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I notice that the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) is in his place. On Monday, when I was reading Hansard, it appeared that I had said that I had visited his constituency, which I had not. I take the opportunity to set the record straight. I referred to "hon. Members", and the record identified him. That is where the misunderstanding arose, and this is my opportunity to put it right.
I am grateful to the Minister for his clear explanation of the thinking behind the seven-year term. Particularly important is the point that he made about perception, because of the influence of the Assembly and the influence of the ombudsman over the Assembly. I found the Minister's comments helpful.
I pay tribute to my noble Friend Lord Roberts of Conwy, who has been tremendous in his attentiveness and his assiduous appreciation and critique of the Bill. He rightly said that he would not quibble over seven years. Having knocked three years off the period of the appointment, he felt that he had done extremely well, and I am inclined to agree with him. He is a wise man. He had correctly identified the correct term and I should follow his example and not quibble. What helps me further is the point that the Minister made about drafting.
I am not a great draftsman and it is extremely difficult to pen a quick amendment that is perfect in every way. I am sure that the real experts, wherever they may be, are capable of identifying drafting errors, but the point about the ombudsman being able to be reappointed despite his term of office not running concurrently would be singularly unhelpful and undo the purpose of the five-plus-five amendment, as the Minister rightly said. Having made those points and having paid tribute my noble Friend Lord Roberts, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
At the outset, I pay tribute to Members in the other place and in this place, colleagues in the Assembly and officials who have worked hard in a very short time to bring forward this worthwhile Bill. Our consideration of the matter at an earlier stage means that it has widespread support across the House.
The Bill will bring together the offices of the commission for local administration in Wales, the health service commissioner for Wales, the Welsh Administration ombudsman and, when established later this year, the social housing ombudsman for Wales into a unified jurisdiction led by one person, the public services ombudsman for Wales. It will establish a public services ombudsman for Wales for the first time in a unified situation, providing a modern, flexible and accessible service for members of the public who wish to complain about most public service providers operating in relation to Wales.
The Bill contains a number of new provisions. It gives the ombudsman important powers of investigation in his own right, but it also allows him to seek to resolve disputes between complainants and the relevant public bodies without the need for a formal investigation. It provides for him to issue guidance to all bodies within his jurisdiction on the requirements of good administrative practicea matter on which we touched on Second Readinga power that only the local government ombudsman had previously. It provides powers to permit him to work jointly with other ombudsmen, including the parliamentary commissioner and the health service commissioner for England, for the investigation of cross-border complaints.
Finally, the Bill makes express provision to ensure that, in the area of health and social care, the ombudsman can look synoptically at complaints about the consequences of decisions made by social care professionals while working alongside clinical colleagues.
This is an immensely worthwhile Bill, which will give Wales a first-class ombudsman service for the 2lst century. I am very pleased that it has had widespread support in the House and in the other place, and with those few remarks I commend it to the House.
Mr. Wiggin: Not for the first time this evening, I agree with the Minister. I was concerned that should my amendment have been carried, the Bill would not have made it on to the statute book. As the Minister says, this is a worthwhile Bill, and I, too, pay tribute to the Committee in the Assembly as well to my colleagues and my noble Friends in the other place.
As I stated on Second Reading on Monday, this is a helpful Bill with clear potential to improve the standard of public services for the people of Wales. I have previously raised my concerns over the need for us to be certain that Welsh taxpayers' hard-earned money is spent wisely in the implementation of the changes that the Bill outlines, and through my amendment I have also touched on areas where the Bill could have been improved. However, the Bill is helpful in achieving the
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best for the people of Wales, and while it might have been more constructive had the term of office been a little shorter, it is still acceptable.
We have also seen considerable improvements as a result of the amendments tabled by my Conservative colleagues in the other place. My noble Friend Lord Roberts of Conwy achieved the inclusion of the provision ensuring that the Secretary of State must consult the Assembly before recommending a person for appointment as the ombudsman. That will assist in securing a more accountable and impartial appointment. I am also thankful that the ombudsman will have a level of political independence because of the fact that he can be removed only on grounds of ill health or misbehaviour, and that he can in the last resort seek the view of the High Court. That gives him the legal power that will remove any possibility of his decisions being ignored by the authorities involved.
In seeking to achieve the very best for the people of Wales, we are happy that the Bill will make it on to the statute book. It is a helpful Bill and I am glad that I have been able to play my very small part, along with all those whom I have mentioned.
Mr. Stunell : I add the support of the Liberal Democrats, who welcome the Bill. When we review the Bill's purpose, we have to say that it is an important tidying-up provision, making it much easier for residents in Wales to understand how they might make a complaint. All of us who serve in this House know that the general public are well aware of the ombudsman service, but are often not well aware of which particular ombudsman they should approach to deal with specific complaints. It is good to see a public service ombudsman Bill before the House, and I hope that it will now complete its passage quickly.
The Bill has been improved in the debates at this end of the building and at the other end. I welcome the fact that the Welsh Assembly will have a role, through consultation, in the appointment of the ombudsman, and I note that it will have the capacity to amend the remit of the ombudsman service, with the social housing provision coming quite soon.
I regret that we have not got exactly what we wanted on length of tenure, but there is no doubt that the Bill as a whole is worth while, deserves the support of the House and will benefit the residents of Wales.
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): I am disappointed that the Minister did not feel that he had anything to say. Some interesting concessions have been made in the other place, where some valuable work has been done by the Earl of Northesk and Baroness Noakes. I am glad that the Government decided not to ignore that, even if they ignored us when we tried to make pretty much the same points in Committee.
It is important to put the amendments into context. Although we did not oppose the Bill on Second Reading, we had a number of major concerns about it. Merging the departments involved is a major change, and we are not convinced that it was given enough consideration by the Government or that its implementation was properly thought through. We are also worried that the measure might prejudice taxpayer confidentiality. Taken together, all those things might put at risk some of the yield.
The Lords amendments go a small wayit is only a very small waytowards assuaging some of those concerns. Lords amendment No. 1 applies to clause 13. It limits the scope for disclosure of information by a Revenue officer. The duty of confidentiality is, of course, extremely important, and it helps to protect the yield. It is why a number of us fought very hard to retain the oath of confidentiality, which the Government had intended to abolish and on which they relented at the last moment in Committee. The amendment provides that Parliament will ensure that commissioners have a measure of control over disclosure, except in very limited circumstances. We will not oppose it, although we would have liked something stronger.
Anybody forming a view on the matter must examine what Lord Goldsmith said about it in another place, where he set out the circumstances in which an officer might feel the need to give specific instructions to disclose information. If that power were to be abused, MPs would hear about it, in which case I hope that they would make a great noise and that we would return to the issue.
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