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BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE

Ordered,


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(4) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Hallmarking


Question agreed to.

27 Jan 1999 : Column 447

Local Government Ombudsman (Wales)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Betts.]

10.24 pm

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn): I very much regret that I have had to ask for this debate. I did so because of what I believe is the indifferent response of the local government ombudsman in Wales to a serious matter that I have raised with him. Before becoming a Member of Parliament, I spent 20 years serving as a councillor, and I hold strongly to the view that local councils must be accountable for their actions. More than that, they must be seen to be accountable and they must act in an open and transparent manner. That is the only way to retain public confidence and appreciation of the valuable services provided by local councils, and the only way in which local councils can gain respect for the decisions they take.

The public must have confidence in the Commissioner for Local Administration in Wales, more commonly known as the ombudsman. As we all know, the ombudsman has a crucial role: he has the task of policing local councils and ensuring that any complaints made against a council by the public are properly investigated. I know from experience the extreme frustration felt by any individual who thinks that he or she cannot obtain a fair and impartial investigation after arriving at the belief that the local council has acted improperly. That is why individuals who have a grievance against their local council often look to the ombudsman for justice.

On the whole, the ombudsman does a good job and provides an essential public service. I will go so far as to say that I should not be opposed to the ombudsman being given even greater powers to ensure that a local council found guilty of maladministration is made to change its ways. Having said that, I regret having to express my anger and disappointment at the ombudsman, following an investigation into a complaint made against Caerphilly county borough council last year.

On 10 August 1998, the ombudsman published a report after investigating a complaint made against the council following its decision to refuse a planning application. In his report, the ombudsman concluded that the council was guilty of maladministration, because one of its members, at a meeting of the planning committee, had failed to declare an interest--that he was a friend of the principal person opposing that planning application. By not declaring an interest in the matter when it came before the planning committee, it was said by the person who called in the ombudsman to investigate the complaint, the councillor in question had influenced the committee to refuse the planning application. I add, less in mitigation than to put the fact on the record, that the appeal against the council's decision to refuse the planning application, which went to the Welsh Office, was eventually turned down.

Although only one councillor was cited in the original complaint upheld by the ombudsman, the ombudsman went on to name three other councillors on the grounds that they were members of the same local Labour party branch as the person who had opposed the planning application in the first place. I have no criticism to make of the ombudsman's decision, in so far as he was satisfied

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that the four councillors were in breach of the national code of local government conduct as it relates to members declaring an interest: they knew the person who opposed the planning application. Indeed, the ombudsman commented that he had a statutory duty to name the councillors involved and I do not challenge that, because the House decided to give the ombudsman that responsibility, so he is right to carry it out.

My concern is that, in his report, the ombudsman made the following statement:


Let me stress, there was no private meeting of councillors. The report was wrong, and the ombudsman was wrong. Caerphilly county borough council's monitoring officer, who is the person charged with providing the ombudsman with the information necessary to draw up his report, made the following statement:


    "the decision to refuse the planning application was instigated by local councillors at a previous meeting".

That was a "previous" meeting of the planning committee, not a "private" meeting.

Despite being given the opportunity to correct the error, the ombudsman declined. The error was the reason for the following comment that the ombudsman made when he censured the council:


Let me stress that there was no private meeting of a small group of councillors. It never ever took place.

The serious inaccuracy was queried with the ombudsman in a letter from the council dated 28 July last year containing its comment on his draft report. I have the letter here. On page 17, paragraph 3 the ombudsman was asked the specific question:


The ombudsman replied on 31 July with a two-sentence letter that did not even acknowledge the question from the council. What is the point of circulating a draft report on a complaint against a council to the council, its officers and so on and then ignoring the comments on that draft report?

Despite being made aware of this considerable error, on which he based a substantial part of his criticism of the councillors, the ombudsman made no attempt to correct it. As a result of the inaccuracy, the councillors involved were the subject of newspaper stories and banner headlines which questioned their integrity and brought each of them into grave disrepute. There were headlines such as "Councillors rapped by ombudsman". The story said that the ombudsman criticised the councillors for meeting in private and predetermining the planning application. Another story was headed "Councillor: I acted improperly", and made more references to private meetings on planning matters. Another headline was "Councillors were wrong." Again, the story contained references to the councillors holding a "private", not a "previous", meeting of the planning committee. Another

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story with the headline "Rapped over the knuckles" contained further references to the councillors holding private meetings. Such meetings never took place.

I stress that I do not challenge the core conclusion reached by the ombudsman in his report. He investigated and reached his conclusions and I do not challenge them at all. I do challenge his arrogance in failing to correct a blatant and serious error in the report. More than that, I am advised that he later refused to alter the report or reissue it. He simply offered a perfunctory apology to the councillors involved, saying that a typographical error had been made. How many times have we heard the poor old typist blamed for getting it wrong?

It cannot be right to base a report's conclusion, even in part, on a typing error and not issue an amended report. Stating that there were private meetings when there were none and linking the term "private meeting" to the main findings of the report had serious consequences for the councillors and the local authority.

The suggestion that the councillors met in secret to predetermine a planning decision has had an appalling impact on the public perception of the council in general and the councillors in particular. They live in a small valley community where everyone knows everyone else. I know the councillors well. They have told me that in the churches, chapels, shops, pubs and clubs, they have all been subjected to the odd remark. People say, "What do you think about councillors having these private meetings to predetermine planning matters?" A private meeting never took place. The councillors have had their good names taken away from them without justification. I know them; they are decent people who have given years of public service.

Like all Members of the House, everyone in public life can expect to take knocks from time to time, but no public official has the right to damage another public servant's reputation unjustly. I have no criticism of the press reports of the matter. The press reported what the ombudsman had put in his report. What is at issue is the councillors' integrity and the truth of the report.

The impression remains even today that the councillors met in private to determine the planning application before it was considered by the appropriate committee. It is a matter of record that all the comments made by the councillors named in the report were made in public at open meetings that were attended by the press and members of the public. The failure of the ombudsman to correct such an evident wrong has affected public confidence in the councillors and the council. That is most unjust.


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