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Lord Morgan: My Lords, we all want to get this Bill on to the statute book in good time and I am anxious to help it on its way. But I agree very much with the sentiments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas. If I recall correctly, I think that we spoke in somewhat similar terms in the debate on the Children's Commissioner for Wales three or so years ago.
This is another example of the Government enunciating a great principle of devolution but, in fact, undermining it. As we have heard, it has produced protests from the Children's Commissioner, who has used words such as "insidious". He is not in his place but perhaps my noble friend Lord Hunt would regard such attitudes as an example of Celtic rhetoric, although I thought that his own transmogrification as a level-headed man of reason was slightly less than compelling.
I think that the Welsh commissioner has a clearly understood range of powers. We worked very hard to achieve those three or so years ago with the assistance of our deeply lamented friend Lord Williams of Mostyn. The distinction was made between devolved and reserve powers. That is not very logical in itself as one area does link with another. I remember the observation being made in the previous debate that we
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talk of joined-up government but children have joined-up lives, and it is very difficult to segregate one from the other in terms of policy and to say that one is, as it were, reserved when it is not.
I think that what has emerged from the House of Commonsperhaps it will be improved by your Lordshipsis objectionable on two fronts. First, it is objectionable in terms of the principle of devolution. I find the idea of an "English commissioner plus" an interesting aspect of imperialism. It seems to me extraordinaryothers might even say "insulting"that an English commissioner should act on behalf of the whole United Kingdom when there are perfectly good commissioners in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. At the very least, it can produce confusion. Examples of that have been quoted.
I also think that, in practice, it is bizarre that such a proposal should come from a Government who gave us devolution. We are back to "For Wales, see England", which disappeared around the time of the First World War but has now been revived and resuscitated under the aegis of the Labour Government who gave us devolution. I find the proposal very odd. In any case, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, observed, the whole situation is in flux because the Richard commission is being debated and may well affect the balance between the different components of the United Kingdom, including its commissioners. Therefore, it seems to me illogical and almost senseless as a view of devolution.
I also consider it to be objectionable because it means intruding into Wales and, for that matter, Scotland and Northern Ireland with someone who has weaker powers. By all accounts, the Welsh commissioner has stronger powers, however one defines rights. His role is greater; he has greater powers of inquiry; and he can report on any matter as he sees fit, including matters affecting the Welsh Assembly. I do not consider it desirable that a weaker commission should intrude into the affairs of Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, particularly when the English commissioner does not have a rights-based philosophy and has diminished powers.
Therefore, I hope that the Government will think again. I believe that their proposal is inconsistent with devolution, and it is inconsistent with a proper and coherent strategy for the children of all the nations of these islands. It is rejected by pressure groups, by the commissioners and by the National Assembly for Wales. This is broadly an admirable Bill. We all want to help it on its way. But it seems to me that this is a needless flaw, and I beg my noble friends to think again.
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, I add my voice from Wales to the request to think again. The Assembly debated this matter fully on 4 May and voted unanimously for the powers of the Welsh commissioner not to be eroded. There is a concern in Wales that the English commissioner is being viewed as having a role "over and above" that will interfere with the role of the Welsh commissioner and undermine confidence in that role.
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The devolution settlement certainly was not fixed in time. We have seen things being moved across to Wales when they had not previously been there, as happened, for example, with the Fire Services Act. Therefore, if the powers are not left principally with the commissioner in Wales, that will be counter to the whole principle of devolution, of managing services locally and of ensuring that the local services meet the needs of the local population.
Another concern is that we may not always have a government of the same colour in Westminster and in Wales. While there may be a memorandum of agreement at this stage and therefore, because we have government of the same colour in both areas, there may be agreement over the way forward, the political pressures may change enormously. Sadly, the people who will suffer will be the weakest and the most vulnerable. They will not be the politicians; they will be the very children that the Bill is designed to help.
Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, I went through the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill when it was proceeding through the House of Commons. It is clear to me that the Children's Commissioner for England has far fewer powers than the commissioner for Wales. With consummate skill, my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford completely demolished the case made by the Government in this respect.
