§ Order for Second Reading read.7.17 pm
§ The Minister of State, Privy Council Office (Mr. Richard Luce)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second Time.
I am sure that hon. Members will recognise this Bill as a valuable measure and I hope that it will receive support from all hon. Members. Its main aim is to implement the Government's undertaking, given in 1985, to introduce legislation to extend the powers of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration to enable him to investigate the activities of non-departmental public bodies, commonly known as quangos, as well as those of Government Departments. It is now almost exactly 20 years since the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner— the first United Kingdom Ombudsman— was established to look into complaints of maladministration against Government Departments. It is perhaps surprising now to recall the doubts expressed at the time about the wisdom of this action and, in particular, whether the Parliamentary Commissioner's activities might not undermine the role of hon. Members in pursuing complaints. The experience of the last 20 years has shown the great value of his role. I am sure that most hon. Members will agree that his investigations have actually strengthened the ability of hon. Members to protect the individual against administrative abuse. I take this chance to commend the Ombudsman, Mr. Anthony Barrowclough, and his staff for the painstaking job that they do.
Hon. Members will recall that the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration recommended this extension of jurisdiction in its report on non-departmental public bodies in the 1983–84 Session. This was an area that the Select Committee had explored some years previously but had delayed making final recommendations until the Government's review on the nature and number of these quangos had been concluded. In its report the Select Committee made clear its view that it would not be appropriate for all quangos to be included and gave considerable thought to the precise bodies to be covered. We must all be grateful for the valuable work of the Committee in mapping out guidelines in this new field under the chairmanship of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck).
In their response, published in July 1985, the Government pointed out that the Select Committee had put forward no evidence of significant maladministration by any of the bodies recommended for inclusion in the PCA's jurisdiction. Nevertheless, the Government accepted that there was a case in principle for extending the PCA's jurisdiction in this way, subject to some further observations on the criteria for defining the bodies which it was appropriate to bring within jurisdiction. We undertook to introduce legislation in due course to implement the proposals—hence this Bill.
The meat of the Bill, dealing with the extension of PCA jurisdiction to quangos, is in clause 1 and the schedule attached to it. Hon. Members will need to note that all provisions of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 1057 apply unchanged to the new bodies, with the exception of the amendment which specifies the bodies that the PCA may investigate.
The existing non-departmental public bodies which it is proposed to bring within jurisdiction are listed in the schedule. The clause provides that further bodies may be added to the schedule in future. It also lays down for parliamentary approval the criteria that such bodies will have to satisfy in order to be listed. These reflect essentially the concept that the bodies should be subject to some degree of ultimate ministerial accountability to Parliament, in that they are dependent for their financing and continuing existence on Government policy.
While this extension of the PCA's jurisdiction is the main purpose of the Bill, we have taken the opportunity to bring forward one or two other useful amendments to existing legislation. First, clauses 2 and 4 propose some changes that are designed to ensure the smooth running of the PCA's or the Health Service Commissioner's office, should it be left unexpectedly without a commissioner. Clause 2 provides for the removal of a commissioner who, possibly through accident or illness, is incapable of carrying out his duties but is so severely incapacitated as to be unable to offer his resignation. The present Acts provide no remedy in such an event, except removal after addresses by both Houses of Parliament—an insensitive and inappropriate procedure.
Clause 4 provides for the appointment of an acting commissioner, should the offices of the PCA or any of the .Health Service Commissioners become vacant. The appointment of a new commissioner necessarily takes some time, and while the position remains vacant some important functions, including the presentation to Parliament of reports on completed cases, cannot be carried out. I must stress particularly that both these clauses are precautionary measures to meet an unlikely situation, but should either unwelcome event occur the continuing work of the PCA and the Health Service Commissioner offices would be hampered without them.
In addition, clause 3 introduces a provision to allow Health Service Commissioner reports to be passed to Members of Parliament who have been involved in a complaint. The Health Service Commissioner has felt unable to pass his reports to hon. Members under legislation establishing the offices of Health Commissioners, even where an hon. Member has been instrumental in assisting a constituent, on the grounds that the reports would not be privileged in such circumstances. He has recommended, and the Select Committee has endorsed his view, that this position should be remedied. The Bill provides a convenient opportunity.
