Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Dawson: Given the reasoned amendment and the concerns expressed about the commissioner's involvement within families, is it not specious nonsense for the hon. Gentleman to criticise the Government about the scale of the Bill?

Mr. Walter: Not at all. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I shall refer to his speech in a moment.

We are concerned that the right balance should be struck between the responsibilities of parents and the family and the responsibilities of the Children's Commissioner. We will develop that argument in Committee.

16 Jan 2001 : Column 288

May I return to the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham, who highlighted cross-border problems, which will arise from those functions that have not been devolved? Those problems are why we shall press our amendment to the vote. The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) was rather confused about our amendment and divisions in her own party. As I pointed out to her in an intervention, a National Assembly Committee asked for the creation of a children's commissioner with much greater powers--including powers over non-devolved areas--and talked about negotiating on that with the Government. Clearly, the Assembly failed in those negotiations to get the remit of the commissioner extended to those areas.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) traced his support for the post back to 1993, and is to be congratulated on that. He felt that we should not enact the Bill too quickly, without proper scrutiny. We shall talk about proper scrutiny in the following debate on the programme motion, which deals with the Committee stage of the Bill. It is right that, on this occasion, we should make sure that the Children's Commissioner for Wales is vested with the powers that are necessary to carry out the job. This will be the second bite at the cherry, as we try to get it right. We do not want a third bite, which is why we shall scrutinise the Bill in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Sir R. Whitney) pointed out that the Bill has far too many loose ends. He said that there are inadequacies that we have to correct. He emphasised the fact that we must strike the right balance between the family and the commissioner.

The hon. Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) again questioned the commissioner's powers outside Wales. How will the commissioner exert his powers and role on children who are ordinarily resident in Wales but, none the less, are subject to, or are in, care outside the Principality? We shall continue to explore that valid point in Committee.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) looked at the extension of powers. He mentioned the United Nations convention on the rights of the child and called for a holistic approach--which, of course, is a typical Liberal Democrat phrase. We are urged to have a holistic approach involving one thing on the one the hand and something else on the other.

Mr. Öpik: For the hon. Gentleman's information, the word holistic was suggested to me by Save the Children.

Mr. Walter: Right. I am sure that phrase will appear in the next Liberal Democrat manifesto.

As for the contribution of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), his support for the concept of a commissioner is well known and much appreciated in the House. Quite rightly, one of my colleagues asked why, if the measure that we support for Wales is so good, is there not one for England? The hon. Gentleman is about to re-introduce a private Member's Bill, to which the Government could give time; it would extend the provisions of the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill to England.

The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Mr. Ruane) rather lost the plot initially but, towards the end of his speech, came back to the basic thrust of his argument. I look forward to him joining us in the Lobby tonight.

16 Jan 2001 : Column 289

The hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas) made rather a worthy contribution on the partnership between the Assembly and Parliament. Such a partnership is between the Assembly and all of Parliament, not just the Government. Parliament is here--it represents all shades of opinion throughout the United Kingdom and I believe that if the Assembly is to strike a partnership, it should be a cross-party one. However, the hon. Gentleman made a telling comment about the commissioner having a focused role, which returns us to my point about not letting the commissioner lose the plot. We are discussing primarily children in care and children at risk.

The contribution of the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) was unique in its lack of criticism of our amendment. It dealt with some serious reservations and I look forward to receiving his support in the Lobby.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton- Brown) made a most useful contribution dealing with the absence of any equivalent post in England. He made a most passionate speech about child abuse in Gloucestershire, and sought a commissioner for England who could deal with those matters.

Members on both sides of the House seemed to think that there was some virtue in displaying manifesto commitments. It was suggested in an intervention that we had no manifesto commitment in 1997 to introduce a Children's Commissioner. The Labour party had no such manifesto commitment either.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to be corrected when he is wrong. The Labour party in Wales had a manifesto commitment to introduce a commissioner for Wales.

