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19 July 2006 : Column 406

Orders of the Day

Commissioner for Older People (Wales) Bill [ Lords]

As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

Clause 2

General functions

5.14 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 13, at end insert—

‘(ca) keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness of provision for those older people who are disabled.’.

This is a simple amendment that I tabled in order to probe the Minister on two specific aspects of the Bill. I hope that the drafting will require the commissioner to give special consideration to disabled people when promoting best practice in the treatment of older people in Wales.

I start by looking into the position of deaf people in Wales. The number of people in the UK estimated by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People to be deaf or hard of hearing is a phenomenally large 8,954,000. Of those, 688,000 have severe hearing difficulties or are profoundly deaf. The RNID does not publish separate figures for Wales, which again poses the question of disaggregated statistics. My first question to the Minister is whether he will look into the opportunities afforded to the commissioner’s office, his own office or, indeed, the Assembly, to produce accurate, separate disaggregated statistics, particularly on deaf and blind people in Wales.

As it is not easy to get the statistics by a readily identifiable route, I was helped by the Library. It told my researcher, Guy L’Etang, that it had done some calculations based on the population of Wales and estimated that approximately—I stress approximately—440,000 people will be deaf or hard of hearing and that of those, 34,000 will have severe hearing difficulties or be profoundly deaf. As there is a disproportionately large number of older people in Wales, we are not entirely sure of those figures, but it is there or thereabouts, which puts the whole situation in proportion. What responsibilities is it envisaged the commissioner will have for certain aspects of provisions for the deaf, particularly in respect of interpreters? I hope that both English and Welsh language interpreters are covered. That leads me to my next question for the Minister. What arrangements will be in place and what influence will the commissioner have in ensuring that, in respect of lip speakers, deaf-blind interpreters and deaf interpreters, both languages are used in Wales? Dealing with the bilingual situation could be extremely important.

British sign language was officially recognised as a British language in 2003, but there is no one national list of qualified professionals who work for deaf people. That can result in deaf people waiting for communications support to be sourced and in unqualified people being supplied to provide communications. I have an excellent qualified professional in my constituency, Diana Smith,
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who is particularly concerned about these matters in England, so it seems apposite to raise them in relation to Wales. Could the commissioner establish a single register of language service professionals for deaf people, including providers of British sign language, English interpreters, lip speakers, deaf-blind interpreters and deaf interpreters? I also wonder whether it is within the commissioner’s powers to encourage the institutions to protect by law the professional title of those who are qualified to work as language service professionals for all deaf people. I appreciate the fact that those are detailed questions, and if the Minister cannot come up with the answers now, I am quite willing to let him write to me with any information that he may have.

I should like to know what powers the commissioner can take with regard to the Home Office and the police. In Committee, we established that the commissioner will not have any power that is directly linked to Ministers of the realm. The commissioner will deal with Assembly and devolved matters, as opposed to those that are reserved to this House. That raises a specific issue with disabled people, particularly deaf people: most constabularies in Britain do not hold a list of qualified, security-cleared BSL-English interpreters and lip speakers who can be called to a police station for arrested people who are deaf. The Minister will appreciate that that causes problems. It usually results in deaf detained people being held in custody for many hours without access to communication or representation, and some deaf victims are severely delayed in being able to make their statements to the police.

I understand that such arrangements do not exist in Wales—the problem is widespread in England and Wales—so if those people happen to be elderly, I need to know what influence the commissioner could have over such things, which could be quite crucial to an increasingly large older and deaf population. What are the current arrangements in Wales and what influence will the commissioner have in ensuring that deaf people get equity of access when held by the police under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and under the forthcoming disability equality scheme? At what level of detail will the commissioner have an influence over the rules and regulations or the mode of practice that needs to be operated in our police stations and by our police services throughout Wales? I hope that that deals with the specific situation for older people who have a hearing disability.

Turning to the other matter that I wish to raise under the auspices of the amendment, I was approached by the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. I believe that the Minister is familiar with the briefing that came from that estimable organisation. It was very pleased to provide a brief to many hon. Members, so I claim no credit for raising these points, other than to say that it seemed apposite to raise them through the medium of the amendment, perhaps to express some of its concerns and to ask questions on its behalf.

