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Other powers in the Bill include the discretion to assist an individual in making a complaint or representation, to undertake research or educational activities, to issue guidance on best practice and to make reports to the Assembly on the exercise of the commissioner’s functions.

The Bill also provides for the commissioner to consider and make representations to the Assembly about any matter—this was the point raised by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price)—relating to the interests of older people in Wales. This will allow the commissioner to raise non-devolved issues relating to the interests of older people with the Assembly, which could then take them up with the UK Government. In fact, Assembly Ministers and the Under-Secretary have already corresponded on the matter and we are committed to ensuring that the process of responding to representations made by the commissioner works as effectively and efficiently as possible and in a common-sense way, as the children’s commissioner has pioneered.

In addition, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I will invite the commissioner to approach us, as UK Ministers responsible for Wales, about any non-devolved matter affecting older people in Wales, just as we have done in the case of the children’s commissioner—a point also raised by the hon. Gentleman. However, it is important to note that the commissioner will not be able to exercise his or her functions directly in relation to non-devolved issues. Those matters are properly the responsibility of the UK Government and it would not be appropriate for a commissioner established by the Assembly and for Wales to have such a remit. The provisions of the Bill therefore preserve these clear lines of democratic accountability. That is important.

The geography of Wales means that issues affecting older people often cross local authority boundaries, as we have heard, and sometimes national boundaries, too. We have paid particular attention to ensuring that the commissioner is able to assist an older person in Wales with issues that cross the border—for example, the commissioning of care services in England by Welsh local authorities.

The Bill defines an older person as someone aged 60 or over. That includes people who are entitled to receive winter fuel and pension credit benefits, women aged 60 receiving the state pension, and those covered by the Assembly’s free swimming and bus pass schemes, which also start at 60. This age limit strikes exactly the right balance. If it were any lower—there were demands for that—it would have significant implications for the commissioner’s potential work load. If it were any higher it would miss an important and growing section of older people. By setting the limit at 60, we will ensure that the commissioner is able to play the most effective role possible in championing the interests of older people.

This important Bill has attracted a good deal of support in Wales from older people and their representatives and all the parties in the National Assembly. I hope that it will receive a similar degree of support on both sides of the House today in the
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interests of not only senior citizens in Wales, but hon. Members who want to watch England win their World cup match at 5 o’clock.

The commissioner will provide a vital step forward in addressing ageism and discrimination against older people. The Bill provides the necessary powers to enable the commissioner to play an effective role in turning the tide against such attitudes, and it will improve the quality of life for many older people. It will deliver a real champion for the rights and interests of Welsh senior citizens, to whom Wales owes so much, and I commend it to the House.

1 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for taking the House through the details of the Bill—never before have I seen a man so desperate to escape from the Dispatch Box to get to the television box!

I commend the Government’s choice of date, because this is international elder abuse day, which is apposite. International elder abuse day is being marked by the Conservative party in Wales—the leader of the Conservative group in the Assembly, Nick Bourne, is going to county hall in Monmouthshire with our older people’s champion, Nick Ramsay, who, at age 31, is a fine example of a young man who is taking on the responsibilities and concerns of older people in our community.

I am delighted to be joined on the Front Bench by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) who will make the winding-up speech, and I hope that the House will give him a warm welcome. I apologise to the House because I shall be leaving before the winding-up speeches. I have informed the Secretary of State about the situation, which depends not on a football match but a train time—I do not have the advantage of a chauffeur-driven car to take me to Wales, so I must rely on the excellent train service this afternoon.

I broadly welcome the Bill, but there are points of detail that it will be helpful to explore in Committee. The Bill has already been subject to detailed scrutiny in another place, and I want to place on record Conservative Members’ gratitude for the sterling work of my noble Friend Lord Roberts of Conwy. In another place, he intimated that he has a vested interest in the creation of a commissioner for older people, but, notwithstanding that personal interest, I hope that he remains a champion of Welsh people, young and old, for many years to come.

Regrettably, I need to inject a note of disharmony into proceedings. I cannot help contrasting the proper scrutiny that this Bill, which has widespread support, is receiving with what will happen to future legislation for Wales. If the Secretary of State gets his way, this Bill is likely to be the last of its kind, because the procedures set out in part 3 of the Government of Wales Bill will reduce scrutiny in this House to a one and a half hour debate on a Order in Council, which we will simply be invited to rubber-stamp. Although future provisions may be more complex and controversial than this Bill, they will receive less scrutiny on the Floor of the House here in Westminster. As the Secretary of State is all too aware, the House will return to that issue shortly.

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The Bill is relatively non-contentious. The proposal to appoint a commissioner for older people, the first anywhere in the United Kingdom, has attracted widespread support. I have read many of the contributions that have been sent in during the passage of the legislation, and it is good to see the level of support right across the board. Indeed, the idea is so good that I do not understand why the Government are not applying it uniformly across the United Kingdom, because the commissioner will not have the ability to scrutinise matters that are not delegated. Some probing will therefore be necessary in Committee to explore the Government’s thinking and the reasons for not covering, for example, the whole of England and Wales.

Mr. Hain: I have mentioned common-sense arrangements. The Children’s Commissioner for Wales already has informal relations with the police and the Prison Service, although those functions are not devolved, and I foresee similar opportunities for the commissioner for older people to do the job that they want to do in the way in which they want to do it. However, it would not be right to include non-devolved matters within the remit of the commissioner for older people in Wales.

Mrs. Gillan: I understand that point, which prompts the question why there will not be a commissioner for England and Wales, because someone who lives 2 yd across the border in England will not have the same protection as their neighbour. I appreciate that the matter concerns devolution, but devolution does not have to act to the detriment of people on one side of the border. It would be interesting to know why the appointment of a commissioner for England was not considered.

Mr. Hain: This is one of many pioneering bright ideas from Wales and from Welsh Labour. Who knows what might happen in the future, because the children’s commissioner, which was another bright idea from Welsh Labour, was transposed across the border to England? The Conservative party has not been an enthusiastic advocate of devolution, but we need to adopt a common-sense approach.

Mrs. Gillan: Methinks that I have given the Secretary of State an opportunity to make a little party political broadcast, which was not my intention. Many of the organisations that have contributed to the thinking behind the Bill would resent the Labour label.

Conservative Members would normally look sceptically at a proposal to establish yet another commissioner—there is a commissioner for everything these days. In this instance, however, I shall leave aside my natural scepticism, because it is possible to make a convincing case for this commissioner. As the Secretary of State has said, Wales has a growing proportion of older people compared with other parts of the United Kingdom. Currently, just more than 22 per cent. of the population of Wales—about 600,000 people—is aged over 60 compared with 20 per cent. of the population in the United Kingdom as a whole, and more than 17 per cent. of the Welsh population is aged over 64 compared with just under 16 per cent. of the UK
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population. Looking ahead, demographic changes in the next 20 years are expected significantly to alter the balance of the population, with the proportion of people aged 60 or over expected to reach 28 per cent.

According to research carried out for the Welsh Assembly Government, 430,000 households in Wales—one in three—will include someone aged 65 or older by 2017. In the same year, nearly 150,000 households will be headed by a person aged 75 or older, and about 50,000 households will be headed by a person aged 85 or older, which would be an increase of 56 per cent. on current figures.

Mr. Hollobone: One significant point about those figures is that if the United Kingdom as a whole contained the same proportion of older people, there would be another 900,000 older people in the United Kingdom.

Mrs. Gillan: That point is valid. The Government should be thinking about how they will cope with the pensioner households in England as well as in Wales. They should be thinking outside the box and not only inside the territory.

