HC Deb 24 October 1973 vol 861 cc1408-34

10.48 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Civil Service Department (Mr. Kenneth Baker)

I beg to move. That the yearly rate of the salary payable to the Parliamentary Commissioner under section 2 of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 be increased from £15,750 to £16,000 and the date from which this resolution is to take effect be 1st April 1973.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu)

I understand that it will be convenient to take with this order the second order, namely, That the rate of the salary which may be granted to the Comptroller and Auditor General under section 1 of the Exchequer and Audit Departments Act 1957 be increased from £15,750 to £16,000 per annum and the date from which, under subsection (3) of that section, the person now holding that office is entitled to a salary at the said increased rate be 1st April 1973.

Mr. Baker

Yes, Sir. It would be convenient to discuss the two orders together.

It may be helpful to the House if I explain briefly the purpose of these motions. Both the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Parliamentary Commissioner are in the special position of being Officers of this House. Their salaries are borne on the Consolidated Fund, and can be altered only by resolutions of the House. This is necessary because these two Officers are responsible directly to the House and must be independent of the Government Department whose work they scrutinise.

The House has always thought it right, however, that these Officers should be paid the same salaries as permanent Heads of Departments. Ever since the post of Comptroller and Auditor General was created in its present form in 1866 the salary has been the same as that for a Permanent Secretary, and when the Parliamentary Commissioner was first appointed in April 1967, his salary, too, was fixed at this level.

The motions before the House are necessary to keep their salaries in step with those paid to Permanent Secretaries, and provide for their salaries to be raised from £15,750 to £16,000 from 1st April 1973. These figures have already been announced and implemented for Permanent Secretaries. This increase follows from the recommendations of the Top Salaries Review Body under the chairmanship of Lord Boyle. That is Command Paper No. 5372.

The Review Body's Second Interim Report on Top Salaries recommends that annual salaries of senior grades in the Higher Civil Service should be increased by £250 per annum with effect from 1st April 1973. I must emphasise that these two officials, like other senior civil servants, have had no increase this year under the freeze or under stage 2. The increases proposed for the Parliamentary Commissioner and the Comptroller and Auditor General amount to about 1.6 per cent. over the period of 15 months since their last increase in January 1972. Over those 15 months, the index of retail prices rose by some 9 per cent. and average earnings rose by 15.6 per cent. I think the House will appreciate that this relatively modest increase of £250, which is the maximum allowed under stage 2, accords with the Government's counter-inflation policy.

I should like to take this opportunity of paying a warm tribute to the present holders of these two offices for their devotion and skill in carrying out the onerous duties which we, the House of Commons, have given to them. Theirs is a vital role. They watch over the activities of Government Departments for us and ensure that the people of this country receive both value for money and fair treatment. As the House will recall, the Parliamentary Commissioner took on extra duties without any increase in salary when he took up the additional offices of Health Service Commissioner for England, Wales and Scotland on 1st October

I am sure I can speak for the whole House—and certainly for the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Michael Stewart) and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Dell), who are the Chairmen of the two Select Committees which these two officials serve—in expressing our gratitude to the Parliamentary Commissioner and to the Comptroller and Auditor General for their services I commend the motions to the House.

10.52 p.m.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)

I wish to take this opportunity of drawing the attention of the House to the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, whom I shall hereafter refer to as the Ombudsman both because that is shorter and because it is the title by which he is generally known. I ought to say at once that I raise no objection whatever to the increase in salary proposed in the motion, nor will anything that I say be in any way critical of either the present holder of the office of Ombudsman or his predecessor—indeed, quite the contrary, and I share the view which the hon. Gentleman on the Government Front Bench expressed.

The office of Ombudsman was established about 6½ years ago and, although we once had a debate on one case with which he dealt—the famous Sachsen-hausen case—the House has never debated the work of the Ombudsman as a whole; and, judging from such replies as I have had from the Leader of the House, if I do not snatch this opportunity it is impossible to know when a subsequent opportunity will occur. I think it is true to say that very soon after the Ombudsman was appointed there was an attempt in some quarters to represent the office as being a triviality and a disappointment. That was because the critics had simply not understood what the Ombudsman's job was and what it was not. It is worth while stating what will be plain enough to hon. Members here, but what was not fully realised by the public at large at the beginning.

The Ombudsman cannot reverse the decisions of courts of law. Nor can he reverse the decisions of independent statutory tribunals on pensions and such things. It is right that he should not be able so to do. If we were to come to the conclusion that courts of law or independent tribunals reached wrong decisions too frequently, our task would be to review the whole structure of the judiciary or the position of the tribunals. It would be no possible remedy to appoint one man to put all this right. I do not think that there are any grounds for believing that our courts of law or our independent statutory tribunals are any more liable to error than any other human institution. On the whole I think they are rather less liable to do so.

