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Mr. Evans: Clearly that could happen. There was an announcement today about Welsh prescription charges. If people living in Wales go to an English GP, will the GP be able to issue a Welsh prescription at a lower cost, or will those people be told, "I'm sorry; I can only issue English prescriptions, so you'll have to pay the higher rate even though you live in Wales"? Would that be something that the ombudsman could look into?
Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I apologise for intruding, very briefly, into discussion of a Welsh Bill. I remember that you and I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, used to sit on the Select Committee for the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration many years ago, and while you have gone on to dizzying heights of parliamentary significance, I am still worrying about the same kind of issues that we worried about some 10 years ago.
I want to say something about this Bill, which is excellent on all counts, because it does the kind of things in Wales, and for the people of Wales, that many of us have been pressing for in England for some time. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary described all the benefits that integrating the different complaints systems would bring to people in Wales who want to make complaints against various bodies. Those arguments have been used in England for a number of years in arguing for greater collaboration between the local government ombudsman and the parliamentary ombudsman; indeed, an official review of the whole system recommended such modernisation. So it is extremely pleasing to find that modernisation is
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marching ahead in Wales, with all the benefits that my hon. Friend described. But it is therefore slightly puzzling that it has not been possible to make equivalent progress in England, despite all the preparatory work that has been done, and despite recommendations from successive ombudsmen in England that the same progress should be made.
So although this is an excellent Bill for Wales, in so far as it shows the benefits of devolution, one such benefit is that it enables mutual learning and stimulus for reform across the whole United Kingdom. I therefore simply urge my Welsh friends to urge on their English colleagues, to the maximum extent that they can, a similar will to reform the system, so that the benefits described for Wales today can be brought to England, too.
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): My hon. Friends and I also welcome the Bill and the unification of the four ombudsmen: the Welsh Administration ombudsman, the health service commissioner for Wales, the Commission for Local Administration in Wales, and the social housing ombudsman for Wales.
When I was a child, I used to enjoy taking my bicycle to pieces, and I remember that if I came across a recalcitrant nutI am not looking in any particular directionI used a wonderful liquid called "3-In-One". Here we have "four in one", and I am sure that it will prove just as efficacious in ensuring people's rights. The people of Wales are likely to be much better off as a result of this Bill, and better served by establishing this ombudsman, which is a very positive step forward. A means of redress outside the normal procedures is an essential mark of good government, and the services that the current ombudsmen have provided for the people of Wales are fine testimony to their commitment to providing ordinary people with a way to challengeand, indeed, to beatthe official machine.
The Welsh Affairs Committee was able to examine this Bill jointly with the Local Government and Public Services Committee of the National Assembly for Wales. Indeed, we heard evidence from the Under-Secretary, and I had the pleasure of asking him questions in Welshthat does not happen that oftenand of receiving very fair answers. We produced a report and it was published in February. It could be that I have been remiss, but I have not yet seen any reply from the Government. I am sure that the Chairman and other members of the Committee are looking forward to that reply, as there are a number of points in the recommendations that the Government should answer.
One issue has already been raised in our earlier debate and the Committee's recommendations on that matter repay very close reading. With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will read the recommendation in full:
"There appeared to be a general level of agreement in the House of Lords that a seven year period of appointment was appropriate. However, that was not the views and experience of our witnesses, who considered a ten year appointment as appropriate."
"Should the Government believe that a balance needed to be made between security of tenure and the opportunity to re-invigorate the office, we recommend it reconsider appointments on a five year basis with the possibility of reappointment for a further five years."
Finally, I want to mention briefly the eighth recommendation, which deals with the Welsh Language Board. There is a possibility of people's complaints falling through the cracks between the Welsh Language Board and the ombudsman. We have received reassurances that that will not happen. In fact, the Welsh Language Board submitted written evidence on the possibility of developing a protocol between it and the ombudsman. I am sure that that would provide a way of dealing with that potential difficulty of complaints regarding the Welsh language falling down the cracks.
I was gratified that in the evidence that we received from the ombudsmanit is set out in page 54 of the evidenceit was made clear that failing to adhere to a Welsh language scheme could of itself be viewed as a matter of maladministration. That point was confirmed by the Welsh Language Board's evidence later. Welsh citizens will be given a further opportunity to look for redress, which I believe will be valuable. With those few words, I look forward to debating the Bill in Committee and to hearing the Under-Secretary's response.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I, too, look forward to debating the Bill in Committee, but I am not certain when that Committee will meet. If all the rumours are true, the Prime Minister will be on his way to the palace by tomorrow and I suspect that the Bill might not get the scrutiny in Committee that it otherwise would have received. From what I have heard in the Chamber so far, it is clear that there is a general consensus that the Bill should become an Act. I certainly heard what the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) had to say about the Bill's applicability in Wales, but not in England. We led the way with the Children's Commissioner for Wales and England subsequently followed, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman will not have to wait too long, under the next Conservative Administration, before the good effects of the Bill are rolled out more widely.
