Clause 3 - Annual report

Children Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:00 am ar 14 Hydref 2004.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 10:00, 14 Hydref 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 8, in

clause 3, page 3, leave out lines 13 and 14 and insert

'he must—

(a) lay a copy before each House of Parliament, and

(b) simultaneously send a copy to the Secretary of State.'.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Llafur, Bootle

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 95, in

clause 3, page 3, line 14, after 'must', insert

'as soon as is reasonably practicable.'.

Amendment No. 9, in

clause 3, page 3, line 15, leave out subsection (4).

Amendment No. 10, in

clause 3, page 3, line 17, at end insert—

'( ) The Secretary of State must respond formally to the Commissioner's report within 3 months of it having been published and lay his response before Parliament.'.

Clause stand part.

Government new clause 30—Annual reports

New clause 2—Requirement to review working of Part 1 of the Act—

'(1) The Children's Commissioner shall—

(a) keep under review the working of Part 1 of this Act and in doing so consult with children and representatives of organisations concerned with children's rights and interests;

(b) make reports on it to the Secretary of State in accordance with the following provisions of this section.

(2) The first report under this section shall be made as soon as practicable after the third anniversary of the coming into force of this Part.

(3) A subsequent report under this section shall be made at such time as the Children's Commissioner thinks fit, not being earlier than three years after the making of the last previous report.

(4) A report under this section—

(a) shall include the views of the Children's Commissioner on the adequacy and effectiveness of this Part; and

(b) may contain recommendations as to amendments to this Part which in the opinion of the Children's Commissioner are necessary desirable.

(5) The Secretary of State shall as soon as is reasonably practicable lay a copy of every report sent to him under this section before each House of Parliament.'.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

We are motoring now—we are discussing clause 3. There are several amendments to the clause that my hon. Friends and I tabled and that have not been hijacked by the Minister—that means that she will probably vote against them. I shall not spend a great deal of time on the amendments, because they are self-explanatory.

Amendment No. 8 concerns the commissioner's annual report. During the stand part debate on clause 2, I gave the reasons why it is important for the commissioner to be independent of the Executive—to be a thorn in their side. We are trying to ensure that independence through amendments Nos. 8, 9 and 10, in particular. I will discuss new clause 2 later.

We do not see why the commissioner should have to submit annual reports initially and exclusively to the Secretary of State. I am sure that a Secretary of State would not wish to censor the reports, but as the clause stands, he would have the power to do so without Parliament being able to see what was in the unedited, uncut version. The Children's Commissioner should be able to report to Parliament.

The other day, I suggested to the Minister that the Education and Skills Committee might wish to establish a Sub-Committee. I see that hon. Members have tabled an early-day motion with the aim of establishing a children's affairs Committee, which is an interesting idea. However, in relation to the work of the Children's Commissioner, there would be great merit in having a specific Sub-Committee of the Education and Skills Committee to which he could report. That would be similar to the confirmatory hearings mentioned the other day by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), which are held for the Governor of the Bank of England by the Treasury Committee.

Amendment No. 8 would require the Children's Commissioner, when he gives the report to the Secretary of State, to lay a copy of the report simultaneously before the House as a whole. It would then be up to the Secretary of State to prepare his response, but his response would be made to the version that the Children's Commissioner has submitted to him and to the House.

If the Minister is not prepared to accept that reasonable amendment, will she give us an undertaking that the Secretary of State will not be in the business of censoring or editing the report? Can she tell us why the Secretary of State should see it first, other than for him to be able to prepare a brief

statement in response for delivery on the following day, as Ministers normally do? If she is not prepared to accept the amendment, what would be the maximum period of delay between the Children's Commissioner submitting his report to the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State then laying it before each House of Parliament? In the interests of transparency and accountability to the House rather than to the Executive, amendment No. 8 is perfectly reasonable.

Amendment No. 9 is contingent on amendment No. 8, and amendment No. 10 would introduce a time scale within which the Secretary of State should respond to the Children's Commissioner's report. We tried to introduce a time scale for inquiries in an earlier debate and the Minister made the not unreasonable point about horses for courses—some inquiries may require more immediate action than three months, whereas others may need longer, although we tried to introduce a mechanism to ensure that somebody who had not complied with the requirement for three months could say why and obtain an extension.

It is wholly appropriate that there should be an obligation on the Secretary of State to respond to the annual report within three months. He will have to do that again a year after in any case, so a three-month time scale would be perfectly sensible and would also cover a recess period. For example, if a report were laid before the summer recess, the Secretary of State could make a statement after we came back, so I cannot see any practical objections. The proposal is perfectly reasonable, plausible, moderate, positive and constructive, and I am sure that the Minister will wish to entertain it favourably.

