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15 Jun 2006 : Column 937

The Secretary of State mentioned that, under the Bill as drafted, an older person is defined as someone who is 60 or older. When reading the valuable contributions that such a wide variety of organisations made to the consultation process, it is clear that many people wanted the age limit to be reconsidered. I appreciate that there was not general agreement and that proposals ranged from 50 years of age to 55, 60 and 65. However, many problems that face older people, especially discrimination in employment, occur at a younger age than 60.

The Government’s consultation document, “Opportunity Age: Meeting the challenges of ageing in the 21st century”, referred to several problems that face people over 50. They have not changed since the time when I dealt with such issues. In Committee in the Lords, my noble Friend Lord Roberts called for the definition of an older person to be reduced to 50. The Government responded by saying that that would automatically extend the commissioner’s remit from approximately 600,000 people to more than 1 million. Ministers in the other place also argued that 60 is the age at which people become entitled to numerous benefits, such as winter fuel payments and, in the case of women—for now at least—the state pension.

Again, I wonder whether there is not some case for flexibility by enabling the commissioner to take action to help those over 50 when he or she deems it appropriate. I hope that the Government will take a pragmatic approach so that we can explore whether the age limit in some instances could be loosened instead of sticking rigidly to an age limit of 60.

The Bill is welcome but it is something of a vehicle for Ministers’ party political broadcasts so that, at the next Assembly elections, they can say, “Look at what we've done for older people in Wales—we’ve given you a commissioner.”

Chris Ruane: And why not?

Mrs. Gillan: I note the hon. Gentleman’s comment.

Angela Watkinson: As an older person who is one quarter Welsh, I suggest that we should view the matter as a rich seam into which to tap rather than a body of people who need a lot of help.

Mrs. Gillan: My hon. Friend looks eternally young to me and I shall always remind the Secretary of State that I am younger than him, as I told him when he asked my age behind the Chair earlier.

Despite the Government’s best intentions, older people in Wales will face the same problems and the Bill will not address, let alone resolve, many of them. Many problems have been created by a Labour regime in Wales that has been unable to bring itself to embark on the reforms necessary to deliver the improved public services on which so many disadvantaged and vulnerable people depend.

Although the measure has a great deal of merit, it should not pass through the House without detailed scrutiny. I want to ensure that the establishment of a commissioner for older people in Wales does not
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replace the work of Assembly Members or Ministers in this House or the Assembly. I hope that we can produce a good Bill that will, in turn, establish something beneficial for older people in Wales.

The Bill is not perfect and requires more work. However, with that proviso, I am pleased to wish it well. The Secretary of State and all hon. Members who are looking forward to the football match will be happy to know that I have no intention of opposing Second Reading.

1.27 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak in the important debate on establishing a commissioner for older people in Wales, and especially for letting me do so early, because I need to resume my duties in Committee this afternoon.

I am sure that we are all aware of the way in which older people make an extremely valuable contribution to our communities. Many older people provide support for their sons and daughters, many help with the grandchildren and many are carers for their parents or other elderly relatives. Many help to fill the skills gap by continuing to work. Older people are the backbone of many of our voluntary organisations and cultural groups.

When I go to any groups of pensioners or retired people, I always find that we have a lively debate, which covers a range of issues. When older people get into campaigning mode, they can be a formidable force and will not take no for an answer. Recently, users of St. Paul’s day centre in my constituency got wind of the fact that the county council was considering the possibility of closing it. They immediately set to work, organising a petition, enlisting the support of local councillors, Catherine Thomas—the local Assembly Member—and me. They organised a coach so that the day centre users could go to lobby councillors at county hall and arranged to address the full council. I was proud to be there with them and proud to be sitting by Mary Williams when she gave a speech, which was well argued and came straight from the heart. It could not have failed to move every councillor there. The result was that a decision was taken to keep the centre open five days a week.

