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Column 1137The deepest, most important and most delicate territory of all, which takes us back to the foundation experience, is the so-called "MP filter". The need for citizens to reach the ombudsman through the services of a Member of Parliament was built into the system at the outset to meet some early constitutional fears. In Committee, we robustly discussed those matters and a view was arrived at, but the debate will continue. Every organisation which gave its opinion on the matter said that it no longer made sense to enforce a route through Members of Parliament for citizens to reach the ombudsman. It is almost unique and it is no longer sustainable. Indeed, the ombudsman himself no longer believes it to be a sensible arrangement. In the House Magazine of 14 March, he said:
"I am amazed that more Members do not find a use for my services in helping their constituents who complain that they have suffered injustice through maladministration."
He feels the constraint of that limitation. He considers that the services that he offers are not universally available because there is dependence on Members of Parliament to access the system. The National Consumer Council spoke to the Committee. I will not quote its evidence, but it is emphatic. The council said that it simply filters out vast numbers of complaints. If one has to go through such hurdles, it is no wonder the take-up of the system, in international terms, is so restricted. The filter is built in. Mr. Lord rose --
Mr. Lord: As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is a long, complex debate. Does he agree that if the "MP filter" did not exist there would almost certainly be a significant change in the relationship between a Member of Parliament and his constituents in relation to problems and complaints?
Dr. Wright: Frankly, in no way would that interfere with my relationship with my constituents. It would simply enable me to point them in an additional direction if they wanted to approach me about it, but they would not require me to do that. We have the anomaly that in relation to the Health Service Commissioner there is direct access. It is absurd to have direct access in the health sector but a filter for other matters. That makes no sense at all.
Mr. Lord: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. I will leave him in peace after this intervention. He assumes that many constituents are not getting satisfaction through the existing system. What hard evidence does he have for that?
Dr. Wright: When we consider the size of our population it is striking how few cases come before the British ombudsman. That is why we can talk glowingly about the Rolls-Royce treatment that people receive from the ombudsman. That is the kind of system that we have established. But I am also interested in the Ford Cortinas and the Minis--I want the system to be accessible to everyone. It should not have to accessed through Members of Parliament.
Column 1138We conducted a survey among Members of Parliament some time ago which received a high rate of return. The wholly depressing finding was that some 45 per cent. of Members of Parliament seldom or never refer cases to the Ombudsman. That is a strikingly high figure. Some 100 Members of the House never use the services of that parliamentary institution, and thus deprive their constituents of a service that was set up for their benefit. It is time that the House looked again at the obstacle course that it put in place in 1967.
Mr. David Nicholson: I respect the hon. Gentleman's interest and experience in this area of public administration. I draw his attention to another filter. Because of the way in which the ombudsman's powers are circumscribed by the legislation to which the hon. Gentleman referred-- which is now 25 years old--the ombudsman is unable to investigate a number of matters which come near to being cases of maladministration. Therefore, constituents are dissatisfied or have to resort to the court process-- and the hon. Gentleman and I know what a hazardous and difficult process that is.
Dr. Wright: I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman's support. There is no doubt that we must find alternatives to the court system which will enable people to find justice. That is why mediation schemes are being developed in the area of civil justice. It is a growth area. People must be able to seek redress through mechanisms in the public and private sectors for a whole variety of grievances for which they are not able to seek redress through the formal mechanisms of the court system.
The challenge for the House is to examine whether our system is designed for the convenience of Members of Parliament or that of our constituents. I think that the system we have put in place is designed to protect Members of Parliament, and that was the verdict of our survey. On the whole, hon. Members said that they preferred the indirect route to the ombudsman. However, that finding sits alongside evidence about lack of usage by a considerable number of hon. Members, which also involves a denial of access to constituents. It means that the system is designed for the convenience of Members of Parliament and is not allowing citizens access to the ombudsman.
Mr. Lord: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He has used phrases such as "for the convenience of Members of Parliament" and "to protect Members of Parliament". I do not see what Members of Parliament have to lose in agreeing with him and allowing him to have his way. Members of Parliament are concerned that their constituents will lose--not that they themselves will lose power, protection or convenience.
