Would the right hon. Gentleman confer the same description--irrelevant and glossy nonsense--on a report from the chief inspector of prisons?
Not necessarily. Some reports have substance and value, but the less glossy, the more important and substantial they are. The fewer pretty pictures, the more relevant they are, but I fear the worst here. I hope that we do not reach the stage at which we would be able to amend the Bill, but if we do we could table an amendment containing a codicil saying, "No pictures and no glossy covers." Then I might be slightly reassured, but I suspect that that will not happen.
Clause 4(3) takes us into the whole business of compliance notices, which is where the role of the commissioner becomes worrying. It would be one thing for the commissioner to be a symbol or a comforter, but he would be able to make recommendations in the form of a compliance notice in which he
"shall state his opinion as to the way in which the provisions of the United Nations Convention"--
that ghastly UN convention again--
"are not being complied with and what action should be taken to comply."
Now we are getting into much more intrusive territory and the commissioner could intervene much more directly, perhaps in families or with parents--who knows?--but certainly in institutions and bodies.
The Bill would oblige anyone
"at whom a recommendation is directed by a Commissioner"
to consider it and reply. Clause 5(3) states:
"The Commissioner may require a person at whom a recommendation is directed to furnish him with such information as may be reasonably be required".
The Bill begins to bite--the commissioner would have serious powers to require any person at whom a compliance notice was directed to furnish him with information. That is an intrusive requirement. It is not trivial; it is very important and I would want to resist it. At the very least, I would want some safeguard or an appeal mechanism to be set up to provide a balance of protection for the citizen against the commissioner.
That takes us back to my general point that, if we are not careful, we shall lose sight of the crucial balance between the well-meaning, well-intentioned commissioner with those ever-increasing powers, and individuals and private or public organisations. That balance is going seriously awry, and it gets worse. Clause 5(5) states:
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"If the Commissioner has reasonable cause for believing that a person will not comply with subsection (4) he may . . . recover from that person any reasonable expenses incurred."
The commissioner would not only have power to require information, but would be able to charge or surcharge individuals with the costs of the process that he had initiated.
The Bill gets worse by the minute and I am very worried about it. Clause 6(1) states:
"The Commissioner may conduct a formal investigation for any purpose connected with the carrying out of his duties."
That would be bad enough, but subsection (2) says:
"For the purposes of that formal investigation the Commissioner may require any person who possesses documents or information relevant to . . . produce the documents . . . furnish the information in writing . . . attend at a specified time and place and give oral information."
The commissioner would have powers equivalent to those of a Select Committee of the House of Commons relating to persons and papers. If I may say so as a Member of the House, it is one thing for elected, accountable Members of Parliament, gathered together in the form of an all-party Select Committee and conducting their affairs in a proper way, to
"produce documents . . . furnish the information in writing . . . attend at a specified time and place"
but another for the commissioner, unrestrained and unaccountable, to be able to do that. I find it worrying.
Those are the lengths to which we are being asked to go to underpin the UN convention in the United Kingdom. That is where the Bill is leading us. Make no mistake about it: however well intentioned, we would end up with the commissioner summoning our citizens to attend and provide information. He would already have surcharged them and had their money and he would have had the information. Then he would summon them.
What is going on? What have we descended to? We start with well-intentioned ideas, but end up with such a provision. Let us make no bones about the fact that we would be right back with the commissar. This is Soviet Union stuff, or worse. Nothing in the Bill would make the commissioner any more or less constrained than a commissar in the old Soviet Union. Mr. Putin would be proud of us.
I am becoming less and less happy with the Bill as I go through it, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as you may be able to tell. I shall move swiftly past clause 7--what on earth child impact statements have to do with anything I do not know. Then we come to complaints procedures. One might have thought that complaints against the commissioner would have been allowed. If they had, I would have been slightly more reassured, but no. There is no appeal mechanism, no protection--nothing that would allow us to complain against the commissar and his activities.
Again, the commissioner would be allowed to make requirements of people. He would be given another power to be used in pursuit of his duties and he would be
"under a statutory duty to establish, operate or supervise any procedure for the consideration of representations or complaints".
That would not provide anything like a balance.
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Against that background, we come to the great unspoken part of the Bill, which is blandly entitled "Other powers and functions". This is the money bit, which I want to discuss for a moment. Clause 9 refers to:
"Where the Commissioner considers it necessary or expedient for the carrying out of his duties".
That would give him total discretion as to the interpretation of his duties under the terms of the statute. He could "publish and disseminate information". We are back to glossies and pictures. The provision would give an apparently blank cheque to the commissioner to spray around the place the sort of misinformation that we have become used to from the Government. If the constraints on the commissioner are as ineffective as those on the Government, we will be inundated. We shall have from the commissioner endless glossy, substantial, thick documents with pretty pictures telling us all sorts of things, most of which we probably do not want to know.
It gets worse. The commissioner can
"undertake or assist (financially or otherwise)"--
the provision is quite explicit about that--
"the undertaking by other persons of any research".
So the commissioner is now a huge vat of taxpayers' money into which people who do research can dip.
I have some knowledge of that because, among my modest responsibilities at the then Department for Education, now the Department for Education and Employment, I had a research budget, and I know how they work. Officials have friends in the research community and, between them, they dream up projects that are put before the Minister. If the Minister is not very careful, those projects will be approved--because they are always well constructed, well conceived and sound good--and lead to large volumes of research. Usually, when that research is finally produced, it goes into someone's drawer and is never heard of again. Although such research involves a lot of money, potentially millions, the Bill explicitly states that the commissioner can commission it.
As the Bill goes on, we get into even deeper water. Clause 9(1)(c) states that the commissioner can
"give assistance to a child or a person acting on behalf of a child, which may include giving advice (including legal advice) or arranging for legal advice or for legal representation".
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough could tell me--although he is probably too modest to do so--that that rather bland provision could become very expensive very quickly. What would happen if the commissioner frequently decided to take counsel's advice? The bill for that could add up at an alarming rate. Although I have no doubt that that would all be very well justified, the bill for it would be huge.
It gets even worse. The final kicker in all of this is clause 9(1)(d), which states that the commissioner may
"give financial or other assistance to any organisation for the purpose of encouraging the promotion by children of the interests of children."
So now the commissioner has an open cheque book to give any sum that he chooses to any organisation that manages to persuade him that it is doing a rather good job on behalf of children.
Given that the commissioner's whole remit is as stated in the Bill--to act on behalf of children--how often will he say no to those organisations? What would happen if
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one of the peculiar organisations that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough described earlier or some of the more respectable ones presented an idea for a project--always, of course, in the interests of children--and said, "We need this money, and if you refuse us we will be out there telling people that you are letting children down." Will the commissioner say no? I doubt it very much indeed.
The implications of clause 9 are absolutely enormous and the sums involved are potentially gigantic. The provision encompasses publications, legal advice, assistance, money, hand-outs, donations and subsidies--but I did not hear very much about that from the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre.