Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill

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Ms Julie Morgan: I am pleased to support the amendment. It contains key points that will define how the commissioner operates, in particular how he communicates with children and children's organisations, and takes on board their views. It is important to state that it is not easy to communicate with children or obtain their views; or to establish systems through which young people can express their views to the commissioner and his office. The commissioner's ability to obtain their views in order to express them and bear them in mind in his everyday work will determine his success. That consideration is an important part of the amendment.

I am interested to know whether the Minister thinks that the obligation can be imposed on the commissioner. The Bill implies an obligation—it is unwritten—but the need to consult and how that is done are important. It has been mentioned that children took part in the selection of the commissioner. That was a first for a public appointment and a first for Wales. We should ensure that the high standards applied in the appointment of the commissioner are also applied in the way in which he operates. It is expensive to consult children, as I know from my work in the voluntary sector before becoming a Member of Parliament. That is why it is important to make explicit such an obligation.

When the Danish ombudsman came to Cardiff some years ago, he spoke about his consultation with children. He held wide-ranging discussions, conferences and seminars with them. He communicated with them through the internet. Great efforts were made to ensure a flow of information between children and young people and the commissioner's office in Denmark. We should aspire to the same in Wales. It is therefore important that the obligation is a requirement of the Bill.

Whenever the clause and the amendments mention consulting organisations and children, we should remember that that means all children—including those in some of the groups of which we have spoken today. It includes some of the most underprivileged and deprived groups in Wales; we have not yet mentioned asylum seekers' children, travellers' children and gypsy children. It includes also those children for whom we shall have to make specific effort to ensure that their views are communicated to the commissioner.

We may be talking today about discrimination, but we all know of the inverse care law—the poorer people are, the harder it is for them to get services. It is important to remember that when trying to ensure that the commissioner has a strong voice in tackling child poverty. We may know that the poorest get the worst services, but we hope that the commissioner will be working to change that.

The convention on human rights has been covered in detail. Its principles are important and should form a core element of the commissioner's work. I will be interested to hear from the Government whether they can accept amendment No. 44, or think that it would be better for the National Assembly to include such a provision in the regulations, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths). The amendment is at the core of the matter because it touches on some key issues—including how the commissioner should function if he is truly to be a champion for Wales, as the Government say they wish him to be.

Mr. Llwyd: The hon. Lady spoke about adopting the provisions of the UN convention, but we must remember that Governments are loath to adopt conventions. The Human Rights Act 1998 was enacted only because time was running out and the Government had to do so. I am making not a political but a general point that successive Governments have not been keen on international conventions—even though the human rights convention is at the core of the amendment, as the hon. Lady said.

One reason for the Government's reticence in adopting the articles of the UN charter on the rights of children is that according children rights makes those rights legally enforceable. The hon. Member for Bridgend spoke earlier about the Dickensian period, when children were supposed to be seen and not heard. I am pleased to say that, although those days are largely long gone, they are still sometimes with us. I encountered such an attitude when I served on the Committee that considered the Family Law Act 1996.

The point that was at issue in 1996 is germane to today's debate. I have been involved in divorce law for some years—I am glad to say not personally—and have often seen couples agreeing a division of property, and even who should have the dog, but no one seemed to consult the children and young people or consider their best interests. I know that, for a child aged under 10, the decision might depend on who last gave him a toy, but children over 12 ought to be heard if they express that wish.

In my work on the 1996 Act, I was assisted greatly by children, as we are again for this Bill. I wanted to amend the Family Law Bill to include a right for children to be heard, for them to have regular contact with their estranged parents and, if required, for them to be represented in proceedings so that they could be heard. Each time I proposed the amendment, it met the same response: the Government were not keen to accord legally enforceable rights to children. Of course, they did not say so in so many words. There is a different culture out in the big wide world, but ours is not to accord legally enforceable rights to children.

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I am pleased to say that things have moved ahead well in the past few years. Shortly before the Family Law Bill, which became the Family Law Act 1996, finished its passage through the Commons, I was called into the Lord Chancellor's Department and told that my amendments would be accepted. Now it is illegal to make a final divorce settlement until a child or young person has been heard, by himself or herself or through a lawyer, if he or she wants to be heard. That is a great advance.

The hon. Member for Bridgend was right in that there has not been an en-bloc assimilation of the articles of the UN charter, but that provision incorporated three of its articles into domestic law. I do not think that it was that ground-breaking. What was said in the context of the 1996 Act was common sense anyway. However, it was up against the culture of not recognising immediately the good sense of according legal rights to children.

The National Assembly for Wales is keen for there to be some reference to the convention in the Bill. The report of its Health and Social Services Committee, entitled, ``A Children's Commissioner for Wales'', contains two main points fully endorsing the convention in its summary. It also states that

    The UN Convention informed the overarching context in which we approached this task; which is our commitment to the rights of all children and young people to be treated as valued members of the community whose potential must be fully developed through appropriate policies and services and the meaningful representation of their interests.

