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Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, I, too, thoroughly welcome the Bill. I should like to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Rowlands. I did not hear his maiden speech, but I read it in some detail. His speech was typical of him, showing a great social conscience and care for people. I believe that he has addressed this legislation in the same way. We must ensure that people are treated fairly and have the fundamental right to redress.
This has been a useful debate. However, before commenting on it, I should like to put forward a number of principles that I hope and trust are embodied in the Bill. They seem to be, but I think that we may secure even better legislation by amending the Bill in Committee. It is vital to protect the independence of the ombudsman from the government machinery. The issue of the appointment system used to select the ombudsman and whether he should serve a 10-year term is contentious. We will almost certainly pay attention to how the matter can be refined in some way.
As for the length of tenure, the post should not be a type of sinecure. The person should be there for a reasonable but not excessive length of time. As for integrating the existing ombudsmenthe local commissioner in Wales, the health service commissioner and the social housing ombudsmanit must be right to integrate those three bodies into one. We have heard from the Minister that all of that has been considered.
The related issues, including local government, the NHS and housing, are all very important public sector issues in Wales. What concerns me very much is that, when investigating allegations, the ombudsman must have the ability to expedite cases rapidly, effectively, efficiently and transparently. Although that is a difficult set of objectives, I believe that, in the public interest, they must be met.
The system of administration, in particular, must be very good and not bogged down in bureaucracy. The ombudsman must be fair and close to the people and receive support from all sections of society. Everyone must have confidence in him. That has not always been the case in the pastand I am being constructively
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critical here. The constituency MPs, of whom I was one, sometimes took good cases to the local commissioner but the commissioner refused to investigate them for very technical reasons.
I often encountered that unsatisfactory situation. Some of the cases were outwith the commissioner's remit due to sometimes arcane restrictions, at times causing the complainant and myself much grief. I think that most constituency MPs have suffered that kind of frustration. Sometimes there were long delays. That supports some of the comments noble Lords have made about the staffing needed to support the ombudsman for Wales. I believe that people's rights must not in future be sidelined. Given those aspirations, how does the Bill measure up? There are, of coursethough I shall not go into them nowthe cross-border issues in the health service which affect all of us who live near the border. There may, for example, be complaints from Welsh patients attending hospitals in Shrewsbury or Hereford. The Bill provides for arrangements to cover that issue, but it is a matter of great concern to those who are affected.
The Parliamentary Commissioner will be responsible for a huge number of complaints about the public services. But we have to remember that a whole raft of public services outside the Assemblyin social security, pensions and many other mattersalso are investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner. The problems in the health sector and cross-border issues surfaced in relation to Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool and what happened to children in Bristol Hospital.
The contributions that we have heard today have been extremely supportive of the Bill, but have also defined issues that I am sure will be converted into amendments during the Bill's passage. We had an excellent briefing the other day, but it is important that we are able to view the Explanatory Notes earlier. The public also need information about the ombudsman and how to make a complaint.
The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, made some important points. In particular, he asked how many cases the ombudsman can deal with in a limited time. Richard Crossman, when he was a Minister, addressed the whole problem of people's unwillingness to lodge complaints. That must be clarified. We support the Bill, although I give notice now that the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and I will table an amendment to limit the tenure of the ombudsman to seven years, rather than 10. We can have a useful debate about that but, on the whole, the Bill takes us forward. As the noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, said, it passes the Richard test: it will improve accountability for the Assembly to legislate in an area for which it will have total competence.
Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I warmly thank those noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. The Bill has been well received, although it appears that there will be one or two issues for us to discuss in Committee. One of those is the tenure of the position: whether it should be 10 years or less.
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As I said at the beginning of our debate, we are keen to listen and to improve the Bill if necessary. My noble friend Lord Prys-Davies, in welcoming the Bill, said that it is a very good Bill but that it can be improved. That is what we want and we will rely on the help of all your Lordships to ensure that, at the end of the day, we have the best possible Bill.
I shall now attempt to answer some of the questions that have been asked. Second Reading is significant because we are laying out the boundaries and parameters for Committee. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, for his welcome for the Bill. He successfully attempted to find criticisms of the Billas he said, he is in opposition and must opposebut it was absolutely clear from his generous comments that, on the whole, he welcomes the Bill. He asked about savings and additional costs as a result of the Bill. I am told that the proposal is cost-neutral and that there are minimal extra costs. However the question in his mind and mine is: what do we mean by "minimal costs"? I undertake to come back to the noble Lord on that point.
He also asked about the extent of public awareness of ombudsmen's services in Wales. One reason for creating the unified office is to allow for a more proactive approach to publicising a coherent set of services. Your Lordships may also want to note that Clause 32 places obligations on listed bodies to publicise the fact that they are subject to the ombudsman's jurisdiction.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, and a number of other Peers, also asked why the consultation was not made available to the House, either in the Library or to individual Peers. That is a very good point. There may have been an oversight. I accept the principle that if we are considering legislation coming from the Assembly, we must see all the documents. Officials will ensure that we do not make that mistake in future. In apologising for that, I accept that that point is well made. We will ensure that that does not happen again.
