Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill

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Mr. Win Griffiths: In seeking my hon. Friend's advice and guidance, I am partly interpreting what I believe the Opposition are seeking to do, in one amendment at least. It would not be appropriate to specify the local government ombudsman in a schedule to this Bill, but if he were investigating a social services case involving child abuse, when the investigation was over and the recommendations made, would it be appropriate for the Children's Commissioner to say, ``Yes, I am pleased that this has been done. It was a good job on behalf of children.''? Or might he even say, ``Yes, this is really good—and it could be improved by local government doing this, that or the other,'' simply by way of informal advice?

Mr. Hanson: That would depend on the context and the issues that arose, but I cannot see any difficulty. It is important to differentiate between the roles and responsibilities of the local government ombudsman and those of the Children's Commissioner, and the amendment could cause confusion in those roles, leading to difficulties in the interpretation of the Bill compared with that of other Acts of Parliament.

I recognise that many questions that hon. Members have raised may not have been adequately answered in detail, but the Government want to emphasise that the amendments might lead to confusion—and that confusion is exactly what the clarity of Bill is designed to avoid. I therefore ask the hon. Member for North Dorset to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Walter: I am a little worried that our concern seems to be about administrative convenience and neatness rather than the investigation of complaints about children's services. It is central to the Bill that children are the people about whom we are concerned. We are not necessarily concerned about the niceties of whether the local government ombudsman has his empire imposed upon by the Children's Commissioner. That is something that we as politicians must sort out in drafting legislation, and ensure that it has the best possible effect on the children we seek to protect.

As I have said, the amendments seek to tease out from the Minister his response to our concern that in order to preserve the remit of, for example, the local government ombudsman or any other ombudsman or investigatory body, we are limiting the powers of the Children's Commissioner. I am not sure that that is in the best interests of children. I am not sure that our probing amendments would be sufficient to achieve that end, but we were seeking the Minister's response. We may need to revisit the subject as we proceed, and their Lordships may want to look at it in the other place.

In that spirit, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: With this we will take the following amendments: No, 36, in schedule, page 8, line 3, at end insert—

`( ) Any police authority in Wales'.

No. 37, in line 3, at end insert—`( ) the Prison Service'.

No. 38, in line 3, at end insert—`( ) the Inland Revenue'.

No. 39, in line 3, at end insert—

    `( ) the Air Training Corps in Wales'.

No. 40, in line 3, at end insert—

    `( ) the Army Cadet Corps in Wales'.

No. 41, in line 3, at end insert—

    `( ) the Combined Cadet Corps in Wales'.

No. 50, in line 3, at end insert—`( ) the Benefits Agency'.

No. 51, in line 3, at end insert—`( ) the Charity Commission'.

No. 52, in line 3, at end insert—

    `( ) the Commission for Racial Equality'.

No. 53, in line 3, at end insert—`( ) the Crown Prosecution Service'.

No. 54, in line 3, at end insert—`( ) the Employment Service'.

No. 55, in line 3, at end insert—`( ) the Food Standards Agency'.

No. 56, in line 3, at end insert—

    `( ) the Health and Safety Executive'.

No. 57, in line 3, at end insert—`( ) HM Customs and Excise'.

No. 58, in line 3, at end insert—

    `( ) the Maritime and Coastguard Agency'.

No. 59, in line 3, at end insert—

    `( ) the National Criminal Intelligence Service'.

No. 60, in line 3, at end insert—`( ) National Savings'.

No. 61, in line 3, at end insert—

    `( ) Office of the National Lottery'.

No. 62, in line 3, at end insert—`( ) the Youth Justice Board'.

No. 63, in line 3, at end insert—`( ) the Radio Authority'.

No. 64, in line 3, at end insert—`( ) the British Broadcasting Corporation'.

No. 65, in line 3, at end insert—`( ) Sianel Pedwar Cymru'.

No. 66, in line 3, at end insert—`( ) the Independent Television Commission'.

No. 67, in line 3, at end insert—`( ) the Child Support Agency'.

Hon. Members will have noted that part I of the schedule—the proposed schedule 2A to the Care Standards Act 2000—is closely tied to clause 3. I have therefore selected the proposed amendments to part I of the schedule for discussion during this clause stand part debate. I shall be content for hon. Members to discuss part I of the schedule more widely if it will make for a more effective debate. If hon. Members wish to put any of the amendments to the schedule to the vote, they should make that known to me or to my fellow Chairman. We shall call the amendments formally when we reach that part of the Bill.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I am grateful, Mr. Jones, for your guidance, as I am sure is the Committee. The Bill is a relatively short, and when I first looked at schedule 2A and went through the bodies mentioned in it, I wondered what connection some of them had with the Children's Commissioner for Wales. I scratched my head when I saw in the list a national park authority for a national park in Wales and the Arts Council of Wales, and wondered how the powers of the commissioner might impinge upon those various bodies, what recommendations he might make, what research or inquiries—

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Evans: It is wonderful to see the hon. Gentleman. I am delighted to give way to him.

