Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Flood Warnings (Vulnerable Properties)

Ms Sally Keeble accordingly presented a Bill to introduce a system of advance warnings whereby people who buy or rent homes, stay in hotels, or rent or pitch caravans or tents in flood plains are informed of the risks; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 6 November, and to be printed [Bill 237].

22 Jul 1998 : Column 1123

Orders of the Day

Government of Wales Bill


Lords amendments considered.

New clause

Lords amendment: No. 125, after clause 112, to insert the following new clause--Welsh Administration Ombudsman--
.--(1) There shall be an office of Welsh Administration Ombudsman or Ombwdsmon Gweinyddiaeth Cymru.
(2) Schedule (Welsh Administration Ombudsman) (which makes provision about the Welsh Administration Ombudsman and, in particular, enables him to investigate administrative action taken by the Assembly and certain other public bodies in Wales in response to complaints claiming maladministration) has effect.")

3.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Win Griffiths): I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 26, 69, 126, 144, 146, 155, 169, 186, 187, 190, 192, 194, 195, 199, 201, 203, 207 and 210.

Mr. Griffiths: The National Assembly for Wales will be a new, open and accountable form of government for Wales. The Assembly will enable the voice of the people of Wales to be heard at last, through the representatives they elect through the ballot box next May.

The creation of the office of the Welsh Administration ombudsman will ensure that that voice is not only heard, but listened to. The ombudsman will be a strong and independent figure, able to call the Assembly and other public bodies in Wales to task when needed.

The ombudsman will have jurisdiction over a range of non-departmental public bodies and the Assembly. However, the functions of some bodies, such as the Environment Agency, extend both sides of the border. We are not suggesting that the ombudsman should have jurisdiction over those functions of the Environment Agency that relate to England, but only, like the Assembly, over those functions relating to Wales.

The parliamentary commissioner currently has jurisdiction over certain executive non-departmental public bodies in Wales. Those will fall to the Welsh ombudsman to investigate. We are giving the Assembly powers by order to add the other bodies to the ombudsman's jurisdiction. If the Assembly is given responsibilities in new areas in which non-departmental public bodies operate, those too could be brought within the ombudsman's jurisdiction.

We have also made provision to extend the jurisdiction of the health service commissioner for Wales to cover the Assembly's exercise of its health functions. Perhaps I might outline the way in which the ombudsman will operate.

22 Jul 1998 : Column 1124

If an individual or body is aggrieved as a consequence of alleged maladministration, it will be open to them to make a complaint to the ombudsman, who will have effective powers to investigate such allegations. Complainants will be able to go direct to the ombudsman if they wish, rather than via their Assembly Member. That mirrors the position between the health service and local government.

The outcome of the investigations will be reported to all concerned, including the complainant, any Assembly Member who assisted the complainant in submitting the allegation, and the individual against whom--or the body against which--the allegations have been made. It will also be reported to the Assembly First Secretary.

If such allegations are upheld, the body must notify the ombudsman within three months of the actions that it proposes will remedy the matter. If no response, or an inadequate response, is forthcoming, the ombudsman may recommend in a further report what action is to be taken. If the Assembly is the subject of the further report, the amendments provide that the Assembly First Secretary must lay the report before the Assembly and give notice of a motion that the recommendations be approved.

The amendments provide a strong and effective means for pursuing complaints against the Assembly and public bodies in Wales. I might add that the approach has the full support of the parliamentary commissioner. As I said earlier, the ombudsman's jurisdiction will extend only as far as the exercise of functions of the Assembly or a public body in Wales. The office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration already has jurisdiction over matters outside Wales, and will retain jurisdiction over matters in Wales outside the Assembly's remit. The functions of the two offices will therefore not overlap.

The amendments are important, and substantially improve the Bill. The Government tabled them in response to points made by hon. Members on Report. I hope that they will be widely supported.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): It is good to have the Bill back from the other place. It has been so long since we have been able to speak on these measures, I was almost having withdrawal symptoms. I am sure that all hon. Members share that sentiment.

We welcome the creation of the wholly separate position of the Welsh Administration ombudsman. It was requested during earlier proceedings. If anything, it proves how useful a revising chamber can be in considering what we say and giving the Government the chance to amend legislation, as they have admirably in many parts of the Bill.

We welcome the fact that individuals will be able to take their complaints to the Welsh Administration ombudsman without the need to go through their Assembly Member--after, of course, ensuring that all the other avenues open to members of the public have been exhausted.

We welcome the clear procedure on allowing bodies against which a complaint has been made a strict three-month time limit to respond. If the response is late or insufficient, the ombudsman has the power to make a further report. In that report, he can make recommendations on what action should be taken. Will the Minister clarify the course of action to ensure proper redress if no action, or insufficient action, is taken following the ombudsman's second report?

22 Jul 1998 : Column 1125

The range of bodies over which the Welsh Administration ombudsman will be responsible is extensive. Although I welcome that, I have one or two concerns.

First, the time that people will have to wait before receiving a full response to their complaint must be kept to a minimum. The area of responsibility is now wide, and one can imagine all sorts of complaints coming to the ombudsman, especially if his existence is made well known. That is not a plea for the Minister to spend a six-figure sum advertising the fact that the new position exists, so that everybody knows how to get in touch with the ombudsman. However, we are keen to see some form of information campaign to ensure that members of the public, through their local libraries and other organisations, know that the Welsh Administration ombudsman will be there, and how to use that person.

I shall not prejudge the number of complaints that the Welsh Administration ombudsman will receive, but there could be many, and we need to know that he will have sufficient staff to handle them all. There is provision in the Bill to consider the staffing arrangements, but we need to know that, when the complaints start coming in, they will be dealt with as quickly and efficiently as possible.

My second concern is connected with the first. What percentage of the cost will be taken from its current budgetary position and added to the Welsh block? Will any additional costs be taken from within the current block budget? Obviously, if any of the money comes from within the block, that money will not be available to spend elsewhere. I know that discussions are now taking place with the Welsh Office about where the money will come from.

We understand that the ombudsman will have the power to repay, from time to time, money spent by a complainant--expenses and so on. It is difficult to estimate now how much money that will entail, but we need some assurance from the Minister that sufficient money will be made available from elsewhere and added to the Welsh block, so that none of it has to come from front-line services.

The health service commissioner will be able to look into

and also

    "a failure by the Assembly to provide a service the provision of which is an Assembly health service function".

He could therefore be extremely busy looking into the areas of the NHS relevant to the powers of the Assembly.

Many complaints may be related, through the health service commissioner, to action taken before the Assembly came into being. I am looking for clarification of that, too. We know that the Minister is involved in an enormous consultation process about the reorganisation of the trusts. We heard about that during Welsh Questions today. Adjournment debates have also been held about it, and many questions have been tabled.

My question, therefore, is: is it not rather unfair to rush all that through? After all, the Minister's party believes that devolution is its Government's flagship legislation. Labour Members have trumpeted it all--so is it not right that the Assembly should have an opportunity to consider

22 Jul 1998 : Column 1126

the proposals, especially if the health service commissioner will thereafter have questions and complaints put to him?

Why does the Minister have to rush everything through and get it on the statute book by 1 April, a few weeks before the Assembly comes into being? Has he considered--if not, I ask him to do so--carrying on with his investigations, but passing all the information to the Assembly, so that its members can make the recommendations? If the Government believe in devolution, surely it is up to the Assembly members to examine health provision in Wales and make the recommendations.

I have asked the Minister a few questions, and I hope that he will be able to reassure me about at least some of the points that I have raised.

Next Section

IndexHome Page