Previous SectionIndexHome Page

[Sir Michael Lord in the Chair]

Clauses 1 to 45 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 46

Short Title

Amendment proposed: No. 2, in page 26, line 33, leave out subsection (2).—[Mr. Touhig.]
6.26 pm

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I am surprised that there is a Government amendment to the Bill, although I suspect that it is very technical.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig) indicated assent.

Mr. Wiggin: I am extremely grateful to the Minister for nodding vigorously because I had suspected that we were going to be considering only one amendment today.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 46, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1

Public Services Ombudsman for Wales: Appointment etc.

Mr. Wiggin: I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 27, line 18, leave out 'seven years' and insert

'five years, renewable for a further five years'.

There was only one aspect of the Bill that I thought required amendment. To achieve the best for the people of Wales, we still think that the most appropriate length of term for the ombudsman is a renewable five-year term. The length of the ombudsman's term of office is of the utmost importance. A concession was made in the other place to reduce the original suggestion of a 10-year appointment to one of seven years, which was clearly preferable, although far from ideal.

A seven-year term for a single post certainly has advantages over one of 10 years, but we want to keep the post invigorated and keep incentive alive, while ensuring that proper performance is key at all times. The greatest merit would be to have a five-year term that was renewable for a further five years. Of course we do not want the term to be too short because the ombudsman must be able to build up experience and expertise and have the time to bring about real change. However, there must be accountability and such qualities must be able to be refreshed as the priorities of the job change over time.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) (Lab): Might there not be more sense in having a seven-year appointment initially because the ombudsman in Wales will have a new role and thus might need a little extra time? However, perhaps the appointment could be made for
6 Apr 2005 : Column 1512
five years, and renewed for a further five, when the office is well bedded down. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will think about what he wants to do with his amendment on that basis.

Mr. Wiggin: The Government will have heard the hon. Gentleman's sensible suggestion. However, if we pass the Bill, I do not think that we will be able to amend it at a later date to change the length of the term. I suspect that that might become a matter for the Assembly. The important thing today is to clarify exactly why the Welsh Affairs Committee suggested a "five plus five" solution.

6.30 pm

The point about an initial seven-year period is valid and helpful. A seven-year term is still too long, but such guaranteed longevity does not provide the ombudsman with the best circumstances in which to operate in the long 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. I hope that an ombudsman who is likely to be influenced by the prospect of not having his term renewed will not be appointed to begin with.

If the post does not attract high-quality candidates, what does that say about the 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. I can see no reason why five years should not be the time period. Nor do I understand why the difference between a five-year term—in all likelihood to be renewed for a further five years—would make a great deal of difference to the calibre of candidates. That the term of office should be long enough to attract the "right kind of person" to the post, as suggested in the other place, raises the question: what does the "right kind of person" refer to? Surely those deterred by the fact that they may serve only a five-year term instead of seven years might not be the right kind of person in the first place.

The best candidates for the position of ombudsman should be dedicated to the job of being an ombudsman regardless of the length of tenure of office. If he or she is of the highest calibre, in practice they will serve a term of 10 years anyway, which is even better than the seven years. The arguments against that are not sufficient to explain the Government's inflexibility. It is simply a poor argument to suggest that good-quality candidates would be deterred from applying for the office if the term is only five years long.

New Zealand set the precedent for ombudsmen, establishing the first ombudsman in the English-speaking world more than 40 years ago in 1962. Its system is similar to ours and the appointments are made for five-year terms, with the possibility of reappointment. The situation is the same in other Commonwealth countries, and the ombudsman Act in Alberta, Canada states:

Other ombudsman appointments across the UK show a similar pattern. The chief inspector of schools is appointed for five years. No parliamentary and health service ombudsman has served for longer than five
6 Apr 2005 : Column 1513
years. All appointments to the Independent Police Complaints Commission are for five years, with the possibility of a five-year extension. It does not seem that the length of term of office for such posts has deterred high calibre applicants. Indeed, I wonder why so many other ombudsman schemes would use that pattern if that were the case.

The Scottish public service ombudsman—perhaps the closest model to that proposed for Wales—is an appointment of five years with the opportunity of reappointment. It is clear that the working of the arrangement has been successful as part of the clearly beneficial establishment of a single ombudsman service for Scotland. It achieves what is effectively to be a 10-year term if all goes well, as Mr. Eric Drake, the Scottish deputy public service ombudsman, said in evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee on 17 January.

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. To achieve the original aim of a 10-year term, while also making the ombudsman accountable and the role reinvigorated, an appointment for five years, with a five-year renewable option, is clearly best. That is by far the most appropriate way to proceed in achieving a balance between an accountable and flexible term of office and the need for stability.

The Welsh Affairs Committee agreed with that, stating that a reduction in the length of the ombudsman's tenure, from 10 years to seven, would not improve the Bill, and it agreed with the renewable five-year appointment. Page 9 of the Select Committee report states:

A recently published report on the Bill by the National Assembly's Local Government and Public Services Committee similarly recommends that

The opinions of those who have debated the issue in the other place, in the Select Committee and in the Assembly are clear. Furthermore, it was clear in our debate on Monday that there was widespread support for a renewable five-year term. As the Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones), said:

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) commented:

I think that the hon. Gentleman was absolutely right.
6 Apr 2005 : Column 1514

The Government must accept that a renewable five-year-term appointment is greatly preferable to the proposed seven-year tenure. Although it is clear that there is general consensus in favour of the Bill becoming an Act, were it amended to provide for a renewable five-year term for the ombudsman, it would be even better.

Next Section IndexHome Page