Many people in Wales aged 50 and over suffer from problems associated with poor housing, poor nutrition, lack of opportunity for employment, and inadequate transport services. I know from personal experience as a junior Minister in the last Conservative Administration that age discrimination in employment is often rife, especially when someone has been made redundant in their 40s or 50s. Older people also suffer from being denied pay rises or proper training opportunities on account of their age. Several organisations—Action on Elder Abuse, Help the Aged, Age Concern, the British Institute of Human Rights, and public bodies such as the Commission for Health Improvement—have cited examples of older people’s basic rights being violated.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What relationship does my hon. Friend predict that the new commissioner will have with the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, which recently decided not to approve quality of life improving drugs for people suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease? Increasing numbers of people are in need of those drugs, which also benefit their carers. People often suffer for many years because although their general health is good, those particular drugs have not been approved by NICE. Does my hon. Friend foresee that the commissioner will continue the campaign to try to get them approved?

Mrs. Gillan: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It will be interesting to see exactly what the commissioner can achieve over and above Members of Parliament and Ministers, and other representatives of older people. We shall be expecting rather a lot of this commissioner, and I am afraid that they will be expected to deliver. There is a very strong feeling, no matter where one’s constituency is, that there is discrimination against older people in terms of the way
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in which drugs are approved for handing out and the demands made on the health service. It will be interesting to hear what the Minister has to say when we probe these issues further during the passage of the Bill.

Because of the problems that older people have experienced and reported over the years, and because many of them are reluctant to complain about bad service or poor treatment, several organisations have argued for a dedicated commissioner who can stand up to defend and enforce older people’s rights and promote age equality in service provision across the board. However, we should be under no illusions, and we certainly should not try to kid the people of Wales into believing that the commissioner will be a panacea for every problem faced by older people. Several people have rightly argued that the commissioner will be no substitute for improvements such as a better basic state pension or improved personal care. Indeed, when the Bill was published, Help the Aged warned that

Nor will the commissioner do much to alleviate the swingeing 94 per cent.—or £467—increase in band D council tax that has hammered many older people in Wales, or to sort out the chronic problems of the health service in Wales, where older people are reckoned to account for about 60 per cent. of spending. Moreover, legislation alone will not eradicate discrimination overnight. That requires a change of attitudes, which will, unfortunately, take time. However, anything that the newly appointed commissioner can do to speed up the process will be welcome.

The Secretary of State outlined the various stages through which the Bill has passed, but rather than dwell on those I want to touch on some of the issues that arose as it made its way through the other place and which we may wish to explore in Committee. I am still not entirely clear about the precise role that the Government envisage for the commissioner or what is the primary function of that office. Is the commissioner a kind of Ofwat or Ofcom for the elderly, or something more? I am interested in what the Secretary of State said about the practical and common-sense operation of the system. How does he envisage that working?

The Government call the commissioner an “independent champion” of older people and have given him a wide range of quasi-judicial powers. For example, clause 13 provides him with sweeping powers of entry, while clauses 9 and 11 confer on him, in carrying out some of his duties, the same powers as the High Court. In other words, in certain cases he, or she, may have the power to act as investigator, judge and jury. We will want to examine the circumstances in which those powers are to be exercised, as well as the extent of the envisaged operations of the commissioner’s staff. Another of the commissioner’s principal functions will be to make representations to the National Assembly on matters affecting the interests of older people—almost, in effect, usurping at worst, or duplicating at best, the role of Ministers. We will seek clarification on those areas and on the way in which the commissioner and his staff will work with, or across, the Welsh Assembly Government, the Welsh Assembly and other organisations.

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The Bill predates by some months the publication of the Government of Wales Bill, which formally ends the corporate Assembly and establishes the executive and legislative functions by establishing a Welsh Assembly Government as a distinctive entity. Does the Secretary of State envisage that the commissioner’s main representations will be made to the relevant Minister in the Assembly Government or to the Assembly itself, and how will that relationship work?

