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Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): I support the amendment and the arguments of the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin). I draw the Committee's attention to the fact that the evidence presented to the Welsh Affairs Committee was, on the whole, in favour of a 10-year term on the ground that that would result in a stable appointment that would be beyond the reach of political or other external influence and would be truly independent. The Committee weighed up that evidence and decided that it wanted a more flexible approach; it recommended a term of five years, which has been proposed again today in the form of the amendment.

I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), which the Conservative spokesman quoted a minute or two ago. A seven-year term is neither one thing nor the other: it   would provide neither the long-term stability of a 10-year appointment nor the flexibility of a five-year appointment. To pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) in his intervention, when making an appointment for the first time, one might not want someone who will be in the post for a very long time, because if one has made a mistake or the individual in question finds that the nature of the job is different from the one that he or she undertook, one may well want to revisit the decision in five years rather than wait for seven years, which is a long time to carry on with a mistaken appointment.

It seems to the Liberal Democrats that the right approach would be to follow the recommendation of the Welsh Affairs Committee and adopt the five-year appointment with the possibility of renewal for a further term. The proposal in the Bill as it stands is neither one thing nor the other. I hope that the Minister will try to explain the potential benefits of having a seven-year term, bearing in mind that the evidence received was that a 10-year term would have some benefits, as would a five-year term, whereas a seven-year term offers the benefits of neither. Seven years is an arithmetically neat compromise, but it would achieve the objectives of neither of the other two proposed terms of appointment. I hope that the Minister will think again and decide, by accepting the amendment, to accept the proposals made by the Welsh Affairs Committee and by my noble Friends in the other place.

Mr. Touhig: The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) would provide for a fixed-term appointment of five years that could be renewed for a further five years. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the tenure of the ombudsman's appointment was the subject of extensive debate in the other place. As I said on Second Reading, our priority is to ensure that the ombudsman is, and is seen to be, independent of government and to protect the office from any perception that that is not the case. At the same time, the Government believe that it is important that there should be regular opportunities to inject new
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blood to reinvigorate the office. That is not an easy balance to strike, as we are mindful of the need to attract candidates of the highest calibre when vacancies arise.

We are not suggesting that an ombudsman who is subject to reappointment would be swayed by the Executive in the performance of their functions, but we are firmly of the view that a renewable appointment creates the risk of a perceived lack of independence for the office. If the amendment were accepted, decisions about the renewal of the appointment would clearly be a matter on which the Secretary of State would advise the Queen after consultation with the Assembly. However, the Assembly is one of the bodies within the ombudsman's jurisdiction, which is not quite right if we are to attach, as surely we must, considerable importance to the independence of his office.

It is not only the Government who are concerned about that. We consulted widely on the question of tenure of office, and the responses that we received were mixed. Some people argued for a single fixed-term appointment, some for a renewable appointment or even an appointment up to the age of 65. However, all the responses impressed on us an overwhelming concern that the office should retain its independence and should not be seen to be influenced by the Executive. A single fixed-term appointment of seven years delivers that objective. The Government believed that their original proposal for a non-renewable fixed-term appointment of 10 years delivered our objective, but on reflection we conceded that seven years more accurately struck the balance that we sought.

It may assist colleagues if I remind them of what happened in the other place and what was said by Opposition spokespersons on Wales. The Government amendment reducing the ombudsman's term of appointment from 10 to seven years followed detailed and extensive debate. On Second Reading, the 10-year appointment was a cause of concern to their Lordships, who felt that it was too long. In Grand Committee on 25 January, Lord Roberts tabled an amendment on behalf of the Conservative Opposition to introduce a five-year term renewable for five years. Baroness Gale with, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) may be interested to learn, the support of the Liberal Democrat Lord Livsey and others, tabled an amendment to reduce the term of appointment to seven years. It is sometimes important that we speak with the same voice, even though we are in different Houses.

The Government agreed to table an amendment reducing the period of appointment to seven years on Report. That was welcomed by some peers, including Lord Roberts, who said:

Quite properly, Lord Roberts returned to the issue on Report on 10 February, as he still thought that a five-year term was the best option. However, the Government amendment, which reduced the term of appointment to seven years, received support from Lord Livsey among others. After listening to the debate, Lord Roberts did not in fact move his amendment for a five-year renewable term.
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During the debate, Lord Roberts acknowledged that a seven-year period was an improvement on the original 10-year period. The hon. Member for Leominster said that an ombudsman who could be influenced by the possibility of the renewal should not be appointed in the first place. I entirely agree, but I am trying to make the point that there could be a perception of influence, so it is important that we tackle that. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) asked about varying the term of appointment at a later stage, but there is no provision in the Bill to allow that, and we would need another piece of primary legislation to do so.

Mr. Win Griffiths: If, at a later stage, the House of Commons gave the Welsh Assembly law-making powers, surely it could amend the Bill on the Floor of the Assembly at an appropriate time?

Mr. Touhig: I shall not be tempted down that road. I have no crystal ball and I would not like to speculate whether there will be any changes to the government of Wales legislation at some time in the future. What my hon. Friend says would be accurate, but I would not wish to be tempted at this stage.

6.45 pm

Much has been said in the House and in the other place about the virtue of the public service ombudsman in Scotland being a five-year appointment, with an option of a further five years. But Scotland has not yet reached the end of its first five-year term, so we do not know whether it is a better model than the one that we are proposing.

On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Leominster referred to the Welsh Affairs Committee report and its response to the Bill. The Committee recommended:

but added:

the Committee recommended that the Government

I formally responded to that report earlier today, setting out the Government's position.

In view of the comments made by the hon. Members for Leominster and for Hazel Grove, I should draw attention to the fact that when taking evidence the Committee did not, to my knowledge, directly pose the question to all witnesses as to whether the appointment should be for a single fixed term or a fixed term renewable. In most instances witnesses were asked whether they thought a fixed term of 10 years was appropriate. If asked again, those same witnesses may be content with a fixed-term appointment of seven years. We simply do not know.

Finally, it is not entirely clear whether the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Leominster is intended to have the effect that, if renewed, the ombudsman's second term would flow straight after his first term.
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I think that is probably the intention, but if it is not, the amendment would have an unintended consequence. Paragraph 4(4) of schedule 1 provides that any person who has been appointed as an acting ombudsman is eligible for appointment as the ombudsman, unless he has already held office as the ombudsman. That was drafted on the basis that the ombudsman's appointment would be a single fixed-term appointment.

If the amendment does not have the effect that I described, it would mean that a person who had been the ombudsman for five years and who had stepped down and taken up the post of acting ombudsman could not seek a renewal of appointment as the ombudsman for another five years because of paragraph 4(4) of schedule 1.

I hope that, after that brief explanation, the hon. Gentleman feels reassured that we are trying to strike a difficult balance. I believe we have made the right decision. Time will tell. I hope that, in the light of my comments, he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

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