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Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC):
In the ASW case, the Government completely disregarded the conclusions and recommendations of the independent parliamentary ombudsman. What
guarantee do older people in Wales have that the UK Government will not show equal disregard for the recommendations of the commissioner for older people?
Mr. Hain: We would not set up the commissioner for older people only to take no notice, would we? I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome our proposal with his characteristic generosity. I acknowledge, to be fair, that his party has supported it in principle. Indeed, as I shall argue later, there is all-party support for the Bill. I believe that the Government deserve credit for introducing the fund and for providing £2.3 billion. I agree that ASW workers were treated scandalously, but at least we are the first Government to try to provide some assistance where we can.
Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I am listening with great interest to the Secretary of States speech and Conservative Members support the measure. He has concentrated on pensioners, but the Bill refers to a commissioner for older people. How does he define older people? At what age do people become old? Surely that is an important issue.
Just like the Childrens Commissioner for Wales, many of the policies that I have been explaining have blazed a trail right across the United Kingdom. Policies such as free bus travel for older people that were pioneered in Wales are now being copied in England. The recent pensions White Paper, published last month, shows that only Labour is capable of helping older people to respond to the challenges of the future.
We live in an ageing society. By 2050, the number of pensioners will have risen by 50 per cent. At the same time, as many as 12 million people are failing to save enough to guarantee a decent income in retirement. Unless we take action now and plan for the long term, millions of people face an uncertain future. That is why we are building a national consensus around pension reform, and the Bill is part of that. For example, our recent White Paper includes a number of important, far-sighted proposals to help us to meet the pensions challenge and provide for tomorrows pensioners, as well as todays.
A new national savings scheme with compulsory contributions from employers and auto-enrolment for employees will boost savings rates for the future. A higher, fairer state pension re-linked to earningsthe earnings link was broken by the Conservativeswill provide a foundation for further saving. A higher retirement age will help us to meet the challenge of an ageing society, and the least well-off will continue to be helped by a guarantee credit linked to earnings.
I understood that the Bill related to establishing a commissioner for older people and devolved matters. Is the Secretary of State now telling us that he is planning to devolve pensions to the Welsh
Assembly? Obviously, if he is making such a fuss about the Governments pensions arrangements, they must be passing them to down to the Assembly, because they have nothing to do with the Bill.
Mr. Hain: Dream on. The pensioners of Wales will benefit from this pioneering Billprobably one of the first such Bills in the worldand I am setting the context for this very important initiative. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Lady finds it embarrassing to have to listen to the incredible record of success of our Labour Government in protecting our senior citizens and lifting millions out of poverty. She does not like to recognise that, bearing mind the miserable record that she was part of under the Conservative Government. Against that backdrop, however, in the way that I have been describing it patiently and carefully
Julie Morgan: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, while he is still considering the Bills background. Does he agree that the Government are the first Government to recognise the problem of poverty for women in old age? Does he not applaud the Governments proposals that will lift so many women out of poverty?
Mr. Hain: Indeed. The scandalous way in which many generations of women have been discriminated against in not being able to get the full basic retirement entitlement that men have is now being addressed under our new policy.
Well, if the right hon. Gentleman did not say it, he will have the opportunity to do so when he returns to the Dispatch Box. He does me an injustice because I am very happy to listen to an older worker telling me what he is planning to do from the other side of the Dispatch Box. I should just like to remind him that when I was a very junior Minister, I had responsibility for older workers and introduced a campaign to get older people back into work and to try to stop discrimination against older workers, so at least I have a proud record of dealing with that problem
not a record to which the right hon. Gentleman probably ever wants to admit.
Mr. Hain: I thought, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you were going to remind all Members that there is a World cup match coming up; but to respond specifically to the hon. Ladys rather graceless jibe, I will, of course, be supporting England with enthusiasm. I am flying an England flag, not out of my house in Wales, but out of my flat in London. Of course several Chelsea players are playing for the England team, and I will be watching them with enthusiasm if she allows me to do so and if hon. Members are co-operative on this matter. Of course the match starts at 5 pmI just remind the House.