Clauses 5 and 6 bring in some changes to the time limits and procedures for complaints to the Health Service Commissioners. The main effect is to extend from three to 12 months the period within which a health authority in England or Wales may itself refer a complaint to the Health Service Commissioner. The Health Service Commissioner considers, and the Select Committee has agreed, that this period is too short and that the longer period, which is already specified in the parallel Scottish legislation, is more appropriate.
In addition to its major provisions, the Bill therefore provides the opportunity to introduce a number of additional modest but useful changes to improve the 1058 effectiveness of existing legislation. In all, I think that this is a useful Bill and I hope that it will command general support. I commend it to the House.
§ Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)
There is little likelihood of there being much dispute about whether the Bill ought to be given a Second Reading. Most hon. Members regard it as a relatively meritorious Bill. It is worth reminding those hon. Members who are present that the first British ombudsman— the Parliamentary Commissioner—was created by the Labour party. We welcome any improvement on the scope of that office and on the scope and functioning of the Health Service Commissioner's office. However, we do not think that the Bill goes far enough.
Opposition Members, who believe that a substantial number of services should be provided by public bodies, feel under a greater obligation to make provision for the proper redress of grievances than do Conservative Members, who would prefer to do without public bodies altogether and to privatise everything. Therefore, it is important that those who believe in public services should provide for the redress of grievances.
I intend to concentrate on the functions of the Health Service Commissioner rather than on his functions as Parlimentary Commissioner. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) will be concentrating on his activities as Parliamentary Commissioner.
After the Parliamentary Commissioner's report to the Select Committee, it was agreed that his jurisdiction should be extended. However, there are a few curious omissions from the list of bodies that were originally recommended for inclusion. Why the Medical Research Council is to be covered by the Parliamentary Commissioner but the Economic and Social Research Council is not is beyond my grasp. I hope that the Minister will be able to explain that to us. It is also strange that the Scottish Special Housing Association should have been recommended for inclusion but was then excluded by the Government. I shall say no more about these oddities. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East will refer to some more.
A few of the general points that I wish to make spring from long-held personal feelings. I am dubious about the fact that the Parliamentary Commissioner's office is staffed by seconded civil servants. The arrangement in local commissioners' offices, under which people have to apply for a job, obtain it and then go on to the payroll, is superior.
§ Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)
The hon. Gentleman says that he thinks it odd that the Parliamentary Commissioner's office is staffed by civil servants. I am sure that he does not mean to imply that they do not do a thoroughly good job.
§ Mr. Dobson
No; they do a throughly good but rather slow job. As they are seconded from the Civil Service, they are open to the criticism that during their investigations they may be influenced by the thought that eventually they may have to return to the poachers, having abandoned their gamekeeping role. We shall need to consider that point.
It is also a fault that the PCA's office employs no lawyers of its own. I am no advocate of the widespread 1059 employment of lawyers, despite the fact that I represent Lincoln's Inn and Gray's Inn, which are in my constituency. The Parliamentary Commissioner's office relies on Treasury solicitors for legal advice, which leads to the possibility of Treasury solicitors advising the poacher and the gamekeeper, because Treasury solicitors could be advising the Department complained against and the PCA's office investigating the complaint. There is some dubiety about that arrangement.
§ Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)
Does not the hon. Gentleman think that he is being a little grudging to the present Parliamentary Commissioner and his predecessor, who were distinguished lawyers? Does he accept that the independently minded Parliamentary Commissioner would not look for one moment at partisan advice from the Treasury Solicitor?
§ Mr. Dobson
I believe that the hon. Gentleman is a lawyer. Presumably, by his intervention, he is saying that all parliamentary commissioners should be lawyers because they alone will introduce an independent legal element into the office. That seems to be a bit of an absurdity. I do not think that it meets my point.
We cannot expect the Parliamentary Commissioner himself—who has other functions—to mull over detailed legal points which may arise when cases are first submitted for consideration, whether or not they are appropriate for an investigation. That should not be his normal function.
It was a retrograde step—this is to do with the Select Committee, not the Parliamentary Commissioner— to abandon the practice of publishing all the commissioners' reports. The reports should be available and on record. The investigation of complaints is partly carried out to provide proper satisfaction and redress for people who have individual grievances. But, in addition, in many organisations— certainly in well-run commercial organisations— the logging and subsequent analysis of complaints is used to identify patterns of things going wrong in terms of where problems are located, which departments are slipping up and whether a particular procedure appears to be leading to problems. The non-publication of the reports inhibits the proper practice within departments of looking at all the reports to see whether patterns can be discerned so that steps can be taken to prevent problems from arising.
