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We also have concerns about the staffing and funding of the commissioner’s office. The Bill, when enacted, will establish a fairly sizeable bureaucracy. We will wish to know whether the size of that bureaucracy is justified. For example, paragraph 4 of schedule 1 provides that the commissioner must appoint a deputy commissioner. Why is that provision mandatory rather than permissive? Why does the commissioner need a
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deputy? Will he not already be adequately supported by the remaining, no doubt sizeable, staff who will be provided from his £1.5 million per annum budget? Does he really need a deputy who will no doubt be furnished with a sizeable support staff of his own? What added value will the deputy provide?

Similarly, the commissioner is to be paid from ministerial budgets. Given that one of the commissioner’s primary duties will be to scrutinise the actions and activities of Welsh Assembly Ministers, is it right that Ministers should be responsible for paying his salary and those of the members of his team? What safeguards does the Government propose to ensure that the suspicion does not arise that he who pays the piper calls the tune?

Questions also arise over the commissioner’s period of tenure. Paragraph 2 of schedule 1 states that that will be a matter for regulations that will be made at some time in the future. The use of secondary legislation is something of an addiction of the Government’s. One must ask why the period of tenure could not and should not be stated in the Bill. There seems to be no good reason for that, and we shall invite the Government’s observations.

There are other matters that concern us. For example, clause 19 establishes statutory defences of absolute and qualified privilege to actions for defamation in respect of many of the commissioner’s activities. We will need to know why the commissioner should have such protection in every such case. He may, for example, make damaging criticisms of the activities of care home proprietors and staff while exercising his duties. Why should he have a defence of privilege if, as a result of his making allegations that subsequently turn out to be false, the lives and livelihoods of those people are blighted? With power comes responsibility, and, given the sweeping powers that are to be conferred on the commissioner—I must beg to differ from the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire: this is not a toothless tiger, but a tiger with very sharp teeth—it is only right that he should be called to account if he causes damage in exercising those powers. Indeed, I see no reason why he should not be subject to an action for defamation.

We share the broad welcome given to the Bill by Members, but we do not do so uncritically. We fear that from the “bonfire of the quangos” of which we have heard so much there has risen a new bureaucratic phoenix in the form of commissioners. Once the accusation was that Wales was quangoland; now it may fairly be suggested that it is rapidly becoming the fiefdom of commissioners. The more cynical might suggest that an important role of the commissioners would be to shoulder responsibilities that would otherwise fall on Ministers. We do not believe that that should happen. While it is welcome that Wales should have a commissioner who will champion the interests of older people, we would expect Ministers to act as champions for older people as well. If Ministers, whether here or in the Welsh Assembly, see that the interests of older people are being compromised, they should intervene and not simply leave it to the commissioner to take action. We, and the people of Wales, expect Ministers to be proactive and not just to await the criticism that may emanate from the commissioner.

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As I have said, we broadly support the Bill, but we do not do so uncritically. In Committee we will seek answers to the questions that I have asked and, no doubt, to others.

2.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): I am grateful for all the contributions that have been made. I appreciated both their content and their brevity, bearing in mind what may be happening from 5 pm onwards. I am grateful to the House for its general support for the Bill. A number of important issues have been raised, and I am sure that they will be discussed in Committee. I shall respond to some of the larger themes aired in the debate, particularly those related to non-devolved matters.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) asked what role the commissioner would have in relation to NICE reports—for example, its report on drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s disease. The commissioner would not be able to make direct representations to NICE, but would certainly be able to take up such matters if a Welsh health board either allowed or, more likely, did not allow drugs on which NICE had made recommendations to be prescribed. The commissioner would be able to raise matters relating to a NICE decision via that channel.

The hon. Lady and others, including the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), whom I welcome to the Front Bench—I apologise for not having done so earlier—questioned the independence of the commissioner, given that the funding for the post would come directly from the Assembly, but in many cases the commissioner would be examining the policies and actions of the Assembly. The basic argument was that he who pays the piper calls the tune. However, the same arrangement applies to the children’s commissioner and, as my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) pointed out, where necessary the children’s commissioner has acted in a forthright way when dealing directly with Assembly actions and policies. I therefore do not think that the independence of the new commissioner will be fettered by the way in which his office is funded.

