Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: In bringing forward the amendment, we shall want to ensure that the commissioner is able to make representations about aspects of family life that may affect children's rights and welfare. Obviously the context of "family life" and the welfare of children within families is indistinguishable from that.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: This could be a very big day for the noble Baroness. I am sure that all noble Lords will join me in hoping that all goes well for her family.

We welcome the prospect of a government amendment dealing with the position of parents and their rights and responsibilities. We shall have to wait to see exactly how the amendment is drafted before we can comment any further on it.

The matter that seems to have emerged in the course of our debate on this amendment is the question of parents who have been falsely accused of something and who then feel powerless to object to it. That lies behind many of the comments made by noble Lords. It puts a new slant on the rights and responsibilities of parents that I did not fully appreciate when the amendment was first moved. I hope that, when they come to draft their amendment, the Government will

3 Apr 2001 : Column 763

consider the concerns that have been voiced on this. We shall then be able to discuss the issue more fully on Report.

Baroness Young: First, I thank all noble Lords who have most kindly supported me on this amendment, and of course I offer my warmest congratulations and good wishes to the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington. We shall compete in the numbers of our grandchildren and discuss that outside the Chamber. I am delighted for her and I hope that all goes well.

I was particularly pleased to gain support from all sides of the Committee because that support demonstrates a recognition of what I believe to be a very serious issue. I take entirely the point just made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. Indeed, the same point was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, as well as by the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, particularly in relation to the case in the Orkneys. The parents affected did not feel that there was anyone to whom they could turn to seek redress when their children were taken away from them. That is an extremely important point.

The cases over recent years where children have been wrongly removed from their parents have become very well known because they caused a great deal of controversy and concern. However, I was not considering only those cases, but those of other parents who encounter difficulties long before they have reached the position where the police or social workers arrive in the early hours of the morning to remove their children; namely, cases perhaps less serious than those which took place in the Orkneys, in north-east England and, I believe, in Ayrshire. Other cases do not reach that point; I am thinking here of parents who are good enough, but are perhaps thought to be inadequate by social workers. In the context of such circumstances, parents need to have their views considered.

That is all I am asking for in this amendment. It is difficult to give an account of what might happen in such cases, but I am sure that all noble Lords can imagine how, in this important but difficult world, situations may arise where the needs of the parents need to be taken into account.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for giving way. I hope that it will be helpful to the Committee if I say now that I would not like to have given any impression at all that the role of the Children's Commissioner would be to intervene in individual cases, but rather to give advice on the policy framework in which individual judgments and cases take place.

Baroness Young: I thank the noble Baroness for making the position absolutely clear. However, when one reads exactly what is set out in Clause 2 as regards the role of the commissioner, it states the following:

    "The principal aim of the Commissioner in exercising his functions is to safeguard and promote the rights and welfare of children to whom this Part applies".

3 Apr 2001 : Column 764

There is no mention of parents.

I accept that my amendment may not be drafted properly; in my experience amendments seldom are, whether in government or in opposition. I would withdraw the amendment if I thought that I could be given an undertaking from the noble Baroness that she would take it away and redraft it so that it would meet the concerns of the Government. While I accept that I may not have understood the detail of the argument, I must say to her in all honesty that the government amendment on children's rights and welfare to be brought forward at the next stage and then to go on to the Welsh Assembly--I may have misunderstood her on this last point--does not seem to meet the case.

The noble Baroness came far closer to meeting my amendment in her final remarks when she said that the commissioner will have to have regard to the "unity of family life". I am at a loss to understand why we cannot use the word "parents", which would be understood by everyone concerned. It is because I am uncertain about the Government's position on this that I should like to hear from the noble Baroness whether, were I to withdraw my amendment, she would bring back an amendment redrafted so as to include parents.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I can give an undertaking to take away the noble Baroness's amendment and read it carefully; but I cannot give an undertaking to include the word "parents" in the government amendment, simply because the ultimate responsibility of the commissioner is to have paramount concern for the welfare of children. I hope I have made it absolutely clear that, in considering the welfare of children, it is obvious that consideration must also be given to the needs and welfare of children in the family. The noble Baroness is pressing me a little too far and I should not like to be misleading. I do not think that there is much between us. I would be extremely happy to talk to the noble Baroness between now and Report stage.

Baroness Young: I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington. I am sorry, I simply do not understand how one can consider the rights and welfare of children without, in some cases, considering the position of parents. It does not add up.

In view of the offer made by the noble Baroness, I shall withdraw the amendment. However, I must be quite clear that if a suitable amendment which does include parents is not brought forward, I shall re-table my amendment at Report stage. I am quite certain that the noble Baroness--and, I hope very much, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams--will take account of the fact that everyone who has spoken to the amendment has supported it. Even if the wording is not quite right--and I can accept that--there is general support throughout the House for including something about parents. It seems to me that, apart from anyone else, we owe it to the parents of Wales. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3 Apr 2001 : Column 765

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 [Review of exercise of functions of Assembly and other persons]:

Lord Roberts of Conwy moved Amendment No. 7:

    Page 2, line 22, at end insert "primary or"

The noble Lord said: The purpose of Amendment No. 7 is quite clear: it is to enable the Commissioner to comment on primary as well as secondary legislation as it may affect children in Wales.

As I suggested at Second Reading, it struck me as singularly odd that, as things stand, the Commissioner could not comment on this Bill, except, of course, through the Assembly. The Assembly has an opportunity to comment on the Government's legislative programme at the start of a parliamentary session, but that opportunity is primarily for the benefit of Assembly members. If past experience is anything to go by, the programme as outlined by the Secretary of State after the Queen's Speech is very much in draft form with very little detail available.

As I see it, the commissioner will have an interest in many Bills relating to his areas of overview and supervision--local government Bills, education Bills, health Bills and so on. As I understand it, he will not be able to give his views on such Bills direct to Ministers as he and they may wish him to do; they will have to be filtered through the Assembly.

I have read the draft protocol on the Assembly's proposals for primary legislation, which was published in February last year but is still not agreed. The Secretary of State, Mr Paul Murphy, said that it was "very close to completion" on 16th January this year, but it is still not finalised.

The protocol is not very illuminating on this issue, except that the introduction makes clear that references to the Assembly mean references to its officials as well. I take it from earlier proceedings today that the commissioner is, of course, an official or an officer of the Assembly. So I assume that the commissioner may have an input into primary legislation at various stages, but acting through the Assembly.

However, this is not clear because the Bill refers specifically to subordinate legislation only. The commissioner, therefore, if he puts forward comments on primary legislative proposals, may well be told that consideration of primary legislation is beyond his remit.

One is tempted to ask for the Government's view on this and whether the commissioner can comment on Green Papers and White Papers--or will he be expected to do that through the Assembly? I cannot see any good reason for limiting the commissioner to subordinate legislation specifically as proposed in the Bill. I beg to move.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: Sharp eyes in BBC Wales drew to my attention at lunchtime the press release

3 Apr 2001 : Column 766

issued today by the Wales Office, in which Mr David Hanson, the Wales Office Minister, is quoted as saying,

    "we intend asking Parliament to amend the Bill to empower the Commissioner to consider and make representations to the Assembly about any matter that affects the rights or welfare of children in Wales"--

the very point made by the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General in opening.

The press release also refers to the new function as being "potentially very wide". It seems to me that that wording can certainly cover the concerns outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy. If it is potentially very wide, any matter must include the right to comment on primary legislation.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page