§ Sir Antony Buck (Colchester, North)
The hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting point. Does he agree, however, that any report can be published? The report goes to the Member of Parliament, who, with the agreement of his constituent, can publish it. A summary of the departments involved is included in the various reports made by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. One can keep tabs on the number of complaints made against any particular Department, which enables the Committee, of which I have the privilege to be Chairman, to keep tabs on the situation and see what the most sensitive matters are.
§ Mr. Dobson
I accept the latter point made by the distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee that summaries are available, but it would be better if the whole reports were available. No one will have the opportunity 1060 to analyse and discern any patterns or recurrent behaviour, just because individual Members of Parliament may publish the reports that they receive.
If there is anything secretive about the PCA's office, the Health Service Commissioner's office is much worse. Sometimes we have to assume that the office must be doing good by stealth. Although I welcome the proposal in the Bill that in future the Health Service Commissioner should disclose reports to Members of Parliament when they have been involved in the submission of a complaint against the Health Service, I think that the practice in the local ombudsman's office— in line with the Local Government Act 1974— would be well applied to the Health Service.
When the local ombudsman issues a report about something that has happened in a local authority, the authority is obliged to make that report available to the public and advertise in local newspapers that it is available to the public. That obligation should be placed on the health authorities, because it is possible now for a report to be made on a health authority, and for no one other than a limited number of members of the authority, or even officers of the authority, to know that a complant has been received, examined and reported on. It would be to everyone's advantage if those reports were to be published.
There are wider criticisms of the complaints machinery within the National Health Service that are not the responsibility of the Select Committee or the Health Service Commissioner. Anybody faced with a complaint about aspects of their health treatment practically needs legal advice to know where to register their complaint.
The family practitioner committees are not subject to the jurisdiction of the Health Service Commissioner. The service committees of the family practitioner committees are a more confusing group of bodies than the family practitioner committees. People may complain to the General Medical Council, to the district health authority or to the Health Service Commissioner, but, if it is a complaint about clinical matters, the commissioner cannot entertain that complaint—there is the further possibility of taking legal action against a health authority.
Despite the fact that I represent the inhabitants of Gray's Inn and Lincoln's Inn, the last thing that I want to develop in the Health Service is more litigation, which would be expensive and harmful and stifle the spread of medical knowledge. If people think that their honest thoughts may be pursued by someone in the courts, they are less likely to tell their professional colleagues, either by learned papers or in a conference, the reiason that X and Y went wrong during a fatal or damaging operation.
All Health Service staff, especially the, doctors, should support the wide scope of the Health Service Commissioner in relation to their activities. Family practitioner committees provide 90 per cent of the service provided by the National Health Service to people in Britain. The Health Service Commissioner might be described as Mr. Ten Per Cent., because he can investigate only about 10 per cent. of the complaints of the activities of the National Health Service. That is fundamentally unsound, it would be sound to extend his jurisdiction over family practitioner committees.
The Labour party believes that the Health Service Commissioner's scope should be extended to cover clinical matters; not to challenge clinical judgment— although that is increasingly happening in the courts at great 1061 expense—but so that no one can hide behind the claim that some maladministration within his part of the Health Service was the exercise of clinical judgment.
The Health Service Commissioner before last explained that his office would be capable of carrying out investigations involving clinical aspects of health care, that that would be subject to safeguards and that it would be necessary from time to time to call on expert advice. He said, properly, that he could explain what could be done and that it was up to the likes of us— Members of Parliament— to decide what should be done. Labour Members think that the Health Service Commissioner's activities should be extended to include matters of clinical judgment.
The Labour party believes that the Health Service Commissioner should be able to initiate investigations in some circumstances when no specific complaint has been received and when a matter is brought to the commissioner's attention which suggests to him that it is of significant public importance and that there is a likelihood of maladministration and injustice having occurred but no formal complaint has been received. That would be a useful, sensible development. The various propositions which I have put forward in favour of extending the Health Service Commissioner's jurisdiction in various ways—many of which have been counselled by people who gave evidence to the Select Committee and few of which, if any, have been rejected by the Committee—would be in the interests not just of patients but of professional staff, I believe, if only because of my general fear of the gradual development of harmful litigation in the Health Service.