On new clause 2, the important thing about establishing a new commissioner structure is not to create yet another tsar or give more people more titles, thereby swelling the number of public servants. Rather, its purpose and the basis on which it will be judged is what it adds to the protection and promotion of the welfare of children. How many fewer Victoria Climbie type cases have there been and how much have the educational achievements and health of children improved under the stewardship of the new post holder? That should be the basis on which we judge whether the Children's Commissioner has been a success, not how many meetings have been held, how many visits there have been or how many committees have been set up.

In new clause 2 we seek to introduce a review process. That is not unusual for new bodies, particularly those that are innovatory and have wide-ranging powers. For example, I served for a long time on the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee and then the Standing Committee that considered the establishment of the Financial Services Authority. We set in train processes whereby the workings of that body could be reviewed after a period. That is what we seek to do in new clause 2.

When the Children's Commissioner has been established for three years, one can form a view on whether things are going well or not so well, or whether

the entire job is redundant—I hope that that would be unlikely, but if the commissioner was not serving the purpose that we all thought he was there to serve, we would need to review whether he had a purpose at all. New clause 2 sets out a procedure whereby the provisions in the Bill that deal with the role of the Children's Commissioner can be reviewed

''as soon as practicable after the third anniversary of the coming into force of this Part.''

The report should contain the views of the commissioner on whether he believes that he has the powers to do the job and whether we need to change the legislation, and his recommendations on that. As part of the process, it is also essential that the views of other people—the customers, the clients, the agencies that work with the commissioner and the parliamentarians and other representatives—should be taken into account. We have also included a requirement that the Secretary of State should be able to respond to that review as well.

The Minister said that she hoped that we would return in 18 months' time and have a party to celebrate how wonderfully well things had gone. I hope that that is the case—I look forward to sitting on the other side of the Committee, and I will be happy to fund the drinks.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I have completely lost my train of thought now.

Three years is a reasonable period in which to have a review. It is essential that we put that in this legislation, rather than passing more legislation without the proper checks and balances to ensure that the job is being done as intended. That is what the amendments seek to achieve. They are wholly constructive and in the spirit of the Bill, and I trust that the Minister will look favourably on them.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I broadly support the thrust of the amendments. Everybody will want reassurance that the report will not sit on the Secretary of State's desk for about a year before it is let out into the public domain. It is always difficult to state a precise limit in legislation; I notice that the Government new clause says ''As soon as possible''. People need to be reassured that the reports will be in the public domain as soon as is practicable, and that we will review and scrutinise the work of the Children's Commissioner in a reasonable time. I hope that we will be able to celebrate the work of the Children's Commissioner and, come what may, will find matters of great interest in those reports. Does the Minister concur that we need clear time frames if the measure is to work properly?

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

There is great sympathy across the Committee for the aims of the amendments. Perhaps when I have spoken to them, and to our new clause, hon. Members will feel happier.

Amendment No. 8 would require the Commissioner to lay his annual report directly to Parliament, and not through the Secretary of State. We are simply following standard practice in the way in which non-departmental public bodies place their reports before Parliament; there is no question of interfering with independence.I have taken the trouble to look at every non-departmental public body, and it will interest hon. Members to know that Ofsted, the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission, the immigration services commissioner, Ofcom, English Heritage, the Gaming Board for Great Britain and the Independent Police Complaints Commission all report directly to the Secretary of State. The Welsh commissioner reports to the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish commissioner to the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Irish commissioner to the First Minister. The only reports in the United Kingdom that go direct to Parliament are those of the National Audit Office and the Electoral Commission. There are sensible reasons for that. In the case of the NAO, we oversee the purse strings, so it is appropriate that it should report to us, and the business of the Electoral Commission is elections, which is the concern of parliamentarians, rather than of the Government.

All we are doing is following standard practice. I can give all the assurances that hon. Members require that we have no intention to censor anything in any way. I hope that some concerns will be allayed by new clause 30, which includes a provision requiring the Secretary of State to lay the commissioner's report before Parliament as soon as possible. Amendment No. 95 says ''practicable'' rather than ''possible''. That is lawyers' paradise, if I may say so to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. Apparently, ''possible'' means that one does everything that one can to make it a priority, but ''practicable'' is less pressing. It allows one to take other matters into account and to prioritise on the basis of what one can reasonably· do. That being the case, I hope that she would agree that ''possible'' rather than ''practicable'' seems to be the appropriate word to achieve the result that she seeks.