Mr. David Jones: I hear what the Minister says, but there will be a difference. At present, the Assembly is a body corporate and is responsible for paying the children’s commissioner, but if the Government of Wales Bill is enacted that will cease to be the case. The Welsh Assembly Government will have their own budgets and the new commissioner will be paid from those ministerial budgets.

Nick Ainger: The hon. Gentleman is correct, but it would be an unwise Minister who cut the budget of a commissioner because he or she did not like a report that that commissioner had produced. I am sure that the commissioner will make that perfectly clear and that the Assembly would call a Minister who acted in
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that way to account. I believe that there are sufficient checks and balances to guarantee the independence of the commissioner.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham asked whether the commissioner’s role would be similar to Ofwat’s. The answer is no, it would not. Ofwat exists directly to protect the interests of water customers, whereas the role of the commissioner is to help and safeguard vulnerable older people and to improve the quality of life of all older people in Wales. That very different remit is clearly set out in the Bill.

Another question raised by the hon. Lady, which was taken up by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price), was why the Bill set the age threshold at 60. Both hon. Members spoke about age discrimination in work and said that, for many people, such discrimination starts before 60. The House should be aware that regulations on age discrimination in employment and training are being introduced, with effect from October 2006. Those regulations will be enforced by the new commission for equality and human rights. That is already being addressed. A limit must be set somewhere. If not, the number of people whom the commissioner would be covering would involve not only old or older people but younger people as well. I understand the idea of having flexibility, for example, but the real issue of age discrimination at work will be addressed by the commission for equality and human rights in terms of the regulations that it will be enforcing.

The main issue raised by the hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr, my hon. Friend for Cardiff, North and the Member for Clwyd, West was that of the role of the commission in relation to non-devolved matters, which clearly affect older people in Wales, whether these issues involve pensions or even the Care Standards Act 2000, whatever it may be. There are issues in which older people will clearly be interested.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire asked about the pensions White Paper and other matters. He went on to ask about the role that the commissioner would play in that context. He will be able to give his view on the proposals set out in the White Paper. Given who he is, and under clause 9, it would be possible to carry out research. That would lead to an authoritative contribution to the White Paper. He, like anyone else in the United Kingdom, will be able to make a direct and authoritative response to the White Paper. His position would clearly carry weight.

Clause 9 would allow, as I have said, research to be carried out, even in areas where the issue was non-devolved. A report would be made to the Assembly, which it could take up directly with the relevant UK Department. Alternatively, as we have said in relation to the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, if he wanted to report to my right hon. Friend or myself, we could take up the matter. The important thing is that he is not fettered from carrying out research if there is a real issue affecting pensioners in Wales because of the actions or legislation that are currently reserved. Representations could still be made, and those representations would carry a great deal of weight. I am sure that this is an issue to which we will return in Committee.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend made an extremely well-informed speech, given her long professional involvement in these matters. She cited some excellent examples of how the Children’s Commissioner for Wales had been effective, and far more effective than the local authority or the ombudsman, for example, because he is seen as an advocate and someone genuinely representing children with particular problems.

I am confident that when the older persons commissioner is appointed, he will be in exactly that position and will be seen as a great advocate for issues relating to older people.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend asked some specific questions, particularly in relation to the Care Standards Inspectorate for Wales. That name does not appear in the Bill and my hon. Friend is concerned that, therefore, the commissioner would not be able to investigate the actions of the CSIW. May I reassure her that, in fact, he can do so, because the Care Standards Inspectorate for Wales is accountable to the Assembly, which is covered by clause 3. If the commissioner is concerned about the actions of the CSIW, he can carry out investigations or make direct representations to the Assembly on behalf of any older person. I cannot comment directly on the Holly House case that my hon. Friend raised because, as she said, an appeal has been lodged with the tribunal. The commissioner could look at such issues, and if he found that the workings of the regulations under the Care Standards Act 2000 affected the welfare of individual residents, he could make representations to the Assembly. If the regulations were not working he could ask the Assembly to change them, or he could make representations to the relevant Department through the Assembly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or myself, so there are several channels to address those issues. I hope that my hon. Friend is happy with that explanation, but we can explore the matter in greater detail in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire raised the issue of joint working, and they were concerned about the working relationship between the public services ombudsman for Wales and the new equality and human rights commission. Those bodies must work together, because the new commission will have responsibility for tackling age discrimination and so on. The children’s commissioner has a good relationship with other commissioners and the public services ombudsman, so I expect those bodies to develop links to avoid duplication and ensure that the new commission and the commission for older people are effective in exercising the powers given to them by the Government.