Dr. Wright: That is a most interesting argument. I cannot conceive of any means whereby our constituents would lose by directly accessing the ombudsman; they could only gain. They could retain our services--the grievance chasing and righting of wrongs in which we engage every day--but they would have the additional
Column 1139opportunity to access another system. From the citizen's point of view-- if not from that of the Member of Parliament- - that is pure gain.
Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that our constituents look to their Members of Parliament as advocates and therefore feel better if their Members of Parliament are prepared to write to the ombudsman in support of their cases?
Dr. Wright: That would not change. Under a new system, Members of Parliament could discuss with constituents whether issues would properly be addressed to the ombudsman, as is already the case with the Health Service Commissioner. Although my constituents do not need to access the Health Service Commissioner through me, I find that they often do so. It is often after discussing the matter that we decide that it would be sensible to consult the Health Service Commissioner. I think that citizens will gain under a new system; I cannot conceive of any loss.
Mr. Nirj Joseph Deva (Brentford and Isleworth): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Is he not missing the most obvious point in the argument? The Member of Parliament filter is an asset to the ombudsman. After all, people do not elect the parliamentary ombudsman; they elect Members of Parliament and we are accountable to them.
Dr. Wright: Before this debate I did not understand why there was so much opposition to the original legislation. Now I am beginning to glimpse it. Hon. Members fear that a doctrine of responsibility is somehow being undermined. I think that the roles of Members of Parliament can only be enhanced under a new system. If we are looking for stronger accountability and responsibility and increased responsiveness by public services to need in the community, we can only gain under a system of direct access.
Several other issues are integral to our reform agenda. We know that the Parliamentary Commissioner is responsible for monitoring the system of open government. It is clear from his preliminary report that the system is not working well. The Commissioner talks about a series of obstacles, as in our previous discussion, through which citizens have to pass to access the open government provisions. There has been an appalling lack of publicity about the system, so it is not surprising that take-up has been low. The charging regime is inconsistent and is excessive in some cases. I am glad that the Select Committee intends to inquire into the operation of the open government code.
The Select Committee has done more than any other forum to reveal how appalling the present national health service complaints system is. It concluded:
"The current complaints system in the National Health Service seems designed for the convenience of providers of the service rather than of complainants."
I express regret that so far the Government have not responded to the Wilson Committee report. Everyone who heard the evidence given before the Committee and who is familiar with the report understands that we need urgent reform in that area. I wish that the Government had already advanced some proposals.
Column 1140from the Select Committee. We are taking the issue seriously, and we have been looking carefully at it. It will not be long before my Department comes forward with our response to the Wilson committee.
We have an institution here with a most distinguished record. We have, if I may say so, a holder of the post now who, on any reckoning, is the most distinguished there has ever been. His industry and application are outstanding, and I hope that that will be understood and recognised.
In conclusion--I say that because my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) is looking at me anxiously--the time has come for the success story to be built on. Now is the time to move forward. That was summed up in one sentence from Justice, the organisation responsible for moving the Government on the original system, which said to the Select Committee that the full potential of the ombudsman had "yet to be realised".
Our view is that new legislation is required, but it is wrong for the Government to suggest that it can be done casually and, they hope, by the private Members' route. As in 1966-1967, it requires a great reforming Administration and a Leader of the House with vigour and imagination--the era of citizens charters deserves no less. 8.21 pm
Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright). Although we have different opinions--as became clear during his speech--I have noticed how hard he works, and how keen and involved he is with all that the ombudsman is trying to do. It was interesting to hear what the hon. Gentleman had to say this evening.
I welcome the debate and, like the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood, I think that it is long overdue. I shall not repeat the points made by the hon. Gentleman, but clearly the role of the ombudsman is moving increasingly towards the centre stage. I am delighted to take part in the debate. I should like to start by saying how much I support the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration or ombudsman--a much better title--and all the valuable work done by him and his staff.
I understand that the ombudsman has the power of a High Court judge and, like the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood, I think that we are fortunate in having our present ombudsman. Mr. Reid and his staff bring to the task a degree of precision and a clarity of expression, both verbal and written, which make the task of the Committee so much easier. I should also like briefly to mention Mr. Reid's counterpart in Northern Ireland, Mrs. McIvor, and to congratulate her on the excellent work that she does there.
