Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill

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Mr. Walter: I listened carefully to what the Minister said about the bodies listed in the schedule being those operating in areas in which the Assembly has responsibility. One of the amendments would add the Food Standards Agency to that list. I understand that, under the Food Standards Act 1999, the agency is responsible to the National Assembly, as it is to this House and the Scottish Parliament. Would not the food that our children eat and their dietary requirements be an appropriate matter for the commissioner? Should not the Food Standards Agency therefore be added to the list?

Mr. Hanson: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is a Food Standards Agency in England, and the chairman of the agency, Sir John Krebs, also has a UK responsibility. It is a joint England and Wales body, and the Assembly may, if it so wishes, add it to the list, by order, in due course. No great problems therefore exist in relation to that issue, as it falls within an area in which the Assembly has responsibility.

Mr. Llwyd: I want to take the Minister back to what he said, before the intervention by the hon. Member for North Dorset, about the commissioner commenting more widely on matters affecting children in Wales. Does he not agree that the last thing a commissioner will do is to stray from the strict statutory definition of his office, at least in the first few years, as he would be finding his way with the 24 bodies concerned, and the other bodies listed in schedule 2B? The commissioner will therefore be hampered in the performance of his duties in the initial few months. The Minister said more than once that he would be able to comment on things outside the strict definition of devolved matters. However, I have heard no example being given.

Mr. Hanson: I refer the hon. Gentleman to column 72 of the Official Report of Thursday's sitting, when I responded to the points that he made on Tuesday about the substantive difference between what is in the Bill and some of the core issues.

The substantive difference is that the commissioner should comment on core activities—those that are the responsibility of the National Assembly. I must have answered the hon. Gentleman's point to the satisfaction of the Committee, because the amendment was withdrawn. The commissioner can comment on issues more broadly, but there are core functions in relation to which the commissioner must have a role and responsibility. Those functions fall within the responsibilities of the National Assembly as determined by the schedule and reinforced by clause 3, which gives additional powers to the Commissioner.

It is important to keep clear in our minds the distinction between the role of the commissioner and the role of routine child protection arrangements. I have tried to explain to the Committee that the commissioner has a role in ensuring that provisions for protecting children from abuse operate effectively. However, the office is not intended in any way to be a routine part of the regulatory regime. I emphasise that the commissioner cannot replace statutory agencies. He has a wider role in the promotion of children's interests, but is not intended to replace or duplicate those statutory agencies.

In relation to bodies listed in the amendments that have direct contact with children, such as the Prison Service and the Combined Cadet Force, controls exist that are designed to prevent abuse and harm to children within their care or responsibility, and those include the vetting of individuals. I shall take the example given by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire of the army corps based in his constituency. Having consulted the Ministry of Defence, I assure him that systems are in place to protect children and young people in the Army cadet force, the Air Training Corps and the Combined Cadet Force from abuse. For example, in the Combined Cadet Force, the head of service is responsible and ultimately accountable to the Ministry of Defence to ensure that all adult volunteers are vetted as suitable for working with children. Mechanisms are in place to examine the child protection needs within that type of service.

Similar provisions apply to many of the other bodies listed in the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley. Two of the bodies listed—the Charity Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality—are independent watchdogs in their own right. As was said in the previous debate, it would therefore not be appropriate for the Children's Commissioner's jurisdiction to extend to other commissioner-type bodies, even if they fell within devolved areas of responsibility.

Mr. Livsey: The Minister mentioned bodies operating in Wales. As we all know, people involved in such activities must be vetted. Currently, quite a large charge must be paid for that service by bodies such as the scouts. I understand that the problem has been overcome in Scotland, and that people do not have to pay for the vetting service. Has he any news on the subject in relation to Wales?

Mr. Hanson: I shall examine the matter. . The Government are deeply committed to the voluntary sector, and we recognise the important work that is done. We fully understand the anxieties that have been expressed about the difficult issue of charging a fee. The bureau is working closely with users, and we are examining the issues being raised.