Nor, of course, can the Ombudsman alter the law. That means that he cannot remedy every possible injustice, because some injustice may spring from the fact that the law is unsatisfactory. The Ombudsman cannot alter it although on more than one occasion his report on particular cases has obliged Governments to think whether the law in certain respects ought not to be altered. Nor—and this is a little more arguable—can the Ombudsman comment adversely on the decision which a Minister reaches in his discretion in a matter where the statute has given him discretion, provided that in making the decision he has been properly advised and the Department has brought all the relevant facts to his notice. Sometimes this is a rather nice distinction.

Both Ombudsmen have quite properly tried to stretch the authority of their office by promoting the doctrine of what I might call prescriptive maladministration, which means that if the Minister has exercised his discretion and if the result is something that manifestly does not make sense or is not just, we might reasonably presume maladministration somewhere even if we cannot produce the evidence of it. I hope that Ombudsmen will always try to expand this doctrine.

The Ombudsman on the whole has a precisely defined and limited but still useful area of duties. It is to deal with maladministration in Government De- partments. Maladministration can take various forms. It may take the form of decisions being reached in an ill-considered fashion, without all the relevant facts being brought properly to the attention of the Minister before he makes a decision. Conversely, the Government Department, possibly with the best will in the world, may be so careful to try to consider everything that it engages in intolerable delay which possibly does more harm to the individual citizen than the ill-considered decision might have done.

Again, there may be maladministration when a Government Department gives in good faith, but simply through not being up to date, erroneous information to a citizen as to how he should proceed to safeguard his rights in a certain matter. Or, in some cases, there may be a simple failure to inform citizens of what the present practice and rules of the Departments are. I do not subscribe to the view that the civil servants of this country are unconscientious. They are bound to make errors of judgment from time to time but in my opinion this country is extremely fortunate in the quality of its public servants. They cannot be infallible, and it is for this purpose that the office of Ombudsman was created.

How has it worked? It has been in existence for about 6½ years, and I think I am right in saying that about 600 cases have been referred to successive Ombudsmen each year. What have been the results? In some cases they can be measured in the most tangible form possible, where a Government Department admits that it has fallen short in perfection, and the individual citizen has suffered a loss as a result and what is called an ex gratia payment is made in consequence. These ex gratia payments have varied from £2—any of us might be glad of £2 in these hard times—to £25,000. Particularly interesting is the case of a widow. As a result of the Ombudsman's investigation of her case, it was quite clear that her pension ought to have been back-dated much earlier than the Department had previously done, and this resulted in a capital sum of £3,800 being paid to her.

However, it would be wrong to estimate the value of the Ombudsman's work merely by particular cases. Of more widespread importance is the effect of his investigations in causing Government Departments to change their rules and practices in a direction more helpful to the ordinary citizen. The recent report of the Ombudsman shows that this has happened in 10 different Departments.

These variations of rules can affect various matters. They can make it easier for somebody in prison to get legal advice than was previously possible. Then there are those citizens who have fallen into income tax arrears through errors of the Inland Revenue. They have genuinely sought to pay what they thought they ought to pay, and then have been told afterwards that they ought to have paid much more, and are faced with arrears. As a result of the Ombudsman's representations, the Inland Revenue has taken a more reasonable view of this, and rather more than 11,000 individuals have benefited from this to the tune of £1,300,000 all told. The consequence has not only been that those people have benefited but that there has been the adoption of a more just and generous rule by the Department.

Also the work of the two Ombudsmen, one after the other, has caused many Government Departments to be more ready to give information, for example in respect of rules about various procedures, how one must apply if one wants this, that or the other. Government Departments are now quicker to tell the public when changes have been made.

I think most of us have had the experience, when we have filled in our income tax returns, of finding that they always seem to be sent to an office far away, to which we could never hope to be able to travel. In fact, if one has any difficulties about one's income tax, even if the department dealing with it is at the other end of the kingdom, one can get it straightened out at the local tax office. Many citizens did not realise that. One of the results of the Ombudsman's work is that this information is now more generally known.

Hon. Members who are patient enough to read the reports both of the Ombudsman himself and of the Select Committee of which I have the honour to be chairman, and to which he reports, will find that these are only examples of a general steady improvement in the quality of public administration in the direction of helping the ordinary citizen.

From time to time, and sometimes by the Press, the Ombudsman has been subject to criticism on the grounds that there was not enough publicity of his work. Both the Ombudsman and our committee have tried to remedy this. From the beginning, when his office was first established, the Ombudsman has published an annual report containing the details of some of the cases with which he has dealt, those which he considered most crucial and important. More recently, in a desire to see that everyone was better informed another step has been taken. The Ombudsman now presents quarterly reports in which every case with which he has dealt is summarised, and the results of consequent action by the Government are given.

It is true that all these cases are reported anonymously, and are mentioned by a letter and a name—for instance, C109. It has sometimes been argued that it would give greater publicity to the office if the names and addresses of the complainants were spelled out. I would venture to take this opportunity to explain why that would not do. When someone asks his Member for Parliament to take a case to the Ombudsman, it may be because the complainant himself has been in prison or in a mental home or because a member of his family has been so situated, or the case may concern his most intimate personal and financial affairs. It would clearly be wrong for his name and address to be published unless he himself wished that to happen.

