|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 1150the whole subject can be more regularly debated, if not for a whole day, perhaps half a day, as and when reports are presented to the House.
When the Government are concerned about the quality of services, whether through the citizens charter or the individual charters--for the health service or for anything else--it would send the wrong signal if we did not look seriously at the work of the ombudsman and his recommendations where services are proven to have fallen down. To be concerned only about the money that goes to pay for them would be remiss. I am sure that we would do our electors and the reputation of the House some good if we looked rather more carefully at that subject.
Like others in the debate, I strongly believe that the role and task of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration is most valuable precisely because, in a non-political fashion, the PCA brings to the attention of the Executive, by whatever possible political persuasion, complaints and examples of maladministration in services. Those examples can and do serve to improve the quality of those services and the Administration, provided that the PCA's reports are read and acted upon.
If the House debated the reports more regularly, it is more likely that they would be acted upon, because Ministers would be present to respond to them. I happen to believe that Ministers and politicians generally are too ready to take upon themselves the task of apportioning the defence of the indefensible. When things go wrong in an Administration or in Government service, a Minister will frequently be held by others to be immediately responsible or he or she will be encouraged to be extremely defensive on behalf of the Administration which he happens to represent.
Where complaints are made and upheld by the ombudsman, there is a good argument for a Minister or member of the Executive of whatever political persuasion to be able to say, "Yes, we see that there has been an error. We are glad to find that the error has been rectified but, in particular, these are the measures that we are now able to set before the House to show that we have listened and acted carefully on the ombudsman's advice."
I also believe that the ombudsman's work greatly enhances the consistency between Departments of treatment of complainants and redress where the system and the service concerned has fallen down. We surely should be concerned that, in whatever area of Government administration, our electorate is treated equitably and fairly as between one Department and another.
I therefore join the people who argue for the ombudsman's role and position to be extended to every sector of public administration. Furthermore, his role should be extended to Government-funded agencies and, dare I suggest, sometimes to the quangos through which Government money passes. It is within the brief of the Comptroller and Auditor General to examine how money is spent, so it is surely right that the role and remit of the ombudsman should include ensuring that quangos and agencies perform their task in a satisfactory fashion and that, if a complaint over maladministration arises, proper redress is given and citizens feel that someone can take up their case effectively and, where appropriate, obtain redress for them. I hope, therefore, that the Government will consider again the role and remit of the ombudsman and that time will be made available in Parliament to debate his work.
Column 11519.5 pm
Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West): I hope that hon. Members who want to take part in the debate, especially those who are or who have been members of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, will be able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should like to welcome tonight's debates. We need to debate the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the Health Service Commissioners periodically on the Floor of the House and in the context of the Select Committee's work, which was admirably described by the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey), who chairs that Committee.
We need to raise the profile of the parliamentary commissioner--dare I emphasise the word parliamentary--to reaffirm that he is directly responsibility to Parliament and has a particular relationship with Members of Parliament as part of the accountability of our democracy. Let us have an annual debate and not leave it to others to initiate, as has been suggested, a discussion of the ombudsman in a private Member's Bill debate or Adjournment debate, when hon. Members usually raise individual cases.
It is perhaps appropriate that this debate follows immediately on the one on the workings of the Child Support Agency. More specifically, the debate is overdue. Last year, the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration conducted its most far-reaching inquiry into the work, powers and jurisdiction of the ombudsman since the establishment of the post in 1967. The inquiry's report was published last January with 36 recommendations, six to the commissioner and 30 to the Government. The Government reply to the recommendations was published in a report 5 July. Today, we have had the follow-up letter from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster dealing--helpfully I would say--with a few of the outstanding recommendations.
In the same period since 1991, the Government have published a White Paper on open government with a code of guidance to access to information. In July 1991, the White Paper on the citizens charter was published. Since then, some 40 charters have been published. It is tempting to add that we shall soon need a charters charter to find our way around them. Nor should the citizens charter be regarded as a substitute or replacement for the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. Rather, as he himself insisted in his recent annual reports, the charters
"should let people know how they can appeal to the Ombudsman via their Member of Parliament if they feel the administration has let them down, treated them unfairly, inefficiently or"--
I note in his most recent report--
"discourteously, with rudeness, with an unwillingness to treat the complainant as a person with rights and with a refusal to answer reasonable questions."