The hon. Gentleman will agree that despite the anxieties that have been expressed, the paramount issue is that we need to provide effective and efficient safeguard systems for the welfare of children. I hope that fees will be kept to the minimum necessary to recoup costs, and that they will be reviewed in the light of the bureau's operations in due course—but we are slightly straying off the point, because such matters are currently being examined. I should like to return to the main part of the debate.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): Not only is vetting an expensive exercise for voluntary organisations, among others, but it is absolutely indispensable that the information available be of the highest possible quality. If volunteers are going to have their reputations destroyed because the records are hopeless, it will do huge and lasting damage. I understand that at the moment such records are shaky.

Mr. Hanson: We would all agree that accurate records should be available, which reflect the quality of those who work with young people. I am sure that my colleagues in the Home Office will be working towards that end.

My key point, which relates to the issues raised by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, is that mechanisms are in place, and the bureau will help those mechanisms to ensure that people who work with children and young people in the bodies listed in the amendments have the security to ensure that abuse is prevented as far as possible.

To return to the key issue, the—

Mr. Evans: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hanson: Both the clause and the amendments that were tabled to it are about trying to define the role of the Children's Commissioner. I believe that the clause acts strongly to define and strengthen that role, and I have explained the differences between the amendments and the clause.

Mr. Evans: I can understand why the Minister wants to move off the point about fees, but we shall drag him back to it, because it is important, especially in cross-border areas. He said that he and his colleagues were examining the issue, but it is a cross-border issue, and it must be examined in Scotland, Wales and England—and in Northern Ireland, too, if it applies there. I am sure that we would all like there to be no fee. Everyone agrees that the requirement for such searches is intended to protect youngsters, but in all voluntary bodies involved with youngsters, enormous pressure is placed on youngsters and parents to pay fees weekly or monthly. The charges may eat into those subscriptions, which is wrong.

Mr. Hanson: Because of the focus of our debate, I shall not discuss the criminal records bureau. I worked in the voluntary sector for many years before entering the House, and the Government fully understand the anxieties that have been expressed in the voluntary sector about the difficult issue of charging a fee. Fees will be kept to the minimum necessary to recoup costs, and in due course the Government will review fees in the light of the bureau's operation.

To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, mechanisms are already in place to examine the bodies listed in the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley, so I ask him not to press those amendments.

Clause 3 is important. It adds powers, gives strength and develops the role of the Children's Commissioner, but it does so in the context of the National Assembly's roles and responsibilities. The amendments would extend the devolution process. On reflection, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley will probably recognise that we should supply the commissioner with core functions and allow him to comment on matters outside those functions. I ask the hon. Gentleman not to press his amendment to a Division; if he did so, we would have to oppose it.

11.45 am

Mr. Evans: The list of bodies has been referred to as a shopping list—and that is what it is. It is not the most convenient or tidiest way of introducing a wider remit into the Bill, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said. I agree with him, too, that in the first few years, the commissioner will have to concentrate on the core issues, because he will be feeling his way. It will take him a long time to bed in, so I am delighted that the post is up and running, and that he is working to make his role known to the various bodies throughout Wales.

It was never the intention of our amendments that the commissioner should replace or duplicate the powers of statutory bodies, but that he should monitor, investigate and comment upon them. We intended the commissioner to make recommendations, and the National Assembly for Wales to consider and debate his comments. If any changes were needed in primary legislation, they would go through the post-devolution procedure. Those routes are complicated and not everyone fully understands them, but I hope that comments made during the procedure would be fully heard here at Westminster. The Secretary of State for Wales should consider the commissioner's recommendations carefully, and speak at the Cabinet table. It should be part of the Secretary of State's role to listen to the Assembly and the commissioner, and if he believes that legislative time is necessary in which to protect our youngsters further, to say so.

I am sure that we will revisit those matters, because there is a consensus in the Committee that the commissioner should not be hamstrung. Each of our attempts to put something into the Bill that would give the commissioner confidence in dealing with areas outside the devolved matters has been hit back by the Minister. However, there may be other opportunities. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendments.

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