New Clause 5 - Consultation by the National Assembly for Wales

Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:15 pm on 30th January 2001.

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`In section 2(1)(b) of the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 (Central Authorities and accredited bodies) after ``by the National Assembly for Wales'' there shall be inserted ``, after consultation with the Children's Commissioner for Wales''.'.—[Mr. Walter.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Conservative, North Dorset

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

Photo of Mr Bowen Wells Mr Bowen Wells Conservative, Hertford and Stortford

With this we may take new clause 6—Consultation by the Secretary of State

`In section 16(1) of the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 (Devolution) after the third ``the'', for the words ``National Assembly for Wales'' there shall be substituted ``Children's Commissioner for Wales.``.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Conservative, North Dorset

The Committee has spent a lot of time considering the commissioner's powers with regard to institutions, but much less discussing fostering and adoption. The new clauses relate largely to adoption and to enhancing the commissioner's powers in that respect. They touch on the case that is at the forefront of our minds, although I do not want to embarrass the Minister, who has mentioned that the parents in that adoption case are his constituents and that his wife is chairman of the social services committee dealing with it.

We spent a lot of time considering amendments to the Care Standards Act 2000; the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 is also relevant. I want to give the commissioner a key role in setting policy on international adoption procedures. The Act incorporates the 1993 Hague convention into UK law, but the Government have so far failed to implement the Act, which has left the way open for the case that took place in north Wales.

Our amendments would give the commissioner responsibility for advising the Government on the Act's implementation in Wales. It may help if I deal with the provenance of the two new clauses. Clause 1 relates to section 78 of the Care Standards Act 2000 and says:

``This Part applies to a child . . .to or in respect of whom regulated children's services in Wales are provided.``

Section 78(2) of the 2000 Act says:

``In this Part, [odq]regulated children's services in Wales'' means . . . services provided by local authorities in Wales in the exercise of relevant adoption functions or relevant fostering functions''.

We seek to amend two sections in the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999. Section 2 deals with central authorities and accredited bodies, and subsection (1) says:

``The functions under the Convention of the Central Authority are to be discharged—

(a) separately in relation to England and Scotland by the Secretary of State; and

(b) in relation to Wales by the National Assembly for Wales.``

New clause 5 would amend section 2(1)(b) and make it say ``by the National Assembly for Wales, after consultation with the Children's Commissioner for Wales.''

Section 16(1) of the 1999 Act says:

``Any function of the Secretary of State under section 1 or 18(3), or section 17 or 56A of the 1976 Act, is exercisable only after consultation with the National Assembly for Wales.

New clause 6 would streamline that procedure. If the Secretary of State—in this case the Secretary of State for Health—must consult the National Assembly, which then has to consult the commissioner, that important aspect may need short-circuiting. I do not want to take the National Assembly out of the loop, but the person charged with looking after such matters on behalf of the National Assembly and the people of Wales is the Children's Commissioner. We seek to delete the words ``National Assembly for Wales'' and insert ``Children's Commissioner for Wales.''

The new clauses would beef up the powers of the Children's Commissioner when dealing with international adoptions and particularly the sort of case that we have seen in north Wales. I remind the Committee that the Government signed the convention in 1993, but have not yet implemented it. In schedule 1 to the 1999 Act, the fourth statement in the convention says:

``The States signatory to the present Convention . . . Convinced of the necessity to take measures to ensure that intercountry adoptions are made in the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights, and to prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in, children''.

That is exactly what most hon. Members want to prevent. We have seen evidence of that practice in the case in north Wales.

The Government have so far failed to implement the Act. The Bill could give the Children's Commissioner power as an advocate for children and their rights, including those who are being adopted. If we as Members of Parliament cannot persuade the Government that they should implement that convention, perhaps by giving the Children's Commissioner for Wales a power as an advocate for children—including those who are being adopted—and children's rights, we will enable the commissioner to convince them to implement both the 1993 Hague convention and an Act that was passed by the House two years ago, which would have prevented what I can only describe as the obscene internet procedures that have recently taken place.