Column 1152The emphasis on rudeness, courtesy and decent answering of questions suggests that sometimes our exchanges at Question Time could merit a referral to the ombudsman.
Each month, new bodies are added to the parliamentary commissioner's jurisdiction--most recently the urban development corporations, the director of passenger freight rail franchising, the rail regulator and, more topically, the Office of the National Lottery.
I hope that the Minister will reply to this particular point. Rather than change the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 to add every new body, would it not be better to draft the scope of the parliament commissioner's jurisdiction so that everything is included, unless it is explicitly and specifically excluded from his purview?
I hope that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will consider that point, because, in the table of respondents to the Select Committee questionnaire to hon. Members, it is obvious that between hon. Members elected in 1983 and those elected after 1983 there has been a decline in understanding the range of the commissioner's jurisdiction. In other words, hon. Members are less clear which bodies fall within his aegis. That should be spelled out in more detail. It would be helpful if the Minister could give a positive reply. Let us assume that everything is in and that only that which is specified is excluded. As the parliamentary commissioner mentions in his annual report, sometimes it is not even clear to the commissioner himself whether a new body is included. That needs to be clarified.
The new agencies are generating a huge increase in the parliamentary commissioner's workload. It was up by 25 to 30 per cent. this year. The Child Support Agency has led to an enormous number of complaints, and, as other hon. Members have said, in the future it will be subject to a special report. Social security is still a major subject of inquiries and in the past 10 years the Government have replaced the non-contributory invalidity pensions with the severe disablement allowance, the mobility allowance and attendance allowance with the disabled living allowance, supplementary benefit with income support, family income support with family credit and special needs allowances with direct payments from the social fund. That overhaul of the social security system has inevitably led to confusion, muddle and maladministration. The Department of Social Security continues to account for the most significant part of the commissioner's work load. It accounted for 46 per cent.--nearly half the work load--in 1993. In one of his special reports published this year on the delays in handling disability allowance claims, the Department of Social Security's glaring shortcomings when introducing the new disability living allowance were revealed. On page 2 of his annual report the parliamentary commissioner said:
"The result was that, despite the Department's best intentions, thousands of disabled claimants found themselves for many months deprived of benefit."
The Department eventually had to pay nearly £500,000 in compensation to some 30,000 claimants as a result of that special report.
Column 1153On page 3 of his annual report, published in March this year, the commissioner writes:
"It is a source of great concern that my investigations reveal one Department repeating unnecessarily another Department's errors. I therefore suggest to the Select Committee that the Office of Public Service and Science could and should be doing more to disseminate among Government Departments the practical lessons distilled from my reports."
In other words, there needs to be some interdepartmental co-operation and some sharing of the information in the reports. Dare I say, there needs to be some joined-up thinking between Departments to ensure that they do not unnecessarily repeat errors and that they improve systems so as to identify problems clearly, and to recognise that, when an individual case is analysed, it can sometimes reveal what we might call a structural fault throughout the whole system, which needs to be tackled.
As more and more people become aware of the existence and the role of the commissioner, I predict that his workload will continue to increase rapidly. From 1989 to 1993 there was an increase of 46 per cent. in complaints referred. The number of complaints accepted has risen by 17 per cent. and the final reports issued increased by 12 per cent. I believe that our constituents should know who the ombudsman is. It is to be regretted that the term of ombudsman has been unhelpfully extended elsewhere, including into the Department of Environment and the Home Office. Avoiding confusion about the role, powers and jurisdiction of the ombudsman should be a primary objective. It is an objective that I know that the Select Committee has set itself, and it should be supported in the House.
I know that the parliamentary commissioner, Mr. Reid, believes that the public ought to be able to go direct to him--the subject of the debate across the Floor of the House tonight--without going through the Member of Parliament filter. Currently, a member of the public approaches the commissioner through a Member of the House of Commons. I know that the Select Committee also rejected that approach and I shall comment briefly on the relationship between Members of Parliament, their constituencies and the parliamentary commissioner. One of the most valuable elements in our system of parliamentary democracy, flawed though it may be, is that direct
constituency-member link between Members of Parliament and the specific geographical areas that they represent. Members of Parliament cannot be only names on lists, carried on the shoulders of others, nor can they be merely talking heads on television and radio or photographs in the paper; at once removed from direct contact with our constituents. That is why we hold advice surgeries, that is why we take on cases individually and have, in some instances, large case loads. I am currently in contact with about 2,500 people. In this age of politics--dare I say--as media spectacle, whether in the theatre of this Chamber, or in the stunts and set pieces outside, it is vital to our democracy that our constituents can buttonhole us; take us aside by the elbow and talk to us directly.