I turn to John Milton's statement about complaints:when complaints are freely heard, deeply considered, and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty attained".That is true. We need systems that are open and make complaining easy. We need to make people feel that they can draw attention to shortcomings. We need to make people confident that, when they think that something has gone wrong, it will be properly considered. We need to make people confident that, if injustice has been done to them, it will be remedied in so far as that is possible. I believe, even if I have been a little critical, that the offices of the various ombudsmen attempt to discharge that task. Any shortcomings in any of the offices spring not from those who work there but from our failure to give them the necessary powers to do the more extended tasks which would be an asset to us all.
§ Sir Antony Buck (Colchester, North)
I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). I shall take up two points that he raised before I make my contribution on the generality of the measure.
First, the hon. Gentleman talked of the possibility of clinical judgment being brought within the purview of the Health Service Commissioner. The Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, of which I have the honour to be Chairman, carefully considered that aspect. I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's comments. The Select Committee recommended some years ago that the HSC should not be debarred if there was an element of clinical judgment.
I am bound to say that from time to time the medical profession rather overstates its case. One case which came 1062 before the HSC and under our scrutiny involved an old lady of nearly 100 who was moved from hospital A to hospital B. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) was a distinguished member of that Select Committee and will remember the case well. Certain medical dramatis personae had the nerve to suggest that it was a matter of clinical judgment whether a person of nearly 100 should be moved from hospital A to hospital B at dead of night, when in fact a bed was available in hospital A and the lady need never have been moved. She died soon after. With the help of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne, the Select Committee gave the medical authorities a fairly tough time.
I have a certain sympathy, therefore, with the suggestion that the Parliamentary Commissioner should not automatically be debarred if there is an element of clinical judgment. When a case involves pure clinical judgment, it is probably a matter for the British Medical Association or the medical authorities. Because of the Select Committee's recommendations, the complaints system in the Health Service was altered. Internal investigations of one authority are now carried out by another authority. We shall have to wait a little to see whether the present system works properly. The Select Committee will wish to return to this subject a little later.
Secondly, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras said that the Parliamentary Commissioner should be able to investigate of his own accord, and I have a certain sympathy with that view. I submit that there is a way to get over the difficulty. I have said to successive ombudsmen that if, during an investigation, a matter causes them difficulty and they are worried about it, they could well have a word with me as Chairman of the Select Committee or with one of the distinguished Opposition Members who serve on it and we may instigate an investigation.
I suggest that the Bill's proposals are an appropriate amendment to the ombudsman system. This system was created by the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 and is something of a success story. The Bill reveals the way in which we are prepared to take institutions that have their roots in other countries and adopt and utilise them within our constitution so that our constituents are better served.
I served on the Standing Committee on the legislation that set up the ombudsmen system. At that time the objection was aired that the creation of the ombudsmen system might detract from the position of Members of Parliament. More than one of the foreign witnesses who gave evidence at our Select Committee's later investigation pointed out that every Member of Parliament is, according to some international definition, an ombudsman because Members of Parliament take up cases. The Committee, in preparing its report after the system had been in existence for 10 years, found that about 10,000 constituency cases a year were taken up by Members of Parliament with various Government Departments. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister will give us the updated figures. Every Member of Parliament is, by some international definition, an ombudsman, and long may that continue.
The creation of the ombudsman system has put a further bolt in the armoury of Members of Parliament to look after our constituents. A typical case for a Member of Parliament at our surgeries and advice bureaux involves pensions. Mr. X, a constituent, thinks that he is not getting as much as Mr. Y down the road, so he goes to the local 1063 pensions office. He sees a clerk, who may have had a tough morning and who tries to explain as well as he is able, but does not get over to Mr. X, the significance of the difference between the pensions. The constituent goes away dissatisfied. The constituent then comes to see a Member of Parliament and as far as I am concerned I may well not know the answer off the cuff because, like Randolph Churchill, every time I see a decimal point I think of "those damned dots." I am therefore unlikely to be able to solve the problem, but I will take it up with the local office, and in the vast majority of cases it will then be resolved to my satisfaction and that of the constituent. If I can understand it, the constituent will certainly be able to do so.