In some cases, of course, the complainant does wish that to happen. When a farmer keeping bees is provided with advice by a Government Department which results in the production of honey which, although I am told it is entirely good honey, is unfortunately unsaleable because it is colored green, he may well wish to give this the widest possible publicity.

I should like to make it clear that there is nothing to prevent any complainant whose case has gone to the Ombudsman from going to the Press and giving it the widest possible publicity. I do not think that the Ombudsman would object to that. But it is for the complainant and not the Ombudsman to decide. I spell this out because I think that there has been some misunderstanding.

It is the duty of the Select Committee appointed by this House to examine the chief civil servants of the Government Departments to which an Ombudsman report refers. Our general experience has been that the civil servants in the department are extremely anxious to be helpful. They do not resent the inquiries of the Ombudsman. If they cannot agree with him, they state solid reasons why they cannot, but they are genuinely anxious, if possible, to reach agreement. If there is any way of making redress to a citizen who has suffered injury, they are glad to do it. On those occasions on which a Government Department has been obliged to dig its heels in and stand on one side while the Ombudsman and the Select Committee sit on the other, this has not been owing to the judgment of the civil servants: it has been because they are defending avowed Government policy on certain points.

As a remedy for this, it has been suggested—a solution which I reject—that it should be mandatory on the Department to do what the Ombudsman tells it. I do not think that this would work. This would turn the Ombudsman from a servant of this House into a dictator. Also, if Government Departments believed from the start that if the Ombudsman said, "This is to be done", it would be done, they could not be blamed if they were nothing like as helpful as they are now. They would probably feel that if that were to be the case they were entitled possibly to be legally represented when the Ombudsman inquired into their affairs. Every case would take longer to solve. The very large number of cases which are solved to the gratification of complainants would be terribly slowed down.

It would also be a very bad constitutional principle. If a Government Department says, "We consider that this is the right policy and we are sticking to it", and the Ombudsman and the Select Committee say, "We think that it is the wrong policy and you should change it", only one abiter can decide the matter, and that is this House. It is right for Government Departments to pay very great respect to the recommendations of the Ombudsman; but he cannot ultimately be a dictator about this.

That brings me to my final point. What ought to happen when the Ombudsman comes to the conclusion that he cannot absolutely state that there has been maladminstration in a particular case but thinks that the result is unjust, and when the Select Committee backs him up but the Government, nevertheless, say, "No, we do not agree"? Can we do anything to deal with that situation?

There are two or three examples. First, the expressed view of the Select Committee—not the unanimous view but the majority view—is that the Ombudsman ought to have jurisdiction over personnel matters within the public services, matters of promotion and so on. Successive Governments have said that this is better dealt with by the existing channels. I must admit that the existing channels, the professional associations, have also taken this view. But, bearing in mind some of the particular cases with which we have had to deal, I am not satisfied that this is right. The Government ought to look at this matter again.

Next there are the cases of individuals who, as a result of departmental error, have paid more income tax than they ought to have paid, which is subsequently repaid to them but without interest. We have argued about this several times. The Government's view seems to be, "We know that there are some cases in which it is undoubtedly both just and humane to pay interest, but we cannot do justice to those few without doing justice to others who may not need it so much; therefore, we will not do it at all." I do not find that to be a convincing argument.

Then there is the further case of people living abroad who are entitled to and are drawing ordinary national insurance retirement pension. There are two odd features about this. If they were drawing pensions from public sources other than the ordinary State retirement pension, they would benefit from successive pension increases. They do not benefit if the ordinary retirement pension is increased unless they happen to live in a country with which we have reciprocal agreements. The Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration said recently about this: Your Committee are aware that the present practice had been reviewed and accepted by successive Governments and that any increases would have to be borne largely by people resident in this country. But they are of the opinion that it must produce a sense of unfairness that persons who, by their work and contributions here, have qualified for retirement pensions from this country should be denied increases in those pensions because they go and live abroad. This sense of unfairness must be all the greater because those who live in countries with which there are reciprocal agreements do in fact enjoy the increases. There is an example of how the Ombudsman's investigations and the Select Committee's consideration have established a considerable case in justice and compassion, which I admit successive Governments have not accepted and about which they should think again.

The last example which I shall quote—I mentioned to the Secretary of State for Scotland that I would mention this matter—concerns an activity by the Scottish Development Department in connection with the construction of a new runway at Turnhouse Airport. There has been much argument about the runway, and the question whether the planning decision reached by the Secretary of State was arrived at properly or whether there was maladministration is still under investigation by the Ombudsman.

Despite the fact that he is still investigating the matter, the work on the runway is proceeding briskly. I admit at once, and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Civil Service need not bother to remind me, that under the Act it is laid down clearly that the fact that the Ombudsman is investigating something shall not inhibit a Government Department from going on with what it is doing. I do not argue that what the Scottish Office is doing is illegal. I am merely asking whether it is wise or prudent.