I assume that with four bodies being reduced into one, it means that four quangos are being reduced to one. It could be argued that this is the bonfire of the quangos, but I am not sure whether the Government are going to sell the Bill in that way. Quite frankly, it is a common-sense measure.
Much has been said about the appointments, and I want to comment on the appropriate length of service in the post of ombudsman. I was joshing with my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) that with a five-year appointment there might be a danger of not getting the right people for the job, but that is the term for which we are elected as Members of
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Parliament, so I am not sure whether we get the right people for the job. Perhaps the Government are trying to argue for an extension of Parliaments to seven years, as under the Septennial Act 1715. The President of France serves a seven-year term[Interruption.] It has been reduced to five.
There are pros and cons. A seven-year term is probably sensible if, as the schedule states, the ombudsman cannot then be reappointed, but if we want the post to be reinvigorated, there is merit in having a five-year term renewable for a further five years. However, if a seven-year term could be extended to 14 years that would be too long because there will be a lot of work for and a lot of pressure on the ombudsman.
I am pleased that the ombudsman can be removed only on grounds of ill health or misbehaviour because that provides independence and if they decide that they want to be critical, perhaps of the Government, they must have that independence so that they are not always looking over their shoulder in case the Government decide to remove them from office. Independence is absolutely necessary.
Paragraph 3(5) of schedule 1 states that the ombudsman can be removed only after consultation with the Assembly. Does that mean that the Assembly will be told that the ombudsman is being removed for misbehaviour or ill health, or will the Assembly have an input in the decision?
On disqualifications and ineligibility to become the ombudsman, paragraph 5(1)(a) of schedule 1 states that a Member of the House of Commons cannot be appointed, but that leaves open the possibility of a Member of the House of Lords being appointed. Have the Government thought that through? A Member of the House of Lords could have parliamentary, Government or Executive influence.
The Bill states that the ombudsman will be unable to comment on policy, and that is appropriate. Governments are elected to create policy and, whether the ombudsman likes it or not, it is up to him or her to look into the administration of Government policies. I shall not prejudge the debate that we are about to have on the Adjournment of the House, but the ombudsman could be very busy.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) talked about the cross-border issue in the national health service. We were told today that the cost of prescriptions in Wales is being reduced to £4 and will eventually be reduced to zero. There is fear of NHS tourism and that people from England will waltz into Wales with their prescriptions. That could provide a substantial saving for some people living on the border if they are having treatment, for example, for cancer and so on. The First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, has said that the Assembly will ensure that prescriptions will be written in such a wayin the Welsh language as well as Englishas to ensure that people cannot come from England with their prescriptions and pay only £4 and eventually nothing, but I would welcome clarification on that.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire posed an interesting question about people who live in Wales but have a general practitioner in an English village across the border. Will general practitioners near the border have a stash of bilingual prescription pads so
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that such people qualify for the lower prescription charge? That is an interesting question. When the charge moves to zero, having access to such prescriptions will become even fruitful.
Irrespective of the merits of the provision, it blows open the fact that English taxpayers will pay money into central coffers and that money will then be redistributed. Their money will ensure that Welsh people will eventually be able to pay nothing for their prescriptions whereas those in England will have to pay the going rate. I assume that the ombudsman will not be able to consider that anomaly, but many people living in a village neighbouring the Welsh border will have to pay the full whack for prescriptions when those across the border get them for nothing. None the less, the interesting point for the ombudsman is to work out whether someone living in Wales is treated badly by the system because they go to an English GPwho might be the nearest oneand are denied access to the lower charges. I imagine that that might be one of the first issues that the ombudsman considers, but I am not sure that the First Minister has thought it through properly.
When I first considered the costs, I assumedstupid methat the proposal was designed to save money, but I am not sure that it will. We all want streamlining to take place, and it should result in efficiency gains and savings that, I hope, would be returned straight to front-line services. That is what we have asked for. However, £250,000 is now being made available for the relocation of the offices, and I heard what was said at the beginning of the debate about where the new offices should go.
A bit of transparency at this juncture would have been nice. I want to ensure that not everything that happens in Wales happens in Cardiff. There is no reason why it should. If devolution is to mean anything, it should mean that everyone in Wales benefits from it and from the distribution of governmental bodies throughout the whole of Wales. Perish the thought, but such bodies could actually be relocated to north Wales. Why not? I would welcome that. They are bureaucratic in nature and could end up almost anywhere.
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