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Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the Minister for presenting this Bill, which has come before us so soon after the Queen's Speech. It was anticipated when we
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approved the order on 16 September this year. I expressed then the hope that the Government would find time for the Bill in due course. They have acted promptly, and here we are with the Bill at the start of the new Session.
My first impression is that it is a good Bill, well assembled and well drafted; but I note what the noble Lord said about tabling government amendments. Having delivered that plaudit I must remind myself that it is the constitutional duty of the Opposition to oppose and criticise the Bill if we suspect that it falls short of our highest aspirations.
As I said when the order was debated, we welcome the proposal to rationalise ombudsman services in Wales and to provide a unified service by abolishing the Commission for Local Administration in Wales and the offices of Welsh Administration Ombudsman, the Health Service Commissioner and the Social Housing Ombudsman for Wales, bringing all their functions under the banner of the Public Services Ombudsman. The holder of that office will be appointed by the Crown on the recommendation of the Secretary of State, and totally independent of all bodies subject to his or her jurisdiction. Whether the Assembly should have a role in the appointment process will, I am sure, be discussed at a later stage.
I welcome the fact that advantage has been taken in the Bill to unify the powers and jurisdictions, which previously were varied and whose scope is now uniformly and clearly defined. The ombudsman can investigate a complaint of "injustice or hardship", maladministration or service failure, or an alleged breach of a local authority's code of conduct by an elected member or an employee. The Bill is also clear in its description of the parameters within which the ombudsman can act. Again, we shall look closely at those parameters in Committee.
One would have thought that there would be immediate financial savings from such an amalgamation of functions, but paragraphs 113 and 114 of the Explanatory Notes suggest otherwise. They refer to initial set-up costs and funding being provided by the Assembly and,
being required to deal with the manpower effects of the Bill's implementation. I am sure that noble Lords will wish to know in due course what those extra initial costs amount to and what savings are anticipated later.
We have been told that two of the officesthe Welsh Administration Ombudsman and the Health Service Commissioner for Waleshave not been particularly onerous in the past. Again, I quote the Wales Office consultative paper on the order:
That is perhaps surprising, considering the extent of their jurisdiction. The administration ombudsman could consider complaints of maladministration against the Assembly and many of its sponsored public
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bodiesa euphemism for the Assembly quangos. The health service ombudsman could investigate complaints relating to the provision of services by the NHS and associated bodies. Those services have been subject to much public criticism. So, prima facie, there has been considerable scope for complaint in both spheres, but the public may not have fully understood the extent of their right to complain, the relevance of ombudsmen's services and the consequences of a finding in favour of the complainant.
Possibly there have been occasions when ombudsmen's decisions and recommendations have been disregarded by the guilty authorities, and aggrieved persons simply ignored. I have known that to happen, but I am told that it has not occurred in the past five years. That is to devalue the ombudsman's role and create an intolerable situation. I hope that the Bill and the stronger ombudsman will prevent such occurrences. It is to be hoped that the Bill will improve the public's understanding of their rights and bring the ombudsman's services and possible remedies closer to the people. We certainly hope that there will be no diminution of ombudsman activity when the new unified service comes into operation.
As the Minister said, at least the principle underlying the Bill has its antecedents in a recommendation made to the Secretary of State for Wales as far back as 1998, when the National Advisory Group recommended amalgamation of ombudsmen services. Since then, there has been extensive consultation and a variety of papers and discussions. We are grateful for the Minister's promise to supply us with copies of those documents. In my experience, it is not easy to get hold of such documents; they should be readily available in the Printed Paper Office or the Library when we are involved in the provision of primary legislation related to those matters. The fault, I hasten to add, does not lie with our servicing bodies in this House, which do their level best to get hold of such material. I suspect that there is, and has been, a hold-up at the Assembly end. I have made the point and shall not hammer it further, but simply say that it is crucial that all relevant public Assembly documents are available to us while this Parliament has responsibility for scrutinising primary legislation applicable to Wales.
The ultimate justification for the Bill and the provision of a unified ombudsman service is that times have changed since the establishment of the separate ombudsmen services under different Acts of Parliament, and there is now more emphasis on joined-up services, provided through partnerships between public bodies.
"An individual citizen may therefore have dealings with several different public bodies in relation to a particular case. It follows that if an individual is dissatisfied about some aspect of a service provided, it may not be easy to identify . . . to which ombudsman to submit a complaint".
