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Session 1999-2000
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Standing Committee Debates
Welsh Grand Committee Debates

The Government's Legislative Programme and the Chancellors's Pre-Budget Report

Welsh Grand Committee

Tuesday 14 December 1999

(Afternoon)

[Mr. Barry Jones in the Chair]

The Government's Legislative Programme and the Chancellor's Pre-Budget Report

Motion made, and Question proposed [this day],

    That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee has considered the Matter of the Government's legislative programme as outlined in the Queen's Speech and the Chancellor's Pre-Budget Report as they relate to Wales.—[Mr. Paul Murphy.]

4 pm

Question again proposed.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): On a point of order, Mr. Jones. Is it in order for the Secretary of State for Wales to change his coat mid way through the day?

The Chairman: That is not a point of order.

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): I shall conclude my remarks on the transport system. An integrated transport system and the way in which the Strategic Rail Authority operates are essential to Wales. For example, the valley lines, which operate in my constituency, begin and end in Wales and they must be integrated into the surrounding transport system.

I hope that the Secretary of State will consider the infrastructure in Wales and the amount that can be invested. Eight per cent. of Great Britain's route kilometres and 9 per cent. of its stations are in Wales, but only 2.4 per cent. of Railtrack's future expenditure plans relate to Wales. There is a significant discrepancy between the 2.4 per cent. figure and those other figures. Most of Railtrack's expenditure is associated with how much a network is used which partly explains the discrepancy.

I also want to discuss the need for a children's commissioner for Wales. That proposal was not included in the Queen's Speech, but it could be added to a relevant Bill during its passage, or it might be introduced by another means. I have been involved in the campaign for a children's commissioner for a long time. Before I came to the House of Commons, I worked for Barnados and I have had dealings with many voluntary organisations in Wales that work with children. We are seeking to create the position of a children's commissioner. It should be filled by an independent person with an independent office in Wales, who should look after the interests of children in Wales. He or she would deal with complaints and be proactive in furthering children's rights. That would involve ensuring that the principles of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child are supported in Wales.

There are many such positions worldwide. There is a commissioner in Sweden and in South Australia a children's interest bureau assesses draft legislation for its impact on children. We have discussed transport today, but did we consider the impact of transport legislation on children? Every piece of legislation should be considered for its impact on children. A commissioner or a children's ombudsman is one way in which to do that.

Children in Wales is a voluntary organisation that has led the way in this context. It organised a conference earlier this year in Cardiff at which the Norwegian children's ombudsman spoke. It was fascinating to learn about the range of issues in which he became involved and the way in which he advanced children's rights and made their voices heard.

It is generally agreed that a children's commissioner should be set up because children are vulnerable. They do not have a voice—they do not vote and there is no way for them to advance their views. There is very little consideration of the impact of legislation on them and there is often little co-ordination between the Departments that have responsibility for them. For example, there are often few links between the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Employment.

Some children suffer double discrimination—for example, refugee and gypsy children and those who lack the advantages of most children. It is vital to have a commissioner to examine all aspects of children's lives. I emphasise all aspects, as health and social services legislation may be more important than legislation that is directly related to children.

When Children in Wales gave evidence to the Assembly, it gave an example of how children's needs may be addressed in ways that are not always obvious. At the end of the previous century, the number of children in miner's homes who died from scalding outnumbered the miners killed in pithead accidents. Baths of boiling water were placed in front of fires—my grandfather used such a bath—and children were often scalded. When pithead baths were opened, the number of children suffering scalds fell dramatically. Pithead baths were more effective than an expensive burns unit. I am trying to say that children are affected by wide-ranging issues. Children who live in poverty in Wales must also be considered and an ombudsman would help with that.

