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Mr. Evans: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will vote exactly as the Government Whips dictate, and that the Bill will go into Committee quickly. Am I to believe that the hon. Gentleman does not think that improvements can be made to the Bill following the recommendations of the charities that have probably written to him to raise the same issues as they have raised with me? In Committee, we will try to improve the Bill to ensure that the children of Wales get the proper care and welfare that they deserve.
Mr. Michael: Does not the hon. Gentleman understand that, given the wording of his reasoned amendment, if he and his colleagues voted for it and they were in the majority, the Bill would die? That is what he has drafted and put to the House.
Mr. Evans: The funny thing is that the former Secretary of State for Wales should know from his time in opposition that devices are used to put down markers to show that the Opposition want the legislation to be improved in Committee. Given the Government's majority and the compliant people on the Labour Benches who are prepared to do the bidding of their masters at Millbank, I would be amazed if the amendment had any chance of succeeding.
The backdrop to the Bill is well known. Successive Governments have introduced legislation to protect the welfare of children. When we were in power, we introduced the Children Act 1989. In 1989, the United Nations convention on the rights of the child came into being. It was ratified by a Conservative Government in 1991 and came into force in 1992. The convention holds that children are born with fundamental freedoms and the inherent rights of all human beings.
What we are doing is important not just for the children of Wales, but for the 2 billion children throughout the world. A number of Governments and countries will be watching what we are doing in this country. We have done that ourselves by seeing how an ombudsman or a commissioner operates in other countries. Emerging democracies will look at what we are doing and recognise that it is a mark of a civilised society to have sufficient and proper legislation to protect youngsters who do not have a voice in those systems of democracy. They will see what we do to ensure that the convention's provisions are implemented. It provides for a child's right to survival, health and education, a caring family environment, play and culture, protection from exploitation and abuse and to have his or her voice heard and his or her opinions taken into account on significant issues.
What we do today is important for children around the world. We are not the first Government to introduce children's welfare measures and we must work hard to ensure that we are not the last. Other countries, such as Australia, Germany, Canada, Norway, Sweden and New Zealand, have a Children's Commissioner, or a version of as post. This country acted last year by introducing the Care Standards Act 2000. The establishment of the Children's Commissioner for Wales and the children's rights director for England will build on that.
Those provisions followed campaigns by children's organisations and charities, and I pay tribute to their work in pushing the agenda forward. They include Save the Children--Achub y Plant, in Welsh--the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Cymru, Barnados Cymru, the Children's Society in Wales and representatives of professional bodies, such as the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Welsh branch of the Local Government Association and even the Welsh Affairs Committee.
The Waterhouse report was a major catalyst for change. It investigated the abuse of children in care in the former county council areas of Gwynedd and Clwyd since 1974 and was published on 15 February 2000. The inquiry was established by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition when he was Secretary of State for Wales. I know that the House was grateful for his decision to do so, and I welcome the Secretary of State's earlier comments and what he said when the report was published.
The report was harrowing. Some 264 witnesses gave oral evidence and 311 written evidences were received. In his conclusion, Sir Ronald recommended the establishment of an independent Children's Commissioner for Wales, with specific powers on children's rights, the monitoring and oversight of the operation of complaints, whistleblowing and arrangements for children's advocacy. He also recommended that an annual report should be made to the National Assembly for Wales. I was delighted when the Secretary of State announced on 2 March--the day after St. David's day--that there would be an independent Children's Commissioner for Wales.
Provisions were made in the Care Standards Act. However, the powers were limited and I accept that the changes that we now want were not within the Bill's scope. The Under-Secretary of State promised that the Government would produce more comprehensive proposals, and we will be debating the general thrust of those.
The Bill has a most appalling backdrop. There was the recent murder of Damilola Taylor. A headline in The Independent on Monday 8 January this year was most harrowing. It read: "Serial abuse inquiries 'will top 100'". Nearly 100 inquiries into child abuse are taking place in England and Wales--and that is happening in 2001.
It is an appalling prospect that any other child could go through what Anna Climbie went through. The fact that an eight-year-old child could be systematically abused and neglected and left lying in a freezing bath to die of hypothermia defies our comprehension. It is little wonder that children's charities have now called for a comprehensive review of child protection procedures throughout the whole United Kingdom. The NSPCC has called for an independent child commissioner to act as a children's watchdog. If ever there was a time to act swiftly, that time is now.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition pointed out to the Prime Minister on 16 February 2000 that a children's rights director--as the post is now called in England--is not the same as the Children's Commissioner. The shadow Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), said during the passage of the Care Standards Bill:
While we have a Children Commissioner for Wales with one set of powers and a children's rights director with lesser powers who will be working fully in 15 months--there seems to have been a delay--there will be confusion and inequality of treatment, and concern for our children will arise. Children are children whether they live in England or Wales, and devolution should not be a barrier to giving all our children full protection and rights. It should be seen as an opportunity and there can be no mealy-mouthed excuses for not acting quickly.