By the way, I acknowledge the hon. Ladys contribution; it is just a shame that the rest of the pension support was so terrible and that so many pensioners in Wales were plunged into poverty. If we ever have to face the iniquity of a Conservative Government again in decades to come, let us hope that we have an older persons commissioner who can fight against the merciless assault on pensioners rights that the Conservatives will doubtless be responsible for in the future, as they were in the past.
Mr. Roger Williams: Surely the Secretary of State highlights the weaknesses of the Bill? The commissioners proposed powers will not allow that person to speak directly to Westminster Ministers on issues such as pensions, which are so important to the elderly in Wales. Our noble Friends tried to put that weakness right in the other place, and we will try to put it right in the House.
Mr. Hain: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is not recognising the devolution settlement. The devolution settlementfor which the people of Wales voted, albeit narrowly, in a referendum in which he and I were on the same side in campaigning for a yes votedid not include the devolution of pensions. Of course it did not. Nor did it include tax and social security policy and a lot of other things. Therefore, it would be entirely wrong to give the older persons commissioner for Wales powers and duties in respect of non-devolved matters
Equally, however, the commissioner will be able to make representations to me, as the Secretary of State, or to the hon. Gentleman, as a local Member of Parliament, and Westminster Members and Ministers can take up those matters. For example, if a patient is placed by a Welsh commissioning authoritya local council or health authorityacross the border in an old persons home or perhaps a hospital and complaints arise, the older persons commissioner will also be able to make representations to the Welsh commissioning body for it to take up with the provider across the border in England. It is interesting that the childrens commissioner for England and the Childrens Commissioner for Wales have worked out satisfactory
co-operation arrangements, and all those sorts of things will be possible in future, on a common-sense basis.
Mr. Hain: It is not a question of a formal right. I have received letters from the Childrens Commissioner for Walesof course I have; I am a Welsh Member of Parliament, like the hon. Gentlemanand of course he can write to me, as the Secretary of State, although he has no formal power to make representations. It is important that we do not undermine the devolution settlement and that we recognise that common-sense arrangements apply. I can assure the House that, if the commissioner identifies concerns about pensioner poverty in Wales, he or she will be able to take action to fight for older peoples rights and to fight their corner with the Government.
Against that backdrop of Labour achievement and forward thinking, the proposals for a commissioner for older people should be seen, and by establishing a commissioner Welsh Labour is, once again, leading the way in responding to the challenges that face older people. Over the next 20 years, the concentration of older people in Wales will increase, with over-60s forming nearly one third of the population. Over the same period, the number of people aged 85 and over will increase by a third. Changing family living patterns, fewer children and the increasing number of single people will also change the shape of our society in Wales.
Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): My right hon. Friend may be aware that the UK charity Counsel and Care has expressed concern that the Governments social exclusion agenda fails to address the needs of the elderly. I understand what the commissioners role will be, as far as we know it before we debate it today, but will my right hon. Friend ensure that the role specifically includes assessing the needs of the elderly and banishing their social exclusion where it occurs? I appreciate that the charity is UK-based and is speaking on behalf of all UK senior citizens, but will he take the advantage of the Bill to ensure that the commissioner has that role in Wales?
Mr. Hain: Indeed. The commissioner will certainly be able to take into account that important agenda and any issues that my hon. Friend might raise with the commissioner on behalf of her constituents, or that that charity might raise in respect of Welsh pensioners, and the wider implications.
The demographic changes that I have described mean we must adapt our ways of working to engage older people fully and plan for the significant social and other changes that we face. At present, many older people in Wales are unable to live the lives that they want or deserve because they feel marginalised and discriminated against, with too many barriers preventing them from making a full contribution. Those barriers prevent older people from using their knowledge and skills for the benefit of our economy and everyone in our society.
It is therefore essential that we enable older people to play the fullest possible role by establishing an independent champion for all older people in Wales. Furthermore, older people are as diverse as any other group in our society, with the needs of one varying widely from the needs of another. The vital role that older people play therefore needs to encompass a wide range of issues, from employment, housing, and transport, to education and sport, as well as health, social services, pensions and long-term care.
