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Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I thank the Minister for what she has said. I am still quite concerned about a number of issues. As regards the Victoria Climbié case, I cannot imagine any children's commissioner refusing to undertake such an inquiry and for an inquiry simply to be requested would certainly suffice in that respect. I do not regard the word "direct" as being essential for that.
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Of course, I am glad to hear that without any doubt whatever the funds will follow any request or direction that is made. That is an important reassurance. However, I return to the vitally important issue of the independence of the English Children's Commissioner and the parity of independence with the other commissioners of the United Kingdom. In those circumstances, I would like to test the opinion of the House.
"FURTHER ACTION FOLLOWING REPORT BY COMMISSIONER
(1) Where the Children's Commissioner has made a report which contains a recommendation as to action to be taken by a relevant body, the Commissioner may by notice require that body to provide the Commissioner within three months of the date of the notice with
(a) such information as will enable the Children's Commissioner to determine whether the body has complied with the recommendation or will be complying with it; or
(b) a statement of the body's reason for not complying with the recommendation.
(2) A notice under subsection (1) shall include a statement that a failure by the body to respond within the period mentioned in that paragraph may be published in such manner as the Children's Commissioner considers appropriate.
(3) If, on receipt of a response from the body, the Children's Commissioner considers that
(a) the action taken or proposed to be taken by the body to comply with the recommendation is inadequate; or
(b) the body's reasons for not complying with the recommendation is inadequate,
the Commissioner may send to the body concerned a further notice setting out the inadequacy and requiring the body to reconsider the matter and respond within one month of the date of the notice.
(4) A notice under subsection (3) shall include a statement that a failure by the body
(a) to provide what the Children's Commissioner considers to be a satisfactory response; or
(b) to provide any response within the period mentioned in that subsection,
may be published in such manner as the Children's Commissioner considers appropriate.
(5) The Children's Commissioner shall maintain a register containing details of
(a) recommendations (together with the reasons for them) contained in reports;
(b) action taken by the Children's Commissioner under subsections (1) and (3); and
(c) the results of any such action.
(6) Any register maintained under subsection (5) shall be open to inspection by any person at all reasonable times at the offices of the Children's Commissioner and the Commissioner may make arrangements for copies of the register to be available for inspection in such other place or places or by such other means as he considers appropriate.
(7) The Children's Commissioner shall publish those arrangements in such a way as to bring them to the attention of persons likely to be interested."
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, at present there is no requirement on bodies to which the commissioner addresses recommendations to make any kind of response. This new clause enables the commissioner to require a response to his or her recommendations and
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to publicise any failure to respond. There are, of course, similar provisions in legislation establishing commissioners in Wales and in Northern Ireland.
"I appreciate that it is important to look at what happens beyond, and to ensure that things are acted upon. As drafted the amendment would apply to all adult reports, annual reports and any reports of inquiry. There is no disagreement on the principle of what to do.
"I am not sure whether I agree with the bureaucratic process proposed. Although I recognise that it reflects some of the work on the Northern Ireland commissionerI do not want to suggest that that was a bureaucratic processit goes a little further than required".[Official Report, 17/6/04; cols. 9478.]
The Minister went on to suggest that Parliament and regulatory bodies could follow up the commissioner's recommendations. I am afraid that that misses the point, which is to give the commissioner added authority and ensure that recommendations are taken seriously. Constitutionally independent, unelected commissioners cannot overturn government decisions, but it is reasonable to place formal requirements on such bodies to respond and to provide a process for recording and publicising failure to respond appropriately. Similar provisions apply for the Local Government Commissioner, so why not for the Children's Commissioner?
Another example of a response obligation can be found in the Patients' Forums (Functions) Regulations 2003, which, in paragraph 8, place a duty on the NHS trusts and primary care trusts to respond to reports or recommendations made by a forum and provide for further action where there is no satisfactory response. Although I humorously commented on Report that I was hurt that the Minister should suggest that our solution was bureaucratic, I have tabled the amendment again today in the hope that, given her generally sympathetic remarks, she will be able to reassure the House that a less bureaucratic, but no less effective, solution will be proposed by the Government when the Bill goes to another place. I beg to move.
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