Mr. Llwyd: Once again, he has not thought the matter through. For example, the Arts Council of Wales has a children's theatre.

Mr. Evans: I fully accept that when one thinks more deeply about the list it starts to make more sense. For example, why include the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales? I am not saying that children would not have an interest in those areas, but that does not readily spring to mind when we read the list of the various bodies in proposed new schedule 2A. Similarly, the Welsh Development Agency, the Welsh Language Board and the Welsh National Board for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting are listed. Some suggest themselves more readily than others. What ties those bodies together is that the National Assembly for Wales has authority over them.

I do not wish to dwell on the issue because, as hon. Members will see, our amendments Nos. 36 to 41 and 50 to 67 list many other bodies, and I could quite easily stand here until 7 o'clock this evening saying something about each of them—[Interruption.] Excitement has built up in the Committee at that prospect.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman might be willing to stay here until 7 o'clock, but I am not.

Mr. Evans: I am sure that when you have read the reports of previous Committees that have dealt with various different bodies, Mr. Jones, you will have seen that detail was included about some of them. I do not intend to repeat any previous contributions that I might have made.

There seems to be general agreement that we want to ensure that the Children's Commissioner for Wales will not be straitjacketed in any way. The Minister has told us that the commissioner's budget is limited to approximately £800,000. We are told that he should concentrate on the core issues, and should not become involved in highly charged party political issues. At the same time, he will able to comment on issues outside the core areas, but in an informal way. I hope that that summation of the Children's Commissioner's role is accurate.

Our amendments would ensure that the Children's Commissioner in no way felt inhibited. We have listed a number of different bodies that suggest themselves as much as the bodies contained in proposed new schedule 2A. They do not fall within the direct powers of the National Assembly, so they are regarded as being outside the core areas. The bodies mentioned in our amendments, such as the Army Cadet Corps, the Combined Cadet Corps and so forth, are directly involved in services to children.

As for others, such as the Benefits Agency, we would not expect the Children's Commissioner to comment directly on the amount of money being given in benefits for children, but if there were any problems with the payment of benefits already announced by Government, or with the guidance to parents as to the benefits available, I would expect the commissioner to comment. He may not feel able to do that under the Bill as drafted, because the function is not a core function.

When the Government make announcements on social security matters, they can be complicated, especially if means-testing is involved, and claimants are required to fill out several pages of forms to claim the benefits. We all know that under successive Governments, some benefits have been underclaimed. Without going into the issue of fraud and overclaiming, we can agree that it would help people if forms were simplified, or if more information were made available to claimants. If the Benefits Agency were identified in the Bill, the Children's Commissioner would be able to examine the system of benefits involving children, and if he felt that the benefits could be better explained, he could get involved.

The Employment Service suggests itself readily, because children will be employed. I declare an interest in that I believe that we have paper boys and girls in our shop in Swansea—we certainly did when I was a youngster. They would not fall directly within the purview of the Employment Service, but, in the light of various experiences, the commissioner may want to make recommendations. The Food Standards Agency clearly suggests itself.

The amendments also refer to the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Independent Television Commission and Sianel Pedwar Cymru, which is safe in our hands. Children watch television, obviously, so the content of programmes is important. Everyone considers himself an expert and comments on that subject. It will not be a core area for the commissioner, but he may want to comment on aspects of programming or the amount of time spent by children in front of the television.

11.15 am

The commissioner may also want to issue guidance and make recommendations about new technology, and the content and availability of the internet in particular. We must make the Bill relevant to the 21st century. There is a digital divide, in that some people have constant access to the internet, while others have none. Children who cannot enjoy the benefits of the internet will be disadvantaged.

In addition to those bodies, we should not forget the Radio Authority—radio is vital. I will not add anything to what I said about the Child Support Agency, as I have already given a lengthy disposition on the subject.

The Government should state why they feel that the Children's Commissioner's power would be sufficient without amending the Bill. I do not claim that our amendments are fully comprehensive, as other bodies might be added. The National Assembly for Wales would not be able to add bodies beyond the area for which it has responsibility without the permission of the Secretary of State for Wales. That is why we devised a list of bodies on which children's issues might impinge. We hope that the commissioner will not be constrained in that respect.

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