Ombudsmen services are first and foremost for the benefit of complainants and it is right that their interests should be the primary concern throughout the Bill. This we shall test at various stages in Committee.
There is an element of expediency behind the Bill. We understand that three of the offices referred to were due to fall vacant last year, thus providing an ideal moment for amalgamation. That amalgamation has now taken place, and the function of the Bill is to regularise and define the position statutorily. We welcome the Bill and shall give it a fair wind.
Lord Prys-Davies: My Lords, I shall not burden the House with a long speech, but I want to say that I warmly welcome the Bill, which has been so helpfully explained by my noble friend on the Front Bench. Perhaps I may also add a word of thanks to my noble friend for arranging the meeting held on Tuesday last in the famous Gladstone Room with the Wales Office Minister, the National Assembly Minister and the Assembly lawyers and officials. All the trouble they took and the help that they gave was greatly appreciated.
The meeting also provided an opportunity to put points to both Ministers for them to answer, and possibly to consider further. But I fully support the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, that all the documents relating to legislation to come before this House which affect Wales and the Assembly should be available in our Library.
Although the subject of the Bill may lack glamour, it makes up for it in importance. We live in an imperfect world, and the Bill will help a great many people. I am not well up on the number of complaints which are received annually by the three existing commissioners. Perhaps the Minister can give the House some idea of the total number of complaints received last year and the percentage that were found to be justified.
But let us look to the future. By establishing a unified and integrated ombudsman service in place of the three separate existing services, the Bill will ensure that all complaints, in whichever service they arise, will be investigated in the light of the same principles and the same standards. I believe that the benefit of this reform far outweighs the marginal loss of the specialism of the existing separate services which will inevitably arise and that that more than justifies the small additional costs of setting up the office.
We know that the Bill has the full concurrence of the National Assembly and all the political parties in the Assembly. For me, that is a highly important consideration. I confess that I would find it very difficult indeed to support an amendment which was not acceptable to the Assembly Government.
Having said that, I also agree that it would be pretty remarkable if any department or the Assembly had managed to produce a Bill, let alone one of some
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45 clauses and seven schedules such as we have before us, which did not stimulate discussions and amendments designed to improve it. Even a good Bill can be made better. I am sure that in the course of this short debate today we shall hear a number of very interesting suggestions as to how the Bill can be improved. I am also sure that our Minister is a listening Minister.
I very much hope that the Wales Office Minister will study in detail the Hansard report of this debate and possibly bring forward amendments additional to the ones that the Assembly has in mind. I found it disquieting that the ombudsman should be appointed for a fixed term of 10 years. I am not sure whether that matter can be looked at again.
I also found it surprising that the opportunity has not been taken to give power to the ombudsman to order the payment of damages by an offending authority where the aggrieved citizen has suffered an injustice or hardship as a consequence of maladministration. That point was made very powerfully by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, at the meeting in the Gladstone Room.
I understand from the Welsh Assembly officials that the public authorities that were consulted on this proposal were totally opposed to it. Well, they would be, but I venture to suggest that on this particular issue the Assembly Government were possibly too readily impressed by the response of the public authorities.
Clause 5(1) clearly states that the complaint must be in writing. That assumes a degree of articulacy, but some people find it very difficult to put a complaint in writing. Can the Minister confirm whether the ombudsman will have discretion to investigate a complaint which is not in writing? It seems to me that he may have such a discretion when the complaint is referred to him under Clause 2(3). I should welcome guidance from the Minister on that point.
Then there is the separate, and in my view more difficult, issue of the reluctance of an aggrieved person to make a complaint because he or she is afraid of upsetting people to whom he or she may well have to look for services in the future. What can be done about that? I recall that this issue was raised by the late Richard Crossman almost 40 years ago when he was in charge of the DHSS. I well recall Crossman stressing, with conviction and his usual vigour, that a way must be found to surmount that difficulty. The problem has not gone away. Only last week, I heard from a friend of mine of the unwillingness of a relative to lodge a complaint of maladministration because she feared the consequences later on in her life. What can the new ombudsman do about that? I very much hope that he will pay very careful attention to the problem when drawing up the guidance under Clause 31. I believe that Clause 31 has great potential and I hope that the ombudsman will address such problems through Clause 31.
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