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The draft Bill was also considered and debated by the Assembly’s Health and Social Services Committee and in a full plenary session, where the motion to welcome the Bill and endorse the commitment to establish a commissioner was overwhelmingly supported. My predecessor as Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the
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Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee on the draft Bill, and I thank him for his role in bringing the legislation to fruition.

The Bill was introduced in the other place, where it underwent detailed scrutiny and was subject to amendment. Those changes were made for four main reasons: first, to take account of views expressed in the public consultation process; secondly, to clarify the arrangements for working jointly with other commissioners and ombudsmen; thirdly, to clarify the commissioner’s role in cross-border matters; and finally, to provide for the commissioner to establish an internal complaints procedure, as a matter of good public administration.

The rigorous debate that the Bill received in the other place, combined with the amendments that we have introduced to strengthen and clarify the legislation, have stood us in excellent stead for our debates in this House. Both sides of the House have adopted a positive and constructive approach to the Bill, and I am extremely grateful to all hon. Members who have participated.

The Bill was debated thoroughly in Committee. The discussion covered a wide range of issues, often in some detail. There was a high degree of consensus, and I am grateful to hon. Members for the spirit in which the debate was conducted. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) and the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr Hywel Williams) for the professional way in which they chaired the Standing Committee. It is a testament to their wise and skilful chairmanship, and to the constructive and concise contributions by Committee members on both sides, that consideration of the Bill was concluded in less than two sittings.

Opposition Members tabled a number of amendments, many of which were of a probing nature, where the intentions behind the Bill were explored to—I believe—the satisfaction of the Committee.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The Minister knows that innovative Welsh legislation is sometimes imitated in England—I am thinking of the Children’s Commissioner. However, I am not entirely light-hearted, because one of my constituents was removed to a home in England, and there were accusations that it might have been under duress. I have found it difficult to take that issue forward, and, as I understand it, the Welsh commissioner for older people would not be able to intervene on behalf of a Welsh person in English home.

Nick Ainger: That is not correct. The commissioner will certainly be able to intervene in relation to the local authority, the NHS, or whoever was in charge of commissioning the care for that individual. They will be able to investigate the circumstances surrounding the decision, although they would not be able to gain entry to the care home or hospital to which the hon. Gentleman’s constituent was moved.

The Bill will deliver a true champion for older people in Wales who will speak up on their behalf and work to ensure that older people themselves can influence the way in which important public services are managed and delivered. I commend the Bill to the House.


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6.10 pm

Mrs. Gillan: I am pleased that we have reached Third Reading. I am grateful to the Minister for his kind comments on the conduct of its passage through the House, although I have to say that it has taken an awfully long time from start to finish. Its gestation period has been incredible—it started in another place on 25 May 2005 and it has taken some 14 months to reach this stage. That is an almost unprecedented length of time for an uncontentious Bill to take to go through this House. I know that the Secretary of State is somewhat preoccupied with getting Royal Assent for the Government of Wales Bill, but had he paid a little more attention to the passage of Bills such as this, he could perhaps have timetabled his business in the Wales Office in a more relaxed fashion that would have avoided him getting so hysterical about the closing stages of the Government of Wales Bill. However, I am pleased that we have reached this stage with this Bill and that it will shortly go for Royal Assent.

We live in an ageing society in which, for the first time, there are more people over 60 than children under 16. The diversity in our society is more clearly reflected in the older generation as, for example, the first generation of the immigrants of the ’50s are making up greater proportions of the over-60s. The demands from our ageing society are constantly changing in terms of the quantity and quality of services required. The independence and well-being of these members of our society is of paramount importance as the increasing impact on public services and access to them present ever greater challenges to us throughout the country. As a country, we need to respond to those matters. That was succinctly put in the Audit Commission report, “Older People—Independence and Well-being: The Challenge for Public Services” in 2004, which states:

The Bill is an attempt to manage that change. As such, I am pleased to have joined Members from both sides of the House, and in the other place, in giving it a broad welcome. A commissioner for older people will be an important development for Wales.