My noble friend Lord Prys-Davies, in welcoming the Bill, asked several questions about the complaints that the ombudsman has received and how many were upheld. In a way, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, has answered many of those points because he gave us some of the statistics, but I have all of them in front of me. I will just cite one and then pass the note to my noble friend after the debate. The Health Service Commissioner received 209 complaints; completed 11 investigations; upheld five; partially upheld three; and dismissed the remaining three.
My noble friend Lord Prys-Davies and other Peers asked about the 10-year fixed appointment. A 10-year period will allow for stability of office, yet allow a regular injection of new blood to reinvigorate the office. Not having to seek renewable appointments protects the office from any perception that its independence could be compromised. That is the answer that I am giving today. I see from the expressions on various noble Lords' faces that that may not be wholly satisfactory; and I am sure that we will return to the matter in Committee.
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My noble friend also asked: why are there no enforcement powers for the ombudsman's recommendations? That follows from existing arrangements. The only ombudsman's recommendations that have been legally enforceable are in Northern Ireland, where different considerations apply. No doubt we will return to that matter, but your Lordships will be aware that legal enforcement of ombudsman's recommendations would be an extremely radical move.
My noble friend also asked: why does the Bill require complaints to the ombudsman to be made in writing? He asked whether that does not disadvantage someone who, for whatever reason, is unable to write and whether there is scope for some discretion on the ombudsman's part. Clause 5(1)(a) indeed requires complaints to be made in writing. That reflects existing law, but Clause 2(4) allows the ombudsman to investigate a complaint even if the requirements of Clause 5(1) have not been met, provided that the ombudsman thinks it reasonable to do so. For example, if a disabled person is unable to submit a written complaint, it will still be open to the ombudsman, if he thinks it reasonable in the circumstances, to dispense with the requirement and investigate the matter anyway.
Finally, my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies asked: what can be done to facilitate complaints from persons who are afraid of upsetting the authorities about whom they are complaining? The ombudsman will be sensitive to such issues, but it is also right that the ombudsman must act fairly to the complainant and the listed authority concerned. My noble friend is correct: the ombudsman has a wide power to issue guidance to listed authorities under Clause 30. However, that provision relates to good administrative practice by listed authorities. The ombudsman can use the supplementary powers in paragraph 21 of Schedule 1, if he or she wishes to issue public guidance on how the ombudsman intends to approach investigations.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, asked why it was a Crown appointment, not an Assembly appointment. The brief and, I hope, convincing answer is that making it a Crown appointment reinforces the status of the office and its independence from government. The noble Lord also asked whether the ombudsman for Wales would have sufficient staff. The PSOW is accountable for delivering the functions of the office, which means that it must be properly resourced. The Assembly must fund the office, but, if it is minded not to agree an estimate of expenses, it must consult the Secretary of State and lay the estimate, as amended, before the Assembly. That important control prevents the Assembly limiting investigations through underfunding.
The noble Lord also asked whether there could be an appeal against the ombudsman's decisions. The ombudsman's decisions are subject to judicial review in the normal way. It must be said that it is likely that the courts will not intervene lightly in a decision properly taken by the ombudsman. Legal aid is available, if the relevant means and merits tests are met.
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My noble friend Lord Rowlands made an interesting contribution. I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Livsey of Talgarth, who paid tribute to my noble friend's excellent maiden speech the other day. I join the noble Lord, Lord Livsey of Talgarth, in acknowledging it. My noble friend made some interesting points, and I am sure that we will return to them in Committee. He asked why there was no requirement for the Assembly to consult the ombudsman on proposals to add or remove persons from his jurisdiction. Clause 27(4) provides that the Assembly,
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, also asked about the need to consult the National Assembly before appointing the ombudsman. We will consider that. In practice, appointments procedures for recruiting the ombudsman will be run by Assembly officials on behalf of the Secretary of State. In the longer term, splitting the Assembly between its executive and legislative elements, as the Richard report recommends, would allow for the possibility of the National Assembly advising Her Majesty on the appointment.
The noble Lord, Lord Livsey of Talgarth, asked several questions and made it clear that there were issues to which he would return in Committee. With the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, who could not be present todayI think that she is in Hollandhe will table amendments. The noble Lord expressed concern about the way in which the Bill would operate in cross-border situations. The consultation and co-operation powers and duties in Clause 24 are designed to ensure that the new ombudsman can and will work effectively and seamlessly with other ombudsmen or commissioners with an interest in the case, whether they are in Wales, England or even Scotland.
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