There are 364 days in the year apart from the day on which the Select Committee publishes its report, and on the day the report is published there are received many letters from people all over Britain about problems concerning every conceivable Government Department. One of the letters which I have received as Chairman of the Select Com- mittee suggests that the British Airports Authority deliberately accelerated the placing of a contract and the commencement of the main work on the extension—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu)

Order. I think that the right hon. Gentleman is leaving the work of the Ombudsman and discussing other matters and criticising the Government.

Mr. Stewart

The point which I am trying to make, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is that the Ombudsman—I include both the distinguished gentlemen who have held the office—has served the country well. I am suggesting that the Ombudsman's work might be even more valuable if the Government paid a little more attention. I am adducing the Turnhouse Airport case briefly as an example of where the Government might have paid a little more attention. If the work in that instance were hurried on in the hope of getting it finished before the Ombudsman completed his report, although I do not dispute that that was legal, I doubt whether it was wise or prudent.

The experience of the last 6½ years proves that the office of Ombudsman is overwhelmingly justified. It has done a great service to many of our citizens. It would be even more useful if the Government had paid a little more attention. Perhaps Governments might do so if we accepted as a focus point in the parliamentary calendar that there must be at least—do not let me be extravagant—half a day every year for discussing the Ombudsman's work. That would enable those people who felt that the Government had not been quite as helpful or respectful as they might have been to say so plainly.

11.19 p.m.

Sir Gilbert Longden (Hertfordshire, South-West)

In one of the shortest speeches that has ever been made in the House, I merely wish to associate myself with almost every word that has fallen from the Chairman of the Select Committee of which I have the honour to be a member. I add only that, having had the advantage of speaking to the Swedish and New Zealand Ombudsmen, I feel that one of the best things that we have done is to provide for approaches to our Parliamentary Commissioner through hon. Members.

11.20 p.m.

Mr. Edmund Dell (Birkenhead)

I am sure that the House is grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Michael Stewart) for speaking at length of the work of the Ombudsman and of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner. I agree with what was said by my right hon. Friend, though I should not necessarily agree with the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Sir Gilbert Longden) who suggested that all approaches to the Ombudsman should be through Members of Parliament. I think that we have reached the stage when that requirement should be abandoned.

The Public Accounts Committee and the Comptroller and Auditor General on the one hand, and the Ombudsman and the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner on the other, have in common the fact that we are both engaged in processes of administrative audit which have an administrative impact on government. My right hon. Friend hopes that the impact is not resented by officials. I hope that our work is not resented by them. But this is something which, fortunately, I need not discuss at any length because, unlike the work of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner, there are regular debates on the work of the PAC. Indeed, I delight to see that increasingly its work informs debates other than those arising directly from its reports.

As to the work of the Comptroller and Auditor General, I merely mention a new development, which is that he is seconding members of his staff to other Select Committees—junior Select Committees such as that on the nationalised industries and the Expenditure Committee—and I hope that those officials are helping to make the work of those Committees more effective.

The Minister paid tribute to both these officials of the House. I join in the tribute paid to the Comptroller and Auditor General, and I do so in a paternal spirit. The Minister said that this office was established in 1866. The PAC was established in 1861, on a motion of Mr. Gladstone. As is well known, Mr. Gladstone was interested in candle ends. These days we have large candle ends, such as the Concorde, and therefore we need vigorous and able officials to deal with them. I hope the House will agree that Mr. Gladstone was wise, and I am prepared to say that in the Comptroller and Auditor General we have an official who is adequately carrying out not merely Mr. Gladstone's requirements but also the requirements of modern audit.

11.23 p.m.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Flint, West)

I want briefly to support what was said by the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Michael Stewart), who presides with such distinction over the Select Committee which considers the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner. I agree particularly with the closing part of the right hon. Gentleman's speech. It is a pity that we do not have a regular annual debate on the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner.

There was room for two opinions when the office was set up. There were doubts, certainly on the Government benches, about whether the experiment was justified. Those doubts no longer exist. What is beyond doubt is that now that we have the office it has to be made to work, because it has become an essential part of the average citizen's belief in the fairness of the processes of government. I therefore find it disturbing when Government Departments are not prepared to accept the recommendations of the Parliamentary Commissioner.

I listened with care to what the right hon. Gentleman said about making such recommendations mandatory. He convinced me that it would be a mistake to make these recommendations mandatory. It would transfer power to the wrong place.

Nevertheless, I believe that it ought to be made much more awkward and embarrassing for a Government Department to ignore the recommendations of the Parliamentary Commissioner, and I should like there to be some arrangement whereby, if a Department persistently refused to accept a recommendation, the Select Committee would have the right to bring the matter to the Floor of the House so that there could be a brief debate on the subject. As the right hon. Gentleman said, the proper place for the eventual decision to be taken is the Floor of the House. There just does not seem to be the machinery for transferring disputed decisions from the Select Committee to the Floor itself.

I shall not weary the House with a case which has been bothering me. In fact, the complainant is no longer resident in this country, and I think that he has rather lost interest in it. But I have not lost interest in the principle of it.