Mr. Walter: I shall stand corrected if necessary, but I think that the Labour party in Wales had such a commitment in the 1999 Welsh Assembly manifesto, not in the 1997 general election manifesto for Westminster.

The Government, in evidence to the Health Committee in January 1998, said that they were considering the matter as part of a response to the UN committee on compliance with the convention on the rights of the child. The report of the Health Committee, of which I was a member, was more definite. We argued that it was right for the United Kingdom to follow the example of a number of other western countries by creating the post of a children's rights commissioner. We proposed a commissioner who would have the duty to promote awareness of the rights of the child, highlight ways in which present and proposed policy failed those rights in practice, conduct formal investigations where breaches of children's rights were considered to have taken place, seek to ensure that children had an effective means of redress when their rights were disregarded and carry out and commission research relevant to safeguarding children's rights. The Health Committee concluded:

The Conservative party here at Westminster and in Cardiff bay believes that it is appropriate that a Children's Commissioner should look after those children in the care of local authorities and other public bodies. However, we do not believe that the Bill is specific enough about the powers of the commissioner. As a result, we have tabled our reasoned amendment and in Committee will continue to seek to improve the Bill.

16 Jan 2001 : Column 290

The Opposition have specific concerns about protecting the role of the family and of parents. The Bill will give the commissioner a wide remit and, as such, may allow him to supplant the role of the parent. We believe that that would be wrong, and I have already raised that concern with the Government. The Secretary of State will recall that in December I asked him where the dividing line was between the role of the commissioner and of the parent.

Mr. Win Griffiths: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Walter: No. I have only a few minutes because I want to allow the Minister to make his winding-up speech.

The Secretary of State's reply was not reassuring. He said:

We believe that parents should always be given the first opportunity to speak up for their children. We have stated that, and we will oppose any measure that allows the commissioner to intervene unnecessarily in the family unit or take over the role of the parent.

We also have concerns that the role of the commissioner is confused. For example, he has not been given jurisdiction over many areas in which children may come to harm. By contrast, the commissioner has been given a role in schools, where teachers already play a vital part in protecting the welfare of their pupils. The NSPCC in Wales has stated that the Bill falls far short of the Assembly's vision.

The Children's Commissioner is an independent post funded by the National Assembly. However, the legislation makes no provision for the commissioner to be made accountable to Parliament. We believe in an effective Children's Commissioner: a commissioner who does not supplant the parent's role and who has the confidence of parents, whose role extends to all public bodies, and whose role could apply equally in England as it does in Wales.

9.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson): We have had an interesting and considered debate, and Members have expressed strong views. It has also been a thoughtful debate. I am replying to the debate not only as a Minister, but as a north Wales Member of Parliament, some of whose constituents have suffered child abuse or have been involved in the north Wales child abuse scandal. Like my hon. Friends from north Wales, I recognise the original concerns that caused the Waterhouse report to be commissioned by the current leader of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), and I give him credit for that.

I have listened to the debate, and I shall certainly read the report tomorrow. I hope that we will shortly have a useful discussion in Committee on some of the issues that have been raised. However, I shall try to respond to some of the key points. Most of the comments made, even those made by Opposition Front Benchers, show that the Bill is

16 Jan 2001 : Column 291

widely welcomed in the House, so I regret the Conservative party's reasoned amendment. I shall touch on it briefly, because it is important to consider the issues.

The amendment says:

I recognise what the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and other right hon. and hon. Members have said, but the amendment says something about the condition of today's Conservative party, which is willing to oppose this measure. Let us make no mistake: if I were to invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to join the hon. Member for Ribble Valley in the Lobby to vote for his reasoned amendment, there would be no Committee stage, because there would be no Bill as the House would have declined to give it a Second Reading.

With due respect to the hon. Member for Wycombe (Sir R. Whitney) and the right hon. Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd), it is a sad expose of the state of the Conservative party that it fell to the Opposition Whip, the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), to be the only Conservative Back Bencher to speak in support of his Front-Bench team. That says something about the state of the Conservative party.

Next Section

IndexHome Page