Real efforts are now being made on all sides to improve the delivery of services in every area of national life. I welcome that, and also the vital role that the ombudsman is playing in the process.
I shall say a brief word about the Member of Parliament filter, which has been talked about this evening. It is an enormous subject. I am very much in favour of retaining the filter. Arguments can be made for people to have free
Column 1141access to the ombudsman, but that would bring with it all sorts of problems. It is an easy concept to put over, but the consequences flowing from it would perhaps call for a certain amount of caution. I believe that the filter system works well. If all 651 hon. Members look after their constituencies in the way that they should and if they are diligent--I am sure that most hon. Members are--the existing system, although perhaps not perfect, might be as good a system as one can have in a democracy. I am not denying the role of the ombudsman, nor that that role should be expanded.
The role of the ombudsman has been described as a "bolt in the armoury" for an hon. Member. It is rather more than that now. It is an office with which we should arm ourselves and use when necessary. But I am concerned about the effect of constituents being able to go directly to the ombudsman.
Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West): Will the hon. Gentleman consider that some constituents in a Labour constituency may prefer not to go to a Labour Member of Parliament--for whatever reason--and that the same might apply in a Conservative constituency? The constituent might then approach a neighbouring Member of Parliament, for whatever reason. That may be already acting as a filter. We would all prefer our constituents to come to us regardless of party, but a filter is starting to be built in, with hon. Members from other constituencies putting cases forward. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the case for a filter at least needs a rather more open mind?
Mr. Lord: I do not know how many cases the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) has come across where that situation has applied. Putting to one side the ombudsman's role, that situation might arise quite often when people have problems, but it is not one that I have come across as a Conservative Member. I am not aware that people who vote Labour do not come to me with their problems. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has found that Conservatives do not take their troubles to him. If he has evidence to support that-- Mr. Battle indicated assent .
It is essential that we use the ombudsman properly, as has been described already. The Member of Parliament filter, in my view, may be the best way to go for the time being. We shall return to that argument in the not-too- distant future.
The proliferation of ombudsmen--the subject has been touched on--is something that I am worried about. Our ombudsman was originally a unique institution. It is no longer unique. The growth in the number of ombudsmen of one sort or another is damaging that uniqueness and, as a result, is damaging the ombudsman's effectiveness as well.
Column 1142I received a note--which was supposed to be helpful--from the National Consumer Council, which was aware of the debate this evening. It referred to ombudsmen here and there, and in one paragraph it said that the
"NCC believes that consumers should have direct access to the Parliamentary ombudsman, so bringing this scheme into line with other ombudsman schemes."
The point made earlier was that there has been a massive proliferation of ombudsmen. If the House will forgive the pun, I am coming to the conclusion that if ombudsmen are becoming ten a penny, the coinage will almost certainly be seriously debased.
At the very least, we must ensure that people who call themselves ombudsmen are genuinely independent. They cannot be attached or linked to the organisation that they are seeking to scrutinise, as that would be a total denial of the whole principle. I am anxious about that proliferation, and I must say to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench that the whole Committee-- myself certainly, and I suspect the other Committee members--was rather disappointed by the Government's attitude to the problem. The Committee felt that ombudsmen should not be allowed to proliferate in the way that they are, but the Government seem to be rather too laid back about it for my liking.
I shall say a few words about the Health Service Commissioner. I feel, as an hon. Member who served on the Select Committee, that we were uniquely placed to see the cross-section of complaints and problems that came before us. I should like to mention some of the lessons that I learnt from being a member of the Committee. I should like to preface my remarks about the national health service by acknowledging the great amount of good work that it does. Our Chairman mentioned that the NHS deals with 8 million cases a year. We are guilty of carping if we dwell too long on the complaints about the NHS, but our Committee exists to study such complaints and to lift the blanket to see what is going on underneath. The debate is about complaints.
I agree with other hon. Members that the biggest cause of the problems in the NHS is a lack of proper communications. There is a crying need for a clear line of responsibility from the top to the bottom. Everyone in that chain should be able to communicate with one another, from the chairman right down to the patient. That, sadly, does not always happen for a variety of reasons and the Committee sees what happens when things go wrong.
