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8.2 pm

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I take the view that children are just like adults who tell the truth about how they feel, and have not forgotten to marvel at the world of people and the nature that is around them. Child abuse is a form of robbery. Abusers often have tremendous problems of their own, such as psychosis. It is almost as if they trade their pain for the innocence of the children they abuse. That pain and abuse can never really be satisfied or resolved in that way and the child who is being abused quickly becomes robbed of his or her happiness. Abused children tend to hide their feelings. In some ways, they live as children who have an almost adult sad attitude to the burdens that they have inherited from their experiences. Sadly, statistics tell us that they may repeat the cycle, which is difficult to break.

The tragic experiences of abused children in Wales have for once not led to a knee-jerk reaction in the Chamber. However emotionally involved we may feel as a society, or how those people who are directly involved may feel, we have taken stock. It is to the great credit of politicians and, in particular, the organisations that attempt to help such victims, often on a voluntary basis, that we have found our way to a truly constructive political opportunity that could make a profound difference to past and, especially, future victims of abuse. The determination of whether the Children's Commissioner has been successful is if we prevent abuse from happening. That is not a short-term goal. We will not know for many years whether his work is successful. It serves as a great source of optimism to me that we are discussing the issue on a broadly cross-party basis and, more to the point, with a genuine insight, which has been fed to us by the many organisations that have probably briefed us all, and from our experience of life.

A number of issues will be raised in Committee. Most have been mentioned. The need for the Children's Commissioner to be empowered to consider and to make appropriate representations on any matter that affects children in Wales was well described and I shall not repeat the argument. The importance of the commissioner having direct contact with children cannot be overstated, not least because there is no doubt in my mind, as the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for young people, that they do not believe that the political system is for them and that there is a voice in the corridors of power for them to turn to or trust to be their advocate.

Children who are put off at a fairly young age from everything that we do here are unlikely to inherit an interest in us or find us appealing later on. If children are

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victims of abuse and do not have faith in the systems, they will not turn to them for help. If the Children's Commissioner has direct contact with children and progressively builds respect and a culture of hope among them so that they believe that they have a voice, that will be tremendously important. I suspect that amendments will help to achieve that.

It has already been stated that the United Nations convention on the rights of the child should be promoted by the commissioner. The Government might be a little hesitant to allow that to happen because it might have knock-on consequences for the rest of the United Kingdom. It is clear from working on Northern Ireland human rights legislation that some parts of British society do not live up to the full spirit of the convention on human rights. Allowing the commissioner to have such powers in Wales would probably have a ripple effect. We should not be scared of that. We are, after all, signatories and even if there are unintentional consequences, such as not having a differential minimum wage between young and older people, so be it, because it would also be healthy. We would be putting our money where our mouth is if we say that the strategy is to get it right and ensure that we change those aspects of our activities that are some way from our desired goal.

Hon. Members asked for the commissioner to be given powers to promote public awareness of children's rights. That was spot on, but we must ensure that we do not give him a nebulous goal that we do not understand in specific terms or which is not achievable. With such an aspiration, we have to ensure that there are resources and opportunities to go with his responsibilities. For example, if we are serious about giving the commissioner the power to promote public awareness, he must have access to the highest levels of government in Wales. That would not be hard because the Welsh Assembly is clearly behind the proposal.

We must be holistic about those considerations. Save the Children raised the concept of holism with me only today. Rebecca Hickman, who is one of its key officers on the Bill, rightly explained that we must ensure that we end up with a holistic vision and a job that is internally consistent. As we amend the Bill, we must ensure that we do not tack on everything that we want and create a confusing role that is not manageable by one person.

Other points have been made. I shall refer to only two, because repetition is not always helpful.

Mr. Evans: What was that again?

Mr. Öpik: Repetition is not always helpful. Sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the hon. Gentleman presented me with an irresistible opportunity.

It will be interesting to hear the clarification of what the commissioner is allowed to investigate with regard to devolved powers. The Assembly's report on the Children's Commissioner has been mentioned. Paragraphs 29 and 30 address that matter to some extent. They seem to imply that the commissioner is expected to have reasonably clear powers in that regard. Paragraph 29 states:

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We must test the Bill and any amendments to it in the light of cross-border provision. That point has already been made, but I highlight it now because it will be a potential source of strain in the commissioner's work if he cannot carry out his desired functions and achieve the Minister's aspirations simply because of something that we have missed at this stage. Given the importance of the issue before us, it would be a travesty if insufficient scrutiny led to a tragedy in the way in which children are treated.

The Waterhouse report and the Children in Wales briefing refer to suicide and the importance of the commissioner having a right of access to institutions. That is vital. Although it may not be pleasant to refer to this issue, the consequences of abuse last a lifetime unless the people involved are treated. Even then, the echoes of their tragic past may recur from time to time. A number of people who gave evidence to the Waterhouse inquiry said that suicide is often a consequence, so the right of access is one insurance policy that we could establish. It is not absolutely reliable, but it would empower the commissioner and his staff and that might ensure that we have a better chance of detecting the problems before they occur.

I am concerned about the tone of some parts of the Bill. Much of it is about looking for the danger signs and the problems, but I wish to ensure that we do not create a children's police officer--someone who simply polices Wales to ensure that bad things do not happen. We do not want to create a culture of suspicion in which everyone looks over their shoulder and many people fear that a malicious claim could be made against them and that they will be investigated in a high-profile way by the commissioner.

We need to give thought to the precedents that the commissioner's mode of operation will set and to ensuring that we do not create a culture in which we assume that someone might be an abuser or might not be treating children in an appropriate fashion. That is unlikely to happen across the whole of Wales, but, if we are not careful, there may be a residue of concern in places that have historically been associated with abuse if they have not already been closed down. Discussion of possible solutions is more appropriate for the Committee stage, but I mention that as a strategic issue now.

My other concern about the Bill's tone is that, although it mentions empowerment, it is primarily aimed at preventing abuse. Would it not be great if kids could view the commissioner as someone who could help them to make the best of themselves? The commissioner could occasionally present ideas to the Assembly or to this House that could genuinely add value to the opportunities that children in Wales enjoy. That would provide a fantastic opportunity and would put the question of stopping cruelty in context. Society's objective is not to prevent cruelty, but to help people make the best of themselves and to help kids feel that they can achieve their potential. That is the other side of the

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commissioner's role. I hope that, in Committee, thought will be given to how we can provide him with that positive opportunity.

I suspect that if we do that, young people will become much more inclined to think that they can access the commissioner and participate in his work directly. They will not feel stigma or think that they can call the commissioner only if they have been abused. They will not think that calling the commissioner means making a confession about the suffering that they have experienced.

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