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4.33 pm

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): I am delighted to speak in our debate. I strongly welcome the Bill, and believe that the Government are showing their commitment to children, young people and adults in vulnerable positions. We all hope that the Bill will help to prevent scandals, such as those in children's homes in Wales, which have shamed this country.

The Bill covers England and Wales. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did not have time to cover in his introduction those provisions that are specific to Wales. The principles are the same in both countries, but there is a specific difference relating to the children's commissioner. In Wales, we are all waiting eagerly for the Secretary of State for Wales to table an amendment that will pave the way for establishing the post of a children's commissioner for Wales.

I want to concentrate on the children's commissioner, as there has been some interest this afternoon in Wales going a different way from England and introducing a children's commissioner, not a children's rights director. We must accept that that is a consequence of devolution. In Wales, we are doing what the National Assembly for Wales wants to do, although legislation on the matter is still to be passed in Westminster. We must consider how the two are to be tied together.

I shall talk about how the concept of a children's commissioner has developed in Wales. Welsh voluntary bodies have led the way in lobbying for a children's commissioner. Children in Wales, the umbrella body, has been in the forefront, along with Barnados, the NSPCC

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and other voluntary agencies. Before I came to the House, I was a social worker with Barnados and was involved in the campaign to establish a children's commissioner for Wales. In the National Assembly election campaign, Labour's manifesto stated that we would establish such a commissioner to look after the rights of all children in the community including those in care and those who are looked after. I believe that that now has all-party support in the Assembly.

The Welsh aspect of the Bill also gives rise to an interesting and historic occasion. Introducing the post of children's commissioner will be one of the first pieces of primary legislation to be passed in Westminster in response to a direct request from the National Assembly. It will not be easy for the Assembly to get exactly what it wants and it will not get it all at once in the Bill. The amendment to the Bill that I mentioned must be as wide-ranging as possible to cover as many children in different situations as possible. I wonder whether there are situations to which the Bill could apply--for example, adolescent units in hospitals, such as that in my constituency which admits adolescents for five days a week. I do not believe that that will be covered by the Bill in its present form, but it would be useful for such settings to be covered in regulations.

The Assembly seeks to establish a role for the commissioner that will cover all children in all settings, along with every aspect of their lives. It seeks a commissioner who would speak for children's rights and who would have the role of implementing the United Nations convention on the rights of the child in Wales. The commissioner would be a champion of children's rights and would raise the profile of children's issues in Wales. The commissioner would play a leading role in ensuring that the 70,000 children and young people in Wales would have some say in planning services. We in Wales envisage that that will be a key aspect of what he does.

Throughout the world, there are commissioners who perform a role similar to that which we want in Wales. In Sweden, children and young people under the age of 18 have an ombudsman of their own, established by parliamentary legislation in 1993. In principle, the ombudsman covers all issues relating to children and young people. Children in Sweden are consulted on current issues by questionnaires, letters and telephone. They communicate their views via the internet and there is an information line. The commissioner goes out of her way to try to get young people's views on legislation or other measures going through the Swedish Parliament.

In Norway, the ombudsman succeeded in increasing the period of paid maternity leave and worked to introduce legislation prohibiting physical punishment. Commissioners and ombudsmen act as advocates for children's rights.

In the UK and Wales, children do not have a voice. They are especially vulnerable because their position is weak and there is no explicit recognition of children's civil and political rights. In Wales, responsibility for children is split between the Assembly and Westminster bodies such as the Home Office. There is often no consideration of children's needs in areas that do not directly affect them, such as transport, housing and health. The Assembly intends to extend the commissioner's remit

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in relation to his advisory capacity after the Bill has been passed to cover all devolved matters. The commissioner will not deal with Home Office matters, as they are not devolved, but will cover all devolved matters. In that respect, the commissioner would operate in an advisory capacity until further primary legislation is introduced in Westminster to establish what the National Assembly wants,

The Welsh commissioner can be a voice for all children and the Bill enables a start to be made. Although the commissioner should protect the rights of all children, emphasis must be placed on the rights of children in difficult circumstances, some of whom do not live in settings covered by the Bill: I have in mind disabled children, refugee children, traveller children, homeless children, children living in acute poverty and children living with domestic violence. We want the commissioner to be able to speak up for all such children.

Through the amendment, we in Wales have a unique opportunity to lead the way in the United Kingdom. The post of the children's commissioner must be established as a matter of urgency, especially in the light of the Waterhouse report on the terrible scandals in care homes in north Wales, and of the current investigation into care homes in south Wales. We urgently need the post. The north Wales and south Wales inquiries demonstrate the need for a voice for children in care, and the amendment will be a first step toward establishing a more complete role at a later stage.

