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Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge) (Lab): Does the hon. Lady recall that, in Committee, the Minister for
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Children argued in favour of the Secretary of State having powers to direct? Does she agree that that is totally wrong and that the Secretary of State should not have such powers? The Secretary of State can already instigate inquiries and it is vital that the children's commissioner be independent of Government and free to comment on Government inquiries. Can the hon. Lady envisage circumstances in which a Government inquiry could have a specific political dimension, making the independence of the children's commissioner absolutely vital?

Mrs. Brooke: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and I could not agree more with her, so I will cut a bit out of my speech. It is indeed vital that we have a genuinely independent children's champion.

In Committee, the Minister said that the changes that she was proposing would

All members of the Committee wanted the best commissioner in the world, but which other commissioner anywhere does not have the basic right and duty of promoting and safeguarding children's rights? None. The model proposed for our commissioner is far weaker than those that exist in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I understand that the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children has written to the Minister expressing concern at the weakness of the legislation, suggesting that the Children's Commissioner for England might not be able to join the network. In other words, we cannot be part of the club.

On Second Reading in the other place, my noble friend Baroness Walmsley said:

Suspicion remains that the limiting of the role of the English commissioner is financial. I believe that that is quite fundamental.

Briefly, we welcome Govt amendment No. 30—the Government were listening there—and also have considerable sympathy for new clause 3. I am mindful that many other hon. Members have important contributions to make, so I shall end there.

Mr. Martyn Jones: I rise this time, I hope, to speak to the correct group of amendments. It all shows how keen I am to get my views on the record. [Hon. Members: "Excellent."] I support, as do other members of the Committee, the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke). We are co-signatories in respect of her new clause and of mine; they are complementary.

My amending provision is designed totally to remove the role of the Children's Commissioner for England out of the Welsh equation. At the same time the other extends the role of the Children's Commissioner for Wales to fill the gap and provide a comprehensive service to children from Wales wherever they are in care
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or in need of care. Sadly, the Government have refused to deal with that matter to the satisfaction of the Committee, of non-governmental organisations across Wales and of the Children's Commissioner for Wales himself.

The Government say that they do not want to extend devolution on this matter, but extending powers at this stage would not affect the current devolution settlement one iota. Acceptance of the amendment would not give a single additional power to the National Assembly for Wales, but would allow the Children's Commissioner for Wales to carry out his duties properly and to help Welsh children in all aspects of their lives, wherever they are in the UK.

I cannot emphasise enough to the House that the Children's Commissioner for Wales is an independent body and not a National Assembly body and neither is the commissioner's role to be an adjunct to the Welsh Assembly Government. He stands alone and should not be mixed up in the devolution process, as the Government seem to fear is likely to happen.

Members of the Welsh Affairs Committee have rehearsed the arguments on many occasions over this specific point. Indeed, the Committee conducted a report, "The Powers of the Children's Commissioner for Wales", and we took evidence from the Minister for Children herself. The amendments advocate a logical and sensible move for the children of Wales, and I can assure the House that everyone in Wales agrees with what they propose. I would not have added my name to the amendments and new clauses if I were swimming against the tide of Welsh opinion. Children's organisations and the National Assembly for Wales believe that this is the right move for Welsh children and that the Government are wrong on this specific issue. I am sure that the Minister would agree that the acid test is how legislation operates in practice.

Mr. Touhig: I congratulate the Committee on its excellent work, as reflected in the report, but is my hon. Friend aware that, in his annual report, the Children's Commissioner for Wales made it plain that he was able to make representations to the Government on any matter affecting children in Wales? It works.

Mr. Jones: I have no doubt that he will attempt to make it work, but I also know from the evidence that he gave to the Committee—my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is being selective—that he does not accept that the drafting of the legislation would make his job any easier. In fact, he said that it would make it more difficult.

Mr. Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the debate shows that we are not asking the Government to move very far? We are asking only to formalise and make proper an arrangement that already exists informally. The point is that the Children's Commissioner for Wales is not a creature of the Assembly—it is completely independent—so the huge constitutional crisis that Ministers seem to fear will not arise.

Mr. Jones: Indeed. There is no crisis. The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service has
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already been devolved to the Assembly. We are talking about something that is far less of a move than that. I simply cannot understand why the Government are so intransigent on this matter. I know that the Minister wants what is best for children in Wales, so she should listen more to what the NGOs and charities in Wales are saying; they want the same thing.

I am a huge supporter of the concept of draft legislation, but if the Government want Select Committees to undertake detailed pre-legislative scrutiny, they will have to accept that they should listen on occasions to what those Committees say. This is one such occasion and I ask the Government to accept the amendments in order to make a good and well-intentioned Bill even better.

Tim Loughton: The consensus is well and truly over at this stage, and the great melange of amendments and new clauses in the group covers a wide range of subjects about the children's commissioner. I shall speak briefly to new clause 1, proposed by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke), which we shall support. It is similar to our new clause 13.