Things do not always work out so well, however. Older people do encounter difficulties, come up against discrimination and get pushed to the bottom of the pile. That is why it is so important that we establish a commissioner for older people who will, among other things, scrutinise public services and public bodies in Wales to ensure that they are discharging their functions properly in relation to older people, and who will provide help to older people when they make complaints against the health service or a local authority in Wales. The commissioner should also issue best practice guidance to the public bodies and public services in Wales, to help to promote and safeguard the interests of older people. It is for those reasons that I am pleased to support the Bill, which represents a significant step forward in implementing our manifesto commitment to security and dignity for all in old age.

1.30 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Welsh Liberal Democrats also welcome the Bill and
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will not oppose its Second Reading. However, we shall raise a number of points in Committee because we believe that the Bill could be strengthened to protect older people in Wales.

I would like to acknowledge the long hours and hard work that the noble Lords have put in on the Bill in the other place. I particularly want to pay tribute to the dedication and tenacity of Lord Roberts, Lord Livsey and Lord Thomas, who performed their duties with great energy and enthusiasm.

When the Government revealed their White Paper last year, the Secretary of State described it in his usual understated way as a “trailblazing” Bill for Wales, and I think that he used the term again this afternoon. I wish that we could share his excitement. However, we must question exactly what kind of a trail the Bill is blazing for Wales. The Prime Minister has famously said that his greatest political regret was not going far enough with his policies on reform. In my opinion, the Bill comes close to falling into that trap. Like the Government of Wales Bill, it moves us in the right direction but falls well short of where it should be. This is progress by pigeon step rather than a great leap forward. I think that it was the Prime Minister who also said that the Labour Government were at their best when they were at their boldest. The Bill does not show the Government being bold; it shows them at their most timid.

Wales has a large and growing population of older people. More than 20 per cent. of the population in Wales is over 60, with that population likely to rise in the next 20 years. By 2021, nearly 500,000 households in Wales will contain at least one person over the age of 65. Policies directed at helping to improve the lives of this large sector of Welsh society are very welcome, not least because many older people in Wales are vulnerable, financially and socially. We applaud the Government’s intentions with this policy, but we have some serious reservations about the Bill.

For the commissioner to be effective, he must have a sufficiently broad remit and sufficiently tough powers, and he must be given a voice in the relevant corridors of power. The most pressing failure of the Bill is the commissioner’s relatively weak powers in relation to non-devolved matters. At present, the commissioner’s input on issues such as pensions, benefits and employment is significantly compromised. Let us imagine that the commissioner had been in place last November, and had seen the Turner report, the Government’s response and the new pensions White Paper all come and go. According to the Bill, the commissioner would have had no right to communicate directly with the Ministers responsible for an enormously influential step change in pensions policy. His voice would have been limited on an issue of seismic importance for the people he was paid to represent. I still find it incredible that a pensioner in Wales will be able to write to the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, yet the commissioner will not be allowed make any such input to them directly.

Mrs. Gillan rose—

Mr. Hain rose—

Mr. Williams: I give way to the Secretary of State.

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Mr. Hain: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I apologise to the hon. Lady for butting across her, as it were.

I should like to help the hon. Gentleman, and possibly the hon. Lady, by saying that I made it clear earlier that the commissioner would be able to write to me or to the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger). That is our job; as Secretary of State for Wales and Minister in the Wales Office, we are the gateway to the rest of Whitehall. That has long been an established practice, and it has been widely used by many independent bodies and individuals across Wales.

Mr. Williams: We understand what the Secretary of State is saying, but we wish that the Bill were able to improve and increase the devolved settlement, and to enable it to become more mature. We wish that it would allow the commissioner, who will necessarily be an independent officer, to have more powers.

