficulty. I shall return to this theme as I go through my analysis of the Bill, but straight away we run into the budgetary element, which has not been mentioned much so far; I think that it has been touched on, but it has not been mentioned much. We must pause. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough referred to it in passing. The Commissioner may
"appoint such staff as he thinks fit".
There are no constraints. Apparently, there will be no limit. Straight away, therefore, we have the possibility of a burgeoning bureaucracy appointed by the commissioner without limit.
Of course, it would not work that way because the Secretary of State would inevitably have to set some sort of budget, but one can imagine the commissioner coming to the Secretary of State and saying, "In order properly to discharge my duties, these onerous and important duties that are laid on me by the statute, I need more staff." One
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can imagine that happening year upon year upon year. I can think of very few shrinking quangos, but I know of an awful lot of ever-expanding ones, not least the ghastly commissions and commissioners whom we already have, who seek endlessly to expand their remit, to expand their staff and to increase their role. Therefore, I am pessimistic about the implications for the taxpayer of clause 1(4).
Then, intriguingly, the Bill says:
"The Commissioner and the Commissioner's staff shall not be regarded as agents or servants of the Crown."
What status that gives them, I am not sure. Perhaps the Minister can advise us about where that provision would position the commissioner and his staff. He can be removed by Her Majesty in consequence of addresses from both Houses of Parliament, but a commissioner is not a servant of the Crown. Whether there is any conflict I shall leave for the Minister to ponder and perhaps to deal with when he replies to the debate. All that is not at all satisfactory.
When we get to clause 2, which seeks to set out the remit and terms of reference, we get into considerable difficulties. The Bill states that the commissioner shall
"seek to ensure that the rights and interests of children are properly taken into account by Ministers of the Crown".
That is an interesting one. How does the commissioner ensure that their rights and interests are properly taken into account by Ministers of the Crown? Can the commissioner demand to meet Ministers? Can he demand to see the advice given to Ministers? Can he second-guess Ministers? If he cannot do any of those things, how does that part of clause 2 work?
The provision states that the commissioner shall seek to ensure that children's rights and interests are properly taken into account by not only Ministers but
"government departments, local authorities, other public bodies and voluntary and private organisations when decisions on policies affecting children are taken".
I see: so now the commissioner will have statutory involvement in private organisations and their decision making. Have we thought about the ramifications? Do we know how that would work in practice? Can we begin to imagine or envisage how the commissioner would set about seeking to ensure that
"the rights and interests of children are properly taken into account by . . . voluntary and private organisations when decisions on policies affecting children are taken"?
One can argue that almost any decision that anyone, be he in the public, private or voluntary sector, takes is bound to have some effect on children. It would be challenging to try to imagine a decision that did not have an effect on children one way or another. Therefore, that apparently innocuous clause carries within it interesting and worrying implications. Again, perhaps when he winds up the debate, the promoter of the Bill might want to give us his further thoughts on how he thinks clause 2(1)(b) would work in practice and what the relationship between the commissioner and private organisations would be, given the apparent breadth of the remit.
The clause then states that the commissioner shall
"promote compliance with the United Nations Convention".
I shall not bother too much about that. I do not think that we should comply with any such convention in any way as they are aspirational nonsense by and large. I suspect that most countries do not comply with most UN
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conventions. They float about in galactic air and we all pay lip service to them but I suspect that, in most regards, we do not implement them, so I shall not dwell on that.
Clause 2(1)(d) states that the commissioner shall
"seek to ensure that children have effective means of redress if their rights are disregarded by any body referred to in paragraph (b)."
That "any body" includes Ministers of the Crown, so the commissioner will have the statutory obligation to ensure somehow that children have effective means of redress against a Minister. I want to hear the Minister's view on that matter. I suspect that, because he is a competent Minister and is very relaxed about the Bill, he will not be too worried, but speaking on behalf of those with whom he has collective responsibility, I wonder whether he has thought about or been advised on the implications of clause 2(1)(d) and how it would operate. If a Minister failed to take into account the rights and interests of children, how would the commissioner seek to discharge the responsibility to ensure that children had effective means of redress against that Minister?
Then we come to clause 2(2). Again, I will not waste time on the United Nations convention, but subsection (2)(b) says that the commissioner will
"maintain direct contact with children".
There are 11.5 million of them, so that is a pretty challenging part of his responsibilities. I do not know how that individual, however talented, busy or active, or whatever the size of his staff, will maintain direct contact with children in any meaningful sense.
The commissioner will also maintain direct contact with children's organisations. Perhaps we are back to the ones that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough listed. The commissioner will also
"pay particular regard to the views of children and . . . promote respect for the views of children throughout society".
I touched on that matter in my introductory remarks and I am not sure that I am impressed with that part of his responsibility, so I shall put that to that one side and come to subsection (2)(c), which says that the commissioner shall have regard to
"the need to ensure co-ordination between different bodies (including government departments)".
We are back to the Minister again. I would want to hear his views on that. How does the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre expect the commissioner to ensure co-ordination between different bodies, including Government Departments?
What role would the commissioner play? Would he sit on Cabinet Committees? Would he be party to the inner workings of government? If not, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I cannot think how he could possibly ensure co-ordination between Departments. Goodness knows the Prime Minister has enough difficulty doing that, as does the Deputy Prime Minister. It is one of the most notoriously difficult aspects of government. In the context of foot and mouth, for example, how is co-ordination ensured between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Ministry of Defence? The provision is verbiage. It is meaningless nonsense because it cannot be delivered.
One problem that I have with such Bills, which I regret now proliferate, is that they contain aspirational wording. They are a bit like UN conventions and conventions of the Council of Europe. People say, "We certainly want
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co-ordination between Departments. We'll have some of that. Let's put it in the Bill and it will improve the lives of children." Unless the Prime Minister is to start taking personal responsibility for those matters as well as for foot and mouth, I do not see how that could be achieved. I hope to hear more from the Minister or the promoter about it.
Then we come to the difficult provisions. I shall not dwell on annual reports, because they represent the usual spin, nonsense and soundbites to which we have become accustomed. A lot of money would be wasted and the reports would probably take the form of a glossy publication carrying an attractive picture of the commissioner, probably with children. It might also carry pictures of Ministers, with children.