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5.42 pm

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): Government Front- Bench colleagues deserve praise for introducing this Bill so quickly, as does the National Assembly for Wales, which co-operated so well with other arms of Government in the United Kingdom to make the Bill a reality. In addition, as the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) noted at least tangentially, the Children in Wales Commissioner Campaign Group has provided some thoughtful briefings about how the Bill could be improved.

I remain at a loss to understand why the Opposition have tabled an amendment that would decline to give the Bill a Second Reading. It does not have the slightest chance of succeeding, but if it were to be passed it would prevent all the good things that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley wants to happen from occurring. However, given the source of the amendment, we should not be surprised at that contradiction.

To be fair, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley put the debate in the context of the recent and terrible inquiry into the death of Anna Climbie. We must recognise that the phenomenon is not new: perhaps the first really major outcry about the abominable treatment and death of a child arose in connection with Maria Colwell in 1973. Similar incidents have occurred consistently over the years, and in that context we could mention Tyra Henry, Jasmine Beckford, Kimberly Carlile and Doreen Mason. Unfortunately, many children have met deaths after suffering and torment so terrible that it is beyond ordinary human beings to understand it.

We have heard mention of the fact that about 100 investigations into child abuse are taking place in the United Kingdom now. We need only look at statistical

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information available in Wales on the number of children on the child protection register to see that child abuse is increasing. Between 1990 and 2000, the figure increased by 5 per cent., from 2,302 to 2,416. Within the figure for 2000 there was a 50 per cent. increase in neglect and emotional abuse; and of the almost 2,500 children who were on the register, more than a third were there as a result of physical abuse.

It is interesting, too, to look at the figures to see how the range can change. In the Vale of Glamorgan, in 1997, only--I say "only" to emphasise the change-- 37 children in 10,000 were named on the register, but by 2000 that figure had increased to 61. In Wrexham, the low figure of 11 on the register in 1997 had increased to 22 in 2000. The figure for Wales increased from 30 under-18s in every 10,000 in 1997 to 40 in 2000.

However, in Caerphilly the figure has gone up and down. From 39 in every 10,000 in 1997, it jumped to 64 in every 10,000 in 1998 and 62 in 1999, and then went back down to 35 in 2000. We might want to explore and consider the reasons for those fluctuations.

Between 1992 and 1998 in Wales, figures were kept by age groups--under fives, one to four, five to nine, 10 to 15 and 16 to 17. In every age group except for the last, the amount of abuse increased during that period.

We must be keenly aware of the fact that we are considering the Bill at a time when problems of abuse have got worse, despite the fact that there have been all these inquiries, and that we now have a well-established system of child abuse conferences, registers and procedures. We have the Children Act 1989, which gave child protection agencies extra powers, and the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which came into force in 1992, although with some reservations. We have a battery of laws. We are awash with recommendations from numerous inquiries--more than 20 in the past few years. Reams of guidance have been issued, and yet we must face the fact that terrible abuse still goes on.

We should focus not so much on that abuse, but on what it is about our society that causes such things to happen. There is something about children with which, in our adult world, we have not yet come to terms. That is why it is vital to have a commissioner. We need someone who can step back and take a view that is independent from those of the agencies that are charged with ensuring that children are brought up in a healthy environment. There are so many of them--the social services, the police, the hospitals and the national health service--and yet, for some reason, the system is failing, so it is very important indeed to have the Children's Commissioner.

Of course it is not a new or unique idea to appoint such a commissioner. About a dozen countries have had commissioners--some for quite a few years--and they have operated successfully. We should take heart from examples in countries such as Norway, Denmark and New Zealand, to name but a few.

In the United Kingdom, I suppose that it was the 1991 report, which was sponsored by the Gulbenkian Foundation and written by Peter Newell--at least, he was in charge of the process--entitled "Taking Children Seriously" that proposed a children's rights commissioner. The latest edition, which was published last year, has the support of more than 100 organisations that either represent or have

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dealings with children. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley quoted Sir William Utting's foreword, which noted the important of such an independent commissioner.

In 1998, the Select Committee on Health made some important recommendations about having a children's commissioner who would have responsibilities in England. By that time, it was already known in Wales that we wanted to spearhead the appointment of such a person. When Sir Ronald Waterhouse's report came out last February, he made it clear in his first two recommendations that we should have such a commissioner in Wales. In the meantime, the Welsh Office had published its own White Paper, entitled "Building for the Future", which was about the provision of social services. In that document there was a commitment to consider the introduction of the Children's Commissioner.

We have a well-trodden background to the Bill. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, it will not be creating a Children's Commissioner--we have one already. It is seeking to build on powers in the context of the Bill that we considered last year. The Bill before us is seeking to extend positively the commissioner's powers to enable Mr. Peter Clarke to create an office--we congratulate him and wish him well--to ensure that in Wales we shall have a system and a person to give children confidence that they will be able to make their representations if all else has failed. They will know that if they make representations, there will be recorded comment for the Government to take up, whether it be at Assembly level or United Kingdom level. Children can be confident that they will be taken seriously.

The Assembly and the Minister for Health and Social Services, Jane Hutt, made it plain in July the year before last and in May last year that the Assembly was giving importance and priority to the extension of the commissioner's powers to enable him or her to play a more positive role in Welsh life for Welsh children. The Health and Social Services Committee of the Assembly, chaired by Kirsty Williams, conducted a thorough investigation and compiled a report that contained a series of recommendations. Not all of them are featured in the Bill because there still remain difficulties in some instances about the way in which the role of the commissioner can be approached in statutory terms. However, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear that the commissioner will still be able to pursue quite a broad remit and to make recommendations not only at Assembly level but to the United Kingdom Government and Departments for them to consider where they have responsibilities in Wales.

We have a Bill that extends the commissioner's role. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already gone into some detail about that and I do not feel that I need to go over all of the issues. However, it is worth considering some of the concerns of the voluntary sector in Wales, some of which have also been voiced by the Assembly, about how the commission might operate under the powers set out in the Bill. It is right that we should raise issues about non-devolved matters and cross-border services. It was good to hear my right hon. Friend saying that the commissioner would be able to make comments and recommendations on such issues.

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It is interesting to know that there are about 220 Welsh teenagers under the care of the youth justice system or in young offenders' institutions in England. There is about the same number in custody in my constituency at Parc prison. Often these children will come out of care and be a part of the commissioner's direct remit. The fact that they are moved into custody should not preclude the commissioner from being able to make recommendations and give consideration to how those young people found themselves in custody. What were the failings of the system, which is now delivered through the Assembly, in the first place?

We must recognise that the statutory duty will still lie with the Home Office, for example, but it is good to be able to raise the issue in this debate, so we can place on record exactly how the commissioner will be able to operate.

Mr. Walter: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of young people in custody. I wonder whether he has any more idea than I have about the position of those in custody in his constituency. As I understand it from the Secretary of State, the commissioner would be able to express an opinion about them, despite having no statutory power. The commissioner would not have that power in respect of the hon. Gentleman's constituents who might be in custody in England. Would that be the hon. Gentleman's understanding?

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