If the work of Members of Parliament can be roughly defined and described as making laws and budgets, that direct access to constituents is important as it often means that our constituents find out quicker than we do the detailed impact of our legislative decisions. They realise
Column 1154before we do, sitting here, the impact of our decisions. In a sense, those who pay the price can usually do the arithmetic. Evidence and information in the questionnaire given to the Select Committee showed that referrals via Members of Parliament were increasingly complainant-led. So, in a sense, Members of Parliament were not acting as a filter, they were passing more and more complaints straight on. People present their Member of Parliament with, as it were, a window on the workings of a particular Department and the commissioner provides the means for a parliamentary check on the systems and the structures without recourse to expensive, private litigation.
In the absence of a written constitution, electors in our parliamentary democracy have two basic rights. One of them, I gather, is to be able to go right into Central Lobby to try to lobby their parliamentary representative. The other is to sign a properly presented and properly addressed petition which can come before the House. Therefore, the "MP filter" is another key means of ensuring that, as legislators, our feet are firmly on the ground. It is of value to Members of Parliament to know what our constituents think of the impact of our decisions.
The powers of the commissioner are, of course, subject to the scrutiny of the Select Committee and accountable, through that Committee, directly to this Parliament. The arrangement depends basically on there being a good relationship between the commissioner and the Select Committee. When there is a good relationship, as I understand there is currently, it can mean, as at present, that the commissioner can and does take the initiative from the
recommendations of the Committee. It can be a rather more fluid two-way process than has sometimes been suggested in discussing the "MP filter". The role of the Committee is to strengthen the accountability of the administrative bureaucracy within our parliamentary system through the role of the commissioner. We need clarification of the whole sector of--what is the new term?--contractual and commercial matters. A change is beginning in the interface between the public and the private as services are contracted out. In practice, that means that the role of the commissioner is becoming less distinct. When the commissioner cannot touch matters relating to contractual and commercial relationships, they may well be referred to the courts; but we need to consider the way in which a whole sphere of Government policy is regularly changing that interface between public and private.
Urban development corporations provide an example. When can the commissioner intervene in regard to decisions that are seen to concern land that is purchased, or otherwise, and members of the public may wish to re- examine the work that has been done? The increasing blurring of the boundary between public and private is likely to generate future complaints, and more work for the commissioner. We need to be clearer about what is within his reach and what is outside it.
Members of Parliament are, in a sense, ombudsmen in their own right. I sometimes think that we are now the last resort for many of our constituents: people bring us problems connected with housing, social security, tax and legal matters such as disputes with neighbours. They approach us not as lobbyists, but because they feel that they cannot "get through" in any other way. They need someone to listen patiently and openly, to take them seriously and to represent them genuinely.
Column 1155In that sense, we Members of Parliament are already mini-ombudsmen; in that sense we are genuine filters. Those who suggest that our job is done only in this place neglect half the work that we are elected to do. Obviously, the work that we do so patiently in our constituencies is not glamorous and does not attract media attention; nor should it, in my view. But our letters and advice surgeries are the bread and butter of our work as public representatives, and the role of the parliamentary commissioner can reinforce it.
Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North): Surely one of the great advantages of insisting that Members of Parliament are approached first is that they can take up an issue as a Minister's case. That ensures that the matter is dealt with at a higher level in the Department concerned. If that filter were not available, far more constituents would go directly to the ombudsman and cases that are currently resolved might not be.
Mr. Battle: I entirely agree. I think we should consider not just whether a person can send a letter directly, but the two-way process that also benefits Members of Parliament, through our inside access to the Administration.
