Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill

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Mr. Win Griffiths: I hope that I do not cause any consternation to my hon. Friend the Minister in saying that I sympathise with the thrust of the amendments. I am pleased that the Opposition's concerns about the fate of children have led them to make a total reverse, or U-turn, in their attitude towards devolution. If the amendments were accepted, the role of the Assembly would be hugely expanded through the Children's Commissioner. They would also drive a cart and horses through the Government of Wales Act—although, during the passage of that Act, the Opposition spent all their time trying to minimise the role of the Assembly.

Mr. Evans: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman's comments are causing consternation on the Government Benches, but they certainly are on the Opposition Benches. I have no intention of doing what he suggests. Children come first in our minds as we debate the Bill, so we want to give the commissioner power to overlook those areas that involve children. The Assembly can make whatever statements it likes on subjects that impinge on it. I hope that the annual report, which, it is recommended, should be laid before the Assembly, is laid also before the House, as I am sure that hon. Members will want to comment on services provided for children in Wales.

Mr. Griffiths: The hon. Gentleman almost took up the point that I wanted to make. Given what has been said in Committee and on Second Reading, and in the light of the Government of Wales Act and the power of other Departments, it would not be appropriate to accept the amendments. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend the Minister has made it clear that the commissioner should not be constrained in commenting on anything that affects children in Wales. In an earlier debate, we also made it clear that the appropriate way to give added strength to what the commissioner says would be to channel his remarks and observations through the National Assembly. The Government of Wales Act could deal with that at an official level, through the Secretary of State for Wales into the Cabinet. If changes in primary legislation were needed, that would be the appropriate way to make them. The mechanisms are in place without having to include all those bodies in the Bill.

Mr. Llwyd: The debate mirrors earlier debates in Committee. Although it is important, I suspect that the amendment was tabled to initiate further debate on the subject of an exhaustive list. The Minister rejected wording, similar to that of section 33 of the Government of Wales Act, which would have been appropriate and would have included in the Bill an overarching power for the Commissioner to investigate all matters affecting children in Wales. The wording in that Act is:

    `may consider, and make appropriate representations about, any matter affecting Wales'.

All we need are the words ``any matter affecting children in Wales''. The Government have rejected that and I suspect that, argue as we will, there will be no change in the Bill. That is unfortunate. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bridgend says, ``Do not be so pessimistic''. He may know more than I do, and I hope that he is right.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman should address the Chair. Sedentary remarks are not recorded.

Mr. Llwyd: I wonder whether the hon. Member for Bridgend knows more than I do. I hope—no doubt as you do, Mr. Jones—that the hon. Gentleman's qualified optimism will be rewarded later in Committee. I hope that I am in order in making those remarks.

This is the crux of the matter. All hon. Members want the commissioner to be able to deliver the necessary services on behalf of the children of Wales. The wording of section 33 would cover the issue perfectly. Plainly, there will be no movement on the amendment, because of what was said in earlier debates, but will the Minister think again about an extension in the Bill? In our debates on Tuesday last week, Labour Members—especially the hon. Member for Cardiff, North—said that, because of his status, the commissioner would be able to ask for information from various Departments. I come again to my honest belief that, unless it is written into the Bill, Departments will not feel under any pressure to send anything to the commissioner, least of all anything of moment or of relevance to the matter in hand.

Ms Julie Morgan: My recollection of what I said in those debates is that any comment of the commissioner would be of sufficient status for it to be noticed. My reference was generally to comments.

Mr. Llwyd: I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but what comment will the commissioner be able to make without knowing what he is commenting on? The commissioner will be viewed as an animal of the National Assembly, so it is only devolved matters that he will be entitled to consider in any depth. The commissioner may comment on various non-devolved matters until the cows come home, but without some reference to the extension of his remit, the Bill will be just words, and nothing else.