Once in a while, however, one takes up a case with the local office and finds that things have not gone properly and it seems that there is something of a cover-up mechanism. Before the creation of the ombudsman one would have taken it up with the Minister, but now it can be referred to the ombudsman and he can, and does, do that which we cannot do and cannot even force Ministers to do. He can go through the books with a fine-toothed comb and report to the Member of Parliament, and thus the matter is resolved to the satisfaction of the Member of Parliament and of the constituent.
§ Sir Antony Buck
I am glad to give way to my hon. Friend, who does such excellent service on our Select Committee.
§ Mr. Pawsey
On the point about Members of Parliament acting as ombudsmen, does my hon. and learned Friend agree that any move towards proportional representation would much reduce the link between the individual Member of Parliament and his constituents? Does he therefore agree that any move in that direction would be entirely reprehensible?
§ Sir Antony Buck
That rather widens the scope of the discussion, but I have always thought that one of the principal arguments against proportional representation is the abolition, which almost inevitably takes place, of the individual, personalised constituency Member of Parliament, whereby an elector knows who his Member of Parliament is and can go and see him, so I think that that is a valid point. However, as we must deal with these things even-handedly, it is interesting to note that if one did away with the constituency Member of Parliament one would probably have to extend the ombudsman system vastly. A country which has got absolutely perfect PR on paper is Israel, and when one talked to Mr. Nebenzahl, who used to be the doyen of ombudsmen, one found that ombudsman rule had almost been substituted for Member of Parliament rule. Devoted as I am to the ombudsman system, I think that it is the job of the elected representatives, not to rule, but certainly to supervise government and be responsible for it.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for his intervention, although it has taken me farther away from the terms of the Bill than I had intended.
One of the recommendations that we made as a Select Committee which has not been accepted is that there should be a regular annual debate in the House on the 1064 work of the Parliamentary Commissioner. Because of my having been lucky in the draw for private Members' notices of motion we have from time to time been able to subject the ombudsman system to parliamentary scrutiny, but I urge the Government to look again at that recommendation, which is on the periphery of the matters which are before us now.
If the ombudsman system is, as I have said, a success story, it is because of the way in which it has been framed and also—this gives me an opportunity to pay a tribute to them— because of the skill and total integrity and efficiency of successive ombudsmen. The first ombudsman, Sir Edmund Compton, was an interesting appointment. He did a superb job, for which one must commend him, because he laid down the guidelines at the creation of the office. That was an admirable appointment, because his last job as a civil servant had been that of Comptroller and Auditor General, so he had ended his life as a civil servant. He is full of life still, I am glad to say, and is especially concerned with musical matters. He is a man of great distinction, and he laid down the ground rules for the ombudsman and laid a firm foundation. He ended his Civil Service career as a quasi-civil servant, and the importance of that will be seen by the House in a moment.
Then came Sir Alan Marre, Sir Idwal Pugh, Sir Cecil Clothier and Mr. Barrowclough. It is interesting that Cecil Clothier, who now does such an important job with the Police Complaints Authority, was the first ombudsman not to have been a civil servant. The Government over-reacted at an earlier stage to the recommendation of the Select Committee that the ombudsman should not always be a former civil servant, on the basis that justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done. While it is true that former civil servants are probably more harsh on those who fall below the high standards they set than an outsider would be, nevertheless it does not seem appropriate for the ombudsman always to be a former civil servant. The Government agreed and said that the next ombudsman would not be a civil servant, and this was an over-reaction, because if there had been someone like Sir Edmund Compton it might have been appropriate for him to be appointed. But since then we have had those who have not been civil servants and have given very distinguished service as parliamentary commissioners—Sir Idwal Pugh, followed by Sir Cecil Clothier and now Mr. Anthony Barrowclough, who upholds well the high traditions of the office.
I wish to commend the provisions of the Bill because they result, as far as I am able to see, directly from the Committee's fourth report and the Government's response to it. I commend my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for having taken note of those recommendations, given effect to them in good measure and, indeed, put some additional bodies within the purview of the parliamentary commissioner. As far as I am able to ascertain with the help of the distinguished Clerk, with whom I went through it with some care, there are now included the Charities Commission, the Commission for the New Towns, the new town development corporations and the urban development corporations. It seems to me that it is good that they should be included, but some non-departmental public bodies which the Select Committee suggested be included have not been so included. Why some of our recommendations have not been accepted could appropriately be dealt with from the Front Bench.