There is no excuse for such differences to exist. I know that the Secretary of State said that the proposal is the result of the special needs that exist in Wales. However, of the 100 investigations into child abuse that are taking place in England and Wales, the vast majority--as one would expect--are being conducted in England. That is where the vast majority of children live. We must consider the issue with all seriousness, because there is no justification for not establishing a children's commissioner for England with equivalent powers to the Children's Commissioner for Wales so that all our children are properly protected.
The Government may claim that they do not have the parliamentary time in the next few weeks to do something about this issue, but now is the time to act. Tomorrow, we shall debate a Bill that many people believe will protect foxes. I know that emotions run high on both sides of that debate, but it will seem strange to the nation considering our proceedings that we have time to protect foxes, but not the time to protect children in England. I ask the Government to reconsider and to find time to establish a children's commissioner for England so that children in England and Wales are properly looked after.
In response to the Select Committee on Health in December 1998, the Government stated that they were not minded to create a children's commissioner post in England "in present circumstances". That was in 1998, and I suggest that circumstances have now changed. The Government ought to reconsider the matter.
Non-devolved issues include penal services and youth custody, which the Secretary of State has mentioned. These matters are not covered by the Welsh Assembly, but if an over-arching Children's Commissioner is to be able to deal with all aspects of care for our children, is it not absurd to use the reason that home affairs are not devolved as a bureaucratic barrier to prevent the commissioner from having responsibility for them? That is ridiculous. We must consider carefully in Committee whether the Children's Commissioner would feel uncomfortable--or, indeed, be debarred from--dealing with penal and home affairs matters.
A number of other matters, such as the Inland Revenue and social security, would also fall into the category of non-devolved matters. Children's charities have asked that they should all be examined, and the Government must come up with good reasons for the commissioner being debarred from entering any bodies that hold sway over our children.
The Bill contains an ability for the commissioner to be consulted and to monitor policy as it affects children, but that ability is contained within the straitjacket of the Welsh Assembly. All primary legislation that affects Wales is made here at Westminster. Surely the Children's Commissioner should have some input into primary legislation that will affect the children of Wales--either
Concerns have been expressed by children's charities in relation to the requirement to publish an annual report. We accept that, if the commissioner's powers are extended outside the Welsh Assembly, an annual report might also have to come to this Parliament. There would be nothing wrong with that. I am sure that when the Children's Commissioner publishes his report to the National Assembly for Wales, we shall all eagerly obtain copies and read it avidly. We shall want to ensure that the powers of the commissioner will be appropriate to what he wants to do, when he and his office are up and running.
Other concerns are that the commissioner should be able to enter any institutions that contain children, examine the failure of any bodies to exercise their functions and comment on the decisions of courts and tribunals. All those points have been raised by children's charities, and I hope that we can use the Standing Committee to good effect in answering them. Obviously, one would not expect the commissioner to participate in or comment on a court case while it was still going on. However, after the judgment had been made, there should be an appropriate mechanism whereby the commissioner could comment on cases in which children were involved.
The House welcomes the appointment of Peter Clarke as the new Children's Commissioner for Wales. He will have a lot of work on his plate, unfortunately, and we wish him well. He has a very good pedigree in Childline Cymru. I ask him and the House to consider one aspect of the provision. He is to be called the Children's Commissioner, but the last thing that many youngsters between the ages of 14 and 17 want to be called is children. They would be insulted if one thought of them in those terms, for all kinds of reasons. If we were to call him the children's and youth commissioner, teenagers might feel more included in his work, which would be useful.
I hope that the commissioner will consult us about his powers, and if he feels that we need to reconsider any of them, we should be able to do so. He must be able to act clearly and decisively to protect the rights and welfare of our children. Parents and society must be able to see him performing his tasks without muddied lines. There must be no demarcation problems in relation to the commissioner's role in schools or in institutions that provide services to schools. That must be properly defined, so that people know where responsibility lies.
We want to ensure that the commissioner's role is widely publicised. Wherever young people go, they must know that they have a champion who will fight for their welfare and rights. That publicity must be aimed at children in the first place but also, because of their role as whistleblowers, at adults. We must ensure that information about the relevant contact numbers and the commissioner's powers are widely available. In that way,
The best security for children is a secure, stable and loving family, supported fully by the Government and unhindered by political correctness or misguided priorities. Our youngsters should have a good education, without the fear of bullying. Sadly, today's edition of The Guardian carries another survey showing that a great many children suffer bullying in school. Children need protection from that.
Another aspect of good education is that children must not fear that village schools will be closed. Hon. Members of all parties want schools in and near villages to be protected. Children must also know that teacher numbers are sufficient, and that they will not be deprived of schooling. That happens all too often these days. What children need is a good education, a good education, a good education.
We want the Bill to be comprehensive and to afford proper protection to all our children. We want it on the statute book as quickly as possible. I guarantee that Conservative Members will work with diligence to ensure that there is no delay, and I have already spoken to the Government Whip to that end. There must be no excuses.
We want to strengthen the Bill where necessary, although that does not mean that we will not table amendments. Where appropriate, we want the powers of the commissioner to be extended. However, we must act without delay--our children deserve no less.