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Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South) (Lab): The Bill is the latest piece of Welsh legislation to be scrutinised by the Welsh Affairs Committee. My Committee not only undertakes pre-legislative scrutiny where possible, it also scrutinises Bills that are already under consideration by Parliament. That is an important task, which we take seriously.
The role of Select Committees is to offer criticism of the Government where it is warranted and praise where it is deserved. In the last Session, we scrutinised the clauses of the Children Bill that affected Wales. It is no secret that we were unhappy with provisions that had an impact on the Children's Commissioner for Wales and we published a report to that effect. This debate gives me the welcome opportunity to highlight a report that welcomes a good piece of legislation.
My Committee's report, which is a relevant document for the debate, welcomes a Bill that has the potential to provide a modern, flexible and accessible service for members of the public. In its current form the Bill represents good legislation, but the Committee's report recommends several amendments that would make it even better.
As we have heard, the Select Committee's scrutiny of the Bill was carried out in partnership with the Local Government and Public Services Committee of the National Assembly for Wales, and we took advantage of our power to hold formal joint meetings to take oral evidence. The first evidence session was held under the Local Government and Public Services Committee's procedures at the National Assembly on Thursday 13 January, and the second evidence session was held under our procedures on Monday 17 January. Although our joint working powers do not extend to the publication of a joint report, our report and that of the Local Government and Public Services Committee made recommendations along similar lines.
Joint formal working offered the opportunity for us, as Committees, to scrutinise both the UK Government and the Welsh Assembly Government on legislation that would directly affect Wales. It was a success, as we could question both Governments from the dual perspective of the legislators and the implementers of that legislation. Despite that success, formal joint working has been permitted only on an experimental basis until the end of this Parliament, so I look to the
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Minister to reiterate his positive view of formal joint working, and I hope that he will give a commitment to make those powers permanent in the next Parliament, if he has the power to do so. If he does not have the time to give such a commitment in this debate, I will offer him a second bite of the cherry in the next debate on Welsh Affairs, when I will return to the issue if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
As we have heard, in its original form the Bill set the length of the ombudsman's tenure at 10 years, which was subsequently reduced by the other place to seven years. We were not convinced that the reduction in the length of tenure added to the Bill's quality. Although I recognize the fact that some peers were concerned that 10 years was too long, seven years is not long enough in our collective opinion. For that reason, my Committee recommended that the length of tenure should be five years, with the possibility of reappointment for a further five years. I believe that the five-year plus five-year appointment plan, which is used for the Scottish ombudsman and thus has the benefit of consistency, represents a better balance between the need for stability in post and the need to reinvigorate the office periodically. It also offers opponents of a 10-year appointment a statutory moment for reflection.
The Bill sets out all those authorities that may be subject to investigation by the ombudsman. Individual community health councils are included in that list, but the Board of Community Health Councils is not. When we took evidence from the board, it argued that it should be subject to the same scrutiny as individual councils. That is probably the first time that a witness before my Committee has argued for greater scrutiny of themselves, so I feel obliged to say that we should adopt that view and argue in its favour. Including the Board of Community Health Councils in the list of authorities is a sensible recommendation and I hope that the Government will look favourably on it.
My Committee also looks in its report to the Government to provide further information on the possible overlap between the ombudsman's responsibilities with respect to an authority's failure to comply with its obligations to the Welsh language and the Welsh Language Board's responsibilities. Although that is not a fundamental problem with the Bill, greater clarity would significantly assist the working relationship between the two institutions.
The final issue to which I wish to draw the House's attention is that of co-operation between the English and Welsh commissioners. The Bill, as currently drafted, will remove the power of the ombudsman in England to transfer cases to the Welsh ombudsman. Although the Bill contains many provisions to facilitate joint working between ombudsmen, we believe that the retention of that power is necessary. There is nothing to be gained by the removal of that power. Close working relationships between the Welsh and English commissioners are to be welcomed, so I look to the Government to retain in the Bill the power of the ombudsman in England to transfer cases to the Welsh ombudsman. I hope that, with those provisos, the Bill will find favour in the House.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD):
We on the Liberal Democrat Benches also welcome the Bill in its broad context. No doubt there is a greater
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understanding in Wales that people can complain to ombudsmen if they believe that they have been the victim of an injustice or if an authority has committed maladministration in carrying out a service of which they are in receipt. There is confidence in Wales in the various ombudsmen's work, but complications and misunderstandings can arise because people can complain to so many ombudsmen. No doubt if people complained to the wrong ombudsman they would be advised to go to the right office to make their complaint. However, simplicity and clarity are important when people are dealing with public services because that gives them confidence, so we welcome the fact that a single ombudsman will be set up, to whom the Welsh people can take their complaints about public services.
Having been a member of a local authority, I know that there was initially mistrust of the ombudsman process, but as time went on people looked at ombudsmen's rulings for guidance and ways of improving services. It has been especially noticeable that ombudsmen not only make decisions about specific cases, but give advice about how authorities should set about improving their ways. The Bill provides that an authority will not be able to ignore the ombudsman's decision without due cause. That is a big improvement because nothing is more discouraging to complainants whose cases are investigated by ombudsmen than for local authorities or services to ignore recommendations that are made.
I, like other hon. Members, am disappointed that the Government cannot accept that the term of appointment for the ombudsman should be five years, with the possibility of a five-year reappointment. I understand that it should be possible to have a 10-year appointment period so that people with the necessary quality and commitment have the incentive to apply for such an important job. However, if the initial appointment were made for 10 years, it would represent a commitment to a person that might not be entirely appropriate. There should be a break point after five years to allow reflection and scrutiny of the ombudsman's work so that it can be determined whether there should be a reappointment. Posts often need re-energising so that new commitment and perhaps a different direction can be achieved, so I am sad that the recommendation of a five-year appointment has not been adopted. Seven years is a halfway period, but the Bill does not provide the opportunity for reappointment, so that provision has all the faults and none of the virtues.
I am pleased that the Government say that the process will be cost-neutral, but I would be even more pleased if they said that savings could be made. There must be an opportunity to make economies of scale, and thus bear down on public expense, during the process of bringing bodies together. However, I understand that there will be set-up costs and I do not complain about them, because they are bound to arise.
I was a little disturbed earlier when the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) asked where the ombudsman will be situated. We do not know one of the key elements of the relocation cost because we do not know today where the ombudsman will go.
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Does the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) agree that we are thus writing a rather open-ended cheque?
Mr. Williams: Yes. The process would be more transparent and open, and we could scrutinise the costs that will be incurred during the set-up, if we knew how it will be managed and how and where the new ombudsman and his staff will be physically housed. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point.
I shall come on to my last point because I think that we agree that the Bill is good and should go ahead, although we could make some improvements to it. I represent a constituency on the English-Welsh border, so I know about the complexities of the health system that serves some of my constituents. I am pleased that the Bill will give the ombudsmen the power and duty to work together. I cite the example of constituents who live in Wales and are served by a general practitioner practice in England. Such people might go to a community hospital in Wales, but be transferred to a district general hospital in England.
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