Mrs. Gillan: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will agree that a reply often comes from the Secretary of State for Wales saying, “This is not my responsibility.” In response to a question on prisons, for example, he would say that it was a matter for the Home Secretary. There will be issues over access to the commissioner. The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill, which started in the House of Lords, is coming to this House on Monday. I wonder how the commissioner will relate to the independent barring board that that Bill introduces. This will be of great concern, because the measure involves people being barred from working with vulnerable adults. There is such complexity to these issues, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that they are not addressed by this Bill.

Mr. Williams: I agree with the hon. Lady, and I am sure that we will raise these points in Committee. Our constituents in Wales want the commissioner to have direct access to the person who is likely to be able to achieve a result, either for themselves on a personal basis or for a group of people involved in a particular issue. The hon. Lady has pointed out one of the issues involved, namely the barring of people from working with vulnerable persons.

Figures obtained by the Welsh Liberal Democrats suggest that, of all the complaints made by older people to citizen’s advice bureaux, 80 per cent. are concerned with pensions and tax credits. Needless to say, neither of these subjects is devolved. As well as being unable to meet directly with Ministers on these issues, the commissioner will be unable to take up individual cases on non-devolved matters. On the basis of those figures, and of the information from the citizen’s advice bureaux, the commissioner would be able to help with only one in five of the cases brought to him.

Giving the commissioner the power to make direct representations to UK Ministers would give greater support to elderly people in Wales. Because of that, we would like the commissioner to have the ability to make direct representations to Westminster Ministers. He will be paid and employed by the Assembly and have
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the right to comment on the implications for older people of actions taken by a whole range of bodies, including the Assembly, the Environment Agency, and local health boards and trusts. Why should he not have the right to give direct feedback to the one body that will arguably have a greater effect on the lives of pensioners in Wales than any other: the UK Government?

We are slightly concerned to note the number of amendments tabled by the Government in the other place, and the fact that the Assembly plenary debate on this issue took place on the day after the Bill’s Second Reading in the House of Lords. That could lead people to suppose that the Government were rushing the Bill through, or that they had got their procedure mixed up. Confusion will arise, because people in Wales will not know what the commissioner’s role is in relation to devolved and non-devolved matters. It needs to be absolutely clear, not only to us and to the Lords, but to the older people in Wales who will be using this service, what the commissioner can and cannot do. We in this place usually know the difference between what is devolved and what is not, although I sometimes have difficulty when constituents ask me a question about a particular issue. I do not have the Government of Wales Act 1998 ingrained on my soul at the moment.

People will assume that an older people’s commissioner will deal with all issues affecting older people. I imagine that there will be a great deal of surprise in Llandrindod when they learn that the commissioner for older people will not be able to speak to the Government about pensions, for example. The issue of clarity is paramount, and I would grateful if the Minister expanded on how he envisages the older persons’ commissioner working alongside similar posts, such as the public services ombudsman and the parliamentary ombudsman. The Secretary of State touched on that issue, which is a significant one. We are all aware of the dangers of excessive bureaucracy and service duplication, and it is important that the Bill should not create further confusion and complication for service users.

There are other limitations in the Bill that could seriously affect the commissioner’s ability to do his job successfully. As has been mentioned, today is world elder abuse awareness day, and I am sure the whole House will join me in congratulating its organisers on their great work in highlighting what is a very serious problem. The Action on Elder Abuse helpline tells us that, in 2003-04, 22,000 people in Wales aged over 65 resided in care homes. Some 45 per cent. of those care homes were independently funded, 34 per cent. were run by local authorities and provided nursing care, and 21 per cent. were run by local authorities with no nursing care provided.

In 2004, the Action on Elder Abuse helpline received 280 calls reporting 428 instances of alleged abuse, 37 per cent. of which related to psychological abuse, 21 per cent. to financial abuse, 16 per cent. to physical abuse, 12 per cent. to neglect and 2 per cent. to sexual abuse. Some 20 per cent. of such abuse occurred in care homes, and 36 per cent. of those suffering abuse in care homes who complained of such abuse identified paid workers as their abusers. Help the Aged has noted that
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residents in any care home funded or owned by a local authority can exercise their human rights. However, those in privately run care homes, or those who are placed in local authority-run care homes but who pay for their care, are not legally protected by the Human Rights Act 1998. As many as nine out of 10 care homes in the UK are operated by private organisations. Two thirds of people living in those homes are paid for by local councils. This is an issue for the 1998 Act, but it also raises the question of where the commissioner will fit in with dealing with it. He needs to contribute to a change in the law; if he does not, he will be nothing but a toothless tiger.

