Previous SectionIndexHome Page

8.57 pm

Mr. Martin Caton (Gower): I feel that I should declare a parochial interest. My predecessor, Gareth Wardell, who has already received a tribute this evening, currently chairs Children in Wales, which has received even more tributes for its work in advancing the case for a Children's Commissioner for Wales. Its briefing has been cited in many of today's speeches. I have another parochial interest. The newly appointed commissioner, Mr. Peter Clarke, lives in my constituency, in the fine village of Garnswllt.

Let us disregard the unfortunate terminology of the "reasoned" device presented by the official Opposition. I thought that the speech of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) was a positive and useful contribution to our debate about the future of a Children's Commissioner.

Like every other speaker, I welcome the Bill, mainly because it will considerably improve Welsh children's access to their rights. I also welcome the added protection that it potentially gives them. Furthermore, I consider it to be a significant milestone on the road to a more decentralised Britain and an empowered Wales within the United Kingdom.

Some in the media and in politics have tried to set up the Welsh tick box in the national census as a significant indicator of the recognition of Wales in the new constitutional settlement after democratic devolution. I think that the Office for National Statistics should have included a Welsh tick box once the Scots had made their decision, but there is no comparison between the tick box issue and this Bill as any measure of where the governance of Wales is going. The Bill is infinitely more important: it represents a positive response by Government in Whitehall and by Parliament at Westminster to what the elected Welsh Assembly tells us it wants, and, more important, what the children of Wales need. The United Kingdom Government are giving a high priority in their electoral programme to the call from Cardiff bay and, indeed, from Wales as a whole.

I think that history will eventually acknowledge that the Bill is something of a landmark in the developing relationship between government in Wales and in the United Kingdom as a whole. Given the Bill's importance both for the children of Wales and for our constitutional development, it might be a good idea for hon. Members to take another look at what the Assembly called for, to reconsider whether, and to what extent, we share the Assembly's vision, and to ask ourselves whether the Bill as drafted can fully deliver that vision.

The Assembly voted unanimously to establish a Children's Commissioner for all children in Wales, with the overarching aim of promoting and upholding the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Assembly Members wanted a commissioner who could consider and make representations on any matter affecting children in Wales. I am quite sure that the Assembly used as a model the type of children's commissioners and ombudsmen that have been created in some other European countries--where commissioners and ombudsmen set their own agenda in championing the

16 Jan 2001 : Column 281

rights of children, monitor and review all aspects of children's lives, maintain direct contact with children and speak up for them and promote throughout society respect for children and for their views.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): My hon. Friend is a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee, which recently conducted an inquiry into social exclusion in Wales. When we were conducting an inquiry into child care in Wales, we visited Denmark. Does he agree that, in Denmark, family policy was at the very heart of governmental, social and economic philosophy, seeking to ensure the welfare of children from newborns to 18-year-olds? In Denmark, enshrining rights was a fundamental aspect of the overall political philosophy. With the establishment of a Children's Commissioner, could we not emulate that in Wales?

Mr. Caton: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I completely agree with his comments. He will remember that in Copenhagen the Select Committee visited Denmark's equivalent of the Children's Commissioner and saw the all-embracing role--which my hon. Friend described--that that commissioner performs.

The child's point of view is the foundation of the role played by commissioners in Denmark and in other European countries, who seek to secure the best outcome for children. I wonder whether the Bill, as drafted, will establish that type of commissioner. As has already been mentioned, the Bill concerns many of the charities working with children in Wales. The type of commissioner that the Bill seeks to create seems to be modelled more on parliamentary, health service and local government ombudsmen services. Although all those services are extremely valuable, they are really concerned more with administering or monitoring service delivery by different tiers of government or their agencies.

Therefore, although the Bill will extend the commissioner's remit way beyond its current boundaries as established in the Care Standards Act 2000, it still seems to limit the remit to monitoring and reviewing only those matters that have been devolved to the National Assembly for Wales. It seems that the commissioner will not be able to comment properly on non-devolved matters, regardless of how significant those matters might be in the lives of children or young people who are ordinarily resident in Wales.

