Standing Committee F
Tuesday 23 January 2001
[Mr. Barry Jones in the Chair]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson): I beg to move,
That, during proceedings on the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill, the Standing Committee do meet on Tuesdays at half-past Ten o'clock and at half-past Four o'clock and on Thursdays at half-past Nine o'clock.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Jones. Having served under you before, I know that you will be scrupulously fair and give all members of the Committee an opportunity to say their piece about the Bill. I also wish your fellow Chair, Mr. Wells, well in the Committee's proceedings.
I do not wish to say much about the programming resolution because it was fully discussed by the Programming Sub-Committee last week when it was resolved that the Bill would complete its Committee stage by Thursday 1 February. There was no division in the Sub-Committee, so I hope that the resolution meets with the Committee's satisfaction.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): On behalf of the Government's loyal Opposition, I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Jones. Like the Minister, we are grateful that you are in the Chair and know that you will chair our meetings with your usual diligence and fairness.
It is customary on occasions such as this to introduce the members of the team. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) and I have worked diligently on the Bill and we are in close liaison with the children's charities, which have been lobbying many hon. Members here and in Cardiff to ensure that we have the best possible Bill for the children and people of Wales.
I also welcome my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), who is the Opposition Whip. He will have a few words to say on this issue, as will my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), whose particular interest in this issue and in children's issues generally is well known. He is respected throughout the House and we are delighted to have him on the team.
Several Labour Members have spoken out on the issue, and they, too, are held in great respect. I particularly note the hon. Members for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) and for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) who, as a Minister, helped to promote these issues within Wales. I welcome them.
It is also a delight to see the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith), who, while obviously too busy to be at Prime Minister's Question Time on Wednesday, has at least now found his way to Committee Room 9.
Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his mention of me in dispatches and for drawing attention to my membership of the Committee, about which I am delighted. I was not at Prime Minister's Question Time last Wednesday because I was carrying out important business on behalf of my constituents in relation to the marvellous festival that has been organised at Barry dock in June to celebrate the centenary of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
It is unfortunate, but he did tell me that, on average, Prime Minister's Question Time has not gone beyond Question 7 in the past three-and-a-half years.
The Chairman: Order. I remind the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) that we are discussing the programme resolution.
Mr. Evans: I am extremely grateful for your help, Mr. Jones. I was pointing out some Opposition Members, who I am sure will make useful contributions, which does impinge on the Bill's timing.
I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan here. It is a great shame that he could not have had a word with the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), representing Plaid Cymru, as he obviously does not know where Committee Room 9 is.
It has been decided in the usual way that we should try to complete our deliberations by Thursday, 1 February. Despite the Government's guillotines and straitjackets these days, representations can be made to extend the time available, but I hope that they will not be necessary. There is a general willingness to put the Bill on the statute book as quickly as possible, and there is certainly good will on the part of the Opposition.
That does not mean that will rush through all the clauses without seeking to amend them. Labour Members have tabled a number of attractive amendments, which we may decide to speak in favour of, and we shall naturally speak to our own amendments and try to convince the Government that they are necessary to improve the Bill. No doubt, as the Bill progresses, further amendments will be tabled.
I would only ask that the Committee does not play party politics with the Bill. There is no need to do so, because there is a general desire to see the Bill enacted.I mention that because of the current enormous speculation about the date of the next general election, which impinges on the Bill. If it does not make progress in the other place and return to the House in time, there is the distinct possibility that this useful Bill, which will help to protect the children of Wales, could be lost, and that is the last thing that the Government or the Opposition want.
Lord Wyn Roberts tells me that the timetable is tight because of the number of days that we have to wait before the Bill goes to the other place, but even if there was no delay, here or in the House of Lords, we are still talking about a tight timetable to get the Bill on the statute book before a May election, and should the election be earlier, time will be tighter. However, having said that, we have tabled a number of amendments, which we will debate shortly, which we believe would enhance the Bill.
Naturally, we have enormous reservations about the problems with cross-border areas. Whenever we debate legislation which applies particularly and solely to Wales, there are always difficulties about the border. Wales is not an island and children freely cross the borders between Wales and England to obtain services that are not available in Wales.
We must ensure that sufficient time is made available to consider the impact of a Children's Commissioner for Wales. Not having one for England with the same rights will create problems and differences, and big question marks must be ironed out.
I hope that the Minister will take on board not only our comments but those of his hon. Friends, and, even at this late stage, will consider ways of allowing parity between England and Wales so that children can receive proper attention. Fewer things receive greater mention in the media than children's rights, responsibilities and welfare. In the past few days, the newspapers have been packed with the problems of the internet sale of babies, which I am sure all hon. Members deplore. Any legislation that the Government propose to close loopholes to stop that trade will be genuinely considered by the Opposition. We must recognise that thousands of people wish to adopt and foster children, but that number has dropped dramatically and we must consider fresh ways of ensuring that genuine prospective parents who have been deemed suitable to foster and adopt can do so. I look forward to a constructive dialogue.
Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): I, too, take the opportunity to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Jones. I am sure that you will conduct our proceedings with your usual fairness. We welcome the programme resolution. The finishing date of 1 February seems to provide the right amount of time in which to debate the Bill.
The Bill extends the powers of the Children's Commissioner, and as such is an improvement. There are about six or eight crucial issues, mainly concerning the rights of the child. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley mentioned how topical that is and how important the Bill is to us in Wales where, sadly, we had the Waterhouse report into child abuse in north Wales. We are all well aware of the importance of the issue. We hope that we can amend the Bill to extend the rights of the child and ensure that the commissioner is truly independent and can investigate a wide range of matters affecting children.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I join my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley, the Minister and others, in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Jones, and your co-Chairman, Mr. Wells. I am sure that he would prefer to be called that than co-Chair, the term that the Minister used. Forgive me for raising a small point, but it is important nevertheless. We look forward to serving under your careful chairmanship.
There are a number of procedural points that I might use the quarter of an hour available to us to raise here, not least because this is one of the first Committees to be sitting under the new procedural regime. It is worth trying to clarify one or two points about how the procedure has worked and is working, not only for this Committee but so that the same rules may apply to other Committees. I hope that you will forgive me, Mr. Jones, if I range slightly more widely than the precise business of this Bill, and perhaps try to make a few more general points about programming in general.
The Chairman: Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman will restrict his remarks to the programming motion at this stage. The debate on the programming resolution will end at 11 o'clock.
Mr. Gray: I shall keep my remarks to the programming resolution.
First, I join my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley in saying how much the Opposition welcome the Bill and how much we intend to help it to progress satisfactorily through the House and on to the other place. Nothing that I am about to say should be interpreted as questioning the process of the Bill. None the less, there are some worrying points about the procedure in the Programming Sub-Committee, which met the other day, on which I would value your guidance, Mr. Jones, and it might be worth touching on that in general. In doing so, I make no comment about the principle of the guillotine procedure that has been introduced, which Opposition Members oppose. We do not believe that it is necessary or serious, and I shall return to that point in a moment.
The Programming Sub-Committee met the other day and had what the Minister described as a full discussion on this Committee's programme, but apart from those with the good fortune to be present, no one knows what that full discussion involved. No notes were taken. It was a private meetinga strange occurrence in this age of freedom of information. Why should a Programming Sub-Committee be held in secret, with no Hansard writers or other Members of the House present? That seems rather strange. It is reasonable for other hon. Members to attend the Sub-Committee, as it will affect them. No notes were taken of even the general principles agreed.
In the case of this Committee, the matter was relatively simple, because all that we agreed was the number of sittings that it would have, but if the procedure were used in full, detailed discussion might take place on precisely which day each clause would be discussed and when the knives would fall. As no notes were taken, members of this Committee cannot know in detail what arguments were adduced about particular clauses. That seems a retrograde step. Hansard should be present to produce a verbatim report to which this Committee can refer, and the public should be admitted, because it is important for them to know why we are deciding to curtail discussion on such important matters.
Perhaps more important, it is extremely unclear when and why the Programming Sub-Committee may be reconvened. Perhaps you, Mr. Jones, could make that clear. Let us suppose that during our proceedings we discover that the time allocated to a particular clause is not sufficient. In what circumstances would the Programming Sub-Committee be reconvened, and who would do that? That may not apply in this case, as we are all content with 1 February as an out date, but what would happen if the Committee decided that the period specified on the Floor of the House was too short? In what circumstances would the business return to the Floor of the House to be reconsidered? When could the out date be reconsidered?
Those matters are important. They may apply only in passing to this Committee, but clarification would be valuable.
Interestingly, no discussion took place in the Programming Sub-Committee of when the knives would fall on particular clauses. That option is of course available to the Government, but we did not even discuss it: indeed, the matter was not even raised. No discussion took place of the date on which a particular clause would be debated. We discussed only the number of sittings.
Significantly, the Programming Sub-Committee agreed that, depending on the progress of our proceedings, it may be necessary for this Committee to sit on Tuesday evenings, and it was agreed that that matter would be discussed through the usual channels. In other words, the rules according to which the Committee is sitting are those that have applied to almost every Committee since the war: that is, the usual channels agree, in a spirit of co-operation and consensus, how the Bill will progress through the Committee. No precise cut-off dates were specified for discussion on any particular clause. The possibility was left open for the Committee to meet on Tuesday evenings--into the night if necessary--and the usual channels would agree on that, as they have always done. It seems that what we agreed in the Programming Sub-Committee a couple of days ago was that this Committee should sit using precisely the same procedures as have always applied to Committees in the House. That fundamentally undermines the principle specified in the new procedure introduced by the House. The only resolution with which we are conforming and to which we must conform is the out date of 1 February, although we could return to the House for an extension.
Unlike other such Committees in the past couple of weeks, the Programming Sub-Committee did not lay down the date on which particular clauses should be completed, nor was that matter discussed. [Interruption.] The Government Whip shakes his head as if he thinks that it was discussed, but I do not remember that. We have no verbatim report of the Committee to remind us whether it was discussed; certainly in the motion before us this morning there is no mention of it.