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Mr. Livsey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that important point. However, we must also ensure that families do not have the right to abuse children. It is a fine line, and the implication that perhaps abuse in families never occurs is wrong; sadly, such abuse sometimes happens. We must achieve a balance, and I am glad that the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) has made his point.
The NSPCC and Children in Wales are worried about some omissions from the Bill, especially the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. We agree that it should be incorporated. We also agree with comments on non-devolved matters and cross-border services. For example, children from Wales can be in the custody of English local authorities. That happens in our part of the world, when children are often are fostered out to Herefordshire and Shropshire.
Some matters relate to the Home Office, especially aspects of court and tribunal decisions. Many of us are worried about young people who are in prison in England, and very far from home. I hope that the Children's Commissioner for Wales will work to establish the right of children from Wales to be in custody near their homes. Parents find it difficult to travel to visit their children who are in trouble and in custody far away. Young people experience much heartache when they are disconnected from Wales, not only physically but culturally. That matter should be addressed and investigated further.
We welcome the appointment of the Children's Commissioner, Peter Clarke, and wish him well. He has a tough job to do, but we know from his record with Childline that he is well able to do it. We also welcome the Bill, and will do all we can to give it a fair wind while also trying to improve it. There is every reason why it should be put on the fast track, as has been demonstrated by many speeches that we have heard this evening.
Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): I am delighted to be able to speak in this historic debate. For the first time since devolution, we in the House of Commons are providing the primary legislative framework for a policy made in Wales and for Wales. This example shows that the Welsh model of executive devolution can work when there is good will on both sides of the Severn.
I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate for another reason. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), I used to be responsible for children in Wales; my responsibility in the Welsh Office immediately preceded the establishment of the Welsh Assembly. I well remember my first briefing, in which some of the less than glorious history of child care in Wales and the responsibilities and failures of the Welsh Office were explained.
I am proud of the fact that during my time in the Welsh Office we published a White Paper on social services for Wales, entitled "Building for the Future", which proposed the option of an independent commissioner for children
I warn my colleagues in Wales that they should not see the role of the Children's Commissioner as solving all the problems. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend pointed out, it is not a panacea that will meet all the needs of children. Although the commissioner will certainly help by acting as an advocate and a watchdog, he will not replace the requirement for all of us to be vigilant in preventing the abuse and neglect that sadly affect too many of our children.
Two recent constituency examples show that it is far too early for us to congratulate ourselves on having learned from past mistakes. As is often the case, the family histories of the children involved are very difficult. I shall not name them, but I think that their experiences will be familiar to members of all parties, because, sadly, they are not rare.
The first case is that of a boy of nine who, for good reasons, was excluded from school in November. He was seen by an educational psychologist during his first year at school and was assessed again during his second year, but he was not "statemented" until his fourth year. He has since been diagnosed as suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and has been prescribed medication. The local authority says that it has no available special-school place for the boy, but has offered one hour a day of home tuition. Since his expulsion in November, however, the child has been given just seven hours--one day--of tuition. His mother is distraught. She needs help and her son needs help, but they are not receiving it.
The second case involves an even younger child--a toddler, or baby, aged two. Her mother voluntarily placed her in care some 18 months ago. The child has since been placed in five foster homes, and no decision has been made about her long-term future. Will she be reunited with her mother, will she be adopted, or will she continue to be passed from pillar to post?
What is so poignant about that case is that the mother, who is not yet 20, was herself in care, and was placed with 10 different foster parents. Her two-year-old daughter is already halfway to meeting the record that she set. It would indeed be a tragedy if today's care system failed the daughter, as the earlier one failed the mother.
I welcome the appointment of the Children's Commissioner, but let us not leave the House this evening with the self-satisfied view that we have done what needs to be done by allowing the Bill a Second Reading. A great deal remains to be done. The Children's Commissioner will aid the process, but his appointment is not the only means by which we must try to help children. I believe that a great deal of current legislation--especially, perhaps, "best value" legislation--gives us scope to ensure that far more is done, effectively and efficiently, in social services and education departments.
Whatever the systems and processes that we enact, however, all of us--as legislators in particular, but also as responsible adults--have a duty to care for children, to be vigilant and to speak up on behalf of children. I hope and believe that the Children's Commissioner will be the greatest advocate for children in Wales, but he or she will not remove the responsibility borne by everyone else.
Sir Peter Lloyd (Fareham): Several years ago, the Utting inquiry revealed an appalling history of abuse in children's homes in north Wales; but more shaming, in many respects, were the disbelief and the brick walls faced by children when they tried to speak up, and also by adults in the system when they sought to voice their suspicions. It took many years for the truth to come out. I fear that, because such a long time had elapsed and because the evidence was so old--and, as it would after all those years, relied so heavily on unsupported allegations--some guilty people have escaped and, even worse, some innocent people have been unjustly pilloried and possibly even convicted.
Certainly, abuses have been committed elsewhere in the United Kingdom and have not come to light because children encountered similar impediments to seeking help or simply being heard. The recent harrowing case of Anna Climbie, which has been mentioned several times today, is an extreme and particularly sadistic example.
It was right to devise a mechanism to check and test the systems of oversight for "looked after" children, and to try to give them a voice--or at least to turn a sensitive listening ear towards them. Legislation passed last year establishing a children's director in England and a commissioner in Wales was an important advance for "looked after" children, although, as the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) pointed out, it is not a panacea. It does not absolve anyone--legislators or citizens--from taking great care.
The Bill breaks new ground. It is, as we have heard, the first legislation promoted by the Welsh Assembly, and it extends the commissioner's remit to services supplied by the Assembly in Wales or substantially paid for from its budget. I should have preferred the commissioner and his staff to take up their original duties sooner, and to wait until they had gained some experience before extending their range. I hope that the commissioner will still regard "looked after" children as the most vulnerable and, therefore, as his immediate central concern. I hope that he will turn his attention to other matters only when he is confident that he has attended properly to those children and their institutional environment.
It makes sense for the commissioner eventually to extend his remit--perhaps, as the Bill does, in time, to all services involving children for which the Assembly is responsible or which it largely funds. However, I hope that the commissioner will use his judgment and find that he does not need to spend too much time on most of those services.
National Museums and Galleries of Wales, for example, caters for children, and in organising itself it should have in mind their interests and opinions. It should also balance the needs and interests of children with those of adults when they differ. If it is run by the right people, the commissioner really should not have to give it too much attention--although I am sure that that body would be grateful if the commissioner were occasionally to suggest ways in which it might better serve child visitors.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) made various searching points at the Dispatch Box earlier in the debate, and he was quite right to do so. However, I think that most of the points could and should be dealt with by amendments in Committee, rather than by rejecting the Bill. I was very glad to hear him say
Nevertheless, I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley was right to suggest that the Bill might be improved if it made it clear that the commissioner should work with parents, who will often be the ones who make complaints on behalf of their children. The welfare of children does indeed depend fundamentally on strong family units. However, regardless of whether such a statement is in the Bill, any half-decent commissioner--and I am sure that Mr. Clarke will prove to be a decent one--will know that, and will wish to operate as an ally and supporter of good and concerned parents, rather than substituting his judgment and authority for theirs.
I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley was right also to be concerned that there could be duplication and confusion. However, that too will depend largely on the way in which the commissioner decides to operate. There is confusion enough in most public organisations about who exactly is in charge and how complaints can be effectively made, especially when children are concerned. I believe that if the commissioner enables the voice of children and their parents to be better heard and the shortcomings of which they complain to receive effective attention, the new system will clarify where responsibility and the power to remedy complaints really lie.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) quite rightly expressed his concern about the possibility that the commissioner will not be able to attend to the situation of Welsh juveniles in young offenders' institutions especially if they are incarcerated across the border, in England. May I suggest that the commissioner could approach that situation by speaking up and indicating the potential problem, and then talking to HM chief inspector of prisons--who, I am quite sure, would undertake any investigation on his behalf that he thought necessary? It has been remarked in the debate also that devolution is an opportunity for authorities on both sides of the border to work together. I think that attending to that situation is one such opportunity, and that such co-operation is one way of dealing with the worry that the hon. Gentleman quite rightly had.
I take it that the commissioner is responsible for his own budgets, as well as for what he says. I hope that the Minister will confirm in his reply that the commissioner will be able to use his budgets, and that he has enough in them to be able to conduct formal research and inquiries at second hand. I think that the commissioner will find that he needs some academic input and has to take on board people from outside to make particular inquiries when sufficient information is not available for him to make a judgment or to put points to the public and to Members of the Assembly.
I was glad to hear the Secretary of State say that, although the commissioner will be formally responsible only for covering the services belonging to the Assembly, there is nothing to prevent him from speaking more widely when he judges it to be necessary. I hope that the Minister will tell me if I am wrong, but I took that to mean that the commissioner can comment, for example, on court cases and on legislation--not merely on
The commissioner has to make an annual report to the Assembly. I imagine that he is there to be summoned by the Assembly, to give evidence if the Assembly or one of its Committees so wishes. If he is, I hope that the Assembly and its Committees will make use of that.
Undoubtedly, the Assembly and the Government regard the commissioner as a champion doing battle for children against bad or insensitive people and organisations outside. However, I suspect that if the commissioner does his job properly, as is often the way with inspectors, his revelations and criticisms will occasionally come uncomfortably close to home--as regards the way in which Departments of the Government or the Assembly have behaved and in respect of the services that they offer. I hope so; it will do them good.