New Clause 1 - Commissioner's annual report
Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill
12:15 pm

`After section 77 of the Care Standards Act 2000 insert—

``77A. The Commissioner shall lay a report before Parliament annually. It shall:

(a) provide details of the Commissioner's work in the course of the year;

(b) provide a breakdown of the Commissioner's total expenditure for the year; and

(c) make any recommendations about the scope of the Commissioner's remit as the Commissioner may deem necessary.''.'.—[Mr. Evans.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

12:30 pm
Photo of Mr Nigel Evans

Mr Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley, Conservative)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 1 is fairly straightforward. It would make three alterations. It states:

``The Commissioner shall lay a report before Parliament annually.''

Much has been said about the Assembly's ability to ask the Children's Commissioner to report on various issues, and no doubt an annual report will be laid before the National Assembly for Wales. As the Committee has discussed, the commissioner may want to comment on non-devolved aspects even though they are not core issues for him, and no doubt he will do so in a report to the National Assembly. Forty Members of Parliament represent Welsh constituencies, and they all have an interest in matters affecting Wales and children, as is clear not only from this debate but from other debates on the Floor of the House. It is only right that if the commissioner wants to comment on non-devolved aspects, a report should be laid before this House.

Paragraph (c) of proposed new section 77A of the Care Standards Act refers to making

``any recommendations about the scope of the Commissioner's remit as the Commissioner may deem necessary.''

After 12 months of operating under the Bill, the Children's Commissioner may say that he feels constrained in certain areas, and he may want to make recommendations about his own powers. As primary legislation may be necessary to alter those powers, it is only right to encourage him to examine them and find out whether there is anything else that he might want to say about them.

The commissioner may comment on secondary legislation introduced in the National Assembly for Wales, and he may, as we have discussed ad nauseam, want to comment on primary legislation. He should be able to comment on any primary legislation that affects children in Wales. He may easily comment informally, but his report to Parliament would enable him to do so in a more detailed fashion. As primary legislation is introduced here, surely we should be able to examine his comments. Paragraphs (a) and (c) would enable us to do that, and paragraph (b) would provide a breakdown of the commissioner's total expenditure for the year, which would enable us to consider more carefully how money is spent.

Several members of the Committee have advanced the case for the commissioner's having extra powers. The hon. Member for Bridgend spoke about his role in education about the human rights of children, and in facilitating research on that subject, which would cost money. I assume that under his current powers, he will be able to advance research on all devolved aspects. That would cost a certain percentage of his money, and it is only right for us to have a full breakdown so that we can examine the pressures on his budget.

It would help the Treasury and the National Assembly for Wales to examine whether the Children's Commissioner would be more effective if more resources were pumped into specific areas. That would also give hon. Members an opportunity to see whether there was a lack of monitoring in some areas because of lack of money. That could certainly come out under paragraph (b). New clause 1 is straightforward and I hope that the Government will look favourably upon it. It is not radical, but it enables hon. Members to take an active interest in what the Children's Commissioner is doing, especially with regard to primary legislation, which resides at Westminster.

Photo of Ms Julie Morgan

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff North, Labour)

The new clause should be resisted. It is linked with previous amendments tabled by Conservative Members, and would undermine the devolution settlement. The report is the property of the National Assembly, and if the Assembly wished to take it further by channelling it to the House, that would be acceptable. The new clause undermines the principles according to which the National Assembly has created the post and set aside money from its budget to implement and operate it. If we start to interfere with the budget, that will cause difficulties.

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Mr Win Griffiths (Bridgend, Labour)

My hon. Friend has raised an important point about the annual report and the position of Members of Parliament. Is it not true that, with the systems already established, right hon. and hon. Members of this House have pretty direct access to documents published by the National Assembly, and can obtain them in much the same way as parliamentary reports?

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Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff North, Labour)

Yes, we do get easy access to all reports produced by the National Assembly. Writing into the Bill that the commissioner's report should be submitted to this Parliament would undermine the way in which the system works. The Children's Commissioner should have wide-ranging powers, but his ability to comment and make representations on any powers that he has—or wishes that he had—should be channelled via a report to the National Assembly. The amendment should be resisted.

