Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill

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Ms Julie Morgan: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as well as in those areas that have already been raised, discrimination exists in Wales, particularly in health care? For example, children from ethnic minorities who live in Wales have a worse standard of health care. That is now acknowledged by the Government and by local authorities trying to deal with the most serious problems of underlying discrimination—for example, health care for black children.

Mr. Evans: If the Bill incorporated a requirement on the commissioner to pay due regard to the convention, the Government would not have to worry about the commissioner hauling them before the bar of public opinion to accuse them of falling down on such matters. The measure would be aspirational and open to interpretation.

I used the word ``discrimination'' in the sense of dealing with inflammatory language that affects children in the playground and in families at home. The hon. Lady widened its scope to include health, education and children's welfare in general. I accept what she said, and I think that we can safely say that it will be interpreted sufficiently broadly to take account of those matters.

Another part of the convention deals with the civil rights and freedoms of children. At the beginning of its deliberations, the National Assembly for Wales said that the convention should be incorporated into the Bill, and we should pay due regard to that.

I shall listen carefully to what the Minister has to say. We all want to see the Bill make good progress, and reference to the convention will help to improve it.

5.15 pm

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): I am pleased to be able to speak to amendment No. 44, which deals with some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley and considers more deeply and widely the functions and role of the commissioner.

Clause 2 gives what might be termed a catch-all description of the commissioner's role. It says that it is:

    to safeguard and promote the rights and welfare of children to whom this Part applies.

It could be argued that a broad interpretation of the clause would cover at least three of the issues raised in amendment No. 44—which, I am pleased to say, is supported by Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru Members.

My purpose in tabling the amendment was to stress the importance of the work of the commissioner as an agent of social change and a person who will help to change the way in which people think about children. During our debates on the Waterhouse report—when the BBC was screening its production of ``David Copperfield''—I was struck by the stark brutality with which adults treated children at the end of the Victorian period and the early part of the 20th century.

As we leave the 20th century and move into the 21st century, we are beginning significantly to readjust our views about children in society. Nevertheless, we have a long way to go. The continuation of such problems is evidenced by our difficulty in getting to grips with what children tell us about the abuse that is meted out to them by adults, who are often close family members. As adults, we find that difficult to grasp because those are not the type of things that we expect adults to do. The role of the commissioner is to develop that agenda by paying special regard to children's views, promoting respect for their opinions and maintaining direct contact with children and children's organisations. That is the flesh on the bones of clause 2. It is important that we establish how the Government see the role of the commissioner developing. I have every confidence that Peter Clarke will want to do those things, but is it better to include them on face of the Bill, or is the catch-all presentation in clause 2 sufficient? To include them on the face of the Bill would help to promote the child-centred approach that we anticipate the commissioner bringing to the job.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley gave us a detailed exposition on proposed new subsection (1B)(d) in relation to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, so I shall not go into more detail on that. However, when the Assembly advertised the post of commissioner, the job description emphasised the issue of promoting and upholding the convention. The hon. Gentleman pointed out that the previous Government ratified the convention in 1992, although they had reservations, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) sought to explore with him. Those reservations related to refugee children so they would not generally apply in the United Kingdom. To make the amendment absolutely clear, we refer specifically to those reservations in the context of the previous Government's ratification of the convention.

Although the United Nations convention on the rights of the child has been ratified, it has never been made law. That is an interesting point, which I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will develop in his response. During the five post-ratification years of the previous Government, that ratification was not taken into account by UK law. During the four years of office of this Government, we have not yet made progress on such legislation, but I have no doubt that a great deal of thought is given to the matter in Government circles. One big advantage that we now have in the presentation of the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill is that it gives a high profile to the ratification of the convention, which has not passed properly into UK law. That must happen for the commissioner to act upon it in the manner proposed in the amendment.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley mentioned that child poverty had worsened considerably in the past 20 years. If we were not trying to maintain a consensus, I might point out who was in government for most of the past 20 years, and that this Government are committed to doing something about child poverty. Nevertheless, I welcome the Opposition's support for the measures that are being undertaken.