Here again, the commissioner will have a vital role to play, ensuring that our public services are able to provide the best possible service to all older people, helping them live as full a life as possible and making sure that they have access to all the resources they need.
Older people today are more likely to be healthy, to be working, to be better off, and to be contributing to society as a volunteer, school governor or carer, for example. Nevertheless, there are still many older people who suffer ill health, poor housing, lack of access to services or some other disadvantage. That is particularly true in Wales, with our industrial heritage, our significant rural population, and our greater number of older people, compared with the rest of the United Kingdom. A commissioner will be a powerful advocate for those people in Wales, ensuring that their voices are heard.
The idea for a commissioner was one of the recommendations of the advisory group on a strategy for older people in Wales. The idea was then translated into a firm commitment to establish a commissioner, made in the Welsh Labour manifesto for the 2003 Assembly elections. An advisory group subsequently chaired by the Assembly Deputy Minister with responsibility for older people, John Griffiths, and involving key stakeholders, older people and experts from across Wales, produced a report on the role and responsibilities of a commissioner. That was published for public consultation in May 2004 and contained 17 recommendations.
The responses to the consultation showed that respondents were overwhelmingly in favour of the concept of an independent commissioner and the functions proposed for the office. Help the Aged said that the establishment of a commissioner for older people
will place Wales at the forefront of achieving equality and justice for older people
will aid the good practice across sectors by engendering a culture of equality and dignity for older people.
The Bill has already been the subject of consideration in the other place. As a result, it has benefited from a number of amendments that clarify and strengthen the powers of the commissioner. Important changes have been made to enable the commissioner to work jointly with other commissioners and ombudsmen and to establish an internal complaints procedure.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee on the draft Bill last year, and it was also considered by the Health and Social Services Committee of the Assembly. Although its members raised a small number of issues for further consideration, the Assembly Committee was generally supportive of the Bill and its provisions.
The Bill proposes the establishment of a commissioner who will be independent of Government and of the Assembly, and who will be able to speak on behalf of older people in Wales, helping to raise their profile and increase awareness of their needs. The Bill is firmly based on the model of the Childrens Commissioner for Wales and provides for a commissioner for older people with a similar set of powers.
The commissioner will be able to review the effect on older people in Wales of the discharge, or proposed discharge, of functions of public bodies, such as the Assembly, local authorities, local health boards, NHS trusts and further or higher education organisations in Wales. That will ensure that the work of public bodies has a positive impact on, and takes full account of, the needs of older people. For example, where the commissioner suspects the occurrence of elder abuse, as well as working with the police and local authorities, the commissioner will also be able to review the way a local authority has implemented its policies and procedures for dealing with abuse, and to make recommendations for the future.
Today is world elder abuse awareness day, and I am proud that we are able, through this debate, to send a very clear message that elder abuse, wherever and however it occurs, is indefensible and unacceptable. The commissioner will have an important role in projecting this message and improving existing protection.
The Bill also gives the commissioner a power to help to ensure that organisations that provide certain services to older people have arrangements for whistle-blowing and complaints that safeguard and promote the interests of older people. The commissioner will also have the power to check up on advocacy services provided in Wales.
Another important element of the Bill is the power that it gives to the Assembly to enable the commissioner to examine individual cases and to require information, explanations or assistance from persons about the casepowers equivalent to those of the High Court. That will enable the commissioner to help individuals experiencing service failure to gather the evidence they need to press for charges or to press for change.
The Bill also enables the commissioner to work jointly with other commissioners and ombudsmen where they may both be entitled to examine individual cases. That will prevent duplication and ensure a joined-up approach to any examination. At present, the power extends to the public services ombudsman for Wales, and there is provision for the Assembly by order to apply it to other commissioners and ombudsmen in the future. For example, the Assembly might want to add the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. That would then clarify on the face of the Bill the powers of the commissioners to act together, to share information and to prepare joint reports. Furthermore, we envisage that the working relationship between the commissioner and those other commissioners and ombudsmen will be formalised by a memorandum of understanding.
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