The Assembly has available the money needed to establish the post of commissioner during this financial year, and the commissioner should have the statutory power to support all children in Wales, many of whom experience social exclusion outside the settings encompassed by the Bill. After the Bill is passed, there will be a need for further legislation to broaden the remit of the commissioner.

We welcome the Bill and the amendment that is to be tabled. Let me end by saying that it is most important that children are involved as the legislation proceeds, that the regulations are drafted, and that the Act eventually operates.

4.42 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan), whose advocacy of children's rights in Wales is well known. Judging by the thunder that we heard, her forceful and passionate speech in favour of the children's commissioner moved even the heavens. As her voice appeared to be failing toward the end of her speech, I am glad to be able to save it from further stress; I hope that mine will also last the course.

I, too, shall concentrate on role of the children's commissioner in Wales and the way in which the Bill can be strengthened in Committee to develop that role. I start by paying tribute to the many right hon. and hon. Members--some of whom might well be present today, unbeknownst to me, as I do not yet know all their faces--who have, over the years, advocated that such a post be created. I pay special tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), whose face I do know, who in 1993 introduced a private Member's Bill that would have established a children's commissioner in Wales.

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The creation of the post was a Plaid Cymru manifesto commitment that was mirrored in some shape or form in all of the parties' manifestos for the National Assembly elections. That is why I was disappointed by the speech of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), whose approach to Welsh matters showed no understanding of events in Wales. Considering that he was once the Conservative spokesman on constitutional matters, including Wales, it would appear that we have been spared. However, other hon. Members seated on what I still think of as "the Benches opposite", even though they are, in fact, situated to my right, made far more cogent speeches.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) has apologised for no longer being here. I suspect that the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) did not hear my hon. Friend say that he understood the importance of the initiative in Wales, but regretted the disparity that will now arise out of devolution. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should not put words in the mouth of my hon. Friend.

Mr. Thomas: A measure that delivers in Wales what Welsh people want must be counted one of the successes of devolution.

Mr. Swayne: We want it as well--that is the point.

Mr. Thomas: Then it is for English Members of Parliament to make that case for England.

In his worst mistake, the hon. Member for Woodspring revealed his confusion about the new commission. The standards commission in Wales is to be the National Assembly--there will be no separate body. Therefore, his arguments about the lack of democratic control do not apply, at least in Wales, because there the commission and the Assembly will be one.

A children's commissioner has been a long time coming, although no particular blame attaches to the current Government or even to the previous Government. The fact is that society as a whole has taken a long time to catch up with the concept of children's rights and the need to enshrine children's rights in legislation. No doubt, before long, similar arguments will be heard in debates on corporal punishment; we shall see how that issue develops. The House will be aware that the establishment of a children's commissioner for Wales was a key recommendation of the Waterhouse inquiry into abuse in north Wales children's homes and foster care.

I welcome the central tenet of the Bill and the way in which it sets out national standards--Welsh national standards in Wales and English national standards in England. Events in north Wales were not only about the deliberate abuse of children; they involved poor management, poor standards and a lack of listening to children. The lessons of north Wales are now being felt in my constituency. The current director of social services in Ceredigion was named in the Waterhouse report as an individual who had let children down in his previous post in the old county of Gwynnedd. He is now on sick leave while his management role in Ceredigion is externally appraised.

When the events became public, I was still a member of Ceredigion county council. We noticed straight away that we could not immediately check out county staff and

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learn what qualifications they had and what standards they had reached. Therefore, I welcome the Bill's provisions relating to standards. I raise that case to highlight the crucial importance of clear management roles and national minimum standards to the protection of vulnerable children and adults in care.

I also welcome the proposed role of the National Assembly to oversee and monitor national care standards in Wales, and the establishment of Cyngor Gofal Cymru--the Welsh name of the Care Council for Wales, which is responsible for training. I hope that one of the council's priorities will be to deliver training in both languages--I understand that it is to replace the Council for Education and Training in Social Work, which was a pioneer of Welsh-language social work training--especially at local level. Those in my constituency who want to pursue social care training have to go outside my rural constituency and travel 40 or 50 miles to get the NVQ training that will bring them up to the right standard.