The new clauses would enhance the role of the Children's Commissioner and that of parents in the safe adoption of children across frontiers. They would have enabled the Flintshire social services committee to oversee the home study report in the case of the Kilshaws. That report could have been lodged with the Secretary of State for Health and with the court in the United States, with the result that the adoption, if it were ultimately approved, would have been made with the approval of all the authorities involved. However, it was not. I should prefer that and similar adoptions to have approval and that is why I commend the new clauses to the Committee.

Photo of Mr Raymond Powell Mr Raymond Powell Labour, Ogmore 5:30 pm, 30th January 2001

We must be careful when dealing with new procedures for the adoption of children. In the past two years, I have seen great problems when adoptions are allowed without full investigation of people who are adopting children throughout the country, particularly in Wales. We must have provisions and people who are able to ensure that a proper inspection takes place of the homes where those children are going to live and the background of the people who want to adopt.

More often than not, we have the problem of trying to intervene in cases that have already been decided. Once the decisions have been taken and the children have been adopted, we face great difficulty. It is high time we had far stricter laws on and greater resources going into adoption. Many children are seeking adoption but are not finding homes because we do not have the inspectors to conduct the research that is necessary before adoption can take place. However, I appeal to the Committee not to take a quick decision on the suggestions that have been made until we have examined in more detail the safeguards that we should impose in respect of adoption.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

I am grateful for the comments from the hon. Member for Dorset, North. For the record and for the sake of clarity, I should declare again two interests that are connected with matters that he has raised: first, Mr. and Mrs. Kilshaw are my constituents; secondly, my wife, Councillor Margaret Hanson, is chair of Flintshire county council social services committee and is dealing with that case.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that one of the Assembly's key functions will be to act as a central authority for the purposes of the 1993 Hague convention on the protection of children and co-operation in respect of inter-country adoption. New clause 5 would impose upon the Assembly an obligation to consult the commissioner in respect of the discharge of its responsibilities as the central authority in Wales for the purposes of that convention.

Continuing the sympathetic approach that I have tried to take in Committee, let me say that I have no problem with the commissioner having a view on how the assembly exercises that function. Under clause 3, he already has the power to review the exercise of all of the assembly's functions: he will be able to report on the outcome of the reviews and will be able to take a primary role in influencing and informing the way in which the Assembly exercises its functions in respect of adoption and the convention.

Where the hon. Gentleman and I differ, if we differ at all, is that I do not believe that it is sensible to confuse the commissioner's roles by making him a formal consultee on the discharge of functions that he could subsequently review. Clause 3 gives the commissioner the power to examine all those issues accordingly. The new clause would highlight the commissioner's adoption role, over and above many other roles that he will have, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on that. That is not to deny the necessity for the commissioner to take a strong interest in adoption issues; it is simply that the commissioner will and should have a range of roles. His involvement in adoption issues will simply be one of many areas on which he can comment.

In order, I hope, to help the hon. Member for North Dorset, I shall give the Government's view on the important issue that he raised of the Hague convention and its implementation. He will agree that that is a complex area of legislation and that it is vital to ensure that the provisions properly protect the interests of children in the United Kingdom. Section 14 of the 1999 Act, which inserts a new provision in the Adoption Act 1976, makes it an offence to bring a child into England and Wales for the purposes of adoption unless requirements prescribed in regulations have been complied with. The Government intend to enact the provision in advance of the main body of the 1999 Act to tighten controls over the assessment procedure. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), will consult on the draft regulations shortly. I understand that the Assembly will also be involved in that consultation. I hope that that covers new clause 5, but I would welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments in due course. I emphasise that the new clause would elevate the adoption issue above many of the other issues with which the Children's Commissioner will have to deal.

