Devolved Administrations: 20th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:08 pm on 22nd May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Co-Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Peers 8:08 pm, 22nd May 2019

My Lords, I am moved to preface my main remarks by strongly agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, in his belief that constitution matters. When the mess we are in at the moment is over and the dust has settled, we will need a UK constitutional commission. I believe that for many reasons. I do not have time to go into all of them but I will give you one: we are about to have a second Prime Minister imposed on us by 60 Conservative Members.

However, I will turn to my main comments. I am not Welsh but I live in Wales with my Welsh husband, who is sitting next to me, and I visit Scotland frequently. I want to make some remarks about the way in which devolution has allowed the Welsh and Scottish Governments to take a different approach. I will use as my example how they have dealt with the lives and well-being of children.

First, a word about Scotland. As with all Governments, the Scottish Government have to mind the pennies, but they found themselves with even wider inequalities than those in other parts of the UK. Therefore, in 2007, they commissioned some work about the cost-effectiveness of early interventions relating to children. Based on the analysis of cost, it became very clear that early intervention is not only cheaper but more effective than the cost of clearing up the mess later when everything has gone wrong.

The result was the policy paper Early Years and Early Intervention, published in 2008. It opens with the following statement:

“We have always known the earliest years of life are crucial to a child’s development. However, it is increasingly evident that it is in the first years of life that inequalities in health, education and employment opportunities are passed from one generation to another. The early years framework signals local and national government’s joint commitment to break this cycle through prevention and early intervention”.

The framework outlined in the paper marked a fundamental shift away from dealing with the symptoms of inequality—violence, poor physical and mental health, and low achievement and attainment at school—and aimed to focus on identifying and managing the risks that perpetuate inequality early in life by intervening early. Of course, the policy required resourcing, monitoring and follow-up, as well as partnerships and co-operation between local and national government and between different groups of professionals. Nobody expected it to happen overnight, but the principles underpinning the policy have been shown to be sound. The Scottish Government are rightly focusing on early action and tackling child poverty. I therefore congratulate them on taking the opportunity that devolution gave them to do things differently and show the way in this respect.

In 2002, the Welsh Government were the first in the world to establish a national play policy. I found that very heartening because it demonstrated a new and different approach to children, which recognised that they are not just small adults but are different because of their developmental stage. They learn through play; it is important for their well-being and healthy growth. The policy also recognised that all children are different from each other. It emphasised the importance of allowing children to make choices, providing appropriate protection and safeguarding while offering an appropriate level of challenge. Implementation required safe places and facilities for play, time for children to play and training for play workers to supervise. To me, the policy was significant because it was based on the reality of what children are, how they learn, their rights and how provision for them is central to communities.

That has led to other welcome child-centred policies. In 2011, the Welsh Government passed the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure, the purpose of which was to impose a duty on Welsh Ministers and the First Minister to have due regard to the rights and obligations in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and its optional protocols when making decisions of a strategic nature about how to exercise their functions. This incorporation of the UNCRC into the Welsh Government’s obligations is something for which I have long campaigned in England. Unfortunately, my efforts to get successive UK Governments to agree to incorporate the UNCRC into UK law have fallen on deaf ears, despite many criticisms every five years by the UN committee that reviews compliance with the convention. However, I am not aware of the Welsh Government being inundated with complaints and court cases about Welsh children’s rights not having been upheld, so the UK Government’s fears appear groundless. This is just another example of where a devolved Government can be courageous and try something out on a smaller scale.

Of course, it has not ended there because, to comply with the convention, the Welsh Government needed to scrutinise their other laws and ensure that they were compliant. As the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, mentioned earlier, that led to the introduction into the Senedd of the Children (Abolition of Defence of Reasonable Punishment) (Wales) Bill in March this year. The Bill’s purpose is to abolish the common-law defence of reasonable punishment so that it is no longer available in Wales to parents, or those acting in loco parentis, as a defence for assault or battery against a child. The Bill supports children’s rights by prohibiting the use of physical punishment through removal of this defence. As I heard it described on Welsh television, Wales cannot ban smacking by parents, which is legal in the UK, but it can take away the defence on which parents could depend if they were to physically assault their children. The intended effect of the Bill, together with an awareness-raising campaign and support for parents, is to bring about a further reduction in the use and tolerance of the physical punishment of children in Wales.

Again, I tried unsuccessfully in this very Chamber, under the Labour Government, to ban the use of physical assault by parents against their children. I was foiled in this attempt by the continued existence of this discriminatory defence, which is unhelpful to parents and undermines the rights of their children. I therefore heartily congratulate the Welsh Government on what they are doing. As it currently exists, the defence allows a parent to smack a child as long as they do not leave a mark. This discriminates against children with dark skin and does nothing to guide a parent as to what sort of force can legally be used. Who knows whether a sharp slap will leave a mark or not? Of course, the safest thing is not to smack at all but to use more positive parenting methods of discipline. Clearly, the Welsh Government have come to the conclusion that the only thing smacking teaches children is that violence can make people do what you want. I wish the Bill well as it passes through the Senedd and is implemented across Wales. It will send a powerful signal.

Wales also appointed the first Children’s Commissioner, sadly as a result of some terrible cases of child abuse at children’s homes in Wales. Of course, all the devolved Administrations now have a Children’s Commissioner, with varying powers, but the most recent is the Children’s Commissioner for Jersey, who was also created as a result of some appalling child abuse cases on the island. However, something very interesting happened in the creation of this latest devolved Children’s Commissioner. Her powers were put together as a result of consultation with, among others, the other four commissioners; as a result, her powers are more comprehensive than those of any of them. One unique power of the new commissioner is the power to instruct deliverers of services to follow her advice on what is best for the welfare of the children in their care. None of the other commissioners has that power. They can report and write letters and demand a response but they cannot insist that best practice is followed. I very much welcome this new power for this new devolved officer. When will the operation of this power be reviewed? Will the Government consider strengthening the powers of the other commissioners in the same way if they prove useful in protecting children?

My remarks have not been party political so far but I hope that I will be forgiven for saying a few complimentary words about Kirsty Williams, the Liberal Democrat Education Minister in Wales. Kirsty has been a pioneering Minister. She introduced a new system of student funding for full and part-time students in which all can obtain a loan to pay tuition fees and receive a combination of grants and loans for living expenses up to the level of the minimum wage. Kirsty introduced the new scheme with the support of the National Union of Students. It knows that living costs are a great worry for students and can get in the way of effective learning. All students in Wales get a minimum of £1,000 per year living grant no matter what their parents’ income may be. This recognises the fact that students are independent people. Kirsty has also introduced a radical new school curriculum.

On this 20th anniversary of devolution I should like to use children’s policy in Wales and Scotland as a good example of the benefits of devolution, and I look forward to the day when the UK Government follow some of the very good examples shown by the devolved Administrations.