Standing Committee F
Thursday 25 January 2001
[Mr. Bowen Wells in the Chair]
Review of exercise of functions of Assembly and other persons
Amendment proposed [23 January]: No. 42, in page 2, line 15, at the beginning to insert the words
`(A1) The Commissioner may make appropriate representations about any matter affecting the rights or welfare of children ordinarily resident in Wales.'.[Mr. Livsey.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking amendment No. 46, in page 2, line 15, at beginning insert
`(A1) The Commissioner may make appropriate representations to the National Assembly about any matter affecting the rights or welfare of children ordinarily resident in Wales.'.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): May I be the first to welcome you to the Chair of this Committee, Mr. Wells? I know that you will act with diligence and effectiveness in ensuring that we make as much progress as possible.
I suspect that, had Conservative Members been approached by the hon. Members for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) and for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), we might have considered adding our names to amendment No. 46. It is a shame that the hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) are not here because amendment No. 42 clearly goes much wider than amendment No. 46.
It is clear that under amendment No. 42 that the Children's Commissioner will be able to say anything about anything. I have made it clear in previous sittings that I would not wish to see the commissioner handcuffed, but my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) raised the possibility of there being confusion about whether the commissioner would be able, willy-nilly, to make pronouncements about family lifestyles. We do not refer to abuse that takes place in the home. I have no statistics on it, but I imagine that a substantial amount of the child abuse that occurs takes place within the home, so it would be right for the Children's Commissioner to make suggestions on how to tackle it. However, he will have enough work on his plate without becoming involved in the detail of how people normally live their lives. I have some reservations about that, but, because of my belief that the Children's Commissioner should be involved in non-devolved areas, I am not certain whether amendment No. 46 would be sufficient.
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): The hon. Gentleman may recall that, in introducing amendment No. 46 last Tuesday afternoon, I was at great pains to say that the difference between the two amendments was that, technically, it operated within the Government of Wales Act 1998, whereby representations would be made to the Assembly, but that it did not constrain the Commissioner from making appropriate representations when he felt that children's rights and welfare needed to be defended or promoted. I do not see that amendment No. 46 would constrain him to only devolved matters; it is simply a technical means to keep him within the devolution settlement.
Mr. Evans: I hope that the hon. Gentleman's interpretation, which is also mine, is the right one, but I have been here long enough to know that what is intended in legislation is not always achieved in practice. We look to the Minister for reassurance. I admit that I did not exactly remember that, but a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since Tuesday. We have even had a mini Government reshuffle, so goodness knows what may happen between today and our next sitting. We look forward to the next exciting instalment.
If that is the case, I am happy to accept amendment No. 46, because the non-devolved areas are important. Having a body to which to report is important. We know from the Government of Wales Act 1998 that the Assembly can consider anything that affects Wales, whether devolved or not. That is right and as it should be.
There are a couple of areas that are non-devolved on which the Children's Commissioner might wish to comment, and amendment No. 46 would allow him to do so. One is the Child Support Agency, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset on Tuesday. I suspect that the legislation establishing the Child Support Agency will not go down in history as the best ever enacted. In its general thrust and ethos it had the support of both sides of the House, but I suspect that a fair whack of most hon. Members' surgery cases will concern the CSA. Some are complete horror stories. It is not simply a case of whether the mother or father has been disadvantaged by the CSAI have had a fair whack of bothbut that the child may become the victim.
The CSA has resulted in a bureaucratic nightmare, and I am sure that in Wales as in England some cases have taken months to be dealt with properly, and, even if they are dealt with properly, whoever pays the child support may find that he or she has had a bundle of paperwork from the CSA and in virtually every letter the amount of money requested from the parent has differed, so that there has been no stability.
Then there is the angst, which is something that the Children's Commissioner might want to consider, felt by the parent who, because of the considerable amount that he or she is required to pay by the CSA, feels that he or she does not then have enough money to be able to give to the child personally. That parent may want to take the child out for a treat, but, because of the amount of money already paidI am avoiding referring only to one parent because either might be involvedcannot do so, and, as a result, feels deficient as a parent.
The problem is not simply one of bureaucracy or inefficiency, or that people have to speak to somebody different each time they telephone, who has to acquaint himself with all the paperwork involved in that child's case, but that there is no continuity for the parent. The Children's Commissioner might want to consider the whole aspect of how the CSA is working and to make recommendations to the National Assembly for Wales. Under amendment No. 46, Peter Clarke would be able to do so.