I know that today is not the time to dwell on specific cases, but this week our Committee considered a case in which it had taken a complainant four and a half years to get satisfaction. When we questioned the witnesses, we were far from convinced that they had learned their lessons from that complaint. I was certainly not convinced that, should another complaint be made to that organisation, it would not take another four and a half years to sort it out. I hope that our questioning of those witnesses, under our excellent chairmanship, was sufficiently precise to leave them in no doubt about our concern not just about the complaint but about their reaction to it.
Column 1143One of the problems in the NHS is the growing use of jargon. Professionals in the health service are developing their own language; they and their colleagues know what they are talking about, but to outsiders it sometimes sounds like mumbo-jumbo. In Committee, we frequently have to interrupt witnesses in the middle of their answers to ask what a set of initials or a job title means. Job titles are a problem in themselves. The professionals may understand them, but it difficult for the ordinary mortal to know what is going on. We now have nurse directors, nurse managers and line managers. After one Committee sitting, when I had asked someone about jargon, I was accompanied in the lift down to the Lobby by the policeman who sat at the back of the Room. That officer told me how much he had enjoyed hearing our questions about jargon. He said to me, "Do you know, I've got a line manager now. I used to call him my sergeant." That sums it up. Imagine dashing into a police station and saying, "Please may I see your line manager?" That is the ridiculous state that we have reached.
The health service puts increasing reliance on structures and systems; they are obviously important, but they are no substitute for individual responsibility. There is little point in sounding efficient if one acts inefficiently.
I should like to make a special plea on behalf of matrons, which will come as no surprise to some of my colleagues on the Committee. In 1989, I tabled an early-day motion calling for the return of matrons, which attracted 129 signatures. In the same year, I also tabled an oral question asking that matrons be brought back, which was answered by the then Minister of State, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor). His reply was rather facile:
"I recall that that paragon was usually played by Peggy Mount in the films. However, there is nothing to prevent a hospital that is seduced by my hon. Friend's arguments from calling its senior nurse manager a matron, as some hospitals do."
I was not impressed by that response and nor, I am glad to say, was my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight), who said in a supplementary question:
"I suggest to my hon. and learned Friend that it does not matter a row of beans who played the part of the matron in a film. Many people think that almost the biggest mistake ever made in the National Health Service was to get rid of the matron."--[ Official Report , 21 February 1989; Vol.164, c. 822.]
In 1990, following the snatch of a baby from one of our London hospitals, the Evening Standard carried an article stating: "Once the title of Matron spelt discipline and respect in hospital life. Now it has been replaced by a management number, and it is the patients who suffer".
My heart lifted when, in 1991, the Nursing Times reported: "Guy's Hospital in London has reinstated the title of Matron. A groundswell of public opinion has brought back the matron. More formally described as director of nursing at Guy's Hospital, London. According to Lewisham and North Southwark Community Health Council, the health watchdog which covers Guy's, the return of matron is one of the most frequent demands from local patients complaining about services.
Assistant secretary Mick Rolfe says the fastest growing area of complaint to the CHC is about attitudes of nursing staff. Those complaining see the demise of the matron figure as one of the root causes of their concern."
Column 1144I have gone on at some length about matrons, with the tolerance of the House, and I hope that if the Minister is listening carefully, he will take on board my remarks. I am beginning to think that perhaps we shall have to go backwards for progress. I know that that is a contradiction, but the House knows what I mean. I hope that the Minister will consider not just acquiescing but recommending to hospitals that they seriously consider reinstating the matron wherever possible.
The Chairman of our Committee repeated what one of our witnesses said about complaints being jewels to be treasured. We all know what that means, because complaints should not necessarily be horrifying to us. Do hon. Members believe, however, that patients will complain about the service that they receive at the time when they are undergoing treatment? I have serious doubts about that for all the obvious reasons. They may complain afterwards, but then, of course, it is too late.
To complain about something when one is under treatment is different from complaining about anything else. One can take back a shirt to Marks and Spencer and exchange it for another one, or two, or get one's money back. If one has a complaint about the Inland Revenue, it is possible that financial restitution will be made later on. The health service is different and we must come to terms with that dilemma. What is needed is a cultural change within our hospitals.