I am convinced that this office must be maintained and built up. It represents an important part of the average citizen's belief in the efficacy and fairness of our democratic institutions. From this side of the House, therefore, I support everything that the right hon. Member for Fulham said.

11.26 p.m.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)

When I came into the Chamber this evening, I had not intended to speak on this item of business, but I must express my agreement with the hon. Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer) when he says that there should be opportunity on the Floor of the House to debate these important matters. I agree also with my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Michael Stewart), who urged hon. Members to exercise patience and read his fairly long but valuable speech. It is a great pity that we have not had more time so that other hon. Members could join in and make this a long and thoughtful debate.

It is right that the House should consider the work of the two officers whose salaries are now subject to debate. I do not object to the salary increases, although I think it worth mentioning that £5 a week is rather more than the lower-paid workers in many constituencies will receive, and £5 does not go very far in these inflationary times.

However, while it is right to consider these two officers, it is right also that the House should have opportunity to consider the interests and welfare of thousands of our constituents, including those whose interests are referred to in the Prayer which is supposed to be the next item of business. But we have only two minutes left for this debate. It is a pity that the Government thought it right to bring before the House tonight so many matters, packing in a range of subjects from the Ordnance Survey to the Report of the—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sure that it will interest the hon. Member to know that there are more than two minutes left for the debate.

Mr. Hardy

I am delighted to hear it, Mr. Deputy Speaker and since you give us that assurance, I am happy to sit down.

11.28 p.m.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

I am delighted to endorse the valuable speech made by the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Michael Stewart), the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner. It has been a great pleasure to me to be a member of that Committee from the beginning, though I feel that I must add that I find it a little funny—one has to have a sense of humour in this place—that the longer one is a member of a Committee the less chance one has of being called to speak. However, I like to think that justice is done, and there it is.

The establishment of the Ombudsman was a splendid idea. The right hon. Gentleman the Chairman of the Committee put many important cases before the House, and I only hope that the Government will take note of what he said. A great deal of work has been done which has helped our citizens, and that is most satisfactory.

I agree that there ought to be regular annual debate. I apologise if my speech is a little muddled. I know that we are taking the two motions together and considering both the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Parliamentary Commissioner, but I think that it would have been easier and more practical if we had dealt with one and then turned to the other. We hardly know—at least, I hardly know—about whom we are talking.

I am delighted to say that we have had a very happy Select Committee. It is an all-party Committee and we have worked in that spirit. This is to the advantage both of the country and, indeed, of the House of Commons. The two Parliamentary Commissioners have done remarkable work and have been delightful men to work with. If the Select Committee, which is all-party, has supported the Parliamentary Commissioner when we have had problems relating to Government Departments, the full weight of that should be taken into account by the Government Departments.

I want to make one other comment. Although my hon. Friend raised it in general, he did not raise it in detail. One of my constituents was extremely badly treated by the Inland Revenue. Although a recommendation was made that his expenses should be paid, he had to keep on going up to Scotland to attend the East Kilbride Inland Revenue Department, and certainly the Department was at fault. He was not a man of great means. He had to trail up there because the Inland Revenue Department could not get on with the job. The senior civil servant, the head of the Inland Revenue, who came very courteously to talk to the Committee, absolutely refused to meet the expenses of my constituent.

I take that very badly indeed. I hope that, when perhaps one of these days I write my memoirs, I shall be able to get at some of the people who do not do what I think they should do for my constituents. It was most unfair of the Inland Revenue on that occasion. In spite of all the arguments, all the support of the Parliamentary Commissioner and all the support of the Committee, nothing would move the Department. Therefore, there was nothing that could be done. It was impossible to get even a half day's debate in the House on that case.

A great deal of work has been done of which I and all of us who have been on the Committee and worked with the Parliamentary Commissioner are proud. I am delighted, therefore, that we have had this debate. I hope that the Government will take note of what the Chairman of the Select Committee said and act according to the wise advice that he tendered to the Government.

I was rather amused whet the Government representatives said that there were two Chairmen—one from each Committee—sitting in the Chamber. There were quite a lot of us sitting in the Chamber. It is a very good thing that we should always support the Chairmen of these important Committees. Therefore, I am delighted that we have had this opportunity or speaking on the subject tonight, although I am slightly annoyed in many ways. However, there it is. It has been a useful debate, and it will be more useful if the Government take note of what the Chairman so rightly said.

11.34 p.m.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

I listened with great interest to the fascinating speech by the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Michael Stewart) about the work of the Ombudsman. I have been a Member of the House for only 11 months. During that time I have come to learn quickly that the Ombudsman forms an important part of our democratic process.

I have recently been in the process of trying to finalise a case which one of my constituents has been pursuing for something like 13 years with various Members of this House. My constituent, Mr. Smith of Hillingdon, Middlesex, has been pursuing a complicated financial case relating to the funds of the Columbia Gramophone Record Company, and only recently I have had to refer this to the Ombudsman, who has investigated it. Although my constituent has not achieved the satisfaction he had hoped to achieve, he feels that there is a great deal to be said for having the matter looked into by the Ombudsman from a completely independent point of view, and I am sure that he will be satisfied by that.

