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1.47 pm

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. I promise that I shall be brief, so that Members can get to their television sets and so that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) can catch her train. She clearly knows very little about Wales if she thinks that First Great Western runs an excellent train service there; it is one of the worst operating in the UK. However, let us move on.

I want to begin by referring to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), whose private Member’s Bill of three years ago set the scene for today’s debate. I want also to acknowledge the role that John Griffiths, AM, who has recently been appointed carers’ champion in the Assembly, has played in bringing this Bill before the House today.

Before entering this House, I spent 30 years working with vulnerable people alongside my colleagues in social services and the Care Standards Inspectorate for Wales, providing services and seeking to drive up standards, and spending far too much time
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investigating abuse—the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) referred to this issue—specifically abuse of older people.

I, too, want to acknowledge that today is world elder abuse awareness day. Unlike the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, I think that the role of commissioner for older people will provide critical extra value for Wales in protecting vulnerable individuals. It will not weaken one iota the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill that we will consider on Monday—I hope to be called to speak on that Bill, too—if anything, it will strengthen it.

I have considered the Bill as someone with a background of work in raising standards and awareness of the problems people face. We need people with tenacity and a willingness to look for problems and find solutions. It is a sad fact that too many people, especially on issues of abuse, do not want to accept what happens. They would prefer to find a way not to look for or find such problems. That is why I welcome the general functions outlined in clause 2(1)(a) to (d), which are wide ranging. The review arrangements outlined in clause 5 are also comprehensive.

Advocacy is a much underrated function and when I was an inspector care home owners had not really begun to appreciate how vital it is. I welcome the commissioner’s role in tackling the issue and the fact that he or she will be able to consider the availability of advocacy and the training for those working as advocates. The job requires specific training and the capacity to undertake the role. The competency of those working as advocates must be examined and the commissioner will have the opportunity to do so. The functioning of advocacy services and their general availability across Wales will also come under the purview of the commissioner, and we should all welcome that.

The commissioner will also be able to consider complaints. When I was an inspector I used to tell care home owners, who do not like receiving complaints, that they were their best friend. A complaint tells them what they can improve, what should be changed and what is not working. Unfortunately, too many people see a complaint as a threat.

Complaints can also be a way of discovering underlying abuse. For example, I inspected a care home and the complaints book said that a service user had complained that her bath water was cold. Alongside was the handwritten report of the investigation of the complaint by the staff at the care home, which said, “Add more hot water.” That seems a simple solution, but I asked the owner of the home to bring me her monitoring records for the water temperatures in the home. The records revealed that water temperatures were incredibly low—little above tepid. I pointed out to the owner that it would not have mattered for how many hours the hot tap had been run, the bath water would still have been cold. The handyman for the home said that he thought that as long as water temperatures were below the required maximum temperature they were all right. The staff had not checked and a doubly incontinent service user, who needed frequent bathing, had been forced to suffer the indignity of cold baths. That is the sort of abusive and neglectful treatment that can be picked up through casual examination of complaints. I am glad that the commissioner will also
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have the ability to examine complaints, because that will help to raise standards and support service users.

Whistleblowing will also come under the commissioner’s purview, and it is, all too often, the way abuse is revealed. It is often the capacity to retain anonymity that allows someone to come forward with information on something about which they are not happy, so that something can be done. I agree with the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire that the commissioner will have a vital role in considering how best to assess people to determine who should be excluded from working in care settings, so that Wales has the most robust system possible. I have had experience of whistleblowing on hours worked by staff, some of whom worked for more than 90 hours a week caring for vulnerable people, including those who were aggressive and difficult to manage. When staff are that tired, they do not provide the best quality of care.

Why do we need a commissioner? After all, we already have care standards inspectors, protection of vulnerable adults procedures, an ombudsman and complaints procedures. The question can best be answered by giving an example of why we needed the children’s commissioner. It is a case that I deal with personally and shows how the necessary change would not have been made without the involvement of the children’s commissioner. I was leaving the House one Thursday to travel back to my constituency when I received a telephone call from a constituent, asking me to call back as a matter of urgency. I was in a taxi, which was not the right place for the call, so I asked my office to deal with it. The caller was a gentleman whose father-in-law had died more than a year previously and who, six years before his death, had worked as a support worker taking vulnerable young children to school. When clearing the deceased man’s house, the family discovered that, only a few days earlier, he had been sent a full report of every child with a disability and who needed to attend school in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). The list included the children’s names, addresses, dates of birth, schools attended, details of their disabilities and the times of collection from home and return from school. Imagine if such information had got into the hands of someone who wanted to abuse children.