The association is very pleased with the Bill. The prevalence of visual impairment increases dramatically with age, as we all know. Indeed, it is only with the aid of the 16-point typeface on my computer that I am able to read the script that is in front of me without the aid
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of glasses. The Minister obviously relies on glasses. I am told that, at some stage, my eyesight will stop deteriorating, and I am looking forward to that day because it seems to deteriorate daily.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Would the hon. Lady like to borrow my glasses?

Mrs. Gillan: No thanks. I appreciate the offer, but I have got big print in front of me.

RNIB Cymru has estimated that there are 100,000 people with serious sight loss in Wales. As the prevalence of visual impairment increases so much with age and as the number of older people in Wales is predicted to increase dramatically over the next few years, it follows that a dramatic increase is likely in the number of visually impaired older people. It is surprising that, despite the ageing population, the standard of rehabilitation services for blind and partially sighted people remains variable in Wales and, indeed, throughout the UK. The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association has said that, in some cases, it is indeed very poor.

There are rehabilitation services for visually impaired people. Rehabilitation training is designed to introduce and maintain a level of independent functioning by enabling blind and partially sighted people to develop the skills that they need to meet their aspirations. Appropriately trained rehabilitation workers play a crucial role.

Independent research has been carried out and shows a far from pleasing picture. The state of rehabilitation service provision for blind and partially sighted people is not good. There is a chronic shortage of rehabilitation workers. Local authorities are not investing in the necessary training and many authorities in Wales do not have adequate or dedicated services. Since 1995, there has been a shift away from local authority spending on services for people with physical and sensory needs. The result is that many blind and partially sighted people are forced to stay in their homes and are unable to go anywhere without a guide, leading to exclusion from work, social and civic life. What influence will the new commissioner have in that area?

The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association has set up a UK-wide rehabilitation project. It has been very inventive and has a Welsh steering group that is set to take forward the objectives of the rehabilitation project group in Wales. It is also working to secure the future of professional training for rehabilitation workers in several educational institutions, but specifically in Cardiff. What influence will the commissioner have in encouraging Cardiff to secure the future of professional training at that university? Will the commission be able to work with the association and the rehabilitation project on the benchmarking report that was commissioned by the Welsh Local Government Association, the Assembly Government and the Wales Council for the Blind? That is an important group which is carrying out a worthwhile exercise. I would like to ensure that the commissioner has the opportunity to work with that group and the Welsh steering group, so that the quality of life of many thousands of blind and partially sighted people in Wales can be improved.

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I hope that the Minister will be able to put on the record the fact that the commissioner will be encouraged to look at this area and give it a high priority when he takes up office and establishes the commission. I hope that he will be able to reply to both points that I have raised in relation to the deaf and the blind. I hope also that he will take the amendment in the spirit in which it was tabled. I have no intention of pressing it to a vote; it was intended as a vehicle for the Minister to provide reassurance to people outside the Chamber on those two issues.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): I am grateful for the way in which the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) introduced her amendment. It seeks to provide the commissioner with a general power to keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness of provision for those older people who are disabled. That would be an entirely appropriate function for the commissioner and one that I am happy to reassure the House is already provided for in the Bill. The amendment is therefore not necessary.

Clause 2 enables the commissioner to promote the provision of opportunities for, and the elimination of discrimination against, older people. That would include discrimination against those older people who were disabled. The commissioner’s general function to

and also to

will also support and enable his work in that area. In addition, the commissioner will have powers to review the effect on older people of the discharge of the functions of key bodies, such as the Assembly and local authorities. He will ensure that they fulfil their statutory duties and that they take the needs of disabled older people into account.

5.30 pm

The hon. Lady asked a number of detailed questions, and I shall be more than happy to write to her if I omit some of the issues in my response. She mentioned the discussions that she had had about older people who have hearing problems or who are profoundly deaf, and she asked about statistics. I shall certainly try to find out who, if anyone, keeps such records for Wales, but it is part of the commissioner’s remit to establish how many people in Wales suffer from the disabilities to which she referred. I am sure that he will try to access what information is available and, if he is unsuccessful, that he will commission research to determine the relevant figures.