New clause 6 would remove the National Assembly's statutory right to be formally consulted on the implementation of the 1999 Act. I understand why the hon. Gentleman tabled the new clause; obviously he wants to beef up, in his words, the commissioner's role on those issues. However, new clause 6 would remove the right of formal consultation from the Assembly and vest it in the commissioner, and that would be inappropriate, for several reasons. As I have tried to explain during the course of the Bill, the commissioner should be independent of the Assembly—he is a creature of the Assembly, funded by the Assembly, but is independent of the Assembly. The Assembly and the commissioner may take different views on a particular issue, which is right and proper. It is certainly right for the Assembly to hold strong views on such issues, but if we accepted new clause 6, the independent Children's Commissioner could have a view on an issue while the elected National Assembly did not. That is an important point.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales 5:54 pm, 30th January 2001

As I was saying before the Division, the commissioner has significant powers under clause 3, which will allow him to review the exercise of the Assembly's functions in relation to a range of issues, particularly that of adoption and the relevant adoption legislation.

Clause 3 is significant. Although I accept what the hon. Member for North Dorset has said, I do not believe that we should lift adoption out of the range of other issues that are considered by the commissioner. He will have the power under the clause to exercise wide-ranging reviews of the Assembly's functions as the central authority. Before the Division I talked about new clause 5, the Assembly and the commissioner's responsibilities for a general review of functions under clause 3. I also talked about new clause 6, which I believe would replace the Assembly's role with the commissioner's role and deny the Assembly a view of some important issues. I hope that the hon. Member for Dorset North will reflect on those comments, and for the last time in this Committee stage, I ask him to consider withdrawing the motion and new clause.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Conservative, North Dorset

I do not wish to be pedantic, but just for the record I should say that the name of my constituency is North Dorset. I was disappointed that the Minister told us that the Government did intend to implement the Hague convention, which was signed in 1993. The Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act received Royal Assent on 27 July 1999, and still it has not been implemented. It is a matter of some concern that that is still the case. Part of my reason for tabling these amendments was to make the Children's Commissioner a champion of children's rights so that he can intervene for victims of inter-country adoptions that are carried out through dubious processes.

I do not necessarily accept everything the Minister said, particularly with regard to new clause 6 and putting the Commissioner into a consultation role rather than an executive role. I would have thought it appropriate for the commissioner to be the consultee for Wales. It would enhance, not only the commissioner but, the National Assembly, if the commissioner's role was established in legislation with regard to inter-country aspects when the Assembly was acting as the central authority. It seems that the Minister is not minded to accept my new clauses, despite the sympathy that I sensed from him and from his hon. Friend Member for Ogmore (Sir R. Powell). I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule agreed to.

Photo of Mr Richard Livsey Mr Richard Livsey Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

On a point of order, Mr. Wells. May I take this opportunity to thank you and Mr. Jones for your chairmanship and for way in which the Committee has been conducted? I congratulate those who have contributed to the Bill or to its proceedings. There are some issues to which we shall return later. If we are to have a children's champion, we must address the question of powers and children's human rights. If there are non-devolved matters, that is clearly a question to which we shall have to return.

Finally, I offer my best wishes to the National Assembly for Wales and my thanks to all those groups of children's lobbyists who have assisted the Committee so much.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Vice-Chair, Conservative Party 6:00 pm, 30th January 2001

Further to that point of order, I am sure that it will not go unnoticed that in the five sittings of the Committee there has not been one Division. That does not mean there has been unanimity on the Bill, but there has been unanimity of purpose, which is to establish a Children's Commissioner for Wales with proper and effective powers. I am sure that is true of all parties represented here today. Just because we did not vote, does not mean there were no differences between us—indeed, there have been lengthy discussions to which hon. Members on both sides have contributed on how to improve the Bill. On Report and Third Reading and during the Bill's passage through the House of Lords, we shall continue to try to improve the legislation. Time is of the essence, and I am delighted we have been able to do our job in the five sittings allotted to us. We wish the Bill well on its journey.