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Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, Plaid Cymru)

This is an example of rather muddled thinking. The commissioner has been set up by the National Assembly for Wales and is answerable to that Assembly. His over-arching remit is devolved matters, so how on earth can this House second-guess whether he or she did the right thing, when it has no responsibility for devolved matters? That is the first muddle.

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Mr Robert Walter (North Dorset, Conservative)

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman has said—I sought to intervene on the hon. Lady, but she sat down before I could do so. The purpose of new clause 1, which proposes that the commissioner should lay his report before Parliament, is to establish a formal link between him and Parliament. If our Select Committee on Health, for example, wished to investigate children's services in the United Kingdom, would it not be appropriate for that Committee to investigate children's services in Wales?

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Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, Plaid Cymru)

It would be entirely appropriate, but is the hon. Gentleman saying that the only way to persuade the commissioner to appear as a witness before a Select Committee is to ask him to report directly to this House? That cannot be right, because there are hundreds of thousands of witnesses every year who are not strictly bound to report to this place.

The second bit of muddled thinking is the idea that the commissioner should provide this place with a breakdown of his total expenditure. That must be a matter for the Assembly, which should be in charge of the commissioner's office. The commissioner will report directly to the Assembly and, if there is a need for greater expenditure, the Assembly will presumably have to put the case to this House—or alternatively, part of its block will have to provide for it.

Thirdly, there is muddled thinking behind paragraph (c) of the new clause, which mentions making recommendations about the scope of the commissioner's role. This House cannot have it both ways. The Assembly pressed for the post of commissioner to be set up, while this House, traditionally, showed a great deal of reticence and a lack of enthusiasm for creating that office. Now it seems that this House wants to say, ``Well, the office has been created, but make sure that the commissioner reports to us, not to those people down in Cardiff.'' That is not on; it is muddled thinking or worse.

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Mr Robert Walter (North Dorset, Conservative)

Nobody is saying that the commissioner should not report to the Assembly; that would be ludicrous. We are saying that the 40 Welsh Members in this House should have the opportunity to consider his report.

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Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, Plaid Cymru)

Very well. What happens if Assembly Members approve the report and the Members of this House do not?

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Mr Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley, Conservative)

It is part of the devolution procedure—as we are told time and time again—that the two may not agree.

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Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, Plaid Cymru)

That could be avoided by not reporting to this place at all. Again, that is muddled thinking. I am glad that that those two hon. Gentlemen intervened, because they are showing themselves up. I shall go on, because this debate is embarrassing those on the Conservative Front Bench.

Paragraph (c) is muddled because the machinery already exists for the legislation to be brought to this House. That is how the legislation that we are now discussing came to this House in the first place; it came from the Assembly, together with pressure from the Secretary of State for Wales. There is no need for the commissioner to plead with this House for an extension, as the machinery is already there. On three counts out of three, the new clause is not a good one.

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Mr Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire, Liberal Democrat)

I agree with the hon. Members for Cardiff, North and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy. The new clause relates to accountability and functions, which were sorted out during debate on the Government of Wales Bill—now the Government of Wales Act 1998. To accept the new clause would be to go backwards.

I understand that Opposition Members want information. I, too, want freedom of information, and am sure that the report will be available to everyone, as will a breakdown of the Assembly's expenditure. Those matters have been devolved to the Assembly; they have been settled, and we cannot go back into history and unscramble that. There is already a means of processing that information, and we all understand it.

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Mr David Hanson (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Welsh Office; Delyn, Labour)

It is good to see that everyone is ganging up against the Conservatives; that is always a good sign in Committee.

Paragraph 8 of schedule 2 to the Care Standards Act 2000 already provides for regulations relating to reports from the commissioner. The Assembly may shortly require the commissioner to make an annual report to the Assembly; if it made such a request, that would reflect the recommendations of its own report on the roles of the commissioner.

