Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill

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Mr. Hanson: Is not the hon. Gentleman in a sense arguing against his own amendment? Is it the role and responsibility of the Children's Commissioner to take on that quasi-political lobbying role in relation to such politically charged issues or is it our job as elected politicians and the job of the Assembly?

Mr. Evans: I accept what the Minister has just said. I would say that it was the job of politicians. However, I am recognising the fact that the commissioner can comment on anything that affects children in Wales, and that he may be written to on that subject by a number of people. He would be in a similar position to ourselves: we have received letters, both for and against such matters, in our own constituencies. The commissioner will have to strike a fine balance, listen to what people say and have private talks with Ministers or Assembly members. However, there may be a fine line, and people may say that they do not know whether the commissioner is helping the argument forward.

The commissioner may also want to comment on the issue of voting at 16, which is a less politically charged issue. When the Representation of the People Bill was being debated last year, we discussed that issue at length. We all had views and the only people who were not consulted were those aged from 16 to 18. I should not call people in that age group children, because I might offend them. Young people of that age may have strong opinions about whether they should have a vote.

Ms Julie Morgan: The hon. Gentleman will be interested to hear that, when the Danish Commissioner came to Cardiff and spoke to a large group of people, including young people and children, he talked about his activities in Denmark. One subject on which he consulted with young people via the internet was what they thought the age for voting should be. There was widespread consultation on that and other issues, some very contentious. That was very interesting.

Mr. Evans: I am sure that that will not be restricted. Indeed, the voting age was reduced from 21 to 18 by a Conservative Government. I do not know what Denmark decided in the end, but I assume the age for voting is still 18. I hope that the European Union will not become involved in that issue. Primary legislation should be a decision for nation states. There are arguments either way. In fact, when standing for Parliament and local authorities I believe the age is still 21—18 to vote and 21 to stand.

Ms Kelly rose—

The Chairman: Order. It is perfectly in order to discuss anything that is related to schedule 2A dealing with the responsibilities of the Children's Commissioner for Wales, but it is not in order to explore the issues involved that might be considered. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has not stimulated an intervention, which would also be out of order.

Mr. Evans: I do not need to transgress that, Mr. Wells. There has been tremendous consensus in the Committee and if the hon. Lady believes that her comments are in order I shall be more than happy to give way.

Ms Kelly: Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it would be a good idea for a Welsh Children's Commissioner to get involved in United Kingdom legislation which affected all children equally across the UK rather than perhaps to confine his comments—if, indeed, he were to comment on primary legislation—to primary legislation that differentially affected children in Wales, which he could justify as part of his brief as Children's Commissioner for Wales? If there were indeed someone to comment on matters of UK legislation that affected all children equally, surely that should be either a UK commissioner for children or a minister for children?

Mr. Evans: I fully accept that. I will not go down that route, but if we recall the differences between devolved and undevolved areas with eating beef on the bone, at certain stages we could find ourselves with different laws all over the place and that would be difficult. The Children's Commissioner might find it enormously difficult. The children's rights director in England and the Children's Commissioner for Wales might not even agree on certain matters, and that could lead to confusion. MMR vaccinations were mentioned the other day. The Children's Commissioner for Wales might recommend one thing and the children's rights director might say something else, which could lead to enormous confusion. We do not want to see that.

Following your guidance, Mr Wells, I will not go through each individual issue. I will merely say that any primary legislation that deals with home affairs has an enormous impact, whether it is the age of drinking, driving at 17, the tests that people have to take or whether we have a green `P' on the back of cars for young people in their first year of driving. The Children's Commissioner for Wales may wish to comment. The hon. Member for Bolton, West referred to legislation about things that are distinctly Welsh. It will be well within the commissioner's powers to comment on secondary legislation and informally, I suspect, on primary legislation, but he may not have sufficient funds to be able to do that.

My final comment on non-devolved areas may well concern home affairs and the question of where convicted paedophiles go when they are released from prison. We know that this is an incredibly politically charged issue. It is not party political, but people have strong feelings about it. We have seen recent television reports of parents marching for a change in legislation when they believe that undesirable people—people who have been convicted—are being placed in communities where there are many children. Would it not therefore be appropriate at least to consult a Children's Commissioner on what he felt was a common sense move, if primary legislation were to be introduced on that? I suspect that the Children's Commissioner may make recommendations on primary legislation. He may not wish to go running to the press. He may not wish to seek headlines on every aspect of dealing with children. He will have the children's real interests at heart. He may wish, having looked at primary legislation, to make some recommendations and comment, if he is consulted, on these aspects, so that after consulting with the children himself, which we are now obliging him to do, he could make some recommendations. I ask the Minister to look carefully at both amendments No. 10 and No. 45, on the one hand compelling him to look at primary legislation and on the other hand, if there is a failure to bring forward any legislation, to comment on that.