Julie Morgan: Does the hon. Gentleman welcome the clause allowing the commissioner to enter homes such as those that he describes?

Mr. Williams: Help the Aged has expressed concern about the question of the commissioner having power to enter such homes. We will get back to Help the Aged on this issue, because it is still voicing some concerns. We will have to examine the relevant clause in Committee.

Is this Bill the right way forward for the Government to improve the lives of older people in Wales? There is much that the Government should be doing to aid older people. Scrapping council tax would be a start, as that regressive and unfair tax hits Welsh pensioners harder than anyone else. When the Lyons report concludes later this year, I hope that the Government will review their reactionary approach and radically reform that punitive Tory tax policy.

I shall now make mention of a constituency issue relating to the elderly. People who live in park homes—most Members have park homes in their constituencies—are often very vulnerable. The council tax revaluation hit park home owners hard. A number of sites where there were no park homes in any band other than band A now have homes in bands A, B, C and D, which has led to huge increases in the council tax paid. Many people move into park homes later in life to get some capital out of their bricks-and-mortar homes and to have a cheaper lifestyle. The legislation that sets out how council tax valuation should be done covers England and Wales, yet it seems to be implemented differently in Wales from how it is in England. If the commissioner looks into that issue, that will be of great benefit to elderly people living in park homes.

On pensions, many of the Government’s new proposals are welcome and in line with Liberal Democrat policy. But those new proposals will still lean heavily on the broken crutch of means testing, which is failing Welsh pensioners. Currently, as many as 150,000 Welsh pensioners are not getting the pensions that they need and are entitled to because of failures in means-testing. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) has highlighted how many pensioners in Wales are not applying for the pension credit. As a body, Welsh pensioners are probably losing almost £200 million a year.

Labour’s Government in the Welsh Assembly promised free personal care for the disabled, but they have reneged on that manifesto pledge, refusing to help
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many of those who are unable to help themselves. In Scotland, where the Liberal Democrats are in power with the Labour party, all older people get free personal care, thus easing the burden on hospital services and granting to some of the most vulnerable people in our society quality care in their own homes, and removing the threat of having to sell their homes to fund their care.

I make those points because they raise further questions about the role of the commissioner for older people. We know, by and large, what problems older people in Wales face. They face disproportionate tax burdens, an inefficient tax credits system and an unhelpful health system. The commissioner can help to raise the profile of these issues, but his appointment cannot be a substitute for direct and progressive policy changes on pensions, benefits, housing and welfare. An old people’s commissioner who cannot give direct feedback to Ministers on a matter as important as pensions is like a transport commissioner who cannot speak directly to the Secretary of State for Transport. Unless the commissioner can pass direct judgment on the primary issues affecting older people, his ability to represent older people in Wales will be compromised.

The Bill has potential. A commissioner with teeth, and with a broad mandate and an expanded field of vision, could play an important role in representing the one in five people in Wales who are over 60 years old. We will support the Bill today and we will table amendments in Committee to enhance the scope of the commissioner’s role. If implemented in the right way, the new role could have a genuinely beneficial impact on older people in Wales; if it is not, the commissioner is in danger of being a classic new Labour project—one of surface over substance, publicity over reform, and symbolism over action. Unless we lend due clarity and muscle to the commissioner’s role, we risk making him a toothless tiger who is unable to exert any significant influence on devolved issues such as pensions, benefits and employment, all of which are vital to pensioners in Wales.

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