May I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North that although the post of commissioner for older people is a new one, the commissioner will learn from the experience of the children’s commissioner, whose work has received great support? No one has made any serious criticisms of the work that he has done, and the post is regarded as a huge step forward. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, it has been copied in England.

Mr. Roger Williams: The Minister will accept that we have done nothing other than try to maximise the effect
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of the work of the new commissioner and, indeed, the children’s commissioner. If the commissioner for older people receives a complaint about pensions, will he pass it on to the parliamentary ombudsman? How will he act in such cases?

Nick Ainger: It depends on the nature of the complaint, of course. Clearly, if it is about the payment of a pension and something is wrong, that would be an issue for the Department for Work and Pensions, and ultimately, if there was no satisfaction, the parliamentary ombudsman. However, if the complaint is about more general issues, perhaps affecting more than one individual, although the commissioner would need to receive a complaint initially from at least one pensioner or their representative, as I explained to the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr, the commissioner could carry out whatever research he feels is reasonable and then make representations either through my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or me to the relevant Department or directly to the Assembly for it to make direct representation to the relevant body. That is the route that has come about.

The hon. Members for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr and for Brecon and Radnorshire referred to council tax. Again, on the effect of the revaluation that has taken place, if the commissioner had been in place then, he could have made direct representations to the Assembly.

The Bill to establish a commissioner for older people represents a landmark development in promoting policies for older people and is another example of how Wales is able to set an example, not only to the United Kingdom, but to the rest of Europe and possibly the wider world. The commissioner, as an ambassador and authority on older people’s issues, is part of an overall strategy to ensure that the interests of older people are fully integrated into the mainstream policies of the Welsh Assembly Government. I look forward to the House’s continuing support for this groundbreaking proposal, and I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(6) (Programme motions),

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Question agreed to.


Queen’s recommendation having been signified——

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills),

Question agreed to.

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UK Hydrographic Office

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Roy.]

3.2 pm

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): On a day when the nation holds its breath and hopes to become a world beater, it is particularly appropriate that we have the opportunity over the next half hour or so to debate an aspect of Britain in which we are already world beaters. I refer to the Hydyrographic Office, which is based in Taunton.

It may be helpful to start by explaining what the Hydrographic Office is, as some people do not know. What it does—I put it in layman’s terms, claiming no scientific expertise myself—is chart the oceans, seas and coastlines of the world. If we imagine an Ordnance Survey-style map with contours showing the relief and lie of the land, that is what the Hydrographic Office produces, but for underwater regions. It is a constantly evolving task, as significant movements constantly occur through sandbanks, pebbles and other underwater changes. A good topical example is the tsunami, which had a dramatic impact on the ocean floor in that part of the world. Some areas need to be mapped because the water is particularly shallow or there may be rocks just under the surface that pose a danger to shipping.

The Hydrographic Office was set up by George III in 1795. Britain was losing too many ships at sea, and the Hydrographic Office was seen as a necessary response. The first chart was produced in 1800 and the office has gone from strength to strength ever since. Anyone who visits the Hydrographic Office—I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Minister will have that opportunity—will see some fascinating artefacts. For example, the first ever map of New Zealand, drawn by Captain Cook, can be seen there. It was drawn before satellite technology and other devices made it so much easier to produce maps to such a high standard. It is a remarkable historical document, which puts into perspective the long service of the Hydrographic Office—now a world beater.

In using the term “world beater”, I do not exaggerate because few countries aspire to chart the world’s oceans. Most countries with a coastline cover the miles close to their own coasts and particularly concentrate on areas with heavy shipping such as the entrances to ports. However, there are very few countries across the world that aspire to perform the task with excellence—the United States, Russia and France to some extent, and the United Kingdom. Most people in the United States, Russia and France would accept that the United Kingdom has the most eminent and professionally drawn charts. Commercial practices bear that out. Shipping companies throughout the world, many of which have no direct link with the UK, buy the charts for their shipping from the Hydrographic Office based in Taunton.

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