Wales has a growing concentration of older people compared with the rest of the United Kingdom. Just over 22 per cent. of people in Wales—some 600,000 people—are over 60. Establishing the commissioner’s office will play a significant role in ensuring that the concerns and needs of older people will be heard and recognised and that more can be achieved with regard to offering the opportunities, services and assistance that they require. The commissioner will play a vital role in increasing awareness of the needs of older people and in raising standards.

It is clear that older people in Wales and across the UK face many difficulties—poor housing, poor employment opportunities and insufficient transport services, to name but a few. There are also problems to do with poor nutrition and health and with access to care facilities. The commissioner offers an opportunity to make a difference and to improve lives across Wales,
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and that in itself must be welcomed. Indeed, it would be difficult not to welcome the provisions that will now go on to the statute book.

However, I believe that it is important not to have excessive expectations of what the commissioner and the office of the commissioner can achieve. Furthermore, it is important to establish that the commissioner works alongside Assembly Members and does not simply get saddled with responsibilities that Ministers should discharge in the Assembly on behalf of the people of Wales.

I am delighted that the commissioner will be available to champion the interests of older people, but that must be in addition to Ministers’ roles in doing the same thing. As some of my amendments showed, I believe that we must ensure that the commissioner’s duty includes keeping under review the adequacy and effectiveness of provision for disabled older people. It is important for the commissioner to have influence over the provisions available for disabled people, given that that can pose sizeable problems for older people. Disability clearly adds to the difficulties that an individual faces and it should therefore be in the commissioner’s remit to tackle such issues. I was pleased with the Under-Secretary’s response earlier in the debate.

As has been discussed, the commissioner’s functions will be confined to devolved matters. For me, that raises significant worries because it means that the commissioner cannot formally intervene in numerous aspects of life that specifically concern older people. Pensions and crime are key examples. The commissioner could not respond to the Turner commission’s recommendations and will be cut off from parts of Government policy, the implementation of which causes some of the greatest difficulty for people throughout Wales.

That poses the question whether the commissioner can tackle the issues and problems that most affect older people. I still have a fear that the limitations on the commissioner’s general functions may seriously handicap attempts to discharge those functions as fully as possible and leave him or her toothless in some important matters. That is a significant weakness in the Bill.

The Government should have considered formalising the route whereby the commissioner could approach UK Ministers. The Under-Secretary did not answer the question of how the commissioner could obtain genuine representational opportunities about non-devolved issues. As a result of that limitation, we must be realistic about what the commissioner can achieve.

I continue to be worried about the way in which the commissioner will be funded. The Under-Secretary appreciates my reservations on the matter because the commissioner will be paid from ministerial budgets. I question whether it is right that an individual whose role is to scrutinise the actions of Assembly Ministers should have his or her salary paid by the people whom he or she could be examining. There is a question mark over the potential effect on the commissioner’s independence and impartiality, which is of paramount importance.

Having said that, I support the Bill, but not uncritically. I have sought to raise several questions that the measure poses. Some have been answered to
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my satisfaction but others remain unanswered. We must wait and see how, in its practical application, the office of the commissioner pans out.

I am glad that we have had the opportunity to scrutinise the Bill thoroughly but I am saddened that the Government of Wales Bill, when it receives Royal Assent, will deny us the opportunity for such scrutiny in future. I join the Under-Secretary in thanking all hon. Members who took part in scrutinising the Bill. I also thank those who chaired our proceedings. I thank the Under-Secretary for his courtesy in the letters that he sent me during the Bill’s passage. I hope that the measure will be used to best effect and provide great benefits for the people of Wales.

6.19 pm

Mark Williams: My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) signalled on Second Reading that the Liberal Democrats would support the Bill, and I can confirm that we continue to do so. This has been an invaluable opportunity to explore the ways in which the interests of older people are represented and protected in Wales. The figures speak volumes, with 20 per cent. of the population in Wales being over pensionable age, compared with the UK average of 18 per cent. In my own constituency, 25 per cent. of the people would fall within the remit of the commissioner. In that context, the establishment of that role is very welcome.