The amendment is designed to place in the Bill the duty to promote compliance.

The words ``promote compliance'' are not the strongest in the world, but they mean that the commissioner and his office must do as much as they can to promote compliance with the UN convention. I do not think that that is at all ground-breaking. We are indebted to all the children's groups who have informed the debate—the Children's Society, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the umbrella body, Children in Wales—not only for their current work but for the huge amount of lobbying that they have done at the Assembly. I know how much lobbying went on in a short time, and they are to be congratulated on their stand on behalf of the children of Wales. I hope that their work will in due course be of great assistance to their colleagues in the context of an English commissioner.

I hope that the Minister will say that he will carefully consider whether the simple words ``to promote compliance with the UN convention on the rights of the child'' can be incorporated in the Bill. If he opposes that, I hope that he will tell me why. Is there a legal problem, or any problem at all? I am sure that there is not, and that accepting the amendment would be a real sign from the Committee and the Government. I pay due regard and gratitude to the Government for including, for example, the word ``rights''. I have not seen that word used in the context of children in a Bill before. It is a positive sign, but the most positive one would be to incorporate the words ``to promote compliance''. If there are no insurmountable drafting or legal problems, I urge the Government and the Minister to think again.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson): We have had a useful debate and all the contributions were welcome.

We have heard a good deal about the need for the Commissioner to have regard, as amendment No. 9 would require, to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. I shall give the Government's view on that in a moment. Amendment No. 44 would have a similar effect, in addition to directing the Assembly as to the job description and the exercise of the Commissioner's functions, with respect to attending to and promoting respect for children's views. It has been suggested by hon. Members that the principle aim of the Commissioner should, as amendment No. 8 would provide, be extended to include safeguarding and promoting the interests, as well as the rights and welfare, of children covered by the Bill.

Having listened to hon. Members' arguments, I do not think that there is a difference in principle between what the Government and the National Assembly for Wales are promoting, and the aims of the amendments. The only difference is in attitudes to the detailed implementation.

Amendment No. 44, which was tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend and for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) and the hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, deals with the need for the Commissioner to take account of children's and young people's views and to encourage others to do so. I have discussed it with Jane Hutt and officials at the National Assembly for Wales. They see paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) of the new subsection that the amendment would introduce into the Bill as defining key roles of the Commissioner. They have already begun to implement the principle by means of the ground-breaking proposal mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North of involving children in the appointment of the Children's Commissioner. As has been said, that is a novel approach.

The key difference between us on paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) concerns devolution. Amendment No. 44 is clearly intended to direct the National Assembly for Wales and the Commissioner on maintaining direct contact with children, having regard to their views and promoting respect for those views, and would thus undermine some of the principles of devolution. The Government have been keen to ensure that much of the detailed regulation is a matter for the Assembly.

I understand that the Assembly intends to consult fully on the proposals for the way in which the Commissioner will work and the points covered in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) will be included in those discussions. Later this year, possibly in spring, there will be an opportunity for consultation with a wide range of children's bodies, and with colleagues in the House and in the Assembly, to examine how the commissioner will interface with children and young people. Hopefully, that consultation will provide—this relates to the first part of amendment No. 44—an opportunity for Members of Parliament, Assembly Members, children's charities and all interested parties to give their views on how the commissioner should liase with young people. That would be more appropriate than making provisions for such liaison explicit in the Bill. To do so would be unduly prescriptive towards the National Assembly.

That brings me to the main part of amendment No. 44, which touches upon many of the issues raised by the hon. Members for Ribble Valley, for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and for Brecon and Radnorshire and my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff, North and for Bridgend. They have all spoken about the United Nations convention on the rights of the child.

Hon. Members will be aware that, although the UN convention was ratified by the United Kingdom when the hon. Member for Ribble Valley's party was in office, it has not as yet been incorporated into domestic law. That point determines the difference between the Government's position and that of hon. Members who have spoken today. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy about the contents of several of the articles being adopted per se, as part of the development of family law issues.

The Government agree with the ratification of the convention by the previous Government, but it has not yet been incorporated into domestic law. It therefore has a particular status. I have consulted Government colleagues and we have also discussed the matter with the Assembly. The Government do not regard it as appropriate to make specific reference to the convention in the Bill. However, that does not mean— and I hope that I can be supportive of hon. Members' remarks—that the Government do not support the principles set out in the convention. They are clearly of direct relevance to many of the commissioner's functions, and they should inform the way in which he carries out those functions.

The international framework of the UN convention is positive and optimistic for children. As hon. Members will know, the convention contains 41 articles that set out specific rights in great detail. The articles embody a strong, broad vision, which underpins the work of the Assembly and of the Government. However, it is an inescapable fact that the convention has not been incorporated into domestic law as a general principle.

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