National Assembly Members have made it clear that they want the commissioner to have a strong and powerful role that will allow his or her office to take a view of the quality of life of, and the range of services delivered to, children in Wales. It is true that the Bill, even with the amendment, does not achieve all that we want. The hon. Member for Cardiff, North made the reasonable suggestion that the Assembly should add an advisory role to the work of the commissioner, then seek other legislative opportunities to develop the commissioner's role further. Jane Hutt, the Assembly Secretary for Health said on 1 July 1999:


That much is within the remit of the Bill. However, she added that the commission, in the role that she envisaged,


The Bill needs to be strengthened before those aims can be achieved. I would like to think that Ministers will heed the concerns expressed by several hon. Members and look for ways to insert new provisions in the Bill, so that the Assembly can exploit to the full the role of the children's commissioner in Wales. If Wales is pioneering in this regard, I very much hope that other areas of the United Kingdom will see what we can do and follow us in time.

There is real concern in the National Assembly that the Bill may not be the complete vehicle for the independent commissioner--one who will have the interests of all children in Wales at heart--that so many people want to see. As I understand the Government's intentions, those services covered by the Bill will come under the commissioner's remit, but the wider remit is a matter for debate. We are in danger of having a care standards commissioner, and not a fully fledged children's commissioner. That is one of the matters that we need to address.

We need to move towards a more obvious ombudsman role for the commissioner, a sort of Ofchild or Offspring, able to take up individual cases if necessary, as test cases, to see how Government policies within Wales affect the whole remit of children's care. I should like to mention one aspect of particular concern to me: the provision of play, which has slipped back over the years from the time in the early 1990s when things seemed to be moving forward very well. We have now slipped back on play facilities for children, an essential part of their natural upbringing.

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There is also a danger of the commissioner's becoming too bureaucratic. We need flexibility. We need a commissioner who does not just report annually to the National Assembly, where the report is debated for a week or so and then forgotten, but a commissioner who is actively involved in children's issues and reports to the Assembly fairly regularly.

I should like to take an example from elsewhere, one that I saw last week in Canada--the commissioner of the environment in the province of Ontario, who was looking at the environmental bill of rights and the response of Government Departments to it. It struck me that it had taken five years for that commissioner to grow out of the bureaucratic restrictions on him and start to look at the overarching issues that link together all environmental questions. In other words, he had been concentrating on individual environmental issues, and only after five years or so had grown enough wings to look at the overarching issues, which in that case happened to concern land use planning. I should not like to see that happen in Wales; I should like the commissioner to be looking at those overarching issues from the start.

There may be some concern that that means that the commissioner will start interfering in many Government Departments, but that is the whole point. If children are to be better served than they have been in the past, a truly independent commissioner must have that ability to go into various Government Departments and see what they are doing for children and how everything links together.

That is why my party, Plaid Cymru--the party of Wales, has been advocating in the Assembly, particularly in the debate there yesterday, a similar power to that of the Commissioner for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission to issue a non-discrimination notice and go in and try to move towards change within Government offices.

We need to combine the natural influence, which will grow, of the office of a commissioner in Wales with sufficient statutory powers to ensure that children's rights move on in Wales and that the sort of disastrous behaviour to which the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) referred is put firmly in the past.

An additional and important power is enforcement, where there are questions in relation to cross-boundary issues. This can best be illustrated by talking briefly about the Welsh language. Many hon. Members will know that it is one of the two official languages in Wales, and there is an obligation on all Government Departments to deliver services in the Welsh language, which by implication, with the Children Act 1989 and the need to take into account children's cultural background, means delivery of services in Welsh to Welsh-speaking children. There are young people who leave Wales for care. Young offenders are an obvious example. I am concerned about how their needs may be met within the context of the Bill.

This raises a question about the children's commissioner's remit for non-devolved and cross-border matters. These are no doubt matters for debate and discussion in Committee. The Welsh Language Act 1993 is a useful model.

I should like briefly to mention private sector care homes. I agree with many of the points made during the debate by Labour Members. However, I would point out

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that in rural areas private sector care homes play a very real role where the local authority cannot deliver the small-scale homes that allow people to stay in their villages. We have many small homes in Ceredigion of just four or five units, which allow people to stay in their own community, where their family live. I should not like to see standards introduced in such a way as to force those homes out of business.

My final point concerns the role and participation of children and young people themselves. The National Assembly has a unique partnership with the voluntary sector, a scheme that is unique within the framework of the United Kingdom. This could be a very useful base for expanding the advocacy role of children. The National Assembly can use its burgeoning relationship with the voluntary sector and advocacy and children's organisations, such as Children in Wales, to listen to the views of children and involve them in the appointment and progress of the office within Wales. I hope that on this and other matters the Government will listen not only to what the National Assembly says, but to what its Committees are saying. There are some interesting debates going on there. I hope that we can deliver to Wales the sort of children's commissioner that the children and young people of Wales deserve.


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