Mr. Livsey: I shall reinforce the argument of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who made some pertinent points. We are discussing clause stand part as well as the amendments, which would bring almost exclusively non-devolved organisations into the remit of the Bill. They remind me of an ancient west country rhyme; they should be called the ``Old Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all'' amendments. The only things missing are references to Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer and so on.

None the less, I have some sympathy with the amendments. The organisations to which they refer are missing from the Bill. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy referred to amendment No. 42, which is not now before us. It was a catch-all amendment and stated:

    ``The Commissioner may make appropriate representations . . . about any matter affecting the rights or welfare of children ordinarily resident in Wales.''.

The amendments make up a shopping list of various non-devolved organisations. I draw the Committee's attention to the position of the Army, junior leaders and regiments. Matters relating to them were dealt with in Wales. Indeed, matters of discipline and other unfortunate incidents were dealt with in my constituency. The Ministry of Defence has now referred such matters to Lichfield in Staffordshire, where all young soldiers, whether from Wales or elsewhere, are trained.

Mr. Griffiths: The hon. Gentleman may or may not know that the South Wales Borderers were first established by a corps of troops from Lichfield.

Mr. Livsey: I shall not go too far down the road to Lichfield. The 24th Regiment was originally founded further east, but settled in Brecon, in my constituency, which is where the hon. Gentleman comes from.

What might happen to young Welsh people could happen outside Wales. Four or five years ago, there was a scandal concerning the treatment of young Welsh soldiers in Lichfield. Surely such matters would be of interest to a Children's Commissioner for Wales. If I had pushed amendment No. 42 a little further, it would have taken care of the amendments under discussion. I hope to return to the matter later in our proceedings. The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) are honourable, but they make up a shopping list of organisations. Given what the hon. Member for Bridgend said from a sedentary position, perhaps the Government may come up with an appropriate amendment, and a solution can be found to the problem.

Mr. Hanson: We must recognise the powers that clause 3 gives the Children's Commissioner. That is the key extension of the commissioner's role. It takes the commissioner's functions way beyond those envisaged by the Care Standards Act 2000, which concerned complaints, advocacy and whistleblowing procedures—important though those activities are. The clause gives scope for the commissioner, in the words of the National Assembly's report, to

    ``raise the profile of children's issues and take an overview of the impact of policies and procedures''.

We must recognise, before we discuss the amendments tabled, that the clause is extremely important in giving extra powers to the commissioner. It introduces a new power for the commissioner to review the exercise or proposed exercise of functions by the National Assembly and other bodies in Wales. The bodies listed in the schedules extend beyond those that provide direct services to children, several of which have been mentioned by Opposition Members. The clause will enable the commissioner to review the impact on children and young people of a wide range of public bodies operating in areas such as economic development, town and country planning, transport, sport and recreation, as well as more obvious areas such as education, training and health care.

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The bodies listed are those with significant executive functions in Wales, within the Assembly's areas of responsibility. Before I address the amendments, I want the Committee to recognise that clause 3 and the schedule will give the new Children's Commissioner a wide, roving brief to raise the profile of children's issues across a vast sweep of the public sector in Wales. We must not forget the impact of the clause and the extra powers that it will give to the Children's Commissioner.

I have said previously, and I hope that I have made my views clear to the Committee, that the Government are sympathetic to the need to give the commissioner a wide role. The degree to which we are prepared to do that is reflected in the long list of bodies in schedules 2A and 2B. However, for the sake of clarity, I shall say again that one fundamental principle underlies the selection of those bodies, the presumption of clause 3 and our approach to the roles and responsibilities of the Children's Commissioner for Wales. That underlying principle is that the commissioner is the creation of the National Assembly, with Government support, and of the legislation that we have enabled the Assembly to enact. It is therefore right and proper that the commissioner's functions should coincide with the Assembly's areas of responsibility. I recognise what the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said in that regard, but that is the point that we have reached. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend pointed out, I have said that there are areas in which the commissioner can examine issues, as they arise, beyond that statutory role. However, it is right and proper that the commissioner's core functions should be specified in the Bill.

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