Finance is another matter of concern. The office of the commissioner will be funded by the National Assembly out of money that has already been allocated to it under the block grant from Westminster. Start-up costs are estimated at £500,000, with annual running costs for the commissioner and a predicted staff of about 30 estimated at £1.5 million. We will want to know exactly what limits will be placed on that expenditure, how the office will operate, and what limits will be placed on the number of staff that the commissioner can employ. What discussions have been held with the First Minister and Members of the Welsh Assembly Government to establish where the money to run this operation will come from, and which areas of expenditure in Wales will be cut or sacrificed in order to find it? What could have been done with that money if it had been spent directly on older people and their needs? What other Departments in the Assembly will make cuts in their services to the elderly to pay for the new operation? Will they face some reductions in order to accommodate the large amount of money that has to be found in the budget for the commissioner?

We believe that the commissioner should be independent and should make representations about the effectiveness of the operations of the Welsh Assembly Government and Ministers. But how can that happen if he is funded directly by the same Welsh Ministers upon whose performance he will be delivering a critical analysis? That is the scenario as a consequence of schedule 1 of the Bill and schedule 11 of the Government of Wales Bill. Responsibility for funding the commissioner will be transferred from the Assembly to Welsh Ministers, as it will in respect of the children’s commissioner. As my noble Friend Baroness Noakes pointed out in the other place, the result is that in future the commissioner’s funding is to be transferred to the very people from whom they are supposed to be independent. I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that that is illogical and undermines the Government’s argument that the commissioner will be an “independent champion” of older people. We should explore that in Committee.

It is particularly relevant to repeat that the work of the commissioner will not act as a panacea given that, under clause 2, the commissioner’s powers to make representations on behalf of older people will, as the Secretary of State confirmed, be confined to matters that are devolved to the National Assembly. He must be aware that a great many of the issues that affect older people in Wales will still be decided here in Westminster—pensions and benefits being two obvious examples. In addition, the limitation on the commissioner’s exercise of powers to devolved areas only is unrealistic as, in the words of my noble Friend Lord Roberts:

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My noble Friend speaks with considerable experience of political life in Wales, both as a long-serving Member of this House and as a Minister.

Rather than simply making representations to the Assembly, which will then decide what, if any, action to take, would not it make sense to adopt a more pragmatic approach? I sense that the Secretary of State is considering that. Could we not amend the Bill so that, in some circumstances, the commissioner could have direct access to the relevant Secretary of State if he or she deems it necessary? I hope such an amendment will be considered in Committee without the Government appearing to lose face. We hope that we can work together constructively to get the measure right before it reaches the statute book.

Mr. Hain: Perhaps I can help the hon. Lady. It is important that we do not blur channels of accountability. The commissioner is appointed by the Welsh Assembly Government through the normal, independent Nolan-type procedures. He or she is not a puppet of that Government but an independent figure, as the hon. Lady acknowledged. However, one cannot serve and be accountable to two authorities—the United Kingdom Government and the Welsh Assembly—at the same time. However, as I said, that has not been a problem for the children’s commissioner and it will not be a problem for the commissioner for older people in championing the rights of senior citizens.

Mrs. Gillan: I appreciate that intervention. However, we need to examine that independence carefully, especially when we consider schedule 1(3)(3), which provides for amounts to be payable at the Assembly’s discretion. We need to explore details, perhaps to satisfy my understanding rather than to be dogmatic about anything. I still maintain that access to the relevant Secretary of State would not blur lines of communication but deal holistically with pensioners and senior citizens in Wales because older people in Wales come under two regimes. We need to have a debate about that in Committee.

Mr. Hollobone: Those of us with some limited experience of local government know that the trend is increasingly to provide a one-stop-shop service for our constituents. In Kettering, anyone who wants to complain about the county council goes to the borough council offices and there is an agreement between the authorities that the complaint will be taken up. People in Wales will become confused and disappointed if the commissioner cannot advance their cause.

Mrs. Gillan: My hon. Friend is right that there is a danger of that. There is a question about points of access to the system for individual citizens. It appears as though there may still be an opportunity for confusion and the role is not as cohesive as we envisaged when we first considered the matter. The devil is in the detail and the Government must have the opportunity to assure us that what we fear is not the case or show us that there will be a cohesive point of entry into the system for older people rather than the divided one that an initial reading of the Bill suggests.

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