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Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Touhig: I commend the Bill to the House. I regret that it was too late to give way.

4.40 pm

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I am sorry that the Minister did not have a chance to give way; I am sure that the intervention would have been most interesting.

The Bill is commendable in its objective of establishing one public service ombudsman for Wales,   replacing three separate offices for Welsh administration, the health service and social housing. I   hoped that the Government would find time for the Bill, and I am glad that we have finally been given the   chance to debate the improvements that need to be made to the legislation. Nevertheless, I am disappointed that that chance has been squeezed into the same day as our important opportunity to debate Welsh affairs. With our so-called St. David's day debate and Second Reading of this Bill packed into one day, it is a shame that the Government cannot afford Welsh business priority on their agenda.

We welcome the Bill as a measure with potential to improve the standard of public services for the people of   Wales. We also welcome the rationalisation of ombudsman services in Wales. This is an opportunity to define clearly and uniformly their jurisdiction and powers, which must be a benefit. Yet there are still details that must be tackled if we are to secure what I am sure we all want—only the very best for the people of Wales. I only hope that the Government will act on our suggestions to improve further the deal that Wales will get from the Bill.

It is somewhat worrying that the explanatory notes highlight the fact that there will be initial set-up costs, borne by funding from the Assembly. The notes also warn in paragraphs 115 and 116 that it is prudent to plan
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for a modest increase in resources. I hope that the Government remember that this is Welsh taxpayers' hard-earned money, and that a rationalisation of the Wales ombudsman service will involve economies of scale. Perhaps the Minister will reassure us that the initial set-up costs will be minimal, and give us some indication of when the savings that should result from this move will actually be seen.

The Minister should also confirm the details of the situation underlying clause 5 and requirements about complaint to the ombudsman, as set out in subsection (1)(b). While a line needs to be drawn in the sand, it is feasible that a one-year time limit on making a complaint to the ombudsman could be difficult for some people to meet. It could take longer than a year for a situation warranting a complaint to the ombudsman to develop. We need further clarification of when notice of matters alleged in the complaint is deemed to begin. If that happens when the complainant suffers a problem that they bring to the attention of the authority, it is possible that ensuing correspondence from the authority could drag on for longer than a year. Perhaps the Minister will substantiate the precise details of the clause and reassure us that the ombudsman's discretion will always apply.

We must also be certain that cross-border issues are sufficiently dealt with in the Bill. Thankfully, we see provisions to ensure that there will be no gap in ombudsman jurisdictional coverage for bodies such as   regional flood defence committees. Similarly, I am pleased to see provisions in clause 25 for consultation with other ombudsman services. The Government must ensure, however, that cross-border issues are sufficiently provided for in proposals for interaction between all UK ombudsmen.

The Bill comes to us already considerably improved by the actions of my Conservative colleagues in the House of Lords. I pay particular tribute to my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Roberts of Conwy. With regard to the appointment of the ombudsman, which is dealt with in schedule 1, an amendment tabled by Lord Roberts led to the inclusion of the provision that the Secretary of State must consult the Assembly before recommending a person for appointment as the ombudsman. A similar insertion has been made regarding the Assembly's role in the process of appointing an acting ombudsman. That has cured inconsistencies in respect of the appointment and removal of the ombudsman, removing the confusing situation whereby he could not be removed without consulting the Assembly, but could be appointed. That move will clearly assist in securing a more accountable and impartial appointment. Since the ombudsman will   be financially and practically dependent on the Assembly, it is only sensible that the Assembly should play some role in his or her appointment.

The proposed length of the ombudsman's appointment is of greater concern. Certain concessions have already been made as a result of pressure in the House of Lords, reducing the term of office from 10 years to seven years. That is, of course, preferable, but it is not sufficient, and it is far from the best deal for the people of Wales.

The Welsh Affairs Committee stated that a reduction in the length of the ombudsman's tenure from 10 years to seven years would not improve the Bill. It agreed with
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Conservatives in the other place, who proposed a far more sensible, renewable five-year appointment. A seven-year term would still be long, and such guaranteed longevity would not provide the ombudsman with the best circumstances in which to operate.

Several concerns were raised in the other place about a five-year term. The objections that a five-year term is   too short, that it would not attract top-quality candidates and that it could affect the ombudsman's decisions towards the end of his term are particularly cynical.

Mr. Evans : If that point about the appointment of the ombudsman is true, what does it say about people who seek election to this place? Hon. Members are appointed for up to five years—invariably some of us are appointed for less time than that—so I can see no reason why five years should not be the period.