The Government have responded to reports from the Select Committee with, for instance, today's letter about the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. Regrettably, the same cannot be said in regard to the work of the health service ombudsman, although the Minister has suggested that the Department will reply before long. The Government's response is overdue: we need replies to the Select Committee's original recommendations. The review carried out by Professor Alan Wilson of Leeds university published its findings in May, and was followed in July by the Select Committee's fifth report. We are now in December. I wish to draw particular attention to the Committee's recommendation that states:
"We consider it preferable for the two Offices of Parliamentary Ombudsman and Health Service Ombudsman to continue to be held by the same person".
In its reply, the Department stated:
"The Government agrees that there should be no change for the present. This subject may need to be revisited at a later date when the extent of the work arising from the Open Government White Paper and the report by Professor Wilson on the Review of the NHS Complaints Procedure is known."
Will the Minister state clearly that there will be a reply and, what is more, that we can debate it on the Floor of the House? That is necessary because there has been a significant increase in the number of complaints received by the commissioner.
Between 1989 and 1993, there was an increase of 74 per cent. in the number of people turning to the health commissioner. In 1992, 1,227 complaints were received and last year 1,384 were received, an increase of 13 per cent. The number of new investigations begun last year was up 24 per cent. on the year before.
Again, the changing interface between public and private is key to the changing landscape. As a result, the clinical administrative, definitional split is shifting. We are now under new regimes of NHS trusts and GP fundholders in which, speaking metaphorically, the knife could be wielded by an accountant as much as by a surgeon. The ground is shifting and we need to respond urgently to that shift in the context of the work, role and jurisdiction of the commissioner.
Column 1156Similarly, if the health ombudsman is to be, as Select Committee recommendation 127 proposes
"the apex of any unified NHS complaints system that may be introduced",
the role of health staff raising complaints with the health ombudsman on behalf of patients, which they can do, should be protected. They should not be pushed into the background as a form of unprofessional practice or worse, as happened recently, when staff in fear were reduced to appearing as silhouettes on television because they were too scared to be identified when speaking openly. That directly contradicts the Government's positive response to recommendations 23, 31 and 32 of the Select Committee's report. The health commissioner's report should not only deal with individual grievances but be part of a setting of standards and supervision within the NHS. The alternative would be litigation which I believe that most, if not all, of us would deeply regret. The role of the health commissioner is to provide a safety valve. We urgently need a positive response to the Select Committee's proposals on the health commissioner and I hope that the Minister will take that on board.
There were some recommendations that the Government said would be implemented
"as soon as the legislative opportunity arises".
In the light of the Government's legislative programme, I hope that the coming months will provide that opportunity, which should be grasped quickly--let us get on with it and get it out of the way. It is gratifying to read in the response to the Select Committee's questionnaire that a consistently high level of hon. Members--75 per cent.--are either "very" or "quite" satisfied with the result of investigations. That is a compliment to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, Mr. Reid, and his staff, to standards in public life and, in particular, to the particular nature of our parliamentary democracy.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration is an important, although relatively new, institution and we should continue to seek ways to enhance the commissioner's role, regarding it as a means to strengthen not only democratic accountability but the political institutions of our particular style of constituency-based democracy. In other words, greater awareness of the role, powers and work of the commissioner could go some way to restoring faith in the process of politics in our society.
Mr. Nirj Joseph Deva (Brentford and Isleworth): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) and privileged to be a member of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration under the excellent chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey).
Today's debate has been wide ranging, but, in the few minutes available to me, I shall try to cast the net even wider and consider the changing circumstances facing our parliamentary democracy as we go towards the millennium.
The work of the Select Committee is now at the forefront of the work on the citizens charter and of the work that we are doing for our electors on consumers' rights and citizens' expectations of the services that they
Column 1157obtain from the state. I am especially concerned to encourage the Government to consider recommendations 18 and 20 of the Select Committee report. May I be bold enough to say that the work of the ombudsman and of the Select Committee represents one of the most important institutions of our parliamentary democracy.
The instruments of governance and legislation, and our parliamentary procedures, were fashioned and honed in a different age, when the electorate consisted of people who were less well informed and less aware of their rights; sometimes, they saw the state and its agencies as their masters rather than as their servants. In 1979, when the Conservative Administration was elected to power, we said, "We want to set the people free." And we have, indeed, set the people free.