It is important that a children's commissioner should be able to deal with all issues relating to children, whatever the basis of legislation, and all aspects covered by the Welsh Assembly and Westminster. The commissioner must have clout. An amendment might be made to the Care Standards Bill to enable a children's commissioner with statutory powers to be set up, but I would be worried that the commissioner could deal with issues relating only to social services. A similar amendment to the Local Government Bill might allow him to deal with issues relating only to local government. Careful thought must be given to the legislative basis for a children's commissioner and we must ensure that the commissioner has a lot of clout. The Assembly may prefer to operate without a legislative basis initially and then to establish where its legislative powers should come from.

We owe it to the children of Wales to set up a children's commissioner or ombudsman to consider matters relating to children in Wales.

4.07 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): When the Secretary of State opened our proceedings this morning, he spoke passionately about the role of Members of Parliament at Westminster who represent Welsh constituencies and he referred to the need for the Welsh Grand Committee to continue its functions and deliberations, as it has done for many years.

People in Wales who listen to our proceedings today may wonder what impact anything that we discuss here will have on the bread-and-butter issues that affect them. There is no doubt that, since 1 July, the people of Wales are represented by more people, but they may question whether they are better represented by those people who currently represent them in the Welsh Assembly and at Westminster. They may focus particularly on what their Members of Parliament are doing at Westminster because their role has changed and their effect has changed. Questions have been ruled out of order because they concerned devolved matters and all Members of Parliament have been restricted in the questions that they may ask.

The matters affecting Wales that we may consider in this Committee have also changed post devolution. People will examine what we are doing here in the Welsh Grand Committee, in the St. David's day debate—I should be grateful if the Secretary of State could tell us whether we shall have such a debate next year—in Select Committees and other Committees dealing with Wales and Welsh questions. Post devolution, many people may say that Wales has lost its voice at Westminster. Whether it has also lost its heart will depend, in many ways, on what the Secretary of State intends to do in the job that he now holds. I wish him well in his position, because Wales deserves a representative at Cabinet level who fights hard for the people of Wales. People will also be looking carefully at the roles that are fulfilled by the other aspects and layers of Westminster Government.

The Secretary of State spoke passionately about devolution. He said that the people of Wales delivered their voice and their verdict at the referendum—although he was generous enough to say that it was a slender victory, which is certainly true. I shall not rehash that battle—what has happened has happened. The people of Wales will now be keeping an eye on how well the bread-and-butter issues are dealt with by Government at all levels.

I should like to make a plea to the Secretary of State, although he said that he was not willing to voice his opinion on the matter. The people of Wales—those who turned out to vote—gave devolution only a slim majority. Therefore, before any further devolution takes place—for example, before taxation-raising powers are devolved to the Welsh Assembly—the people of Wales should be consulted again, via a referendum, to establish whether that is their wish.

Many people will be shocked by the increases in their council tax bills when they receive them in April. It is all very well for the Secretary of State to echo the theme that things have only got better for the people of Wales.

We heard about the long list of people who have benefited from the election of a Labour Government. Can the Secretary of State tell me whether pensioners living in Anglesey, who face an increase of 16.5 per cent. in their council tax, will benefit? In Blaenau Gwent the increase will be 13.5 per cent., in Conwy it will be 13.8 per cent. and in Monmouthshire it will be 18.3 per cent. The average increase will be 10 per cent.—at a time when the inflation rate is 1.4 per cent.

What should Members of Parliament who represent Welsh constituencies tell constituents who are facing those increases—that it is thanks to a Labour Government and a Welsh Assembly working hand in hand that they are to receive increases of six to eight times the rate of inflation?

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): To clear up any possible confusion on the part of members of the Committee, will the hon. Gentleman explain whether the policies that he has enunciated are those of the whole Tory party? Last time he spoke about the powers of the Welsh Assembly, I heard him being contradicted by the leader of the Tory party within hours, and then contradicted in the opposite direction by various Members of the Welsh Assembly. Will he confirm whether he is speaking on behalf of the entire Labour—I mean, Tory—party?

 
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Prepared 14 December 1999