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Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): I welcome the changes to the Bill. The Minister was kind enough to say that the Government were responding to representations made on Report, and Plaid Cymru's new clause about an ombudsman for Wales was relevant in that context, so we are glad that the Government have moved in that direction.

However, there are one or two areas of uncertainty concerning how things will work out, especially with regard to the possible overlap between the functions of the ombudsman relating to the National Assembly for Wales and those of the central Government ombudsman. When the Minister opened the debate, he tried to reassure the House that there should be no overlap, but I wonder what the position will be when there are orders that can be exercised either by a Secretary of State in London, who is a member of the British Government, or by the Assembly.

If people have a grievance because neither the Secretary of State nor the Assembly has fulfilled their responsibilities, which either of them may exercise, for undertaking actions by order--we shall hear examples of those later--where should they seek redress? Will the Minister respond to that question when he closes this short debate?

Secondly, there is a general question as to the seriousness with which the National Assembly will regard the work and reports of the ombudsmen. The complaints that constituents frequently make, whether they relate to the local government ombudsmen--which are, perhaps, more common--or the central Government ombudsman, are that, although their case was investigated, nothing happened. They sought redress and changes in policy following an investigation, and sometimes a positive report by an ombudsman, but there was not an adequate mechanism to ensure that such changes took place.

Thirdly, I hope that there will be a regular debate in the National Assembly, not only about specific complaints but about the general patterns of complaints in the ombudsman's reports. The National Assembly must take those on board regularly, not only when it is kicked hard enough to make it sit up and take notice.

Having made those three points, I welcome the change to the Bill. It builds in an additional safeguard for citizens, and I am glad to support the amendment.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): The Liberal Democrats also welcome the amendment. Ombudsmen

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have been around since 1967, and the local government ombudsmen were created in 1974. People with a grievance against a public body are now necessarily entitled to have their complaint investigated by an independent person at no cost to the complainant. The success of that principle is demonstrated by the extension of the concept of ombudsmen to the private sector, to include organisations such as banks, building societies and insurance companies.

We welcome the fact that people will be able to make their complaints directly to the Welsh Administration ombudsman. The need to go through a councillor before making a complaint reduces the number of people using the service. That stipulation was removed in 1988, and the number of complaints increased significantly. That shows that a requirement to submit a complaint via an elected member would cause a barrier to many potential complainants. However, complaints to the parliamentary ombudsman still have to be made through a Member of Parliament. That may deter some people from using that service.

It is essential that the ombudsman is adequately resourced to allow complaints to be investigated thoroughly and without undue delay. Otherwise, encouragement to use the system would be an own goal.

We are pleased that some of the problems encountered by other ombudsmen have been taken on board by the Government. The Welsh Assembly will be able to amend the list of bodies within the jurisdiction of the WAO, which is welcome. The local government ombudsmen have been unable to deal with complaints about newly created bodies that should logically fall within their jurisdiction, but that will not be a problem for the WAO.

The WAO will have stronger powers following the publication of a further report against the Assembly. I understand that, if the Assembly is subject to a further report, the First Secretary must lay the report before the Assembly and give notice of motion that its recommendations be approved. I should be grateful for confirmation of that in the Minister's closing remarks.

4 pm

Mr. Win Griffiths: I shall deal first with the points made by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). Like the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the Welsh ombudsman will not have formal enforcement powers, but if the Assembly fails to comply, that will be because it has formally and publicly rejected a motion put down by the First Secretary to approve the ombudsman's recommendations. That point was also raised by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik). The Assembly will have publicly to reject the motion. Ever the optimist, I do not think it likely that the Welsh Assembly would reject a motion relating to the recommendations of the Welsh ombudsman.

There will be a transfer from the Cabinet Office vote to the Welsh block to cover the costs of the office; but if the Welsh ombudsman is the same person as the parliamentary ombudsman, no salary will be payable--not that I would want that to influence the way in which we make progress.