Mr. Wiggin: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A renewable five-year period is ideal. It would keep the incentive alive, while ensuring that proper performance was key at all times.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): I am sure that the   hon. Gentleman does not want inadvertently to misrepresent the views of the Welsh Affairs Committee. The hon. Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) will confirm that the majority of witnesses thought a 10-year appointment appropriate. The Committee said that if the Government want to take another course, the five-year term is a way out.

Mr. Wiggin: The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) is right that I would never want to misrepresent the Welsh Affairs Committee, of which I   was a member. I draw his attention to page 9 of the Select Committee report, which states in bold:

I have not misrepresented the Committee. However, we recognise that concessions were made in the other place and that the term is currently seven years.

I hope that an ombudsman who is likely to be influenced by the prospect of not having his term renewed would not be appointed to begin with. Other ombudsman appointments across the UK are generally not for a fixed term. The Scottish public services ombudsman is appointed for five years, with the opportunity of reappointment, which is the system that we would like to apply to the Welsh ombudsman. Under our proposal, those who consider a 10-year term most appropriate would still achieve that objective, yet the ombudsman would also be accountable at the halfway stage.

In seeking a balance between an accountable and flexible term of office and the need for stability, a renewable five-year length of tenure is by far the most appropriate way to proceed. The Welsh Affairs Committee is not the only body to have agreed that point; a recently published report on the Bill by the National Assembly's Local Government and Public Services Committee recommends that

4 Apr 2005 : Column 1144

The opinions of those who have debated this issue in the other place, in Select Committee and in the Assembly are clear. Now the Government must accept that a renewable five-year appointment is far preferable to the proposed seven-year tenure.

The Government should not change the amendments introduced by Conservative peers in the other place, which would reverse the progress that has been made. Thanks to Conservative pressure in the Lords, clause 20, "Non-action following receipt of a report", will ensure that an authority cannot defy the ombudsman and disregard his report without lawful excuse. That move is extremely welcome and will considerably improve the   standard of ombudsman services in Wales. That the ombudsman can, in the last resort, seek the view of the   High Court gives him legal power that will remove any possibility of his decision being ignored by the authorities involved. I hope that the Bill, complete with the stronger position of the ombudsman for which our colleagues in the other place have fought, will prevent such occurrences, which have, sadly, been known.

Clause 21, on alternative reporting procedures, has also been greatly clarified. It is now clearer that the   ombudsman, the authority and the complainant must all agree to the period within which the listed authority agrees to implement the ombudsman's recommendations. However, the ombudsman has the authority to specify a period in writing if no other agreement can be reached, which will greatly empower him in such situations.

Furthermore, thanks to the probing amendment of my noble Friend Lord Roberts, the disqualification of   the ombudsman from holding certain responsibilities has been clarified. We welcome the elucidation in schedule 1 on the disqualification of the ombudsman from being a Member of the Assembly. Previously, it appeared that the Assembly could resolve that such disqualification be disregarded, which evidently smacked of preferential treatment. However, the amendment has greatly clarified the situation. We accept that the Government of Wales Act 1998 already deals with the event by saying that an ombudsman may be elected an Assembly Member provided that they relinquish the office of ombudsman once they are elected.

We also welcome the clarification of the extent of excluded matters in schedule 2. The provisions on educational bodies relating to which authorities are excluded are extremely helpful. Misinterpretation that might narrow the ombudsman's jurisdiction in relation to other authorities is now unlikely, and the Bill provides clear descriptions on the subject of the parameters within which the ombudsman can act. That is commendable and has been further improved by the clarifications secured in another place and by the Committee.

The greater powers allowed to the ombudsman as a result of amendments in the other place are a considerable asset to the Bill. First and foremost, it is our wish that the Bill improve the treatment of those who make a complaint of maladministration in Wales. The Government must guarantee that the progress already made will in no way be jeopardised by amendments at this stage. I remain concerned that the Government will attempt to back out of the advances made as a result of Opposition pressure in the other House; for example, they may attempt to reverse the
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controversial decision to give the ombudsman legal options—the power to apply to the High Court. I am sure that the Minister will want to allay those fears in his closing comments and I shall be grateful to him for doing so.

Another issue brought up in the other place was documentation. Despite the problems experienced at Westminster in keeping track of certain Assembly documents and publications, the Government refused amendments that would ensure that we were kept informed of the ombudsman's reports. Rationalising the ombudsman service should be a good thing. Nevertheless, there are still a number of proposals, and improvements could be made before we pass legislation that truly delivers the very best for Wales.

4.53 pm

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