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6.21 pm

Mr. Walter: It is unfortunate that our proceedings on the Bill are so rushed. I shall have to keep my remarks relatively brief.

In all our consideration of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and I have been consistent and positive in supporting the concept of establishing a Children's Commissioner. I thought that the Minister was a little remiss in claiming credit for the Labour party, while failing to point out that it was my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition who, when he was Secretary of State for Wales, established the Waterhouse inquiry, which led to this legislation.

Last year, my colleagues who were involved in the consideration of the Care Standards Act 2000 supported the provisions establishing the Children's Commissioner for Wales. Even at that time, however, they questioned the lack of an equivalent provision for England.

The National Assembly for Wales has expressed its concerns about some of the limitations on the commissioner's remit. On Second Reading, in Committee, and earlier today on Report, we have alluded to some of the Bill's remaining defects. There is still a lack of clarity in distinguishing between the rights and responsibilities of parents and those of the Children's Commissioner. I have no doubt that those matters will be revisited in another place.

The Bill's most significant defect, however, arises from the devolution settlement. The public bodies in Wales that fall within the Bill's scope are listed in schedules to the Bill. However, the Government of Wales Act 1998 did not create a world in which all child abuse would be committed only by institutions subject to the supervision

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of the National Assembly, while those who administer other public bodies in Wales would be sanctified and, by statue, become no threat to children's rights. That is clearly nonsense. The immigration service, the Prison Service, the police and the Army are only a few of the many public bodies that operate in Wales but are not covered by the Bill.

The schedules to the Bill cover the Welsh Language Board, but not Sianel Pedwar Cymru, which is probably the most significant promoter of the language. Such a nonsense would not exist if we had a children's rights commissioner for England and Wales, or for the whole of the United Kingdom. It would not exist, either, if we were to recognise in this limited Bill--it is limited to Wales--that public bodies in Wales are both devolved and non-devolved, and that the commissioner could be responsible not only to the Assembly for activities within its remit, but to the House for non-devolved matters.

We must now look to their lordships to improve the Bill as we seek to improve it. Conservative Members both in Wales and in this place will support such change--which is entirely consistent with what has been said in the Assembly by Members from all parties who want the commissioner's remit to extend not only to public bodies that fall within the scope of the Assembly's powers, but to those within the remit of this place.

We must not lose the plot. The Waterhouse report was about children in care, and the commissioner's primary responsibility must be towards children in care and children at risk. He has to get that right. Then we can look to him to be a key advocate in all other areas of public administration, whether they fall within the scope of the Assembly or of the United Kingdom Departments.

In evidence to the Health Committee in January 1998, the Government 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 fails to deliver those rights in practice; conduct formal investigations into alleged breaches of children's rights; ensure that children have an effective means of redress when their rights are disregarded; and carry out and commission research relevant to safeguarding children's rights.

The Conservative party in both Westminster and Cardiff believes that it is appropriate that the commissioner should look after children in the care of local authorities and other public bodies, but we do not believe that the Bill is specific enough about his powers.

The Opposition have specific concerns about protecting the role of the family and of parents. We mentioned some of those on Report. The Bill will give the commissioner a wide remit, and we want to be careful not to allow him to supplant the parent. Parents should always be given the first opportunity to speak up for their children. We have said that, and we will oppose any measure that allows the commissioner to intervene unnecessarily in the family unit.

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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, but he has specific roles in respect of schools, where teachers already play a vital part in protecting their pupils' welfare.

We feel that the Bill falls far short of the Assembly's vision. The job of commissioner is an independent post, funded by the Assembly, but the legislation makes no provision for him to be made accountable to Parliament. We believe in an effective commissioner who does not supplant parents' role, who has parents' confidence, whose role extends to all public bodies, and whose function could apply as much to England as it does to Wales.

6.28 pm

Mr. Win Griffiths: Getting the Bill through all its stages in the House has been a triumph. The Government responded very quickly to the Waterhouse report, got the post of Children's Commissioner for Wales established in the Care Standards Act 2000 and, following consultation with the National Assembly, introduced the much wider-ranging powers that the commissioner now has under the Bill.

I am pleased that the Children in Wales Commissioner Campaign Group, which encompasses all the major children's charities in Wales, has welcomed the Bill and is pleased with the way in which the Government have acted, although it would have liked the commissioner, in a more focused and statutory way, to have been given a much wider role. Nevertheless, they have welcomed the Bill and want it to be enacted as soon as possible.

I should like to address some of the matters that the members of the campaign group have raised. They felt that under this Bill the Children's Commissioner would be merely an ombudsman for children's services, and that the post did not aspire to being a human rights institution. However, I believe that clause 2 gives the commissioner a basis for such an aspiration. It states:

The schedule to the Bill means that any child treated in the national health service comes under the Bill, so any child in Wales can be considered.

Moreover, children who ordinarily live in Wales but who are treated in England, and whose treatment is paid for out of the Welsh purse, will also be covered. Therefore, I am sure that a commissioner with the necessary drive and foresight will be able to use the legislation to ensure that his office is a human rights institution. I have every confidence that Peter Clarke will be able to do that. Children cannot be divided into devolved and non-devolved parts, so it will be important for the commissioner to take that positive view.

The Children in Wales Commissioner Campaign Group set out five essential characteristics for the commissioner. They were that he should be able to set his own agenda, that he should be able to use the framework of the UN convention on the rights of the child as a guide, that he should have a special obligation to maintain direct contact

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with children, that he should act as a spokesman for children, and that he should promote respect for the views of children throughout society. I believe that the Bill enables the commissioner to do all those things. There is certainly nothing in it to prevent him from doing them.

In Committee, we discussed the campaign group's concerns about how the commissioner would operate. The group wondered whether he would be able to report on primary legislation and potential primary legislation, and whether he would have the right to comment freely on non-devolved matters and functions when they have an impact on children in Wales.

The group was also concerned about whether he would be able to represent the interests of children who are ordinarily resident in Wales but who receive services, or who are accommodated, outside Wales, and whether he would be able to consider and make appropriate representations on any matters that, through consultation and other contact with children and young people in Wales, emerge as key concerns. The responses given by my hon. Friend the Minister at the Dispatch Box and in Committee have made it clear that the commissioner will be able to perform all the functions set out by the campaign group.

Nevertheless, some concerns remain. The Government want the Children's Commissioner for Wales to be successful, and they have a liberal interpretation of the way in which he will operate with the powers granted by the Bill. Perhaps the campaign group is right to wonder whether in 50 years time or so, a different Government might take a less liberal view. By that time, however, I imagine that the success of the commissioner in Wales, using the powers granted by the Bill, will have meant that there will be a role for a commissioner throughout the United Kingdom, with complete statutory backing and all the powers that any of us would ever want him to have. It needs to be emphasised that the commissioner introduced by this Bill will be independent. That is very important.

In conclusion, the problem of the relationship between devolved and non-devolved matters will mean that it is very important for the commissioner to network with, and work closely with, people such as the chief inspector of prisons. In that way, he will be able to make sure that children anywhere in Wales will have his backing when it comes to dealing with people in independent posts such as that. With close co-operation between the commissioner and those who hold similar offices, I am sure that the Bill will be a landmark in the progress that we are making to redress the terrors that children have suffered for far too long in many parts of Wales under the old system.

A new dawn is coming, and I believe that there will be further progress. Let us give the Bill the strongest possible support, to ensure that it is enacted before the election.

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