Parts of the Bill, as amended by the Government and the House of Commons, go against the spirit and letter of devolution and, as the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, said, intrude into the powers of the Children's Commissioner for Wales on matters which are the concern of children in Wales. Surely it should not be the purpose of this Bill to take away powers from the Children's Commissioner for Wales, which effectively it does.
I believe that, so far as concerns children in Wales, the Bill as it now stands will result in an attempt at protection by remote control from England. That wrong must be put right. Indeed, I believe that it is at the heart of the Richard commission proposals for sorting out these problems and for devolving primary powers to Wales because this kind of debate will be redundant as the whole thing then will be sorted out logically.
Similar amendments to these were tabled in the House of Commons and defeated. Indeed, these issues directly affect the devolved administrations. The Welsh Select Committee in the other place expressed grave concern about these matters. I think it is significant that all members of the Welsh Select Committee supported the amendments which were defeated in the House of Commons because they were not satisfied with the settlement in the Bill. Sadly, 17 members of the Government's party supported amendments which weaken the powers of the Children's Commissioner for Wales, and I think that
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the House will judge on that. But the people with real knowledge supported the amendments which put these matters right.
Lord Rogan: My Lords, in speaking to Amendment No. 14, I should like to forge a Celtic alliance with my Welsh colleagues. I do so in awareness of the grave concerns harboured by the recently appointed Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, Mr Nigel Williams.
It appears odd, to say the least, that this Bill will create a different kind of commissioner for children than those which already exist in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Not only is that the case; the Bill will allow the new English commissionerwhile admittedly having to take account of the Northern Ireland commissioner's workto institute an inquiry without any prior consultation with the Northern Ireland commissioner.
Would it not be better for the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People to have the lead responsibility for all matters affecting children in Northern Ireland and to work with the English commissioner on the specific matters that are the responsibility of the Westminster Parliament? If this legislation is accepted in its current form, the children's commissioner in Northern Ireland, and indeed the commissioners for Wales and Scotland, could be entirely sidelined and their roles completely undermined. Can the Minister give the House any assurance that that will not happen?
Lord Filkin: My Lords, I shall not speak at great length. I am not certain whether this is not one of those issues where, whatever one says, one will not change people's minds. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, was commendably clear and honest in his opening remarks when he said that he did not respect the devolution settlement and that there should be an ongoing debate. That is fine. He is utterly entitled to his point of view, and I understand and respect that. However, this is not the place at which to seek to forge change to the devolution settlement. If that were to be done, it would have to be done elsewhere and not on the back of an issue such as this.
The noble Lord, Lord Morgan, said that the English commissioner would be weak. There is nothing further that I can usefully say on that. I have not changed my stance in the past 15 minutes; nor, I suspect, has he.
The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, was concerned about eroding the powers of the Welsh commissioner, as was the noble Lord, Lord Livsey. The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, also expressed those concerns. We are not changing the powers of the Welsh commissioner in any respect.
The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, said that it would not be possible for the Welsh commissioner to have lead responsibilities. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, gave the good example of two children in the same children's home, both affected by the same issues and concerns, which, for the sake of argument, bring us within the ambit of Clause 4 and raise issues of
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public policy. In that situation, we would expect the commissioners to strike a memorandum of understanding and agree that one of them, not both, would investigate the issue. He would determine his conclusions and share those with his colleague. Those conclusions would then find their way onwards, if it was a Welsh governance issue, to the Assembly or other parts of Welsh governance, and if it was a non-devolved, UK-wide issue, it would clearly find its way into UK governance. In other words, while the final repository of the actions that the commissioner found as a consequence of his investigations mighthow shall I put itchallenge either the Home Secretary or the Assembly, that would be done only as the result of a process which, as far as the children were concerned, was joined up and by which they were not inconvenienced.
Taking the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, I do not believe that it is conceivable that there might be an issue even though the Welsh Assembly and the Government of the day were of different political complexions. One would expect impartial public officials of high probity and a non-party political nature to serve as the commissioners. I therefore do not believe that they would in any way be blown or buffeted by different political perspectives.
I shall say no more. I do not think that I will necessarily persuade the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, on this issue, much as it sorrows me to say so. I think that the provision is workable and practical. Now is not the time to change the devolution settlement.
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