Legislative Programme and Pre-Budget Statement

[back to previous text]

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): We look forward to the Labour party's return to its roots, when it goes on a quest for radical policies for the next general election.

We welcome today's debate, but it might have been more appropriate and timely to discuss the pre-Budget report in the previous Session of Parliament, when it was presented, and to debate the Queen's Speech today or tomorrow. Perhaps the lack of significant legislative material has led to it being deemed necessary to combine the two matters. I shall deal with the Queen's Speech, particularly in relation to Wales and the question of a Children's Commissioner, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), if he is lucky enough to catch your eye later, Mr. Jones, will deal with the pre-Budget statement and the state of the Welsh economy. Of course, despite three and a half years of the wonderful new Labour Government, my hon. Friend is still struggling through the floods and the transport chaos.

The proposals for the Children's Commissioner are the most important aspect of the Queen's Speech for Wales. My view of the Children's Commissioner is clear. For two years, I was a member of the Select Committee on Health. Its second report of this Parliament, on ``Children Looked After by Local Authorities'', recommended that a Children's Rights Commissioner be established within the UK

    to ensure that the needs of children—including children looked after—are taken seriously at the heart of Government.

As a member of that Select Committee, I heard evidence from people who had suffered from child abuse. It was not only my most harrowing experience as a Member of Parliament, but probably the most harrowing of my whole life. Victims of child abuse suffer their scars for the rest of their lives. I heard people in their 50s and 60s recounting their horrendous experiences.

The Health Committee report stated that children's commissioners were needed throughout the UK. Today, 36,000 children are on the child protection register and at least one child dies of abuse or neglect every week. Children would be better protected if commissioners were appointed throughout the UK to highlight problems within existing systems, to make recommendations for change and to press the Government to act on proposals made by various child abuse inquiries.

Provisions in the rest of the UK are, of course, beyond the scope of this morning's debate, but I want to clear up misunderstandings about the Conservative position on the Children's Commissioner for Wales as we look forward to future legislation. We believe that it is appropriate and desirable for the Children's Commissioner to look after children in the care of local authorities and other bodies. However, the rights of such a commissioner should not be extended to supplant the role of parents, who are the natural advocates of their children's interests in the vast majority of cases. Parents should not be undermined. Although we have not yet had the opportunity to see it in detail, the legislation could do that. A Children's Commissioner should be involved in caring for children who are looked after by statutory services and should also carry out a wider function in relation to children's issues in all Departments of government.

Mr. Llwyd: On a point of information, let me inform the hon. Gentleman that I moved an amendment along those lines during the passage of the Local Government Bill in 1993. Unfortunately, his party dispatched it to the bin without any further consideration.

Mr. Walter: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point of information. I was not responsible for Government policy during that debate; I was not even a Member of Parliament.

Almost uniquely in society, children form a group that cannot take part in the democratic process. We make legislation and regulations that affect them directly through statutory provisions and indirectly through legislation to support the family. It is therefore appropriate that the person who has the remit to examine legislation across the range of Departments and to represent the interests of children is independent because that will ensure that those interests will be properly taken into account in the workings of Government and in the legislative process.

I re-emphasise that there is no conflict between my view and that of my colleagues in the Welsh Assembly. David Melding, speaking for the Conservative group in the Welsh Assembly, tabled an amendment on 7 June. The amendment—No. 2 on that day's Order Paper—stated:

    After point 1 insert the following point and renumber subsequent points:—

Mr. Llwyd: Very illuminating.

Mr. Walter: I want to get it right for the record. The amendment continued:

    2. asserts the importance of the family in protecting and nurturing children and therefore believes that the remit of the Children's Commissioner should relate exclusively to children's services provided by public and other agencies.

That is the position proposed by my colleagues in Cardiff, and it is also ours.

Mr. Michael: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Walter: I shall give way, but I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman will tell me that that amendment was not passed.

Mr. Michael: No, I was going to make a simple point. A great deal of child abuse occurs within families. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that his proposed wording appears to limit the role of the

Children's Commissioner in a way that could be dangerous? If so, will he reconsider his position and that of his party?

Mr. Walter: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I shall further clarify our point. Children who are abused within families end up on child protection registers. Their cases should be considered by social services, and the Children's Commissioner should examine them once they enter the remit of the statutory authority. What is a question—we have yet to see the legislation—is whether the role of the Children's Commissioner should extend to all children, rather than only to those who are at risk.

