Clause 4 - Inquiries initiated by the Commissioner

Part of Children Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 14th October 2004.

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Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Wales), Department for Constitutional Affairs, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) (also in Wales Office) 2:30 pm, 14th October 2004

The difficulty that we would have is that that would be seen as compromising the independence of the commissioners. They will have the opportunity and the ability—because of the work done by those already in post—to work out a best way of working between them. We must give them that chance

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North asked whether the matters covered in her amendments and others in the group might be further considered on Report. That is, I regret to tell her, very unlikely if the Committee agrees to these amendments today. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) referred to the devolution settlement and the scope of the Bill. He was right to set the amendments in that context, and the points that I have made in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North answer his queries.

I understand hon. Members' concerns about the powers of the Children's Commissioner for Wales and the fact that he will not be able to investigate reserved matters. I do not share those concerns for the practical reasons that I gave this morning. I was a little

concerned by the tone of the comments made by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire this morning, not least because they failed to support me. We have to be careful about the language that we use. We should not paint a completely dark picture of the Bill, and we should not be intemperate in our comments, as it is not helpful.

We Welsh have a dark side. We like to have a bit of misery and grief; it is something that God has blessed us with. But the Bill is something to celebrate, and we should say that it is a bad Bill simply because there is a small difference over the powers of the commissioner. It will be good for children in Wales and throughout the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman mentioned problems that he thought might occur and cited the Clywch inquiry, asking whether such an inquiry could take place once the Bill is enacted?

Nothing in the Bill would prevent the Children's Commissioner for Wales from carrying out a Clywch-type inquiry. No reserved matters were directly involved in that inquiry. If devolved matters were involved we could reasonably expect the commissioners to arrive at a sensible arrangement that best fits the circumstances and allows the Welsh commissioner to address the issues within his remit. The English commissioner may support that, but he could not, through clause 4, duplicate an inquiry of his own.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) made some telling remarks. He commented on the remarks made by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North. They were very interesting points, but he will forgive me if I add that I could not possibly comment.

Amendment No. 12, tabled by the official Opposition, is superseded by Government amendments, which make it clear how inquiries under the clause may be taken forward by the English commissioner. Amendments Nos. 18 and 19 are likewise superseded but relate to inquiries under clause 5. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham suggests that there has been some hijacking at the end. I ask him to be generous and to share with me. Is it not our duty here to make good law? If we can do so collaboratively, that is a good thing. If he feels ownership of any of the things that we are doing in the Bill, I thank him. That is about as close as he will get to government for a long time.

Amendments Nos. 195, 196 and 198 were tabled by the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams). We all regret his absence this afternoon; we wish him well and hope that he returns to good health. We know the valuable work that he has done. His amendments would go further and give the devolved commissioners the power to undertake inquiries in their areas. New clause 35 would also allow the Welsh commissioner to take on broader functions with respect to reserved issues than at present.

We do not agree that it is right for the existing commissioners to have functions that do not reflect the various devolution settlements. The ultimate losers

will be the children concerned, whose voices will not be heard in this House on matters that are decided here and on which Ministers answerable to this House have a say. The Government are fully aware that the commissioners must work together sensibly for the good of all children. This batch of Government amendments, of which new clauses 27 to 29 are the main ones, have been drafted after detailed consultation, and they represent the way forward.

New clause 18, which my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North promoted, would also extend the power of the Welsh commissioner by allowing him to report directly to the UK Government on non-devolved issues. Although that sometimes happens informally, as I explained this morning, we must work within the devolution settlement as it stands. The Children's Commissioner, who will report to the House through the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, cannot totally relinquish responsibility for matters in Wales that may remain the responsibility of Government here in Westminster.

I appreciate the intention behind amendment No. 21, which is to ensure that no child misses out because of a division of territorial responsibilities. I reassure the Committee that any child in any part of the UK with issues that they wish to raise will be able to do so with the commissioner in whose territory they find themselves. Even if they are on a day trip, they could call on the help, advice or services of the commissioner in that country.

New clauses 6 and 7 would require the commissioners to work together. The broader, less prescriptive wording of the Government's amendments will serve the commissioners better than new clauses 6 or 7. The purpose of any amendment on this subject is to ensure that the commissioners work closely together to the best benefit of all children in the UK. Given those assurances, I hope that the hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham, for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), and for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) will feel able to withdraw their amendments.

New clause 33, also tabled by the hon. Member for Caernarfon, promotes the idea of a statutory review by all four commissioners into how the joint working arrangements will function. Given that we wish to achieve a practical solution for children throughout the UK with a minimum of restriction, we need to ensure that our arrangements work in practice and to consider future changes dependent on that. Equally clearly, the commissioners will be well placed to do that, reflecting the views of children and young people whom they have helped and advised in their respective nations. However, I am not convinced that the amendment is necessary to achieve that. Although I see merit in its intent, the commissioners may wish to review how the joint working arrangements are operating and will want to take any opportunity to make comments to this Government or the respective Administrations in the devolved nations.

The Government's amendments provide a mechanism on non-devolved issues which is appropriate in practice and will allow the

commissioners to work together under a memorandum of understanding. It will ensure that the views of children throughout the UK are made known and that the helpful advice and protection that we can give them is expressed. It is a practical and principled solution to the issues before us, and I urge the Committee to support our amendments.