Today, much has changed; the electorate are as well informed about current issues as any Member of this august House and the people are as aware of their rights--if not, sometimes, of their duties--as any Member of the House. Our electorate and our citizens see an equal partnership between themselves and the providers of services from the Government, the state and their agencies.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made a signal contribution to promoting an equal partnership between the state and its citizens through the introduction of the citizens charter, which has been a success. The charter has increased the awareness of the providers of services that their primary duty is to their clients, the citizens of this country, and not to the institutions that employ them. The consumers are supreme, and have every right to be so.
When the citizens charter, to which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wrote the foreword, was launched in July 1992, it said: "Through the Citizen's Charter the Government is now determined to drive reforms further into the core of the public services, extending the benefits of choice, competition, and commitment to service more widely."
The range of mechanisms in the citizens charter covers, inter alia,
"published performance targets--local and national; comprehensive publication of information on standards achieved; more effective complaints procedures; tougher and more independent inspectorates". It is therefore fundamental that the citizens charter provides that all services, including those provided by local authorities, should have clear, well-publicised complaints procedures.
I had the privilege of serving on the National Consumer Council for six years before I entered Parliament, and during that time it developed what are now well-established consumer criteria. In brief, that phrase describes the importance of information, access, representation, redress, compensation and value for money. Having set the scene, my central concern is to consider the future. Twenty years after establishing the consumer movement, as we now know it, we have in place the citizens charter. The next 20 years will herald more wide-ranging revolutions that will affect all our institutions. We have part of that today in the information technology revolution. Tomorrow, we expect the multi-media revolution. Those two are great harbingers of
Column 1158the way in which our parliamentary democracy will work, and the role of the ombudsman will be pivotal to the changes to come. The information technology revolution and the multi-media revolution will increase exponentially public awareness of the issues and problems that confront citizens. Citizens will no longer be passive recipients of news; they will be news makers in real time. The entire nation will be exposed to any problem of maladministration, and the complainants will participate in multi-media news events beamed to each home. The audience will be asked to comment from home and to recommend to the nation at large remedies and actions to correct, redress and compensate for the maladministration. In short, everything that happens to anyone will be accessible to the entire nation. No longer will it merely be a chat across the garden wall when Mrs. Smith says to Mrs. Jones that she went to the local hospital and was not treated properly, or Mr. Jones says to Mr. Smith in the pub that the ambulance that was called to take him to hospital was 20 minutes late.
After the multi-media revolution, everyone in a town or city will know everything that happens and, more importantly, everyone will express his or her own views and opinions to everyone else from home to home. An information time bomb is waiting to go off. As elected representatives of the people, are we equipped here to meet the challenges of the future using the rather archaic instruments and procedures that we have inherited from the 18th and 19th centuries? Are we equipped to maintain a force of representative and accountable democracy and a partnership of trust with our electors?
If the answer to that question is no, we must change the way we do things so that we are seen to be effective, efficient, accountable and competent to deal with people's everyday problems. That is why today's debate is so important and it is why I believe that the Government should accept, as only a first step in a long series of steps, all the recommendations in the Select Committee report which was published on 14 July.
In particular, I want to draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister to recommendation 20 which, as he knows, states:
"We recommend that the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 be amended so as to specify exclusions rather than inclusions to the Parliamentary Ombudsman's jurisdiction."
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has said that the Government will consider that very carefully. Having looked at it very carefully, is he ready to make a statement about it? I congratulate the Government on accepting outright 20 of the 36 recommendations in our report. I acknowledge my gratitude for the fact that the Government have promised to consider a further six of our recommendations carefully. I believe that recommendations 18 and 20 are very important indeed.
Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva) for allowing me a few minutes to take part in this debate. I also welcome the fact that the debate is taking place. I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate and to have participated, for the past 18 months,
Column 1159on the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. The work has been very worth while and I hope to continue it.
I particularly welcome my involvement with the parliamentary commissioner, because his predecessor, Sir Anthony Barrowclough, is a constituent of mine who lives in Winsford. About a year ago, I made a short film for BBC2 about agencies that help Members of Parliament to do their job. I chose Sir Anthony as an example of the ombudsman and I chose the local Taunton citizens advice bureau which also carries out work which is very much adjacent to that of a Member of Parliament's. I would like to take this opportunity to praise the present ombudsman and his staff for their work which helps us greatly in our work on the Select Committee.