In conclusion—

Mr. Rowe: I rise only because the hon. Gentleman says that he is about to conclude. I want to ask him whether, under paragraph (a)—

5.25 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.40 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Rowe: As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, I want to ask the hon. Gentleman about an important issue concerning paragraph (a) of amendment No. 44. Does ``children's organisations'' mean organisations of children or organisations for children? Some organisations are getting a good deal better at listening to what young people want, and I know how difficult that is to do. The UK Youth Parliament is always inventing something new, regardless of what was said in a previous sitting, and its members ensure that they get what they—rather than what older people—want. However, there are organisations that consist of little more than the prejudices of those who run them, bolstered by the number of young people that they claim to represent. I should be interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's comments on that.

Mr. Win Griffiths: I appreciate the interest that the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) has shown in children's issues over many years, and I know that his question arises from a genuine commitment. The phrase ``children's organisations'' is sufficiently broad to enable organisations of children and organisations for children to be taken into account.

Ms Julie Morgan: Does my hon. Friend agree that this is an extremely important point? In discussing such matters in this place, the views of children have been put to us directly, particularly through organisations such as Children in Wales, which directly consults and involves children.

Mr. Griffiths: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Assembly showed the way by including young people in the appointment process for the commissioner. Several all-party groups in the House have the interests of children at heart, and take great care to consult children, and organisations in which the voice of young people is paramount. I am keen that that message should get across.

On the amendment, I have already pointed out that the Assembly dealt with matters relating to the UN convention in the commissioner's job description. I wonder whether the Assembly has the power formally to ensure that all such matters form part of the job description, which might render the amendment otiose. Perhaps the Assembly could, in a yet more formal way, lay its own orders relating to the job description, provided that they were framed in the context of the Government of Wales Act 1998.

The purpose of the amendment is to test whether the Government are inclined to include such a provision in the Bill, or whether, in the light of my concluding remarks, we can ensure that such matters are dealt with in other ways. Changing the atmosphere and culture in which children are regarded is vital. It is one of the commissioner's most important jobs.

5.45 pm

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): I congratulate the representatives of children's organisations, who have briefed us so well. In spite of being the father of three children I cannot claim to be an expert, and it is good to have the briefings. I may quote from some of them and I acknowledge the wisdom in them.

It is said these days that a crucial debate is under way between rights and responsibilities. The groups that advise us on the Bill rightly champion the rights of children, but Committee members, of whatever party, are also discharging responsibilities to children. It is incumbent on us to do a really good job and to ensure that the Bill does not let children down. It is important in this day and age to acknowledge our personal responsibility to do that.

I am concerned mainly with amendment No. 44, which, besides emphasising the need to maintain contact with children and to have regard to and respect for their views, invokes the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Although that convention is not fully on the statute book, as some of us would want, we, like other areas of Europe, still have a responsibility to take it on board. Rebecca Wallace wrote in the journal International Law in 1986:

    Human rights are more successfully regulated at a regional level rather than at an international level.

In other words, the UN convention on the rights of the child is better discharged at a small nation level than as part of some grand international design. Therefore, it is quite appropriate that the duties of the Children's Commissioner for Wales will be carried out on an all-Wales basis.

We must try to incorporate the United Nations convention on the rights of the child into the Bill. It is revealing that other European countries and countries with children's ombudsmen and ombudswomen nearly all accept the convention. I hope that the Minister will explain the reasons for non-compliance, in the case of the Children's Commissioner for Wales—if that is what is happening.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley outlined elements of the convention, and some of those are fundamental. The right to an identity and to a name are fundamental to a child; the right to life, survival, development and a nationality also. In addition to those fundamental human rights, a child has a right not to be separated from their parents, to know and be cared for by their parents, and to leave and enter states for the purpose of family reunification. How often have we heard of children in one country while their parents are in another? In the case of the United Kingdom, we could mention children that are in a hospital far away from Wales, whose parents cannot afford to travel. Another fundamental right is that of freedom of expression. Children—quite rightly—were involved in the selection of the Children's Commissioner for Wales.

The United Nations' convention covers many important issues. It outlines fundamental rights that the citizens of Wales and of the United Kingdom almost take for granted. We should not take them for granted because times, and leaders, change; not so much in the United Kingdom, but in other countries, where leaders—fascist and communist—have jackbooted over people's rights. I stress the importance of the UN convention and hope that we shall receive a reasoned and intelligent response from the Minister.

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