I agree with the suggestion that the House should have a regular debate on the work of the Ombudsman. Many hon. Members would welcome it, and our constituents would regard it as an opportunity for the House of Commons to review the work of this department which is important to our constituents in making their representations to us.

I welcome the establishment of the new Health Service Commissioner. In this area there are many justifiable causes for complaint, and the establishment of this new section of the Ombudsman's office will be of great advantage both to hon. Members and to our constituents. I hope that we shall again have an opportunity to debate this matter, perhaps at a slightly earlier hour when more hon. Members are present and when members of the public will be able to listen to the debate.

11.37 p.m.

Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)

Like the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) I have difficulty in jumping to and fro between the Parliamentary Commissioner and the Comptroller and Auditor General. What I have to say relates to the latter office.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Michael Stewart), who is acting Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, said that the Comptroller and Auditor General had recently broadened his responsibilities to the extent that he has seconded some of his staff to serve Committees of this House other than the Public Accounts Committee. That is an important precedent. The Comptroller and Auditor General, as part of his repsonsibilities, has provided staff for the Expenditure Committee and the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries.

If there is to be a strengthening of Select Committees it is of great importance that they should have the appropriate staff to back up their work. Since 1861 or 1866 the Comptroller and Auditor General has established a reputation for providing that service to the Public Accounts Committee. If we can find a mechanism whereby he can also aid Committees such as the Expenditure Committee we who serve on the Expenditure Committee will be able to do a more effective job.

Mr. Dell

I question my hon. Friend on a point of accuracy. The officials who have moved to assist the Expenditure Committee and the Select Commttee on Nationalised Industries do not during the period of their secondment fall within the responsibility of the Comptroller and Auditor General.

Mr. Roper

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for pointing out that secondment removes them from the direct responsibility of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Their value lies in the fact that they come from within his office and have been trained within the structure of that office. The Expenditure Committee may in future be able to share the services of the Comptroller and Auditor General with the Public Accounts Committee and in that way it will be able to perform more adequately the task which the House has set it and in time perhaps become as successful as was Mr. Gladstone's creation.

11.40 p.m.

Mr. Ernle Money (Ipswich)

Like the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy), I had not intended to speak but I was fascinated by the account given by the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Michael Stewart) of the position of the Parliamentary Commissioner. The whole House owes the right hon. Gentleman a considerable debt of gratitude for his exposition. It would be churlish not to pay tribute also to the great assistance given to individual Members by the Parliamentary Commissioner with unfailing courtesy in very difficult matters.

I hope that perhaps the "grey areas" are perhaps the areas where the reports of the Ombudsman can be given most light. Sometimes there are peculiar traditions which linger in all kinds of Departments. I came up against one only the other day through a case which was taken up by the Parliamentary Commissioner. The Home Office pays compensation for damage done by abscondees from borstal north of the River Deben but not, apparently, when one gets from Hollesley Bay to my constituency. This is the kind of case which is being looked into.

Although one is sorely tempted to follow the enterprising activity of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) in having, as it were, an Adjournment debate on the cheap. I shall not be lured into these siren approaches, but I agree with the right hon. Member for Fulham that this is the sort of area in which the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner can perhaps be developed very much to the advantage of the House.

Politics apart, I am in the unusual situation of disagreeing with the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Dell). I think we would be very unkind to wish on to the Parliamentary Commissioner direct access. I think he is there greatly to help us and we can help him by at any rate putting to him those cases with which he will be able to deal. There is only one of him, although he has a highly efficient staff, and what kind of situation would it be if, for example. he were to receive, as I do, five letters a day from an old lady in my constituency.

all in different coloured ink—all on the same subject?

Mr. Dell

But the Parliamentary Commissioner now has a field of activity in which there is direct access and in which the public are deeply interested.

Mr. Money

I am aware of that and I welcome the extension, as my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge did. But it is a limited area and the Parliamentary Commissioner will, in those circumstances, be able to deal directly with the representatives of the hospital boards and other organisations concerned. What I would be doubtful about is whether it would be practicable simply to unleash him as a kind of family solicitor to the nation—which each of us in this House already is, in effect, through performing our proper duties to our constituents.

The House might think seriously now about whether the time is not coming when a further office should be established to deal with the long and contentious question of complaints with regard to local authorities, because every hon. Member knows the difficulties of his own position in establishing matters of this sort with local authorities.

The Minister for Local Government and Development (Mr. Graham Page)

We have already announced that in the next Session we shall be presenting to the House legislation for a local ombudsman.

Mr. Money

I am obliged to my right hon. Friend. I think that will be of the greatest assistance to Members of Parliament and to their long-suffering constituents.

11.45 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Baker

With the leave of the House, may I say that this has been a most interesting debate. On behalf of the two officials I should like to say how grateful they must be for the kind words all hon. Members have used about them. I also say a word of thanks to the Chairmen—and I refer to them only because they were the Chairmen—to my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne-mouth (Dame Irene Ward), and for the valuable work of the members of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner and the Public Accounts Committee. I thank my hon. Friend for the long time she has served on that committee.