There has been much debate about the "MP filter". I strongly support, and will do so until there is decisive evidence to the contrary, the continuing of the "MP filter". I do not believe that there is evidence of specific unsatisfied demand for the services of the ombudsman resulting from the "MP filter".
My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) said that a dissatisfied constituent whose Member will not take up a case can write to the Chairman of the Select Committee or take the matter up with a neighbouring Member, possibly a Member of that person's own political disposition. However, I would deprecate any departure from the principle in our constitution that all Members of Parliament represent their constituents, whatever their views. I made the point in Select Committee that the work of the Health Service Commissioner should be more specifically related to Members' responsibilities and the constituencies. The reports of cases by the Health Service Commissioner should be made available to hon. Members so that they know what is happening and what is going wrong with the health service in their constituencies. At election time, it is the Member of Parliament who is responsible for the success or deficiencies of the local health service.
My second point was referred to by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle). It relates to the frustrations that arise--I have personal experience of them--from the present restrictions on the jurisdiction of the commissioner.
I commend also the recommendation by the National Consumer Council that the parliamentary ombudsman should be able to investigate complaints involving contractual or commercial matters. A constituent, who seemed to be very dissatisfied with the service from a Department, has been unable to secure redress, despite my efforts to secure an investigation by the commissioner. He deemed what happened--I am sure that he was correct to do so--to result from a contractual relationship that my constituent had made. That is unfortunate. The NCC points out that, with the Government having contracted out a considerable proportion of their work to private companies or next steps agencies, it would be appropriate to extend the ombudsman's role to cover those aspects of public administration.
There might be other examples--perhaps the Select Committee should examine them--of present restrictions on the powers of the ombudsman, even when the constituent has made his case and the Member has put it to the ombudsman, causing frustration because he is not able to investigate successfully and effectively.
Column 1160My third point relates to the Health Service Commissioner. There is immense potential for good. Despite the fact that constituents are able to refer cases direct to the Health Service Commissioner--there is no "MP filter"--I am certain that there is great unsatisfied demand simply because people do not know that they have that right and that power. We have had some very interesting and disturbing cases before us, as hon. Members have pointed out.
Of course, sometimes we are frustrated by the dividing line between maladministration, which the commissioner can investigate, and clinical matters, which, naturally, he cannot investigate. As recent cases have shown, that dividing line becomes blurred. That is particularly important as concern arises about the success of the care in the community initiative, which is to be the subject of legislation. I am a great supporter of that initiative, and in Somerset it has been very successful.
At page xv of his 1992-93 report, the commissioner referred to a disturbing case involving an absconding mental patient who, at 4 am, caused great damage to a private house next to the establishment where he was detained. What worried us was the health authority's failure to provide proper redress and the lack of knowledge of what became of that patient.
My hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) and for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) referred to the attitude of bureaucrats. There was evidence from a hospital in Glasgow on page xvii of that same report, and it appeared that complainants were discouraged from complaining. I am sure that neither the commissioner nor the Select Committee would tolerate that.
We regularly take evidence from the chairmen and chief executives of hospital trusts. There is sometimes an arrogant attitude, a lack of sympathy--even at that stage--and a failure to take responsibility. As I found when I served on the Public Accounts Committee, the officials who were responsible for what went wrong had moved on. I hope that the Select Committee will continue to examine that matter. I look forward to the reply of my hon. Friend the Minister. 9.43 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science (Mr. Robert G. Hughes): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this extremely interesting debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis), the Under-Secretary of State for Health, who has been present throughout the debate and has intervened in it, has also been extremely interested to hear the many important points that have been made.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) said, it is 27 years since the establishment of the office of the parliamentary commissioner for Administration and, indeed, of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for
Administration. Experience has proved the great value of their respective roles. I join every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate in paying tribute to the Select Committee members and to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth for the dedicated work that he does in chairing the Committee.
The Government must set high standards for administration and must work continually to improve standards still further, thereby presenting new benchmarks
Column 1161for the ombudsman. The spread of the parliamentary commissioner's responsibilities has been enhanced in the past year by new functions connected with the code of practice on access to Government information, which some hon. Members mentioned during the debate and which I will mention in a moment.
