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Orders of the Day

Public Services Ombudsman (Wales) Bill [Lords]

[Relevant document: The Third Report from the Welsh Affairs Committee, Session 2004–05, on the Public Services Ombudsman (Wales) Bill [Lords], HC 234.]

Order for Second Reading read.

4.28 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It might it helpful if I begin with a few words setting out the background to the Bill. The local government commissioner for Wales—commonly known as the ombudsman—the health service commissioner for Wales and the Welsh Administration ombudsman have all served the citizens of Wales well in the past, but each office operates under different legislation with separate staff, which inhibits the development of a coherent service that would reflect the ways in which public sector service delivery in Wales is evolving.

Today there is increasing emphasis on the provision of services through partnerships between different public bodies, securing better services more efficiently. But if a person is not happy with some aspect of a service provided, it may not be easy to identify which of several public bodies is responsible, and therefore to which ombudsman a complaint should be submitted. It might even be that different aspects of the same complaint would have to be considered by different ombudsmen. The Bill will address that and allow a properly integrated ombudsman service for Wales to be created.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned that three offices are to be brought together. He will know that the local government ombudsman is based in my constituency, Bridgend. Has any thought been given to where the new ombudsman will be located? Bridgend would seem to be a very good place.

Mr. Touhig: That will not be my responsibility, but my hon. Friend's comment will no doubt have been noted.

The ombudsman will be known as the public services ombudsman for Wales. The Bill has been carefully developed over the past couple of years. In 2002, a consultation entitled "Ombudsmen's Service in Wales: Time for Change?" sought views on the principle of bringing the three offices together into a unified service led by one person. The unanimous support received for that proposal led to a second round of consultation in 2003 on the detailed powers and jurisdiction of the new office. That was entitled "A Public Service Ombudsman for Wales: Powers and Jurisdiction".

Together, those consultation exercises provided us with the foundations for the Bill before the House this afternoon. They also allowed the Government to take advantage of an opportunity that arose when all three offices simultaneously fell vacant to appoint a single individual to hold all three offices. That proved a useful interim step to achieving the longer-term objective of a unified office. As a result, Mr. Adam Peat holds those
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three offices now, but he continues to operate under legislation that applies to each separate office that he holds. That is wholly unhelpful. The Bill addresses that.

The Bill has already been the subject of consideration in another place. As a result, it has benefited from a number of amendments, including important changes on appointments to, and the tenure of, the ombudsman's office. The Bill has also been considered by the Welsh Affairs Committee, which held evidence sessions jointly with the Assembly's Local Government and Public Services Committee. Both Committees issued their reports on the Bill on 21 February.

Along with the Assembly's Minister for Finance, Local Government and Public Services, Sue Essex, I had the opportunity to give evidence to the two Committees. I am grateful to them for their detailed consideration of the Bill. Although they raised a small number of issues for further consideration, both Committees were generally very supportive of the Bill and its provisions, and considered it to be a comprehensive and well thought-out piece of legislation.

I now turn to the Bill itself. The legislation applicable to the three offices needs to be rationalised and brought together into a coherent whole, if the benefits of a unified office are to be achieved. The Bill is therefore about creating a coherent jurisdiction, administered by a team that is already working increasingly effectively together, but which now needs the backing of a sound legislative framework. The Bill will bring together the offices of the Commission for Local Administration in Wales, including the local commissioner for Wales, the health service commissioner for Wales, the Welsh Administration ombudsman and, when it is established later this year, that of the social housing ombudsman for Wales, into a unified jurisdiction led by one person—the public services ombudsman for Wales.

The Bill will provide a modern, flexible and accessible service for members of the public who wish to complain about most public service providers operating in, or in relation to, Wales. I say most public service providers because services delivered under the auspices of the Government which are not devolved matters in Wales—for example, social security—will not be within the remit of the public services ombudsman for Wales. They may,   however, be subject to the jurisdiction of the parliamentary or health service commissioner. However, that is an exception to the general principle that, in respect of public services on which people in Wales rely in their daily lives, the new ombudsman's office will provide a single channel for receipt and investigation of complaints of maladministration or service failure. So local government—within which we include community councils—health bodies, the Assembly itself and its sponsored public bodies, are within, or may be brought within, the new ombudsman's jurisdiction.

The Bill provides powers for the National Assembly, for example, to amend the list of bodies within the   ombudsman's jurisdiction to reflect changes in the structures of government in Wales. It gives the   ombudsman important consistent powers of investigation across a range of bodies within his remit. It also allows him to seek to resolve disputes between complainants and the relevant public bodies without the need for a formal investigation. That is a new provision for the Welsh ombudsman, but it is one that has been
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generally welcomed. The parliamentary and health service commissioner has commented that this provision is "welcomed as long overdue" and will

Another new provision is the power, previously available only to the local government ombudsman, to issue guidance to all bodies within his jurisdiction on the requirements for good administrative practice. This provides a mechanism to enable all parts of the public sector to learn from the experience of particular authorities that may have been the subject of complaint and investigation. Public bodies need to regard complaints as a basis for improvement, and the ombudsman's guidance should assist in that.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Will the ombudsman have the power to consider, for example, planning delays by all 22 unitary local authorities to find out which is doing the best and which is doing the worst, and then to issue guidance on best practice, so that the worst have to follow the practices of the best?

Mr. Touhig: Such guidance would probably not be within the ombudsman's remit, but depending on the issues that he is asked to investigate he will make reports that have a similar impact.

The Bill also provides powers to permit the ombudsman to work jointly with other specified ombudsmen, including the parliamentary commissioner and health service commissioner for England, in relation to complaints or parts of complaints over which the new Welsh ombudsman and another ombudsman have jurisdiction. That might arise, for example, in the case of cross-border complaints. Cross-border provision of services, particularly in the health field, is not uncommon for Wales and England, and the Government have sought to facilitate joint ombudsman investigations to cover precisely that situation.

A particular provision that I should draw to the attention of the House is that concerning the   ombudsman's jurisdiction in health and social care matters. Nowadays, we take a holistic approach to the provision of health and social care. The Bill as introduced in the other place provided, in line with   existing ombudsmen legislation, that the new ombudsman could not generally question the merits of a decision taken without maladministration. However, the Bill did provide that the ombudsman could question the merits of any decision taken in consequence of the exercise of clinical judgment, irrespective of whether it was taken with maladministration. That reflected the existing provision of the Health Service Commissioners Act 1993.

The Government reflected on whether it was right or appropriate that the ombudsman should be able to question the merits of a decision taken only in the exercise of clinical judgment—that is, by a doctor—but not decisions, for example, of social care professionals who may be part of the same team delivering a health and social care package to an individual. We concluded that there was no reason to differentiate between decisions taken in consequence of clinical judgment and
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the judgment of, for example, social care professionals in this context. The Bill therefore makes express provision to ensure that, in health and social care matters, the ombudsman can look synoptically at complaints about the consequences of decisions made by social care professionals who are working alongside clinical colleagues. For example, the ombudsman could consider a complaint that had arisen about a multi-disciplinary team's decision to discharge a patient from hospital on the basis that the patient's remaining health and social care needs would be provided at home by the relevant health and social care professionals. In that example, the decision to discharge the patient and the decision to provide further care at home are dependent on each other and might well form the basis of a single complaint. Under clause 11, the merits of the decisions can be questioned by the ombudsman, whether they were taken by health or social care professionals, or both.

I am sure that colleagues will want to enter into the debate. I think all will agree that this is an immensely worthwhile Bill, which will give Wales a first-class ombudsman service for the 21st century.

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