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Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, by and large, the ombudsman seems to be a reliable point of contact for people with complaints? Does he agree that, above all, it is absolutely vital that the ombudsman be seen to have an impeccable record of scrutiny and scrupulous decision-making because he or she is the last point of call for those who have a complaint about a local authority decision?

Mr. Touhig: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I have made that point. I subscribe to the ombudsman's role, but in this case he has acted unjustly. Surely his role is to serve justice, not to create an injustice, which is what he has done in this instance.

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Had the ombudsman corrected the error, I would not be raising the matter tonight. At no stage has he shown a willingness to correct the error. He is not prepared to publish a new report. He did not correct the error when the council's head of legal services wrote to him querying the reference to the private meeting. In fact, when he replied, he dismissed the error as if it were a peripheral matter, and he has not corrected it since.

I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has limited powers with which to deal with the ombudsman, who must be seen to be distanced from the Government as well as local government, but perhaps he might ask the ombudsman in for a cup of tea and a chat and point out to him that there is an evident injustice in this case which he needs to put right. He should not be allowed to make such a serious error without redress. I am certain that, if the shoe were on the other foot and the ombudsman were investigating a similar error by a local council, he would have plenty to say, and rightly so.

The ombudsman is a public servant responsible for upholding the rights of individuals to complain against the actions of local government by investigating those complaints and making a judgment. However, the ombudsman needs to be told that he does not truly enhance justice and fair play or the rights of the individual making the complaint if he infringes, indeed ignores, the rights of those being investigated and delivers an injustice to them.

If we are to retain confidence in the ombudsman as an individual and in the office that he occupies, he must not be seen to be beyond criticism. Like the councils that he investigates, he makes judgments and if he gets them wrong, he has a duty to put them right.

10.37 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Jon Owen Jones): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) for raising the important issue of the local government ombudsman.

Before answering the specific points that my hon. Friend has made, I should like to put on record my appreciation of the sterling work that the local government ombudsman and his staff have done and are doing in policing local government in Wales. He has responsibility for investigating allegations of maladministration involving injustice, and last year received more than 1,048 new complaints.

My hon. Friend's concern arises from the ombudsman's investigation into Caerphilly county borough council. In August, the ombudsman issued a report naming four Caerphilly councillors for their non-disclosure of private and personal non-pecuniary interests when they spoke against a planning application for the extension of a dwelling at meetings of the authority's planning committee. The four councillors supported the views of the only objector against the application with whom they were closely connected in a personal and, in one case, a business capacity. Three of those councillors were also fellow members of the same local ward Labour party as that objector. Their objections were instrumental in the council refusing planning permission for the extension in spite of the fact that officers of the council had recommended its approval.

Although the four councillors were fully aware of the identity of the objector, not one of them declared their interest in any of the planning committee meetings.

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That was a clear breach of the national code of local government conduct, which is clear about when interests should be declared. It says:

    "You should not allow the impression to be created that you are, or may be, using your position to promote a private or personal interest rather than forwarding the general public interest. Private and personal interests include those of your family and friends as well as those arising through membership of, or association with, clubs, societies and other organisations such as the Freemasons, trade unions and voluntary bodies".

The code goes on to say:

    "If you have a private or personal non-pecuniary interest in a matter arising from a local authority meeting, you should always disclose it, unless it is insignificant, or one which you share with other members of the public generally as a ratepayer, a community charge payer or an inhabitant of the area".

In this context, the councillors' association with the objector and their membership of a local ward political party were relevant issues. In those circumstances, where there has been a breach of the code, the ombudsman has a statutory duty to identify the councillors in his report.

Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend said, there was a typographical error in the ombudsman's final report, and a reference to a "previous meeting" mistakenly became a reference to a "private meeting". The error occurred during the copy typing of the monitoring officer's evidence, which was referred to in the ombudsman's final report. The typographical error, referring to a paragraph of the report which was highlighted by the press, implied that the three ward councillors had had a private meeting before the planning committee to determine the application. There was no evidence of such a meeting. I can well understand that local councillors would be aggrieved at being criticised for something that did not occur. I personally would like to record my regret that that happened.

The typographical error, however, had no bearing on the ombudsman's conclusion or his naming of the councillors. The ombudsman's decision to name the councillors would have been the same even if there had been no typographical error. The naming arose from his statutory duty and the fact that the councillors had not declared their interests during successive meetings of Caerphilly council's planning committee.

It is most unfortunate that the typographical error was not spotted before the ombudsman's report was published in its final form. However, it is important that the error does not divert attention from the ombudsman's findings in this case, which I regard as extremely serious.

Mr. Touhig: I must point out that in a letter of 28 July from Caerphilly county borough council, the ombudsman was asked the specific question:

The fact that there was a query over the report was flagged up with the ombudsman, but he did not bother to respond in any way.

Mr. Jones: My hon. Friend anticipates the point that I am about to make.

The findings call into question the effectiveness of the existing national code of local government conduct, which requires councillors to act properly when reaching

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decisions, such as determining planning applications. I expect all Welsh councils to ensure that their elected members are fully aware of the requirements of the existing national code.

My hon. Friend's specific concerns are twofold. The first is that the typographical error was pointed out to the ombudsman before the report was published, but the ombudsman declined to change it. The second is that, although the ombudsman has now accepted the mistake, he refuses to apologise.

On the first point, I am satisfied that the ombudsman acted reasonably and did all that he could to ensure that there were no errors in his final report. The ombudsman circulated the draft report, for comment and for the purpose of checking its accuracy, to all those who gave evidence in this case, including the four councillors, the council's chief executive, the monitoring officer and other senior officers. He warned the council and councillors of his duty to name the councillors, given the apparent breaches of the code. The fact that there was a typographical error was not pointed out to the ombudsman. The council's members services manager did, however, raise a query as to what was meant by "private meeting".

It is understandable that the ombudsman ignored the members services manager's question. The ombudsman was at that stage unaware of the typographical error and believed, wrongly, that, as the words "private meeting" had been taken from the monitoring officer's evidence, it was a matter for the council itself to explain. The members services manager's question was not framed in a way that suggested that there had been an error or that it was an amendment to the text of the ombudsman's draft report. The monitoring officer had already written his response to the report and made no reference to any typographical error. Not one of the three ward councillors commented on the draft.

Mr. Touhig: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. I stress that the ombudsman wrote back on 31 July in response to the letter from the members services manager, and did not respond to any of the points raised there. If he thought at that time that the phrase "private meeting" was a matter for the council's monitoring officer, he should have written back and said, "I do not know what this is about. It is a matter for you, as the monitoring officer, to discover." The ombudsman did that, but only after the matter had been raised with him again some weeks later. He did not respond to the query at all.

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