Amendment No. 9 is about removing the requirement on the commissioner to publish his annual report. We believe that publication is a different matter from laying the report. Again, I hope that hon. Members will agree that we want his annual report to be read and considered as widely as possible. The duty on him to publish it so that it will be read is partly how that will happen, so the duty will form part of the accountability framework for the commissioner that we have tried to establish through the clauses. I hope that, having heard that explanation, the hon. Gentleman will agree to withdraw the amendment.

On the issue of responding formally, it is clear that the Government will need to respond to anything that the commissioner says relates to the Government, but it is also quite possible that the commissioner's report will go beyond covering issues that are their direct responsibility. We would not want to limit the response to being one simply for the Government, so

although we will respond, it would be inappropriate to insist simply on a response from the Government. We will expect everyone to respond. In discussing earlier amendments, we talked about the commissioner's reports on particular issues. Again, we have strengthened that provision to ensure a response.

New clause 2 is similar to a new clause that was tabled in another place earlier this year. It would probably constrain rather than facilitate a regular review of the powers and responsibilities of the commissioner as laid out in the Bill. If the commissioner wants to review his function, he should be able to do so without any time constraint. He might want to do so two months into office, so why set a three-year period? It is an integral part of his work that the review of his functions should be part of what he considers, so the new clause is unnecessary and would constrain his ability to review his functions as and when appropriate.

The wider review, to which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred, could take place through the Select Committee. That might be an appropriate way by which parliamentarians could call evidence from all those with an interest in the way in which the commissioner works, and it would be the most appropriate way in which others could engage in the process. The commissioner, however, has utter authority to review any of his functions as and when appropriate and to report either as part of the annual report or in a separate report. We need to retain the commissioner's independence to work as he wishes and not to constrain him in any way. I suggest that new clause 2 is inappropriate.

I shall talk briefly about new clause 30, with which we want to replace clause 3. It is similar to the previous clause 3 annual reports in that it requires the commissioner to prepare an annual report, and outlines the type of information to be contained in the report and the processes involved in laying it before Parliament. I am sure that I do not have to mention the importance of such a clause, given the public interest in the commissioner's office. It differs from the previous one in that it requires the commissioner to report on the way in which he has discharged his function under the whole part, not just under clause 2. This is a necessary alteration because of the way in which we propose, in provisions that we are about to discuss for the devolved Administrations, that the commissioner has functions on non-devolved matters in other UK nations on which it would be important for him to report.

Subsection (1)(a) of new clause 30 excludes the need to report on the commissioner's inquiry functions, as they will be subject to separate reports, and a new subsection has been introduced that requires the commissioner to report on the steps that he has taken to involve children in the discharge of his function. Again, I am sure that all Members will be happy with that, because it stresses the fundamental importance of involving children.

Subsection (3), as before, requires the commissioner to send a copy of his annual report to the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of State is required to lay the

report before the House. As I said, we do not believe that presenting the report to Parliament via the Secretary of State will compromise the independence of the commissioner. The Secretary of State has no power to alter the annual report in any way.

Subsection (4) is similar to the original subsection (4), placing a duty on the commissioner to publish any report that is made under the new clause and laid before Parliament. Subsection (5) defines the term ''financial year'' in exactly the same way as before. I therefore hope that the changes proposed in new clause 30 will enhance the original clause.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 10:15, 14 Hydref 2004

I am grateful to the Minister, who has given a fair degree of assurance. She trooped out a great long list of interdepartmental standard practices, which is not to say that those involved are not all doing the wrong thing or that they should not all be more transparent and accountable to Parliament, rather than to the Executive. However, that is perhaps an argument for another day, and I reluctantly accept her point.

I was slightly heartened by the autonomy that the Minister ascribed to the commissioner, who may be able to initiate a review sooner. However, I am looking at a more fundamental review of the whole structure, which could even result in a recommendation that the children's commissioner was superfluous, although that is unlikely, and we hope that that would not happen. However, the process should be as fundamental as that, which is why it seemed reasonable that the period for consideration should be three months, rather than two.

I want to take up just one point in new clause 30. Subsection (5) states:

''The Children's Commissioner must also, to the extent that he considers appropriate, publish any report made under this section in a version which is suitable for children'', and I concur with that. Mencap and other charities have urged that the report should also be suitable for children with disabilities, so perhaps the Minister could give an assurance that reasonable steps will be taken to facilitate that, too. If she did, she would have our support.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am delighted that we have got an assurance out of the Government. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 disagreed to.