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Armed Forces Bill

Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and to be printed.

Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill

4.2 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.--(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Baroness Gardner of Parkes) in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Application of Part 5 of the Care Standards Act 2000]:

Lord Roberts of Conwy moved Amendment No. 1:

The noble Lord said: I begin this Committee stage by expressing the hope that the Government will still concede the amendment that they would have conceded had a general election been called yesterday for 3rd May. However, that may be a pious hope.

In moving Amendment No. 1, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 2. These are probing amendments to find out what the Government mean by the phrase "ordinarily resident in Wales"--that is, who is covered and who is not.

Three, if not more, groups of children cause us some concern. The first are children born and bred in Wales but living in England. They may be fostered or in an institution, a home, a school or a hospital. We are not sure whether they fall within the purview of the commissioner. Their families may still be in Wales but the children may be in England. Of course, they could have been referred to their locations outside Wales by one of the regulated services in Wales.

Secondly, there are English children in Wales. I well remember an occasion when, as a Welsh Office Minister, I visited a special home in Powys only to find that the majority of the children there were from Birmingham. As I understand it, it is a fairly regular occurrence to find children placed by English authorities in Welsh homes or with Welsh foster parents.

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Thirdly, of course, children of travellers, gypsies and so on, may be in, but not of, Wales, yet they could be described as being resident in Wales although not ordinarily so. We should have a definition of "ordinarily resident in Wales" which makes clear who is included and who is not. I beg to move.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I am very grateful for the way in which the noble Lord has put the matter. If I may, I shall cast my response a little more widely than his question. I understand the concerns that he expressed, particularly, for example, in relation to the children of travellers or, indeed, of asylum seekers. The important point is that such children may not be ordinarily resident in the usual way in which the courts interpret that term. However--I hope that this assists the noble Lord--if those children receive services from any of the numerous bodies listed in Schedule 2B, they will, in any event, come within the commissioner's jurisdiction. As a matter of practice, we can think of very few children who would receive no services at all.

I said that I would reply more widely, and perhaps this is a convenient moment for me to do so. As we promised to do, we considered with some care the points which were put forward very constructively at the earlier stage of this Bill. My noble friend Lady Farrington has been in correspondence with a number of noble Lords.

One central--if not the most important--concern was why the commissioner should have no formal role in policies and services that do not come within the responsibility of the National Assembly for Wales. I hope that it is helpful to the Committee to conclude that we have listened with some care. I am able to confirm that we intend to bring forward on Report an amendment that would empower the commissioner to consider, and make representations to the Assembly about, any matter which affects the rights or welfare of children in Wales.

I hope that the Committee will consider that to be a significant amendment and a significant step forward. We promised to consider the matter very carefully and, accordingly, we are able to give that assurance. Therefore, the commissioner will have a formal role in matters which do not fall within the devolved fields of responsibility of the National Assembly.

As I said, the intention is for the commissioner to be able, by virtue of the amendment--if your Lordships accept it--to make representations to the Assembly. He can do so yearly as part of his required annual report. If he believes that it is more appropriate, he can do so on an ad hoc basis. The Assembly would then be able to consider the commissioner's representations and make representations itself to, for example, central government by virtue of its powers under Section 33 of the Government of Wales Act.

We shall also bring forward amendments to ensure that the commissioner is able to exercise discretion in circumstances involving a child who has died. We have looked again at the provisions in Clause 1 about which, I believe, a question was raised. There may be some doubt about it and we intend to remove that doubt.

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We shall also bring forward amendments to ensure that the commissioner's power to review the exercise of functions by the Assembly or by any of the Schedule 2A bodies will extend to other persons or bodies who may exercise functions on behalf of the Assembly or the bodies listed in the schedule. We intend to add community councils in Wales to the list of bodies whose exercise of functions in relation to their effect on children is subject to review by the commissioner.

I have taken a little while in giving my response because the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, was kind enough to say that he wanted to know what our proposals were. He understands that there will not now be an election in early May. Therefore, we shall have the opportunity, which I intend to take, to table those amendments. Members of the Committee will want to know when that will be done. My noble friend Lady Farrington has said on several occasions that we are more than happy to have meetings--with or without officials, as is thought appropriate--and we should be perfectly happy to have the draft amendments ready so that noble Lords can see them in plenty of time before the next stage.

I have spent some time responding to the noble Lord but I hope that that will shorten our consideration of other amendments.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: From these Benches I very much welcome the words of the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General. His comments suggest that on this matter at least the Government are listening, although he did not cover all of the matters about which I am concerned. There are no doubt other matters that we shall raise during this Committee stage but a substantial part of our concerns has been catered for. I am most grateful to the Government.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his announcement about changes that the Government may introduce on Report. He will be aware that we have tabled an amendment, which we shall reach shortly, on representations. We shall of course adapt our remarks in light of his announcement. Nevertheless, we hope that our contributions will help to influence his thinking and will affect the amendments that are tabled on Report.

I am also grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his explanation of what "ordinarily resident in Wales" means in practice and for his reassurance that all who are connected with the regulated services will be covered by the commissioner. In thanking the noble and learned Lord, it gives me pleasure to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Prys-Davies: After our short discussion on amendments to this historic clause, this is an

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appropriate moment to return to the question that I asked on Second Reading. I asked whether the Assembly was,

    "fully satisfied with the terms and the effect of the Bill that is now before us?".--[Official Report, 19/2/01; col. 551.]

I believe that that is a valid question that needs to be answered, but I notice that it has not been. The explanatory note that the Welsh Office prepared does not address that issue. I believe that an answer would assist both Houses of Parliament. I submit that our response to the Bill depends to a great degree on the answer to that question.

If the Bill as currently drafted is broadly acceptable to the Assembly, which is an elected body, and if we seek stability in relation to the devolution settlement, the House should facilitate the Bill's passage. If, on the other hand, the Bill is not broadly acceptable to the Assembly, the House should amend the Bill so that it approximates more closely to the Assembly's aspirations. Parliamentary procedure in your Lordships' House, which is not an elected House, must keep up with the historic decision to devolve power to the Welsh Assembly. I suggest that the Select Committee of your Lordships' House dealing with constitutional matters would make a valuable contribution if it clarified what the approach of both Houses of Parliament should be to a Bill initiated by the Welsh Assembly. I should be grateful if my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General would comment on that.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I am grateful to my noble friend for asking that question. I believe that his question is: is the Welsh Assembly broadly satisfied with the terms and content of the Bill? I can fairly answer that question in the affirmative. I do not pretend that there is a perfect match between what the Assembly wanted and what is in the Bill but I hope that I can reassure Members of the Committee and my noble friend in particular by reciting briefly what happened.

The Health and Social Services Committee of the Assembly published its report at the end of May 2000 with its recommendations on the remit, role and functions of the Children's Commissioner for Wales. The Assembly then unanimously endorsed that report in plenary session on 7th June. That was the basis of the bid by the Assembly Cabinet to secure wider statutory powers for the commissioner. The bulk of the recommendations are reflected in the Bill, although I do not pretend that there is a perfect match.

A much wider constitutional question, which was identified by my noble friend, is involved; namely, how will further legislation that is Assembly-related or Assembly-invited be dealt with by your Lordships' House? I do not dissent from the proposition that that will be a developing area of consideration. For the

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moment, we must come to our own conclusion. I think that I can fairly say that the Assembly is broadly content.

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