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Once the office has been created, all NHS complaints will go to the Welsh ombudsman. Up to that point, they will have been dealt with by the health service ombudsman. Therefore, we do not want to muddy the waters; it is the date that will make the difference.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley may think that the Government have rushed the NHS reconfiguration, but considering that the process will have taken almost two years to complete, during which there has been wide consultation in Wales, it would be inappropriate to hold up the possibility of saving some £7 million a year, which will go from administration into health care, to await decisions from the Assembly. The Assembly will thank us for going ahead with these changes, so that it has additional money to allocate to the health service in Wales.

Mr. Evans: Lack of speed is not one of the allegations that I would throw at the Welsh Office, but we are talking about only a few weeks. I understand what the Minister says about the savings that may occur as a result of the reconfiguration, but the Administration may not welcome the changes that the Minister may then be making, and it would have to overhaul some of them, which at the end of the day may be more expensive.

Therefore, would it not be better to wait a few weeks until the Assembly is up and running, bring it into the consultation procedure, and convince it that the changes that the Minister wants to make are the right ones, but allow the Assembly to have its say? In a spirit of inclusiveness--as someone who did not parade the wonders of devolution, that is fairly new to me--I am now saying that we should let the Assembly have its say.

Mr. Griffiths: Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman has not quite got to grips with all that this will mean. It is not a question of hanging on for only a few weeks. We shall have been consulting the Welsh people for three months on the actual proposals. Anyone who has expressed a desire to stand for the Assembly will have had three months, and will still have two months in which to make observations on the trusts reconfiguration proposals. We want the new trusts to be well prepared on 1 April, so they will have five to six months to prepare themselves for the new regime and order of the day. To hold everything up until next April means holding things up not for a few weeks but for six or seven months.

We have already spent more than a year consulting on the principle and practice of the new trusts, so I do not think that anyone would thank us for hanging on much longer and creating all sorts of uncertainties in the health service. As I have said before in the House, some people have told me that I have moved too quickly, others have told me that I have moved too slowly, and others still have said that I have moved both too quickly and too slowly. I think that we have got it about right.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda): Does not my hon. Friend agree that we are talking about a substantial point? If the Assembly is to be the all-singing, all-dancing body that it has been promoted as over the past year, surely it would be better to have a delay of five or six months to allow the new fount of democracy to make a decision than to make any decision now. I presume that he will not deny that the Assembly will have the right immediately to overthrow any decision that he may take towards the end of the year.

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I find it most peculiar that the Welsh Office is advertising for chairmen for the new trusts while the proposals are still out to consultation. If the Welsh Office has already decided what the new configuration will be, why bother to consult on it? The Assembly will contain a corpus of informed opinion, so it will be ready to make a political decision. I should have thought that waiting a few months for the 60 brains to be brought together in the new Assembly would be far more democratic, inclusive and of benefit to the people.

Mr. Griffiths: My hon. Friend does justice neither to himself nor to his constituents, who have made vigorous representations to me about the proposals on NHS reconfiguration. I can only repeat that the consultation has been very wide and detailed. Anyone who is thinking of standing for the Assembly could already have made a contribution to that consultation process.

Staff in the health service want us to come to some decisions on the proposals. If we do not, those decisions will have to wait longer than six or seven months, as the Assembly will not be able to decide to do everything completely differently; it, too, would have to consult properly on any changes that it wanted to make. I think that everyone in Wales--both those working in the health service and those being cared for by it--will want us to save money in administration so that we can spend more on health care. Moreover, I am sure that the Welsh ombudsman will be able to deal very satisfactorily with any problems in the health service.

The right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) mentioned joint orders and the overlap of jurisdictions between different ombudsmen. Schedule 9 provides for consultation and co-operation between ombudsmen, so that any overlap can be sorted out by agreement. If the ombudsmen decided that the complaint was equally important to their activities--if they felt that neither the Minister of the Crown nor the Assembly had acted appropriately, or that they should investigate allegations--they could work together to deal with the issue.

I think that I have covered all the points raised, so I commend the amendment to the House.

Lords amendment agreed to.


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