If several parents wrote to the Children's Commissioner about cases similar to those to which I have referred, he might want to get involved in the Child Support Agency. Would he be within his rights either to investigate single cases of how people were treated or to consider in general how the agency worked and impacted on children in Wales? Would he be able to make recommendations to the National Assembly for Wales, and would the Assembly be within its rights to make its own recommendations under the Government of Wales Act, as it did on the position of Children's Commissioner itself? I assume that Ministers and the Assembly would then negotiate over any legislation that might be introduced to help to solve the problems mentioned in the commissioner's report.
The commissioner would need financial support if he became involved in the Child Support Agency, because the funding mentioned would be totally deficient. The area is a hornets' nest, and when he solves one problem many others will emerge. If the commissioner makes recommendations in relation to the agency in Wales, cross-border problems will also emerge, so we should sort out the English aspects of the legislation at the same time.
A child whose parents live separately in England and Wales may flit back and forthhence the need for the word ``ordinarily'' in the amendment, as we discussed earlier. Someone will have to adjudicate on whether agency legislation differs between Wales and Englandwhich could easily be the case, as we have already debated legislation that differs in that way. We have been told, simply, that such differences are a good thing and what devolution is all about, because Wales and England can do what they like. However, that may have an impact on clients, customers, taxpayers and British citizens. One can imagine that there might be problems in cases such as I have described, where parents live separately in England and Wales. Who would adjudicate in such a case? Which rules would governthose for Wales or those for England?
Another non-devolved area is home affairs. What will be the position of the commissioner in relation to children in youth detention? He may be barred from discussing anyone within the court system, but I assume that he is not barred from commenting on how the court system operatesnot on individual cases, but on how it treats children generally. For example, a 17-year-old with a car living in a border area may have committed crimes in England and Wales. If the Children's Commissioner made recommendations for changes in the way in which children were treated in Wales, the court system might change and the law might be different in England; in such a situation, someone would have to adjudicate. Children are presumably treated differently from adults in courtsI suspect that there are already differences.
What would the consequences be for those non-devolved matters if amendment No. 46 were adopted? In the light of what the Minister says, the hon. Members for Bridgend and for Cardiff, North may want to comment, and we shall then decide on our approach.
Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): Amendment No. 46 should settle some of the concerns voiced in the Committee and by the children's charities that have lobbied so hard for the Bill. The key aspect of the commissioner's role is his independence and his ability to respond to issues brought to him by young people. We do not want a commissioner who is fettered in any way. His ability to comment is important. Hon. Members may have underplayed that power in earlier sittings, but I feel strongly that someone in that position may have a great effect by commenting on issues in public. That ability to comment should not be underestimated, but it is not enough.
Amendment No. 46 would give the commissioner the power to make representations to the Assembly about any matter of importance to children in Wales. It would also provide a means of giving structure to those representations, dealing with any concerns about the commissioner approaching Whitehall Departments, for example, which could prove unwieldy. Giving him the ability to channel his views through the Assembly might provide an answer to those problems, and fits in with the devolution settlement.
I am enthusiastic about amendment No. 46, because the children's charities that have worked so hard for the Bill feel that there will be real problems if a line of communication does not exist for the representations made by the commissioner. People may be worried that the amendment might create another layer of bureaucracy, but I believe that it gives a structure to the commissioner's representations.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) referred to the Child Support Agency, which I thought was an excellent example. The way in which he described the agency's operations, how they would affect the child and be of concern to the commissioner, provided a good illustration of the issues that we are discussing. We want the commissioner to consider wide-ranging issues, including poverty, that affect children. The way in which the agency operates impinges on children's poverty, as does the benefits system. If the amendment were adopted, would it be possible for the commissioner to propose changes to the benefits system to the Assembly, which would have means to make representations?A structure such as proposed in our amendment would get to grips with some of the concerns that exist about the post of commissioner.
On Second Reading my hon. Friend the Minister said that the commissioner could comment on non-devolved matters to the Assembly, which could make representations to the Government. Given what the Minister has said, we seem already to be part of the way to agreeing to amendment No. 46. However, we want to take a further step and refer to making ``appropriate representations'' rather than to making comments. How would the Minister envisage the Assembly dealing with those appropriate representations?
My hon. Friend the Minister has on three or four occasions referred to the post as the creation of the children's champion. That gives me great pleasure because it is how we have always seen the post. If we could agree to amendment No. 46, we might satisfy a lot of those who have raised concerns. Therefore, I am interested in hearing my hon. Friend the Minister's response to that amendment, which would fit in well with section 33 of the Government of Wales Act and might provide a way forward.