The right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Michael Stewart) said that there was little time to discuss the work of the Ombudsman. I agree. There have been few debates. The opportunity arises on this annual motion to increase the salaries which is necessary because the Ombudsman and the Comptroller and Auditor General cannot be bundled in with the other senior civil servants whose salaries can be increased without orders being laid before the House but by administrative means.

Last year we either did not have a debate or, if we did, it was about prices and incomes and not about the duties of the Ombudsman. The powers of the Ombudsman are the subject of Adjournment debates from time to time. I have answered one raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Michael Hamilton) about a particular decision of the Ombudsman, and I know that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Treasury has answered one from my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer) about the case that he mentioned again tonight. There are therefore opportunities for discussing the Ombudsman's duties, but I would not seek to say that there are many opportunities.

I should like to reinforce what several hon. Members have said about the usefulness and effectiveness of the Ombudsman. As an ordinary Member of Parliament I submit quite a lot of cases to the Ombudsman and I manage to get one to stick a year, which is quite a high batting average. I know, from the cases that I have raised both when I represented Acton and in my present constituency, that I have been able to satisfy my constituents that their cases have been gone into by an independent person and that he has been able to give them the degree of surveillance that an ordinary Member of Parliament could not give. He has access to papers, can call civil servants and can go through the files. This is one of the ways in which the Government can respond to the anxieties of the ordinary citizen. I therefore certainly value the services given by the Ombudsman.

Mr. Dell

The Minister has just said, correctly, that the Ombudsman is able to give these cases more detailed attention—with his access to civil servants—than ordinary Members of Parliament can conceivably give. In that case, is it right that Members of Parliament should act as a sieve between the public and the Parliamentary Commissioner?

Mr. Baker

I shall deal with that point in a moment. It was raised earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Sir Gilbert Longden).

The right hon. Member for Fulham went on to discuss the responsibilities and powers of the Ombudsman, which he described as "restricted but well defined." If those were his words I would agree with them. They are restricted—restricted to maladministration Maladministration, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, arises from many causes. Sometimes it arises through carelessness and sometimes from over-scrupulousness by civil servants, so keen to be fair and impartial and go through every possible process that the very act of being scrupulous fuels or, in some cases, creates the charge of maladministration.

I support entirely what the right hon. Gentleman said about the Civil Service. I assure him that the Civil Service has a very high regard for the Ombudsman, a regard which has been built up within the comparatively short time of four or five years. Civil servants have stood in awe of the Comptroller and Auditor General since 1866; they have a healthy respect for his power. But a new respect has been bred in the Civil Service for the Ombudsman and the way he has gone about things. I entirely endorse the right hon. Gentleman's comment that we are extremely fortunate in the quality of our public servants. The Civil Service is very much aware of the purpose, rôle and effectiveness of the Ombudsman. The reports are taken seriously and rules have been amended, procedures changed and injustices righted. Furthermore, as a result of his reports delays to some extent have been eliminated. I also think that government has become rather more open as a result of the Ombudsman's activities.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned publicity. I would welcome any publicity which hon. Members or Select Committees can give to the Ombudsman's work. Quarterly reports help, but it must be said that it would be very undesirable to publish the names and addresses of the various people who complain and who may be involved in a case that is being examined by the Ombudsman.

The right hon. Friend mentioned, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West, the power of the Ombudsman. It was asked whether a recommendation of the Ombudsman should be mandatory on Government and whether a Government Department that is criticised or told to mend its ways should accept it as a direction. I was glad that the right hon. Gentleman did not agree with that principle, because it would be bad constitutionally. The responsibility must essentially lie with the Minister, although a Department or Minister would be ill-advised to go clean contrary against a clear recommendation from the Ombudsman. There are few instances where the Department has not accepted the Ombudsman's recommendation. In the few cases where that has happened it is open to an hon. Member, as my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West has done, to bring the matter to the attention of the House and, if necessary, to bring it again to the attention of the Select Committee and to make a general stir about it. However, it would be bad constitutional principle if the Ombudsman were turned into a dictator and given mandatory powers to make Departments implement his recommendations.

Four specific points were raised by the right hon. Member for Fulham. One concerned the powers of the Ombudsman to examine complaints by civil servants against their employer, which of course is the Government. This has been the subject of two recommendations in Select Committee reports. In its Second Report of the 1969–70 Session, published on 11th February 1970, the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration examined this question and concluded that the jurisdiction of the PCA should be extended to cover personnel matters involving Crown servants.