The eager and enthusiastic language that we have used to describe the provisions has included terms such as “pioneering”, “trailblazing” and “a champion”, and I share the optimism and enthusiasm for the measure that many hon. Members have expressed. I also share some of the concerns that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) has just expressed, however. There is real concern about the limitations of the commissioner’s role, for example. In Committee, the Liberal Democrats argued the case for a strengthened role for the commissioner, and for his or her powers to extend far beyond those proposed in the Bill.

In a Wales-only setting, the commissioner’s powers come close to those that we would like to see. The commissioner will be able to investigate and make recommendations on the practices of local health boards, local authorities, further and higher education establishments, and many other important groups. He or she will also have the power to investigate individual cases in those areas. Although we would have given the commissioner greater powers of enforcement, the important point is that he will be able to interact directly with those bodies and to act as a real force for positive change, eliminating discrimination and malpractice.

There are areas in which we would have strengthened the commissioner’s powers further, even in a non-devolved setting. We tabled amendments to give the commissioner greater powers to stop elder abuse. We also argued that an investigated body should be required to give a response to the commissioner within six months. Our debates in Committee were quite repetitive, in that amendments kept being tabled on the same theme. Here we come to the crux of the debate. The theme was that the commissioner must be able to make a real difference to the lives of older people. To do that, that person will require a sufficiently broad remit, and sufficiently tough powers, in every area that affects those whose interests he looks after.


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The Bill is not particularly different from the one that we saw on Second Reading, in that it still outlines proposals for a commissioner with two dramatically different spheres of influence. The commissioner’s powers in relation to reserved matters are markedly weaker, in that he or she will not have the power to require UK Government Departments to respond directly on non-devolved matters. Pensions, benefits and employment are all reserved matters, and we know from our surgeries that they are also some of the most important issues for our older people. Citizens Advice has told us that 80 per cent. of the cases that it deals with are connected with pensions and tax credits, yet the Bill still leaves the commissioner virtually impotent in those key areas.

Any member of the public can write to a Minister, but the commissioner will be prohibited from doing so in his official capacity. If an older person comes to the commissioner to complain about the administration of his pension, for instance, the commissioner will be unable to make representations to the relevant Minister at UK level. Nor will he have the power to summon witnesses and examine documents from the Department for Work and Pensions or Jobcentre Plus. Any recommendations that he makes will have to be made in general terms, and will have to get through two sets of gatekeepers, the Assembly and the Secretary of State, who will have no statutory obligation to respond. The fundamental issue is the accessibility of the commissioner to our constituents. Sadly, the Bill fails on that level.

The role of the Children’s Commissioner, which was established through a laudable piece of legislation, has often been cited as an example in our discussions. When the Children’s Commissioner appeared before the Welsh Affairs Committee on 22 April 2004, he said:

The experience of the children’s commissioner speaks volumes about what we have been trying to achieve during the passage of the Bill, and we may have to return to those matters in future. I hope that some of them will be addressed in the memorandum of understanding between the Assembly and the newly appointed commissioner. The appointment will be made soon, in 2007, which is to be welcomed.

The commissioner’s post will be the first of its kind in the world, and has huge potential to enrich people’s lives. Despite my scepticism—I do not want to be pessimistic—I support what is in the Bill. The Liberal Democrats wish the commissioner every success, and we sincerely hope that, through the Bill, the Government have given him the tools that he needs to do an effective job and, above all, to provide the accessibility to respond to our constituents’ demands.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, without amendment.


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petitions

Safer Stations

6.26 pm

Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): I wish to present a petition on behalf of 5,000 individuals who are concerned about security at railway stations. At present, too few stations are staffed during the hours of operation, and many have inadequate CCTV or even help points. Too few have functioning ticket barriers during the hours of operation. The petitioners call on the rail companies to recognise their responsibility for passenger safety and to put people before profits.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

Wildlife Crime

6.27 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I wish to present a petition to the House calling on Parliament and Government to reduce wildlife crime. The petition is organised by my constituent, the brave and indefatigable Faye Burton, who is also organiser of the rural policing liaison group. It has 1,274 signatures.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

Disabled Parking

6.28 pm

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): I am pleased to present a petition organised by Disability Croydon and Mr. Alwyn D’Costa regarding the need for a unified blue badge parking scheme.

The petition states:


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