Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill

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Mr. Hanson: We have had a fruitful and interesting discussion on the amendments. I hope to explain the Government's thinking on the issues raised and to assure hon. Members of our sympathy for some of the views expressed.

The hon. Members for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, for Faversham and Mid-Kent, for North Dorset, for Brecon and Radnorshire and for North Dorset and my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Glamorgan and for Cardiff, North made interesting contributions to the debate. I shall cover in detail their points about the role of the Children's Commissioner, the Government's intentions for England, jurisdiction over non-devolved issues and cross-border issues.

I join the hon. Member for North Dorset in welcoming Peter Clarke to his post. The hon. Gentleman expressed the official Opposition's view, with which we agree, that Mr. Clarke should start work with a full brief and full legal backing. We acted quickly in tabling amendments to the Care Standards Act 2000 following the Waterhouse inquiry and in including the Bill in the Queen's speech. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman shares our objectives.

A children's commissioner in England was the central theme of the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent and other Opposition Members. As we said on Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I recognise that there are anxieties about the children's commissioner in England. It is inherent in the devolution settlement that different parts of the United Kingdom will develop different policy frameworks on some issues. That is natural as part of devolution and should be encouraged.

The Waterhouse report, published in February last year, made specific recommendations about a Children's Commissioner for Wales and the Government acted speedily to meet that objective. There may difficulties in the Committee in that respect, but that is the nature of politics. Differences of approach within the United Kingdom should not be regarded as a problem; they represent the successful working of the new constitutional settlement.

I have taken note of calls in Committee and on Second Reading for a children's commissioner in England and will bring them to the attention of my ministerial colleagues. As I said on Second Reading, the Government will carefully consider the Welsh experience. We may have lessons to learn from Wales that can be applied to England.

The Care Standards Act 2000 makes provision for a children's rights director in England: it was first established in the ``Modernising Social Services'' White Paper of November 1998.

The Care Standards Act is important to our discussions, as it established that senior post in the national Care Standards Commission. Its core task will be to help the national Care Standards Commission to give full and effective advice on children's services in England. It will ensure that the views of children are placed before the Care Standards Commission. The post will report directly to the chief inspector of social services, so that significant evidence can be presented on issues affecting the rights and safety of children.

The Government have previously signalled their intention to consult widely on the key tasks and responsibilities of the children's rights director in England. We are planning to publish later this year, via the Department of Health, draft regulations covering the work of the children's rights director in England. There will be public consultation, during which these issues will no doubt be raised.

Mr. Walter: If I understand the Minister and the Care Standards Act correctly, the remit of the children's rights director in England will be much more limited than that of the Children's Commissioner in Wales. The children's rights director will cover children in care and at risk, and possibly children in the NHS.

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman is correct. I referred to the Care Standards Act to show that, as a result of devolution, the consideration given to this matter by the Assembly and the recommendations in the Waterhouse report in Wales, the Government have responded positively and have made progress on a Children's Commissioner. However, the position with regard to England is that we still have to tackle some of the issues and concerns that hon. Members have raised. I repeat that the Government will consider the Welsh experience very carefully to see whether lessons can be learned for England as a result of the proposals and the operation of the Children's Commissioner in Wales.

The Bill introduces specific proposals for Wales. It is the outcome of the consultation process and policy development in Wales, which went on before and after the Waterhouse report, and it would not be appropriate to extend the commissioner's functions to England by means of these amendments. Although I accept what the hon. Gentleman has said, the six amendments would remove references to ``in Wales'' so as to extend the role of the Children's Commissioner to cover England as well as Wales. That would subvert by the back door the long policy discussions that have taken place in Wales, which have resulted in the Bill that we are debating today.

I hope that I have covered the points raised. We can come back to this issue, but I assure hon. Members that my colleagues will examine the commissioner's operation in Wales, and will consider what lessons can be learned from that. I hope that I have allayed hon. Members' fears.

The second major issue that has arisen from the debate is the question of non-devolved functions. I hope that it will allay the concerns expressed by hon. Members if I put on the record the fact that the Government are entirely sympathetic to the objective of making the commissioner a wide-ranging champion of children's rights in Wales. That is why the Bill provides that one of the commissioner's principal aims is

    to safeguard and promote the rights and welfare of children.

It is also why the Government have given the office such a wide remit across services in Wales that directly and indirectly affect the lives of young people and children.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North said, the Bill is about dramatically extending the powers and functions of the Children's Commissioner over the current powers contained in the Care Standards Act. I strongly echo that view, and commend it to the Committee and to children's organisations. The Bill will ensure that the commissioner's activity ranges across health, education, social services, transport, planning and housing—to name but a few areas. I do not think that there is a danger of the commissioner having little work to do. The Bill will extend the range of issues that the commissioner will cover.

I shall give the background to our approach, so I hope that hon. Members will bear with me. We need to keep the commissioner's role in context. The commissioner is a creation of the National Assembly for Wales in that the areas that we are giving him powers to examine are areas for which the Assembly has responsibility. It has led the way in the UK for the development of a Children's Commissioner. The Government are happy to give support by legislating to help the Assembly to realise its vision. However, I emphasise that the commissioner's office is a development specific to the Assembly. Despite what hon. Members have said, the Government and I strongly believe that it is right for the scope of the commissioner's powers to coincide with activities and bodies that fall within the National Assembly's areas of responsibility. That is not to say that we cannot consider some of the wider issues raised by hon. Members today.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear on Second Reading, the Children's Commissioner for Wales will in no way, shape or form be gagged on any issue that falls within the terms of non-devolved matters. The commissioner will have the power to exercise functions that are incidental to the core functions, but the core functions must remain those that fall within the Assembly's competence.

12.15 pm

Mr. Walter: I refer again to clause 3(6), which is the subject of our amendment No. 18. It says:

    The Assembly may not make an order...if the result would be that the Commissioner could review the effect of the exercise or proposed exercise of a person's function in a field in which the Assembly does not have functions.

That subsection seems to preclude the commissioner from being able even to review another body's function.

Mr. Hanson: It may be helpful if I explain that the commissioner may in the course of his work receive representations from children and others about non-devolved matters. He may want to bring those issues to the attention of UK Departments. In doing so, he could add his informal comments on those issues. It is correct to say that they would be informal comments, but the commissioner is not, in my view, debarred from commenting on non-devolved issues. However, he is bound not to have a statutory function in that context.

We are not giving the commissioner substantive functions in non-devolved areas. He will not have the formal power to require information from bodies in relation to such matters. However, he can make comments. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North said, it would be strange if the UK Government did not respond positively to those concerns. I feel strongly that UK Departments would be likely to react positively, given the profile of the commissioner's office.

Another important point relates to that made about section 33(1) of the Government of Wales Act 1998. The commissioner will be able formally to bring to the National Assembly's attention complaints and information that he receives about non-devolved matters. The framework for that can be established in due course through Assembly regulations. The commissioner will make an annual report to the Assembly on his activities, so the Assembly may wish to raise general issues about non-devolved matters with the UK Government, using its powers under section 33(1) of the 1998 Act.

I recognise the concerns that have been expressed, but I hope that I have allayed hon. Members' fears. The commissioner will have the opportunity to make comments, should he so wish. Those comments will not have statutory backing, and the commissioner will not have the statutory right to secure information, but he will be able to make comments, the Government can listen to them and the Assembly can take those comments forward.

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