Although my concerns about those aspects of the Bill were eased by the Secretary of State's speech, I am still worried that the commissioner's proposed remit may be too restrictive. The commissioner himself will have no powers of control. His power will be in reviewing, monitoring, highlighting and exposing, by bringing matters to the attention of the public or appropriate authorities.

I believe that if it will help to take us forward in achieving children's rights and child protection, the commissioner should as a right be able to comment on non-devolved matters, primary legislation or--as hon. Members have said--court decisions. Indeed, when Parliament is considering relevant legislation, why should we as Members of Parliament deny ourselves access to the expert advice of Wales's Children's Commissioner?

Moreover, how will Welsh children who have been told that the Children's Commissioner is their champion understand it if, when they take a problem to the

16 Jan 2001 : Column 282

commissioner, they are told, "Sorry. I think that your grievance is genuine, but I cannot help because it is not included in the Government of Wales Act as a devolved matter."

I hope that the Government will look again at the possibility of redefining the job so that the commissioner can consider and make appropriate representations about any matter affecting children in Wales. Like others who have spoken, I believe that the more specific points that are worrying children's charities should be the subject of more detailed debate in Committee, but it would be useful if my hon. Friend the Minister were to comment on them in his reply to the debate. Some might be best addressed in secondary legislation by the National Assembly; others might be better dealt with in the Bill.

At the moment there is no requirement for the commissioner to maintain direct contact with children, to pay regard to their views and to promote respect for them throughout Welsh society, although from what I know about the way in which the newly appointed commissioner works, he will certainly do that. However, perhaps it would be better to have an exclusive requirement in the legislation to ensure that that approach is maintained.

Several hon. Members have drawn attention to the fact that the Bill makes no mention of the UN convention on the rights of the child. Should the promotion of public awareness of that important convention be part of the commissioner's role?

The Bill gives the commissioner no powers to enter institutions that accommodate children. Should he not have that power? The Bill gives him no ability to review what could be described as sins of omission. He cannot consider the failure of the Assembly or other bodies to exercise any of their functions. Does that need to be addressed?

Mr. Edwards: There are three prisons in Wales and a young offenders institution, which is in my constituency. Although I am not aware of any allegations of abuse involving young people in those institutions, does my hon. Friend agree that an independent Children's Commissioner for Wales should have access if there were any such allegations involving children and that he should be able to intervene in such matters?

Mr. Caton: I agree completely and I hope that, as the Bill proceeds, that will be precisely the role of the commissioner in Wales.

The Bill is a valuable and historic piece of legislation. However, it could be improved by going back to the philosophy that lay behind the National Assembly's original decision and extending the job of the commissioner to provide him with a more wide-ranging remit. If we do not do that, I cannot help but feel that we may have to address the matter again in the not too distant future and to build further on the responsibility of the Children's Commissioner. Let us make sure that we get it right this time.

9.8 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I am delighted to have caught your eye in this important debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Listening to some Labour Members, one would think that Conservative Members were not

16 Jan 2001 : Column 283

concerned about the nurture and well-being of children. It is absolutely ludicrous for anyone to suggest that any right hon. or hon. Member is not to the nth degree concerned with the welfare of children.

I think that it is quite wrong for the Government to introduce such a Bill only for Wales and not to extend it to the rest of the United Kingdom. That is not just my view. The NSPCC, no less, believes that it is ludicrous for the Government

That was the main tenor of my intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson).

It is quite wrong that the Bill should be devoted solely to Wales. It is the only Bill this Session that is being introduced solely for Wales, and that is quite wrong. Indeed, the Government's Care Standards Act 2000 made provision for a children's rights director for England. The role of the commissioner for Wales is purely to safeguard and promote the rights and welfare of children "ordinarily resident in Wales". No doubt, the Bill's Standing Committee will want to examine closely the meaning of that phrase.

The measure gives rise to a load of conundrums on the protection of Welsh children. We all know of tragic accidents that have occurred when children have been on school trips--for example, canoeing on rivers or sailing at sea. Let us suppose that a group of children from Wales undertook such a venture jointly with English children, organised solely by an English agency, and a tragedy occurred. Would the Children's Commissioner for Wales have a remit in that situation? I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Wales will be able to say something about such conundrums when he sums up the debate.

Next Section

IndexHome Page