I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and for Cardiff, North, and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, that placing in the Bill a further detailed requirement for annual reports to Parliament would conflict with the Government's approach of giving maximum discretion to the Assembly, which is entirely consistent with the devolution settlement. As the hon. Member for Ribble Valley said in debate on his amendment, asking for breakdowns of the commissioner's total expenditure and making recommendations could be perceived as another attempt to reinvade Wales on the part of the Government.

Given the consistency of the devolution settlement, it would not be consistent for a report to be laid formally before Parliament, for the reasons that hon. Members have mentioned. By virtue of section 45 of the Government of Wales Act 1998, reports or statements relating

``exclusively to matters with respect to which functions are exercised by the Assembly''

are laid before and published by the Assembly. The commissioner's financial package and report are the responsibility of the Assembly.

In the spirit of co-operation, however, which I have tried to ensure during our proceedings, I should be happy to bring to the Assembly's attention the suggestion that hon. Members might want to be included when matters are presented by the commissioner, and that reports could be made available to Parliament. It is usually the practice of other Assembly-sponsored bodies to make reports available through the Library. The Assembly might also want to consider the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley that the 40 Welsh Members might want to receive reports. Indeed, the Assembly might even send them to Conservative Members as well, none of whom represent Welsh constituencies.

12:45 pm
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Mr Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire, Liberal Democrat)

The Minister has made an important point in saying that such reports should be available. If he and fellow Members go to the Library, they will find that an enormous number of reports are available from the Scottish Parliament, but very few from the Welsh Assembly. The Assembly is run on an electronic basis, so information may be available by that means, but will he ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to distribute more information in a readable form to the Library? That would be of great value to us all.

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Mr David Hanson (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Welsh Office; Delyn, Labour)

As the hon. Gentleman said, the Assembly puts many of its reports on the web and uses its website to promote its activities. I take the point that hard copies are welcome for research purposes and for those who do not have access to the web. However, the general practice for devolved public bodies is to make their reports available to Parliament in the Library. I am sure that that could apply to the commissioner's report, too, and I will put that request to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan), the First Minister.

I welcome the comments made by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, but I want to clarify one point. The reports of the commissioner to the Assembly do not have to be approved by the Assembly. The commissioner is financially accountable, but he is independent of the Assembly; if his reports had to be approved by the Assembly or anyone else, his independence would be undermined. That argument applies, too, to the new clause. The House might have to approve the report, which would go against the commissioner's independence.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley has experienced the combined efforts of the hon. Members for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and for Brecon and Radnorshire, and my hon. Friends. Given that, I hope that he will withdraw his new clause, recognising the superior forces in opposition to him.

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Mr Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley, Conservative)

I stand before the Committee quaking in my boots at the combined forces of the coalition that my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset and I knew existed, but had not seen working before in Committee. The Minister said that it was good to see everyone attacking the Tories again and that reminded me of the glorious 18 years of the Conservative Government. It was wonderful to have such an experience in Committee, if only for a short time. However, we are only a few weeks off a general election. It was almost a cause for an X-file investigation, given the conciliatory words of the Minister, when he referred to the 40 Welsh Members of Parliament. After the general election, however, a number of Conservatives will represent Welsh constituencies, so they will receive a copy of the report, but it would be useful if it had as wide a circulation as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent said that the report should be prepared in such a way that people can understand it. That is an important point. Whether it be in hard copy or on the web, the report should be prepared so that people understand the commissioner's thinking about those areas that he has monitored and the recommendations that he makes. I know that the Children's Commissioner will be reading a copy of our deliberations and I hope that he will pay due regard to the manner in which the report is brought forward.

I agree with the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire about the availability of some of the reports from the Welsh Assembly. It seems as though we have to go out of our way to obtain certain reports. Given that the primary legislative powers will remain here, it is important that Members of Parliament with Welsh interests and children's interests are encouraged to read the report, and one way to facilitate that might not only be to put it in the Library, but to ensure that it is sent to all Members of Parliament, as is the case with several other reports.

With the wonderful warm consensual words of the Minister still ringing in my ears, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.