In a recent case before our Committee, we were told how a relative of a patient sat outside the ward for a number of hours while people walked to and fro, around her; generally ignoring her. That person seemed to be no one's responsibility. That would not happen in a bank, building society or retail shop. Someone would come up and say, "What do you want? Can I help you?" We need that culture in the health service. I know that it is difficult to create that. There are, for example, all sorts of historical reasons for the
patient-doctor-nurse relationship. We need to foster that culture, because patients will not complain while they are receiving treatment.
It is particularly difficult to gain redress in the health service because clinicians and medical practitioners of one kind and another sometimes find it extremely difficult to admit fault and to apologise--to do what the Committee would like them to do--because they are anxious that that admission might impact on future litigation or legal problems.
We must resolve that, otherwise it will damage the whole system. We may have to consider the possibility of no-fault compensation, which exists in other countries.
On complaints, we do not want simply to build a huge complaints industry, otherwise the service will not improve because the person delivering it will be aware that the recipient can complain if he does not like it. Ultimately, we need the service to improve and complaints to reduce.
The task of the ombudsman and our Select Committee is to make all those involved in delivering the service conscious of their impact on people's lives. As our Chairman has already pointed out, justice delayed is justice denied, and the Committee is aware of that fact. A week or month's delay in receiving a form or letter may not mean a great deal to officers dealing with a matter but it means an awful lot to a person with a problem who goes to the letter box every morning waiting for that letter or form to arrive.
Column 1145I am privileged to belong to the Committee and thoroughly enjoy its work. I have said how well I think of Mr. Reid and all his staff, and I look forward to him and his organisation playing a greater part in those matters as time goes by.
Mr. Mike Watson (Glasgow, Central): I, too, welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate and to discuss the role and activity of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the Health Service Commissioner--or "ombudsmen", as the Committee secured the right for them to be called. I am all for demystifying Government jargon in whatever form it appears, and that is an important step forward.
As the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) said, it has taken 11 months--since the publication of the report on the powers and jurisdiction of the ombudsman--for time to be found to debate this report in the House. That may be apposite, as it simply happens to be midway between the average amount of time taken to deal with complaints by the health service ombudsman and the parliamentary ombudsman. The Committee has urged the ombudsmen to achieve an average of nine months, and they are working towards that. I should be happy to settle for a 12-month gap between debates in the House on issues relating to the ombudsmen, provided that we had such a debate annually.
In their response to the report, the Government rejected that suggestion, saying that they could not find time to debate the matter on a regular basis. That is regrettable because the issues that come before the ombudsmen need to be openly debated regularly as they are increasing not just in number but in importance. The number has increased consistently in the past three and a half years since the House last had an opportunity to consider the ombudsmen's reports.
Mr. Deva: Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the Government have acknowledged the importance of the reports and provided time for them to be debated and that, because they have written an important report, we are now debating them?
Mr. Watson: Yes, I accept that, although I suspect that we are having this debate simply because of the special report that has been produced. It is three and a half years since the last debate and we should debate the ombudsmen's work and the Select Committee's scrutiny of their work annually, not just when a report is produced. I do not wish to cite a list of figures, but the number of cases being referred to the parliamentary ombudsman or directly to the health service ombudsman has increased in recent years. The most revealing figure is that, in the part of the current year for which figures are so far available, the parliamentary ombudsman's cases have increased by 31 per cent. and the health service ombudsman's cases by 34 per cent. Those figures are not just increasing but are increasing apace, which emphasises the need for more time to be given to debating the work involved in the House.
One reason for the increase in complaints is the current climate of complaint, which may not have existed five years ago. I fully recognise that that is largely due to the
Column 1146fact that the Government have introduced citizens charters during that period. Furthermore, the White Paper on open government published in 1993 led to the introduction of a code of practice on access to official information, which has also opened up many other avenues for individuals to highlight issues or events that concern them. That underlines the fact that we need more time to deal with those issues.
Interestingly, just last month the ombudsman published the first of his reports relating to open government--an area that will be of increasing concern to both him and the Select Committee.