I, too, would like to thank all the children's charities and others who have made representations to us and the National Assembly of Wales during consideration of the Bill. I thank you, Mr. Wells, and Mr. Jones for the way in which you have chaired our sittings—your guidance has been invaluable.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

Further to that point of order, Mr. Wells. I had intended to wait until you put the Question before making my remarks, but as the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire has raised his point of order, I shall do so now.

This is the 18th Bill on which I have had the pleasure of serving during my time in the House, Mr. Well but it is the first time I have ever gone through a Bill without voting, which is an indication of the cross-party support for the Bill and for the Government's proposals. I understand that the Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), has been through two Bills without voting. Obviously, he brings an air of consensus to Committee proceedings, unlike previous Whips I have served under. I confess that when I was a Whip, I enjoyed forcing points on an issue, just to make a point.

I thank you, Mr. Wells, for your efforts in the sittings that you have chaired, and your colleague, Mr. Jones, who as well as being your co-Chairman is my constituency next-door-neighbour. I should also like to place on record my thanks to the Clerk, to parliamentary counsel, to my colleagues from the police for sitting through the Committee on numerous occasions and helping us during our proceedings, to the Hansard reporters, to officials from the Wales Office who are present today and those from the National Assembly who are on secondment to the Wales Office, and to the Doorkeepers for the service they have provided.

I also thank hon. Members on both sides of the Committee for their support and constructive comments. From the Opposition Benches, the hon. Members for North Dorset and for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) have been constructive in their comments, as have the hon. Members for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and for Brecon and Radnorshire. Not least, I thank my hon. Friends, both those who have offered constructive contributions and those who have indulged the Committee with their silence, for their fulsome and wholesome support at all times. It is a pleasure to know that many hon. Members are so keen on Government proposals that they do not need to reinforce their feelings with words, but can instead rely on the Minister to represent the Government's interests.

I also thank the many children's groups who have been involved in lobbying the Committee. It is right and proper that we explore the issues that they have raised. Finally, I pay tribute to National Assembly for its committee work, and to Jane Hutt, the Minister with responsibility for health and children's affairs in the National Assembly.

I am confident that, although it has not been amended in Committee, we have a Bill that will go to another place with the benefit of constructive criticism and Government explanations. In due course, when the Bill has been through Report stage and Third Reading, we shall have legislation of which the House and the National Assembly can be proud.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Further to that point of order, Mr Wells. I add my gratitude to you and Mr. Jones for chairing our proceedings so ably. Most of our time in Committee has been spent in what has been described as grown-up debate. We have not changed much, but we have narrowed down three or four main areas of contention. Two or three remain for another place to address in more detail. I am confident that the Minister will report to his colleagues on the main areas for attention and I hope that there will be some movement in another place.

I add my thanks to the children's groups who have lobbied and briefed us so well. I think in particular of Children in Wales, which has acted as an umbrella group for all the interested parties. A lot of hard work has been done. Today's proceedings are a tribute to Children in Wales, who, back in the early 1990s, pointed out the need for a Children's Commissioner for Wales. That is now to become a reality, subject to those amendments that were argued for, some of which I hope will be put into effect in the other place.

There has been unanimity on many aspects of the Bill. There is a consensus and our debate from beginning to end has been a sensible one. I hope that it has also been fruitful, not for us as parliamentarians, but for the young children of Wales who are the future of that country.

Photo of Mr Richard Livsey Mr Richard Livsey Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

Further to that point of order, Mr. Wells. It would be remiss of us not to thank the Minister for his good humour in taking this Bill through Committee.

Photo of Mr Bowen Wells Mr Bowen Wells Conservative, Hertford and Stortford

I thank all those who have put spurious points of order to me on matters that are not really my concern. I am grateful to receive them, however, particularly as they have been expressed in such a gracious and good-humoured way. I will certainly convey them to my co-Chairman, Mr. Jones. I commend the Committee for its good-tempered and serious debates. It does the reputation of the Houses of Parliament a great deal of good when matters of such importance are discussed in such a responsible manner.

Following the changes in our procedure, I have new words to say. Our proceedings are now concluded.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose at seven minutes past Six o'clock.