Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson): I, too, welcome you to the Committee, Mr. Wells. We had useful sittings on Tuesday with your co-Chairman, Mr. Barry Jones. I am sure that you will enjoy any future sittings that you may chair.

I am sorry that the hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy are not here this morning, because the debate straddles two sittings. When we began the debate on Tuesday, both hon. Gentlemen made comments to which I hope to respond. I hope that they will read the record and examine the points that I make in my response.

The debate has been useful, and I welcome the constructive way in which Opposition Members and my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend and for Cardiff, North have approached the discussion. As I said on Tuesday, the Government are entirely sympathetic to the amendments' objectives and to making the commissioner the champion of children's rights in Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North made some significant points in welcoming that role.

The Government, in their principal aim for the Children's Commissioner in exercising his functions, put at the heart of the role the safeguarding, promotion and welfare of children's rights. In earlier sittings under the chairmanship of Mr. Jones, we dealt with the reasons why the Government consider it appropriate for the commissioner's statutory role to relate to devolved functions alone.

It is worth clarifying the range of areas for which the commissioner and Assembly will have responsibility. I want to put into context the role and responsibilities of the commissioner, and to describe the core functions that the Bill confers on him. The Bill, in amending the Care Standards Act 2000, confers wide-ranging subjects on the commissioner for which he has a responsibility within devolved areas. They include agriculture, ancient monuments, cultural policy, economic development, education and training, environment and health, highways issues, housing, industry, local government, social services, sport and recreation, tourism, town and country planning, transport, water and flood defence and language issues. All those subjects fall within the competence of the Children's Commissioner, as stated in the Bill.

My hon. Friend and Opposition Members want the amendments to extend that formal responsibility into non-devolved areas. However, citing the breadth of the devolved functions re-emphasises the significance of the extended scope that the commissioner will have. We are in danger of forgetting how extensive and radical are the proposals contained in the Bill.

The commissioner's scope will cover the key bodies and individuals providing universal services, such as health and education, to children in Wales. His scope will go beyond those areas, covering housing, transport and environmental matters, all of which are important to the vast majority of children in Wales. The Bill's provisions do not simply tinker with the commissioner's functions under the Care Standards Act 2000, but extend them significantly. I categorically confirm that the commissioner will be able to act as a champion for children in Wales. He will also be able to make representations to Government and the Assembly outside of that substantive role, and make comments on an informal basis. I believe that that reflects the spirit of the amendments tabled by the hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend and for Cardiff, North.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy is not present because he asked me a question. I do not intend to reject the amendments in the broader sense, but I shall ask my colleagues in due course to withdraw them. However, if I were to reject the amendments, why would I undertake that? What is the substantive difference? Were he here, I would say to the hon. Gentleman—and I say to hon. Members who are here—that I ask them to withdraw the amendments simply because I believe that we must define the role of the Children's Commissioner.

The commissioner should concentrate his activities on the substantive functions and be judicious about the way in which he operates outside his statutory role. There is a range of issues, and the biggest issues facing the commissioner will be those relating to health, education and social service functions, which he will have powers to deal with. Within that operation, however, he needs to concentrate. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley touched on it briefly, whether intentionally or not, in relation to the budget that the Children's Commissioner will have. He will have a budget currently of approximately £800,000 in the financial year in which he takes up his post. He has to allocate his resources accordingly.

The commissioner may make representations to Government about a whole range of informal issues—about Home Office and Benefits Agency matters. He can make informal comments, but his statutory backing under the Bill is to undertake activities that are his core functions. His core functions, under the Bill, are those that relate to the Assembly, and his resources should automatically follow them. That is not to debar or gag him from making comments about Home Office or Benefits Agency matters informally to the Assembly or to Government Departments. The Bill seeks to give a definition of the role, which is in the areas for which the Assembly is responsible. As I mentioned on Tuesday, it is the Assembly that has created this creature, the Children's Commissioner, and therefore he will operate within that sphere of influence.

Mr. Evans: I welcome what the Minister is saying to clarify the point. However, although £800,000 is a large sum of money, with a team of staff I suspect that it will be whittled away very quickly. Is he saying that because of the limitation on the budget as it stands he suspects that the Children's Commissioner will have to concentrate on the core areas, at the expense of looking at some of the non-devolved areas, because he simply will not be able to afford to do so?

Mr. Hanson: No. I am saying that the budget this financial year is £800,000, but if we doubled, tripled or quadrupled it—whatever the budget was—the definition of the commissioner's role under the Bill is that that budget is to be spent primarily on those core functions. Therefore, the non-core functions, which are the responsibility of the British Government, are issues on which he can pass informal comments to the Government directly and to the Assembly, but he has no core function to deal with them because there are mechanisms elsewhere for dealing with them.

Ms Ruth Kelly (Bolton, West): Would the commissioner be able to include those informal matters on which he might wish to comment in the annual report? Would he be able to take evidence on them?

Mr. Hanson: I believe that he will be able to include them in the annual report. Taking evidence formalises in a sense the representations that are being made. It will involve him in expenditure, which again is part of the definition of the core functions. Our present discussions may help my hon. Friend.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley asked about the Child Support Agency, which is an important issue giving rise to a number of significant concerns. I do not believe it is appropriate, and the commissioner could not, under the Bill, investigate individual cases involving the Child Support Agency. Nor could he produce a report on the impact of the Child Support Agency in Wales. However, if in the course of his duties he learned of a range of issues that raised concerns about the CSA, he could include a comment in his annual report to that effect, or raise it with the Assembly Minister Jane Hutt, who could make representations to the British Government. Alternatively, he could feed informally to the Child Support Agency a range of issues that had come through. There is a difference between saying that the Children's Commissioner is responsible for the Child Support Agency and that the Children's Commissioner may raise informally any concerns that he may have about it. There is a subtle but real difference in the process that he will follow.

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On the potential role of the Children's Commissioner with regard to the Child Support Agency, there is a mechanism of regulation and control, which is the Department of Social Security. There are Ministers and the Secretary of State is my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), who is directly responsible for such matters. He is accountable to this House, which can raise those issues with him. [Interruption.]

I welcome the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire to the Committee. It is a pleasure to see him here. I have covered some points and I hope that we can continue to discuss them in due course.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): I apologise for my late arrival. I thought it was a 10 o'clock start.

Mr. Hanson: I appreciate the difficulty and assure the hon. Gentleman that he is welcome. Where was I, Mr Wells? This is a typical Liberal Democrat trick to throw Ministers off course just as they are in full flow, distract them from the key points and confuse them. It is clearly a tactic to ensure that when Hansard records what we have said I am shown to be confused and disorientated.

I say again that my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh Central, the Secretary of State, is accountable to this House for the Child Support Agency, and the commissioner's role would not be to investigate individual cases. We do not want to duplicate existing mechanisms of regulation and investigation of such matters.

The hon. Members for North Dorset (Mr Walter) and Ribble Valley both expressed concern about the potential for the commissioner to become involved in family life and whether the amendments before us would give the commissioner responsibilities to take forward comments on family life. They would have to be looked at in the light of non-statutory content. That relates also to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend about poverty issues. I very much hope that if he feels it important to do so the commissioner will raise questions relating to his concerns about wider issues in Wales that affect children. Again, I come back to the fact that there is a statutory context and that he has firm core responsibilities on which he must focus.

The commissioner may wish to comment informally on aspects of family life, but that will not be the focus of his activities. I do not believe that any involvement he has would constitute meddling in family life, as has been suggested. Indeed, I know that the Conservative party in the Assembly agrees with that approach.

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