I went to the local authority’s chief executive, but he did nothing and passed it on to the department responsible for sending out the tender. It said that it was merely following standard industry practice. I went to the local authority’s leader—who is, I have to say, a Liberal Democrat—who was initially very concerned, but then discovered that it had happened under the Labour administration and so was less concerned because she could not be held accountable for it. No action was taken. The director of personal services was unable to carry out an investigation because it was August and people were on holiday. I went to the information commissioner, who was also unable to do anything.

Then I wrote to the children’s commissioner. In fairness, he initially thought that it could not be happening. He could not believe that such information was being sent to taxi companies, some of which had
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gone out of business or changed address. In the example of my constituent’s father-in-law, he had been dead for more than a year and had not been not involved in school transport work for six years before that. The information was lying around in the public realm. Once the children’s commissioner appreciated the risk, it took him two minutes to make the commitment to change the situation. He was the only person who did and that is reason enough to have an older people’s commissioner in Wales to perform a similar function on their behalf. That is the sort of person we need as commissioner—someone who wants to take the bull by the horns, grapple with problems and insist on change taking place. Incidentally, the children’s commissioner found that Bridgend was not the only local authority in Wales operating that policy. It was happening in other local authorities and the commissioner was able to ensure that children in other areas were protected.

Clause 16 provides for the commissioner for older people to work with the public services ombudsman for Wales. Some might claim that that is duplication and that I could have gone to the public services ombudsman.

I also welcome clause 8 on assistance and clause 10 on the examination of cases. It will be necessary to examine closely the regulations on those functions, but I welcome the provision of assistance to older people in making complaints, because that will make a big difference. Those clauses also mean that the commissioner will assist older people and that they will not be required to find their way through a difficult and complex process on their own. The local government ombudsman focuses on maladministration and personal injustice, but is passive rather than proactive.

I shall illustrate that with another constituency case of mine. I sent a complaint to a highly respected voluntary organisation about the way in which my local authority had dealt with a particular matter. The local government ombudsman had been sent a number of papers and appropriate information, but the only proactive step that he took before he decided that he needed to do nothing was to ring up a local authority officer. The officer said that the authority had been worried about the matter for ages and that everything was fine—and that was it. One telephone call was made, and no further action was taken. I spoke to the ombudsman on the telephone, and got the impression that he did not think that it was vital that he got a letter of confirmation from the local authority officer about the actions that the authority had taken.

In contrast, the commissioner will be proactive rather than passive. He will support people who make complaints, and help them to put the evidence together. He will seek information and mount challenges on older people’s behalf. That is the big strength of the role, and it is something that we have been missing.

However, I have some concerns about schedules 2 and 3, which list those persons whose functions are subject to review under clause 3, and to review and monitoring under clause 5. Neither schedule mentions the Care Standards Inspectorate for Wales. Other bodies that have recently been absorbed into the Assembly’s functions—such as the Wales Tourist Board and the Welsh Development Agency—are
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included in schedule 3, so why is the CSIW missing? I hope that the Government accept that it should be included.

I raise that point for two reasons. First, clause 3(1)(c) refers to

I am worried that that would exclude the CSIW, as it is not mentioned there. Secondly, clause 3 (2)(c) defines a relevant function as

Again, the CSIW is not mentioned in schedule 2. I recognise that clause 4 will allow the Assembly to add it at a later date, but it would be better to include it before the Bill leaves this House.

The reason why I want the CSIW to be included in schedule 2 is best explained by reference to an Adjournment debate held in June last year, just after I came to the House. I shall not mention the specific case involved, as it is still under consideration, but I want to refer to the general concept highlighted in that debate.

The Registered Homes Act 1984 set out the procedure when a registration authority wanted to remove a care home’s registration. It said that, at tribunal, the decision would be based on the situation in the home at the time that the authority made its decision to withdraw registration. Under the Care Standards Act 2000, however, the care standards tribunal must make a decision based on the situation at the time of the tribunal hearing itself.

That would appear to mean that care homes are able to do nothing and make no changes until the tribunal hearing. When the tribunal sits, they can make a few changes and demonstrate that they will make improvements, with the result that they can no longer be deregistered.

We must find ways to change that requirement. Some homes play the game and do not protect vulnerable people—they do not meet required care standards or they use legal niceties to avoid their responsibilities to older people. Such homes must be challenged. I hope that the older people’s commissioner will use clause 2(1)(d)—which requires him to

to tackle the problems posed by the Care Standards Act 2000 and make the changes needed to protect those who live in old people’s homes in Wales.