In Committee debates about the children's commissioner, we applied five principles. First, the new children's commissioner should be independent of the Government and a champion for children. Secondly, the commissioner should be powerful enough to do his or her job properly, regardless of Government schemes and funding shortfalls. Thirdly, he should fully engage with children and young people and also gain their confidence, as Baroness Ashton said in the other place. Fourthly, the children's commissioner should have a clear status in the context of other UK commissioners and other agencies and interested parties. Fifthly, the commissioner should be accountable to all of the above.

I fear that the way in which the Government have emasculated the powers of the commissioner has spoiled the cross-party consensus. I see the Minister for Children responding with an enormous Cheshire cat grin on her face as though she has just killed the biggest rat of all. There was enormous cross-party consensus to put together a comprehensive new clause 2 in the Lords. She has completely torn the guts out of it.

Let us remind ourselves of what the Government have reversed. They have completely left out the mention of children's rights. Instead, the children's commissioner will be promoting awareness of children's views. Children have no rights in the Bill; it is rights-lite, rights-free. In Committee, I offered the Minister the comparison of considering how feeble the Disability Rights Commission would appear if its general function were simply to promote awareness of the views of disabled people. The same would be true of the Commission for Racial Equality or the Equal Opportunities Commission.

The Minister made a series of amendments rather than just replacing new clause 2, and I have never been sure why she did that. The Bill dilutes the review and reporting powers, removing the advocacy and whistleblowing arrangements. It declines to beef up the children's commissioner's obligations to make children aware that they can consult him, and restores the Government's limited checklist on what sort of children's views and interests—not rights—he can take
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notice of. It reinforces the commissioner's inability to undertake inquiries into individual cases, even when they have implications for children generally. That is why the original clause, to which the Government have reverted, was described in the upper Chamber as discriminatory and castrated and as giving the children's commissioner the powers of a glorified public relations consultant. All along, the Government have claimed that they have done what children wanted, but nowhere have they provided evidence of that.

Five references to children's rights have been removed. The provision to support individual children was removed. The references to reviewing and reporting on the effectiveness of advice and advocacy and on whistleblowing and inspection arrangements were removed. The Government reinserted their outcome goals in part 1 of the Bill.

The Minister said that, in Committee, Ministers stated that the Government would ensure that they had the best commissioner in the world, built on their experience of the workings of commissioners in other countries. The Children's Rights Alliance has been completely unable to find a commissioner anywhere who does not have the basic duty of promoting and safeguarding children's rights, which means, by the looks of things, that the Children's Commissioner for England will not be permitted to be part of the European network.

We want to restore the original clause 2 that was inserted in the Bill in the upper House, as it has been emasculated. We will support new clause 1 in endeavouring to do that, although we think that new clause 13, removing subsection (7)—about which we, and the Government, have some qualms—would be the best way to do that.

Amendments Nos. 11 and 12 are all about involving children, which is what the Bill is supposed to be all about. Amendment No. 11 would take the short phrase "take reasonable steps" from subsection (4) so that the children's commissioner must involve children in the discharge of his functions. That is what we have assumed all the way along, so why must "reasonable steps" be placed in the way of the commissioner's doing that?

In the first schedule to the Bill, we want to involve children much more in the selection of the children's commissioner in the first place. Amendment No. 9 says that the appointment of the commissioner should involve children and children's organisations. Consider the status of the other children's commissioners. In Wales, the appointment is made by the First Secretary of the National Assembly after taking account of the advice of the relevant committee, the views of relevant children and the advice of a selection panel independent of the Assembly. In Northern Ireland, the commissioner is appointed by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister jointly, independently of the Government. In Scotland, the commissioner is appointed by the Queen on the nomination of the Scottish Parliament. But in England, he will be appointed by the Secretary of State. That is very different from the arrangements that pertain in the rest of the United Kingdom, which is why the English commissioner is not going to be the best in the world. In a phrase often quoted in the House of Lords, it is all about big ears and no teeth.
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2.15 pm

Among the other amendments, one originally tabled by Lord Northbourne places in the Bill a necessity for the children's commissioner to take into account the views of parents and carers when dealing with children. Parents have a very special status, the most special status. The Government trotted out the usual routine about it being iniquitous to specify one set of people or organisations, but we think that that is tosh when it applies to parents, who clearly have a special status, hence amendment No. 13.

The Government have dealt disgracefully with all the hard work that went into putting together a comprehensive new clause 2 that had support across the upper House and has support on all Benches in this House, other than the Government Front Bench. That work was about making the children's commissioner a real children's champion who would stand up to represent children and be a part of their lobbies. The Government have taken away all those additional powers that would have made the Children's Commissioner for England the most powerful and impressive of all, and that is a missed opportunity.

I shall not refer at length to concerns about the Welsh dimension. I share them, and we tabled amendments on that in Committee. There will be enormous confusion over the relationship between the English commissioner and those of the other three nations of the United Kingdom. Given that we have devolution, let us have a system under which the four commissioners can talk to each other equally without treading on each other's toes, as will invariably happen. We foresee great problems in the future, which is a pity. This is a missed opportunity, and I ask the House to support new clause 1.

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