The parliamentary ombudsman's reports reveal many of the concerns of ordinary men and women and their ability to articulate those concerns. They also reveal the effectiveness of the ombudsman's work in securing redress and of administrative reform in areas where it is shown to be lacking. Anyone who cares to read the reports will see that numerous examples are given. I particularly welcome the ombudsman's willingness to produce those special reports, which are a relatively recent innovation. For example, the parliamentary ombudsman's fourth report in the 1992-93 Session on compensation to farmers for slaughtered poultry, which was mentioned earlier in the debate, catalogues a succession of errors by the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The report not only succeeded in securing the redress that otherwise would not have been open to farmers but acted as a shot across the bows to other Departments to show them that they could not act with the impunity with which they believed they could act in the past. The general public now have greater expectations, and the Select Committee has greater expectations that those matters will be brought into the public domain.
A second example of that type appeared in the form of the parliamentary ombudsman's sixth report in the same year, which related to delays in handling disability living allowance cases. That was an amazing case, as it followed the most appalling bureaucratic bungles, and the system virtually ground to a halt. Many hon. Members simply swamped the ombudsman with complaints on behalf of constituents, many of whom were in a distraught state and some of whom were in desperate financial straits through no fault of their own. Eventually, the ombudsman ensured that those who were hardest hit received redress. Sadly,
Column 1147however, the lessons that should have been learned by the Department of Social Security--the Minister's incompetence reached breathtaking levels--have not been learned if what we now hear in relation to the Child Support Agency, details of which are just beginning to emerge, are to be believed.
I note that the ombudsman is to report to the Committee in January on the Child Support Agency. He has recently had to refuse to accept complaints by some hon. Members on behalf of their constituents simply because, if he accepted more, they would slow down his current investigations. Cases not investigated in that way will benefit from any decision at which he arrives, but that fact highlights the extent of the problem and the fact that lessons are not necessarily learnt even if they are particularly forcefully drawn to Departments' attention.
Those special reports, therefore, have a special function which I hope the ombudsman will use more in future if the need arises. I believe that the effectiveness of the ombudsman in his role is strengthened--as he has said- -by the role that the Select Committee plays in helping to highlight some of the cases that come to the ombudsman, and which he places in his reports. Cabinet Ministers and departmental Permanent Secretaries appear before us, and we subject them to rigorous questioning. That further serves to ensure that those Government Departments are fully aware that maladministration will not be tolerated, and that we remain willing to highlight maladministration wherever and whenever it appears.
As a result of the report to which I referred earlier, Departments in which maladministration has been shown to have occurred, and which has been highlighted to them, must now publish a report to the ombudsman describing how the maladministration has been rectified to ensure that there is no repetition.
The role and the importance of the Select Committee, linked with the role of the ombudsman, should not be underestimated. It has grown considerably in weight and stature in recent years. In the period during which I have been involved, the Committee's operations have become more effective and more public than was hitherto the case--although I claim no personal credit for that.
The Committee spent all last year taking evidence for the report from a wide range of organisations and individuals. Many Members of Parliament contributed to the survey, to which the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth referred earlier. We made 36 recommendations, some of which the Government have accepted. I especially regret the fact that they have not accepted two of the recommendations. One of those recommendations concerns the right of the ombudsman to initiate investigations after the Committee has raised a matter formally with him. That does not mean that the ombudsman does not retain his right to decline to follow up certain investigations, but I believe that the Government have been unduly cautious by rejecting that proposal, simply stating in their response:
"Citizens will normally complain where alleged maladmin-istration occurs."
That may be so, but there may well be reasons, as we heard in the exchange between hon. Members earlier, why individuals choose not to bring complaints. For instance, they may not be aware of their right to complain. It is
Column 1148important that that door is left open. I hope that the Committee will return to that recommendation some time, because I do not believe that the Government's case is strong, and if we pushed again on that subject we could easily assemble a case that would convince the Government that the powers of the Committee--indeed, the powers of the ombudsman--should be increased in terms of such initiation. Secondly, as a Scot, I find it not simply an anomaly but unacceptable that administrative acts of court staff in Scotland lie outside the ombudsman's role. I know that that exclusion arises from the different constitutional position in Scotland, where court staff are not appointed by the Lord Chancellor, who is a Minister, but by the Lord President of the Court of Session. None the less, as a Scot and on behalf of my constituents and those of other hon. Members from north of the border, I find it unacceptable for Scots to be denied a right granted to their fellow citizens in England and Wales. No doubt the Committee will return to that issue, because it is one about which we felt strongly, and argued vigorously in our report. I shall also pursue that through other means, directly with Ministers, but it is a clear anomaly that must be tackled.