Mr. Win Griffiths: I wish to make some comments about amendment No. 10, but also to say a few words about amendment No. 45 in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North and the hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy.

At least half of the provisions in amendment No. 10 are covered by the existing Bill. Under clause 3, new section 72B(1) refers to

    the exercise or proposed exercise by the Assembly of any function, including the making or proposed making of any subordinate legislation.

The commissioner has the power to review its effect on children. That is what we generally call secondary legislation, so I think that aspect is covered.

Then there is primary legislation which is specific to Wales, whether it be a defined Act or Bill, like this particular Bill which is only about Wales, or a Bill, for example, on education which will have in it specific references to the powers of the Assembly to do things. I know that in the past Bills on devolved matters have referred to the power of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment or of the Secretary of State for Wales to do certain things. Therefore, primary legislation of that nature is also covered by existing provisions in the Bill. If we go a step further, as the Minister has already said in other debates, the commissioner will have the power to make comments and appropriate representations. I believe that it would be appropriate to do so through the Assembly which, within the structure of devolved Government, can make sure that those representations are filtered through into the process that covers legislation in this place.

Amendment No. 45 is a probing amendment to find out from my Minister exactly how the power of the commissioner might work, given that the commissioner has got wide powers with regard to the safeguard and promotion of the rights and welfare of children as mentioned in clause 2. I should like to probe the Minister on this issue of giving the commissioner the power to review the effect on children of the failure of the Assembly or any person mentioned in schedule 2A to exercise any function in relation to Wales. It is already clear that the right to review and monitor failures in respect of the complaints procedures is included in the Bill, but I wonder whether the failure to exercise the function would be covered by the way in which the Bill is presently constructed.


One of the powerful messages of the Waterhouse report is that there were numerous examples of social workers failing to carry out their functions in the appropriate way. There were also issues about whether the Welsh Office failed to carry out its functions in the appropriate way—we all know of the dire consequences for children if that happens. I hope to be reassured by the response to my question about the issues raised in amendment No. 45. I hope that the Minister will say that the commissioner already has the relevant powers in the way that the Bill is constructed. To ensure that there is no doubt about that, I tabled the amendment with the help and support of the Children in Wales Commissioner Campaign Group so that the issue can be aired. I look forward to the Minister's response.

Mr. Livsey: This is an interesting debate. I want to look at amendment No. 10, tabled by the Opposition, and the impact of the commissioner in examining primary legislation as it affects Wales. There is a very fine line. There are education Bills in the House—primary legislation—that affect Wales. That is just one example of where specific aspects may impinge upon Wales in a way that it is difficult to unscramble, because the devolution settlement means that the Assembly has powers to deal with only secondary legislation. Given that situation, with which I have some sympathy, there is a strong case for the commissioner having the power to look at some of those specific aspects as they impinge upon Wales. There may be a case for some input from him, specific to Wales, where his views may carry considerable clout in refining the legislation.

Amendment No. 45, to which my name is attached, was spoken to by the hon. Member for Bridgend. It deals with a particularly important aspect, especially since the hon. Member for Bridgend referred to the Waterhouse inquiry and the comments that were made by Sir Ronald Waterhouse. Amendment No. 45 says:

The commissioner may also review the effect on children of the failure of the Assembly or any person mentioned . . . to exercise any function in relation to Wales.

As we know, no one is perfect and no organisation is perfect. There is a certain amount of inevitability about failure in all organisations. However, it is obviously our business in Committee to ensure that, where there is failure it can be investigated. We also need to ensure that there will be monitoring of the proper conduct of the legislation in relation to children in Wales. As has been said, the Waterhouse inquiry ``Lost in Care'' made it clear that the failure of social workers and the Welsh Office inspectorate was such that they had to act in dire consequences for the children. It illustrates that the failure to act can be as detrimental to children as the actions of public bodies. Without going too deeply into it, there has been an issue with the former Welsh Office about the background of some people working in the inspectorate. I will say no more than that. The Children's Commissioner should have some input into that highly sensitive area.

The right to review and monitor failures in respect of complaints procedures is expressly included in the Bill. Such a right should also be included in relation to the Assembly, and other public bodies, so that the possibility of failure can be starkly investigated with all the facts presented to the commissioner. His independent remit will allow him to comment on, and improve, the situation, to ensure that such failures are not repeated in future, and that children in Wales are not adversely affected in any way by breakdowns in administration.

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