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Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, rightly told us 10 minutes ago that the commissioner must not be an ineffective token symbol. We want to see a champion for children, a strong and independent voice, doing good work in Northern Ireland. We on these Benches give our blessing to the order.
Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I welcome the order and the order we shall discuss later on the protection of children. Having read both the orders very carefully, am I right in thinking that the powers of the commissioner could be used to protect children who are made to join paramilitary youth movements and are frequently threatened that their families will
Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: My Lords, I welcome this order and I acknowledge the work that has been done by the Northern Ireland Assembly. The order is a clear indication of attempts to achieve close co-operation within and among government departments and other agencies. It is evidence that Northern Ireland can have a governmental system capable of delivering on key local issues and that there is the political potential to make the system work effectively. I hope that we shall very soon see the restoration of devolution.
I also acknowledge the helpful contributions made to the Assembly by those from the Office of the Children's Commissioner for Wales. Although the Office of the Commissioner for Children and Young People in Northern Ireland will be somewhat different from the Welsh model, the shared experiences were extremely useful to the consultation process.
During the debate on the Children's Commissioner in the Assembly, my colleagues in the Ulster Unionist Party expressed concerns that the powers of the commissioner to investigate authorities and recommend changes in policy, practice or law may undermine the role of, for example, the Police Service of Northern Ireland or social services departments. I therefore welcome the provisions within the order that ensure that the inspection review role of the commissioner will be over and above that of the normal channels of investigation. As I understand it, the commissioner will exercise those functions only if and when the existing provisions have failed the children involved.
The establishment of a commissioner should not absolve the Government from responsibility for children's rights. Indeed, the main purpose of a commissioner should be to enhance how public authorities interact with children. There must be a culture of respect for children's rights that permeates every aspect of society, and a system of governance where the rights, interests and views of children and young people are second nature, not second choice.
While the most important issue is to establish a commissioner to, above all else, defend the rights and interests of children, there is concern that a commissioner for children and young people may significantly undermine the role and responsibility of parents.
Given the extensive powers of the commissioner to undertake research, issue guidance, conduct investigations into law and practicethat can include entry and inspectionprovide information and make representations and recommendations, my party naturally expressed concerns about accountability. We are concerned that adequate democratic oversight will be applied to the commissioner and his office. We therefore welcome the provision under paragraph 12 of Schedule 2 which states that the commissioner is required to report on the carrying out of his functions at the end of every financial year and that the report shall be laid before the Assembly and the Secretary of State.
Naturally, given the previous debate, I support the order. We in Northern Ireland see it as a huge step forward in the promotion and protection of children's rights. In Northern Ireland, more than one third of the population is under 18, and that group faces many serious challenges through issues such as poverty, social exclusion and lack of representation. That is not unlike children and young people throughout the British Isles, but the children in Northern Ireland have an added difficulty living in a post-conflict society. Indeed, I fear that the legacy of that conflict will be around for some time to come. A children's commissioner is needed all over the United Kingdom, but especially in Northern Ireland.
The order has put emphasis on direct access for children and young people to be consulted directly, and I would strongly back that. The provision must not be a "paper exercise" but one that gives children and young people a champion who has a voice at the highest levels of government.
I will not go into all the aspects of the order. I have some concerns and questions about children in the juvenile system and asylum-seeking children. Those children and young people must also be afforded protection in line with all other children and young people in Northern Ireland under the order.
I should, however, like to ask the noble and learned Lord about Article 15(5), which is specifically in respect of expenses from a child or young person. How would that happen? It is not clear from the order.
The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, is quite right to draw our attention to Article 6(3)(a). I can confirm that the role of the parents is not in contradiction to any relevant provision of the UN convention, as he correctly identified. I am happy to give him that assurance.
The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, asked about the commissioner's possible involvement where children might be coercedI think that I paraphrase fairlyinto inappropriate paramilitary organisations. The commissioner could indeed have a role in that context. I shall trace the various origins of that role, first by examining Article 6. It states:
I turn to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Blood. There is the possibility of the recovery of costs but I assure the noble Baroness that that would be pursued only if the commissioner thought it reasonable. In my judgment, that is going to be a rare occurrence, but the provision is there in case.
The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, the main purpose of the order is to enhance and extend the powers of the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland and to reorganise public audit of the health
There was extensive public consultation in Northern Ireland. The results indicate support for the proposals. The provisions were the policy of the Northern Ireland Executive. Prior to suspensionthis echoes what was said earlierthe former Audit and Accountability (Northern Ireland) Bill had passed the second stage of its passage through the Assembly. The Bill received a unanimous welcome from all speakers in that debate, including the chairmen of the Finance and Personnel Committee and the Audit Committee. The chairman of the Audit Committee spoke also in his capacity as a member of the Public Accounts Committee. Those committees had already had opportunity to have input into the proposals, and had done so.
The order's provisions generally are largely in line with the United Kingdom Government's response to the recommendations of the Sharman report. Where it differs marginally from those provisions, it does so only to reflect the concerns of the Northern Ireland Executive, Members of the Assembly and its committees. The provisions will enhance the key principle of the independence of public audit. I commend the order to the House.