In the White Paper published in May 1971 the Government set out their observations on this subject giving their reasons why the jurisdiction of the Parliamentary Commissioner should not be extended in this way. The next year the Select Committee again made that recommendation and the Government published a White Paper saying that it had given careful consideration to the Select Committee's arguments which are similar to those they expressed previously. The Parliamentary Commissioner was set up to investigate on behalf of Members of Parliament complaints by private citizens that they had suffered from maladministration by a Government department. The Government does not consider it would be consistent with this purpose to extend the jurisdiction of the Parliamentary Commissioner to the relations between the Crown as employer and its employees or between the Crown and other persons with whom it enters into business contracts. That is still our view.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the question of payment of interest on tax that should be refunded to the taxpayer and also the question of increases to pensioners living abroad. Both these matters featured in the last report of the Select Committee which was published earlier this year. I can tell him that the Government are considering this report and will present their observations on these points in due course. As regards the fourth point, I was not aware that the right hon. Gentleman was going to raise the subject of Turnhouse, but I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West said he was very pleased that direct access to the Ombudsman was denied to the public. This is certainly a matter of personal choice, but I happen to agree with him. I think it is appropriate to direct complaints concerning maladministration in central Government through a Member of Parliament. However, as the House will know, we are experimenting with a variation in the case of the Health Commissioner, where it will be possible for people to complain not through their Members of Parliament but direct to the Ombudsman, who for this purpose is the same person, and I suggest to the House that we should see how that works in the next few months. I believe that he started in business, as it were, in that capacity on 1st October this year.

Mr. J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)

When a constituent complains to the Ombudsman in this way, is there a method by which the Ombudsman also reports back direct to the Member of Parliament for that constituency? It would be very unfair if something was going on in his constituency and the Member of Parliament knew nothing about it. I can foresee a constituent coming into one of our clinics with a report from the Ombudsman, and the poor old Member of Parliament would not know what had been going on.

Mr. Baker

I believe that the Health Commissioner has a responsibility to inform the body which is complained against, whether it be an area hospital board or a regional hospital board, and when the Commissioner makes his final report he has to report to the body concerned and to the body senior to it. So that if the complaint is against an area hospital board, he has to make a report to that area hospital board and to the regional hospital board; and if the complaint is against a regional hospital board he has to make a report to that regional hospital board and to the Secretary of State, as the next body, as it were, above that board. I think I am right in saying to the hon. Gentleman, but I will check and perhaps confirm it in writing, that there is no provision in that case for informing the Member of Parliament that something may be happening in his constituency.

Sir Gilbert Longden

If my hon. Friend is going to be good enough to check and let the hon. Gentleman know, I hope that he will let us all know, because the hon. Gentleman has raised a point which is of great interest to all of us.

Mr. Baker

It has been set out in legislation, so perhaps all of us ought to know what the answer is. It does not fall directly to my ministerial responsibility, but I will ensure that an answer is given to all those who want to know.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money) asked a question about local government and the Ombudsman. I would confirm what my right hon. Friend said. The Government have made clear their intention to introduce a system for the investigation of complaints of maladministration in local government and legislation is now in the course of preparation. Its purpose will be to provide machinery similar to that embodied in the PCA system, adapted to conform to the different constitutional position of local government, and the lack of a direct relationship with Parliament, similar to that which exists between Parliament and the Executive. As to the detailed proposals on which I suspect my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich may interrupt me. I must ask the House to await the legislation which the Government intend to put before it. The Government are anxious to introduce their legislative proposals as soon as possible, but the House will not expect me tonight to anticipate the contents of of the Gracious Speech.

Mr. Money

May I say, through my hon. Friend, to my right hon. Friend the Minister, that I hope that when such legislation is introduced it will also cover planning?

Mr. Baker

I shall convey those comments to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Dell

I hope that the legislation will not allow councillors to act as a sieve.

Mr. Baker

I shall convey that comment to my right hon. Friend. This is open government with a vengeance!

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Not only open government; it is nothing to do with the salary of these gentlemen.

Mr. Baker

I take your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth for her kind words about the Parliamentary Commissioner.

Dame Irene Ward

May I say that I should also have referred to the Clerk to our Committee, who has been a tower of strength?

Mr. Baker

I shall convey those congratulations to the Clerk of the Committee as well. I know very well the Rood work that he does. I am pleased to know that my hon. Friend is writing her memoirs. As she intends only to mention people who did not help her constituents I hope that I do not appear in them.

I have also noted the point raised by several hon. Members about a regular debate. It is not for me to say whether there should be a regular debate. That is for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I shall convey to him the sentiments that have been expressed.

This has been a useful opportunity to review the work of the Ombudsman and to bring his work a little out of the shadow, because I believe he does a most useful and effective job. One of the growing problems in our society is the alienation of the citizen from the State, whether at central or local level. Anything that can be done to make the State appear more responsive to the needs of the ordinary citizen, which the Ombudsman can do to some extent, is to be welcomed.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the yearly rate of the salary payable to the Parliamentary Commissioner under Section 2 of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 be increased from £15,750 to £16,000 and the date from which this resolution is to take effect be 1st April 1973.

Resolved, That the rate of the salary which may be granted to the Comptroller and Auditor General under Section 1 of the Exchequer and Audit Departments Act 1957 be increased from £15,750 to £16,000 per annum and the date from which, under subsection (3) of that section, the person now holding that office is entitled to a salary at the said in creased rate he 1st April 1973.—[Mr. Kenneth Baker.]

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