I have been a member of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration for five years, which I have found rewarding and stimulating. I have gained much from it and I hope that I have made a contribution to the Committee. Those remarks preface my decision to tender my resignation from the Committee, which I shall do in the next few days to the Chairman. That is not for any reason other than that I have been appointed to another Committee of the House and shall shortly take up those duties, and find it impossible to combine the two. I believe that the experience that I have gained in the Committee has been valuable and will stand me in good stead on the Committee to which I am moving.
I pay tribute to my fellow members of the Committee, regardless of party divisions. It has been a good Committee with which to be involved. We have undertaken serious work in a sometimes lighthearted, but never anything other than effective, manner, and I have especially appreciated the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth, who has made meetings enjoyable but has been forceful when putting witnesses under the spotlight.
In passing, I pay tribute to the commissioner, Mr. William Reid, whom I am pleased to see in the Strangers Gallery, and Mr. John Avery and Mr. Richard Oswald, his assistants. I have always found their contributions essential to the efficient working of the Committee and I have already paid tribute to the work that the commissioner and his staff do. There are several staff, and I am glad to note that, with almost a doubling of the resources of the commissioner's office, the number will grow in the near future. The role that they play should not be underestimated.
It would be remiss of me, in leaving the Committee, not to pay tribute to the Clerk to the Committee. It was Mr. Colin Lee in my earlier years on the Committee; it is now Mr. Yusef Azad. No Select Committee can work without an efficient Clerk, and I am sure that there is no more efficient Clerk in the House than Mr. Azad.
Column 1149I wish the Committee and the hon. Members who continue to serve on it well. They have an important task ahead of them. Part of that is to convince the Government that due weight must be given to the Committee, its members and the job that they do. Part of that, to repeat an earlier remark, is to ensure regular debates in the House on the working of the Committee, and I very much hope that that will become a feature in the not too distant future.
Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green): I begin by associating myself with remarks made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Watson), especially with his comments about the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the excellent work that he does, and about the marvellous work done by our Clerk of the Committee, under the excellent chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey).
I shall miss the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central in our deliberations. In the comparatively shorter time in which I have been a member of the Select Committee, I have been enormously impressed by the way in which the Committee tackles many extremely complex and often detailed issues that the commissioner brings before it, and by the way in which the commissioner and his team examine and dissect extremely complicated cases, often with great precision, so that the individual can be assured that someone is standing up for him against the system.
I shall dwell on that aspect briefly, because frequently, in our deliberations in the House, we talk about the way in which the Government or the Executive work. I would like to associate myself with remarks made by one or two of the earlier speakers, who said that one of the real values of the work done by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration is that he can tilt against windmills on behalf of the individual. It is a question of the individual against the system, particularly where the system can be proved to have gone wrong or to have treated the individual wrongly. In that respect, I want to discuss the role of the ombudsman and my belief that the House should use his services more often and debate his reports with rather more seriousness and regularity.
When the Committee, as we have already heard, was first thought of and introduced in the House, it was with the idea that it would, in many ways, mirror the work done by the Public Accounts Committee on the Comptroller and Auditor General. Looking back, I would have supported that strongly because if the House regularly discusses the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the deliberations of the Public Accounts Committee, whose primary duty is to ensure that money is correctly spent by the Executive, surely it is the duty of the House to treat with equal seriousness the work of the ombudsman and the Select Committee, who examine how the money is spent on the services that we offer.
The quality of the service that we offer is surely, to the citizens who elect us, just as important as the way in which we spend the money to pay for those services and for that Administration. I ask the Government, particularly the Leader of the House, to look again at the issue so that