The older people’s commissioner will have 30 staff. Start-up costs are estimated at £0.5 million, and running costs in the first full year of operation at £1.5 million. I assume that the funding will come from the Assembly, and Opposition Members have asked about the services that will have to be cut to meet the cost. That is an appalling question, given that £1.5 million is a drop in the ocean when compared with the need to protect older people. The commissioner and his 30 staff members will proactively fight for older people and represent their needs. They will make sure that the necessary services provided to older people are of the requisite standard.

With this Bill, the Government are recognising that Wales is a small country with a high percentage of older people. They are giving those people priority, and
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making it clear that they are valued members of the Welsh community. We must insist that older people—in this generation and in times to come—get the best quality services. Establishing a commissioner for older people is the way to ensure that that happens.

2.6 pm

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): In the interests of Anglo-Welsh relations—and of any Wrexham supporters who might be in our midst—I too shall try to keep my comments fairly brief.

I and my party support the principle behind this important Bill, and the model of the commissioner that is emerging is worth celebrating. Indeed, my party is calling for a language commissioner as well.

There is a difference between an ombudsman and a commissioner. The ombudsman model was developed in Scandinavia around the beginning of the 20th century, and was designed to provide a complaints procedure in cases of maladministration. The commissioner will not be a quango; the post has no role in delivery and is therefore entirely independent of the Executive, whose policies are to be investigated. The commissioner model includes elements of the traditional ombudsman role, but it has a much wider remit to investigate general matters of public policy, and I am sure that the Assembly will apply the commissioner model to other policy areas in the future.

It is great to see Wales engaging in such an important form of social innovation, and on a global scale. There are ombudsmen for older people in other jurisdictions, but the commissioner for older people in Wales will be the first post of its kind to be created in the world, and that is a credit to the Assembly Government.

The proposal to establish a commissioner for older people has all-party support. It was a Labour party manifesto commitment—one of the few that the Labour Government in Cardiff Bay are on course to deliver.

I want to echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams). By and large, my party supports the principle behind the Bill, although we have some concerns about the responsibility for non-devolved areas. Moreover, I bristled a little when the hon. Gentleman called for the commissioner to have teeth. In this context, that is slightly insensitive and might fall foul of anti-discrimination measures—[ Laughter.]—but I think we got the point.

We are revisiting a problem that arose in our debates on the children’s commissioner: in these post-devolutionary times, how do we ensure accountability when there is some blurring of the lines of responsibility? Given the still complex nature of the devolution settlement in Wales, we—let alone our constituents—often struggle to get our minds around such issues. The children’s commissioner does not have full powers to investigate where a child is placed in care through the courts, but has such powers in relation to a sibling who is in care voluntarily. That is the type of problem that will arise if the Bill’s provisions on non-devolved matters remain as they are.

Clause 2(2) states that the powers of the commissioner

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That is clear. The commissioner will not have those powers in relation to anything that is non-devolved. There will be no power to promote awareness or provision, to encourage best practice or to keep under review any non-devolved matter. On non-devolved matters, the commissioner will have the right only to make representations, under subsection (3); there will be no power to investigate. That is the key issue.

Indeed, clause 10(2) makes it clear that the commissioner will have no power to investigate individual complaints relating to non-devolved matters. Under clause 15(2) the commissioner will have no power to make reports on non-devolved matters. Another clause provides that the commissioner will have no power to initiate research in relation to non-devolved matters. Those are critical points. The commissioner will, of course, have the right—like the 3 million people of Wales—to make representations by writing a letter to the Secretary of State or the Minister, but the key issue is the basis for such representations. If the commissioner has no power to review a non-devolved policy area, no power to commission or conduct research on a non-devolved power relating to older people in Wales and no power to investigate individual complaints, on what basis will the representations be made?

The Government rightly support the principle of evidence-based policy making. Without those statutory powers the commissioner for older people in Wales will be open to legal challenge. The commissioner will be acting ultra vires if he or she initiates research or undertakes a review of non-devolved policy. If the commissioner merely writes to the Secretary of State, the Secretary of State will have the perfect right to say, “Well, what’s your proof?” There will be no proof because the commissioner has no power to investigate. That is the key issue.

Of course, as the Secretary of State said, representations can be made informally. I am sure that the door of the Wales Office is always open, even to members of my party from time to time, when we behave ourselves. The key issue is not the right to write a letter or to go to see the Secretary of State; it is whether the commissioner has the right to investigate and the power to make a report, which will give a formal basis for a structured discussion with Westminster Ministers.

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