Ms Julie Morgan: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the voices of children—whether they are in families, in a regulated social services setting or cared for by the health service—must be heard, and that it is the commissioner's job to listen? Even if those children are in a family, it is still important that their voices be heard.

Mr. Walter: It is particularly important that somebody is there for children who are the victims of abuse in a family setting. Whether the social services department or the Children's Commissioner oversee that role, those children should, of course, be heard. However, it is not the role of the Children's Commissioner to regulate family life. That point is an appropriate caveat to future, as yet unseen, legislation. When we scrutinise that legislation, we shall seek to ensure that the Children's Commissioner's remit does not extend to regulating family life.

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman is being very revealing about his party's policy. He talks about children who have been abused, but has he taken into account that the Children's Commissioner must look after the general welfare of children? For example, child carers who smoke have an impact on children's health. What about discussions in the National Assembly on 20 mph speed limits outside schools? Is there not a wider remit for the Children's Commissioner than that outlined by the hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Walter: I am worried by the suggestion that the Children's Commissioner should consider smoking by child carers, because that would mean considering smoking by parents. Parental responsibilities are my concern in this case. There is a danger that we might take our eyes off the main ball, which is child abuse, and start delving into social engineering, which should not be the role of the Children's Commissioner or of the National Assembly.

Ms Morgan: An abused child could appeal to the Children's Commissioner—whom we hope will have a high-profile role—before having contact with any other agency. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the commissioner could fulfil such a role? The commissioner would be not interfering in families but answering a child's cry for help.

Mr. Walter: The hon. Lady makes an interesting point, but the Children's Commissioner should not act as gatekeeper for social services. Such responsibilities belong to the social services themselves, and to other agencies such as education, which have direct contact with the child. The Children's Commissioner might consider it necessary to set up a body akin to Childline, which is a telephone service for children who believe that they are being abused but, as a statutory official, the commissioner should not become directly involved in individual cases in the first instance, given that agencies are already in place to deal with such matters. Nevertheless, it would be perfectly appropriate for him to express an opinion, or even to establish structures that might allow those agencies to detect and deal with evidence of child abuse more quickly and effectively.

Ms Morgan: Obviously, I agree that the first port of call for such children should be the statutory services, but there have been many missed cases of abuse in Wales and, in such circumstances, there must be a role for the commissioner.

Mr. Walter: In terms of expressing an opinion on how cases are missed, there certainly is a role for the commissioner. Such a role would help to create a more effective means of monitoring those child abuse cases that are not being picked up at the moment.

The thrust of my argument is that the child abuse cases that are in the forefront of our minds involved children in residential care: children who were already being looked after by the very social services departments that are supposed to detect child abuse in the first instance. As I have said, we should not take our eye off the ball. The most pressing concern for the commissioner should be children in institutional care or on local authority registers.

The ``Lost in Care'' report revealed appalling abuses of children in care that must never be allowed to happen again. A future Conservative Government would co-operate closely with the National Assembly to ensure that the Children's Commissioner for Wales is a fully effective post. If the timing had been slightly different, and had the Government not promised this legislation—which we have yet to see—a future Conservative Government would have ensured that services affecting children were properly monitored by making time early in a new Parliament to provide for the major statutory powers that this legislation will apparently introduce.

I remind the Committee of Waterhouse's comments about the duties of the Children's Commissioner. Page 214 of his report states:

    The duties of the Commissioner should include:

    (a) ensuring that children's rights are respected through the monitoring and oversight of the operation of complaints and whistleblowing procedures and the arrangements for children's advocacy;—

that is an oversight role—

    (b) examining the handling of individual cases brought to the Commissioner's attention (including making recommendations on the merits) when he considers it necessary and appropriate to do so;

    (c) publishing reports, including an annual report to the National Assembly for Wales.

I agree with the Waterhouse report's recommendation on inspection, on page 223, which states:

    Without prejudice to the continuing role generally of the Social Services Inspectorate for Wales

the Children's Commissioner should be

    charged with the responsibility of inspecting:

    (a) all local authority, voluntary and private children's homes;

    (b) the welfare provision in residential schools;

    (c) fostering services; and

    (d) the other components of children's services.

Essentially, the Children's Commissioner will deal with the public sector statutory services that are provided for children, not with what happens in children's own homes after a case of child abuse has been suspected or established.

It is important that society should protect the interests of all children, especially those who are disadvantaged and are in the care of local authorities. The problems of child abuse—whether mental, physical or sexual—were highlighted by the cases in the Waterhouse report.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2000
Prepared 11 December 2000