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Mr. Jones: I understand why my hon. Friend raises that point. It is also understandable, however, that the ombudsman did not believe at that stage that the original draft of the report was in any way incorrect. The council was responsible for the comments that had been made.

For the sake of completeness, I should make it clear that, once the error was discovered after the report's publication, the option of amending and reissuing the report was not available to the ombudsman. As the ombudsman is by law "functus officio"--I must be careful how I pronounce that--once he has issued his final decision, he cannot amend it in any way, unless he is ordered to do so by the courts following, for example, judicial review. The courts are likely to order him to do so only where there is a significant error or omission.

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The second issue raised by my hon. Friend was that the ombudsman has accepted the mistake, but has refused to apologise for it. I am satisfied that, after the discovery of the typographical error, the ombudsman acted properly and did everything possible to explain the position and to inform those affected by the report of the error.

It is also my understanding that the ombudsman apologised for the error. He met the leader, chief executive and monitoring officer of Caerphilly council to explain the reason for the error and to apologise. He followed up the meeting with a letter, again apologising for the error. He also asked that his letter be reported to full council, which it was, and placed with the report for public inspection. Furthermore, he sent a letter to all recipients of the final report, including my hon. Friend, pointing out the error and apologising for it.

On a point of procedure, I remind my hon. Friend that the ombudsman is not accountable for his decisions to the Secretary of State for Wales or to Parliament. He is entirely independent, above political influence, being appointed directly by Her Majesty the Queen. It is important that such independence is maintained and not put in doubt. The proper and ultimate course of action open to anyone wishing to challenge an ombudsman's final decision is to seek a judicial review of that decision by the High Court.

The failure of councillors to follow the existing code of local government conduct suggests the need for a new code that is easier to understand and to which councillors

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are fully signed up. The Government intend to introduce such a code--the national code of conduct for local government in Wales--as part of an ethical framework. The Government will also introduce a much tougher enforcement regime, including an independent standards commission, to take effect in the event that codes are breached.

I hope that all councils will note the ombudsman's report in this case and will take steps to ensure that their councillors are fully aware of the requirements that the existing code places upon them. The public expect, and should receive, the highest standards of conduct from their elected members. Those elected members often do a difficult job. We owe it to them to ensure that the codes of conduct are easily understood. Clearly, a mistake was made by the councillors in this case. For that mistake, they paid a heavy price--a price that was made heavier by the typographical error that occurred.

I well understand why councillors were aggrieved, and why the local Member of Parliament would see it as his duty to try to do what he could to ensure that the public understood that the error, which was highlighted in the press, was typographical. There was no private meeting, and councillors were not responsible for that error.

Question put and agreed to.



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