I also pay tribute to Mr. William Reid, the ombudsman, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in my office shortly after I became Parliamentary Secretary. I was pleased to be able to pay a return visit to his office yesterday to see the work that he and his staff carry out.
I am pleased to say that our intent in establishing a code of practice on access to Government information was welcomed by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Watson). Since April, the parliamentary commissioner has had an important new role of policing the code. As Mr. Reid said last month:
"A prerequisite of good government is adequate openness combined with an external regulating mechanism which gives openness its credibility".
Decisions about the release of Government information have been subject to independent review by the ombudsman, which I think is a good thing. The code and the reports published by the ombudsman show that the system is working so far. If there are not enough complaints, people say that the service was not well publicised; if there are many complaints, people say, "Obviously the Government are not being very open". Sometimes one feels that one cannot win.
Although the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright) criticised the lack of publicity given to the code, I recall signing answers to parliamentary questions in the past few months which have criticised the Government for spending too much on publicity in some areas. The Office of Public Service and Science has distributed more than 52,000 copies of the explanatory leaflet to more than 1,300 carefully targeted recipients, such as citizens advice bureaux and libraries. We have sent out 5,600 copies of the code and the parliamentary commissioner has done a great deal to publicise the code's existence. I think that the system is working well. In the short time available to me, I will try to answer a number of specific points raised during the debate. If I fail to do so through lack of time, I will write to the hon. Members who raised other points.
I will use as my basic script the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth. He questioned the use of the term "ombudsman". That point was raised also by the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) and the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle). The Government agree that the term "ombudsman" should not be used in organisations which are subject to the jurisdiction of the parliamentary ombudsman. The citizens charter unit within the OPSS wrote to Departments earlier this year to ensure that they were aware that all charters contain and draw attention to the role of the parliamentary ombudsman.
Although my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central said that the Government are not taking up that point, in fact my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the
Column 1162Duchy of Lancaster wrote to the Committee Chairman on 19 August assuring him that we took the point extremely seriously. We have copied that letter to members of the Cabinet, the Attorney-General and the Cabinet Secretary and we have made it very clear that they should avoid confusion and should not use the term "ombudsman" for organisations which are subject to the jurisdiction of the parliamentary ombudsman.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth raised the point about epitomes of Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration cases. He is absolutely correct: it is extremely important that people should know what the ombudsman is doing and saying. The hon. Member for Leeds, West said that it is important that when mistakes happen in one Department, they are not merely repeated in other Departments because of a lack of knowledge of what has been said. The Government have accepted the recommendation, and the OPSS--with the help of the parliamentary ombudsman's office--has adopted a procedure to circulate epitomes of cases to Government Departments and other bodies within the parliamentary commissioner's jurisdiction. The first batch was circulated in November. As well as that, we hope that the booklet "The ombudsman in your files" will be ready for circulation to Departments and agencies by the summer. A point made by my hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and Kenilworth and for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves), and by the hon. Members for Glasgow, Central and for Leeds, West was that a debate should be held each Session. I understand the desire for that. The first problem is that it is not a matter for me, but for the Leader of the House, who doubtless always considers matters that are put to him. But it is easy for Members to demand a debate every year, or whatever frequency we want, for every subject which we regard as important.
This is an important subject, of course,but I wonder how much demand there would be from Members for a full day's debate. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central that it would not have to be full day's debate. But, with cross-party agreement that we should proceed with much of the Jopling Committee report, the time for such a debate will be restricted. It is important that Members take that on board when asking for more debates on different areas.
The Member of Parliament filter is vital. I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and Kenilworth, for Suffolk, Central and for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), and with the hon. Members for Leeds, West and for Cannock and Burntwood. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton is crucial, and the hon. Member for Leeds, West also referred to it. The position of an hon. Member is crucial. I cannot think why any Member would refuse to pass a case on to the ombudsman. It ought to be clear to everyone that, regardless of a Member's political view, he is elected to be a Member of Parliament and he should take up any case on a constituent's behalf. If he is not able to make progress or if the constituent is not satisfied, the last resort should be the ombudsman, who will give the matter thorough consideration and decide whether something can be done. I regard the Member of Parliament filter as very important. I refer again to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth, who talked about the charter and