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This is an historic occasion, because the Bill is the first piece of primary legislation specific to Wales since devolution. Liberal Democrats welcome the introduction of a Bill to extend the powers of the Children's Commissioner.
Children are a particularly vulnerable group, as has been demonstrated clearly by the Waterhouse tribunal report on abuse in children's homes in north Wales. I commend every member of the Standing Committee that considered the Bill for the sincerity and motivation that they showed in supporting it. It has been excellent. In some respects, however, the Bill has not met the aspirations of the National Assembly. I believe that technical problems were responsible.
The Liberal Democrats had a manifesto commitment in the National Assembly elections to appoint an independent Children's Commissioner for Wales. It is interesting that no amendments have been accepted during the Bill's passage. I believe that many of the amendments tabled in Committee followed pretty closely the wishes of the National Assembly for Wales.
It should be the duty of the commissioner to represent the views of children and to promote, for example, the implementation of the UN convention on the rights of the child. In debates on that issue, we emphasised that such rights were better discharged at small nation level.
The commissioner cannot comment on the decisions of courts and tribunals. That is to do with the fact that the Assembly only has secondary legislative functions and it points to some inadequacies in the Government of Wales Act 1998. The Government should, in another place, try and tease out, among all the parties in that place, the vexed issue of non-devolved matters that impinge upon children in Wales. There is no doubt that difficulties arise in the context of social security problems, legal problems and matters involving children in care outside Wales.
There are strict limitations on the scope of the Children's Commissioner's powers, as they cover only persons and services over which the National Assembly has responsibility. Obviously, I welcome that as a massive move forward. However, we need an independent commissioner who is able to get involved in any matter that may affect the rights and welfare of children.
The amendments may have been resisted on the grounds that to accept them would in some way undermine the Government of Wales Act 1998. I do not know whether that is true, but I suspect that it may be. It would appear that the Children's Commissioner would be allowed to make representations only about those matters specifically devolved to the National Assembly. If we examine the 1998 Act, the form of the Bill is understandable.
It is essential that, eventually, the commissioner's powers be extended to cover primary legislation--to encompass aspects such as social security. It has been argued that if the commissioner has statutory powers to comment on non-devolved matters, he will, in effect, have the power to require information from Departments of the UK Government. I suspect that that might be a problem.
Although the power does not seem unreasonable, strict constitutional rules are being rigorously applied owing to the fact that inadequate powers were devolved to the Assembly. It would thus seem sensible to devolve more powers to Wales and amend the 1998 Act in order to include primary legislative powers for the National Assembly for Wales. It is only a matter of time; undoubtedly, that day will come--but possibly not two or three months before a general election!
Ms Julie Morgan: I am pleased to speak on Third Reading of the Bill. The measure is important for many reasons. As other hon. Members have pointed out, it is the first Wales-only Bill to be requested by the National Assembly for Wales. In that sense, it is historic. It also establishes the first Children's Commissioner in the United Kingdom, although there are children's commissioners and ombudsmen throughout Europe. The Under-Secretary has already noted that Northern Ireland proposes to appoint a children's commissioner--I very much welcome that.
Many children's charities have campaigned for many years for a commissioner. It is important to pay tribute to them and, especially to the Children in Wales consortium, which lobbied hard for a commissioner. It provided information to help members of the Standing Committee and is wholly committed to improving the lot of children in Wales. As hon. Members have said, children's charities in Wales have made a huge contribution to the measure.
I am pleased that it is a Labour Government who have given time for the Bill. I welcome the cross-party support that the measure received in Committee. It formed part of our manifesto commitment, and that of other parties, during the elections to the Assembly. I was disappointed that the Conservatives debated the programme motion for the full time so that we lost valuable time for discussion of the Bill. That was not in the spirit of the Bill's passage through the House so far.
The Bill has been universally welcomed throughout Wales and the UK. Its swift passage and the time allocated to it have been seen as a recognition of the importance that the Westminster Government attach to
All the children's charities welcome the Bill; the debate has been confined to the range of its powers. Although many and varied amendments were debated in Committee, the main thrust of the discussion throughout has been the commissioner's relationship to non-devolved matters. We have made progress in that respect. For example, we now know that the commissioner can comment on any matter that affects children in Wales. Of course, that includes non-devolved matters, such as children in prison. That issue has been raised frequently, because there is enormous concern in Wales about children who are in prison--in some cases, in England and far away from home--and someone must be able to speak on their behalf. We have been able to make it clear that the commissioner can comment on those issues as well as others, such as social security.
We want the commissioner to tackle the curse of poverty that affects children in Wales. Obviously, he is to do that, he must be able to comment on the benefits system and other non-devolved issues. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) said, it is difficult to split children's issues into little pieces. The Government's thrust is to try to work with the whole person and all aspects of children's lives.
Mr. Rogers: I am sure that my hon. Friend does not intend to suggest that the Bill has been introduced simply because of devolution in Wales. Obviously, the mechanics of devolution have allowed the Bill to be introduced, but the real reason for its existence has nothing to do with Government structures; it has to do with the fact that a horrendous scandal took place in Wales, and with the child abuse that led to the report.
Ms Morgan: The Bill is certainly a response to the scandals in Wales, but it is not possible to deny that devolution produced the Assembly and that it has seized the opportunity to set up the commissioner. We want to treat the problems of children as a whole, so the commissioner has to have responsibility for all children in Wales, not just those who receive certain services. I would welcome further clarification on how the commissioner can respond to non-devolved matters and on how he can comment on them.
Tremendous progress has been made. The Bill began with the proposal's inclusion in the Labour party manifesto. There has been an extensive consultation process in Wales. The National Assembly's Health and Social Services Committee's in-depth consultations led to its report, and the proposals have now reached the House. The House has extended the powers to include not only social services and children in regulated care, but all the Assembly's devolved areas.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend said, we hope that the Bill makes speedy progress so that it can be in place before a possible general election. That we have come this far is a triumph of everyone's working together. I wish the commissioner all the best in his new job. One of the most important things that I hope he will be able
Commissioners and ombudsmen in other European countries have been very successful in getting children's views heard and using them to influence legislation. Although the Assembly cannot legislate, I hope that the commissioner will influence how we run things. I wish Peter Clarke all the best and pay tribute to the Committee and all the Ministers who have brought the Bill this far.