The hon. Lady also raised important issues about a register of signers and lip speakers. She said that profoundly deaf people who had suffered crime or had been arrested for committing a crime often have great difficulty with communication, and that a local police register of those able to assist in such circumstances would help to ensure that deaf people were not detained unnecessarily in police stations. I shall certainly raise the matter with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to see what can be done in that respect, with a view to addressing the problem as soon as possible.

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The hon. Lady then asked about people who have poor sight or who are blind. I have read the parliamentary brief from the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, which raises some important issues. The association wants to know whether the commissioner will be able to look into the adequacy of rehabilitation services for visually impaired older people, and the answer is yes. For instance, he could review the processes adopted by a local authority to assess the needs of visually impaired older people, or review how it discharges its training functions in respect of those who provide rehabilitation services. Incidentally, the commissioner will be able to do the same for people with hearing difficulties.

The commissioner’s other functions include undertaking research into rehabilitation services for visually impaired older people. He will also examine individual cases, and publish a report with recommendations about each. I hope that that reassures the hon. Lady that the commissioner will have the power to carry out investigations of that nature. I am sure that he will work closely with organisations such as the Royal National Institute of the Blind, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. They will raise issues with him on behalf of disabled older people, and draw his attention to any shortcomings that they identify.

I hope that the hon. Lady will agree that the Bill already deals with the subject of the amendment. The amendment is therefore not necessary, and I ask her to withdraw it.

Mrs. Gillan: I am grateful to the Minister for his response, and I look forward to receiving more detail on certain matters in writing. However, I remain concerned that the commissioner may not be able to influence the availability of signers and interpreters in police forces, given that his responsibilities are so clearly linked to matters that have been devolved to the Assembly. The Minister knows that I am concerned about what will happen in practice, and about whether the commissioner will be able truly to represent the interests of older people where they cut across into other areas for which it is not anticipated he will have responsibility. I hope that, by drawing attention to that issue in this fashion and by continually reinforcing my fears, I have at least ensured that the commissioner, in establishing the office, can look back on these debates and know that there is the will to address the problems that he or she will face.

I look forward to hearing further from the Minister, particularly on Home Office matters, but I am very willing to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 9

Research and educational activities

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 6, line 25, at end insert—

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The purpose of the amendment is to limit the scope of clause 9, which relates to giving assistance for research or education, so that research or educational activities cannot relate to any political party or person who is engaged in political lobbying, or to any aim or purpose that runs contrary to the policy of the Assembly, or which is likely to undermine it.

In general, I applaud what the Government are doing. I support the Bill’s thrust and it is no intention of mine to seek to wreck this measure. I wish to tease out of the Minister whether the Bill needs further improvement, which, in essence, is why I have tabled the amendment.

I want the commissioner to be a champion for older people in Wales, and it is clear that his role should include the ability to ensure that all older people can access their legal rights. I understand that, in that context, research and educational activities should be supported, but the commissioner should not become an innovating trailblazer. He should not introduce new policy initiatives and, in effect, usurp the duties and responsibilities of the Assembly and its democratically elected Members. One would hope that a good commissioner would appreciate and understand that, without having to have these limitations imposed in writing in the Bill.

However, for the avoidance of all doubt, it is appropriate that Parliament should say that it expects the commissioner’s role to be above party politics and outside the world of professional lobbyists, and certainly that he or she should not be in cahoots with any political faction or party. That is why I tabled the amendment. The commissioner should work with, and be seen to be working with, the Assembly and should not use the powers in clause 9 to undermine—intentionally or unintentionally—the Assembly’s policies. Therefore, the reason for the amendment is caution. Its purpose is to make it clear that there should be respect for the democratic process that elects Assembly Members, and to express my concern at the possible abuse of this power and the accompanying waste of public money.

I hope that the Minister agrees with those aims. He might be able to tell the House that the caution that I have expressed can be dealt with in other ways, such as through the commissioner’s terms of service or by making sure that his functions are clearly set out and that the research must relate only to those functions. I do not mind how those aims are achieved; if there is another vehicle for achieving them other than the amendment, I will gladly not push it to a vote. I hope that the Minister can accept the aims that I have identified and tell me how they will be delivered.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): We very much welcome the addition of clause 9 to the Bill in the other place. It has been widely welcomed.

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