1065 I am particularly glad that one matter is cleared up by the Bill, namely, that of the ability of the commissioner to send the reports of the Health Service Commissioner to Members of Parliament who have been involved in the cases brought before him. It is quite clear that in dealing with Government Departments there is the parliamentary filter, because the reports have to come through a Member of Parliament. So it is clear beyond peradventure that the Member of Parliament sees the reports.
With regard to the Health Service Commissioner, the conduit is different. It was not clear whether the Health Service Commissioner would have been entitled to absolute privilege had he sent the reports to Members of Parliament. I thought it might have been appropriate for the Health Service Commissioner to take the risk because he would undoubtedly have been entitled to qualified privilege and it would have been difficult for any litigant to prove malice, which would have been necessary to displace unqualified privilege. But this lacuna is now filled and, in accordance with the recommendations of the Committee, this has now been included within the ambit of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. I hope very much that this will go through without difficulty, and I am pretty confident that it will.
I hope that the Minister, in winding up, will give his prognostication as to what additional staff may be necessary for the commissioner and whether it will be recommended that, again, some of the staff should not always be former civil servants. There have been occasions on which there have been secondments not from the Civil Service to the Parliamentary Commissioner and the Health Service Commissioner and it may well be appropriate for that to be extended. There is no doubt that those who are seconded from the Civil Service to serve in the ombudsman's office are especially keen to ensure that the highest standards are maintained by their fellows. There is none more jealous of the efficiency of the Civil Service than a civil servant. None the less, it may be appropriate that there should be a greater number seconded from outside the Civil Service on the basis that justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done.
I commend this important measure to the House and I congratulate the Government on bringing it forward. I am glad that they have responded to the Select Committee's requests and that in some instances they have gone slightly further than its recommendations.
§ 8 pm
§ Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)
In an interesting diversion a few minutes ago the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) offered us the opportunity to extend the debate beyond the immediate scope of the Bill. The House will be relieved to hear that I do not propose to take advantage of that offered extension; save to say that if we examine the effectiveness of ombudsmen in countries where there is the single transferable vote system of proportional representation, it is clear that they are functioning well. Having said that, I shall address myself to the body of the Bill.
I have the privilege of being the most recent recruit to the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, of which the hon. and learned Member for Colchester (Sir A. Buck) is a distinguished chairman. I have the advantage of the fresh interest of being a member of the Committee; and the great advantage of being refreshed, and surprisingly so, by 1066 realising how effective the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the Health Service Commissioner is, as is the Select Committee. As one health authority chairman discovered fairly recently, anyone who falls foul of the criticism of the Commissioner and decides not to accept his recommendations or views does so at his peril. He is dealt with toughly and even roughly by the Select Committee, and rightly so. The fact that the Select Committee is so robust adds power to the undoubted effectiveness and efficacy of the commissioner.
I do not agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), whom perhaps I should call the hon Member for Gray's Inn, my own inn, and Lincoln's Inn, that the secondment of civil servants is worthy of criticism. My experience in legal practice is that the gamekeepers who become poachers are the most effective poachers, and vice versa. I have found over the years that former superintendents of police who decide in their retirement to become solicitors' clerks are the most assiduous of instructing solicitors on behalf of the defence. Indeed, they often turn up many possible lines of defence that others would not have imagined possible. The use of seconded civil servants, but not exclusively, as staff for the commissioner is an advantage.
§ Mr. Dobson
Will the hon. and learned Gentleman accept that his simile is not quite accurate? Ex-chief superintendents do not intend usually to return to the police force.
§ Mr. Carlile
I do not believe that there is a jot of evidence to suggest that any of the seconded civil servants are anything other than entirely objective in what they do. I reject any criticism on that score. Having taken the trouble to read the Select Committee's reports and the commissioners' reports for some years before I became a member of the Select Committee, I know that there is no evidence to justify the hon. Gentleman's criticism.
I welcome the Bill because it extends the scope of the commissioner, and I congratulate the Government on introducing it. I would be happier if the commissioner were able to institute inquiries and investigations of his own accord, and it is interesting to note that the previous commissioner, Sir Cecil Clothier—Sir Cecil is now the chairman of the Police Complaints Authority, and its first chairman— has the power in his new capacity to institute investigations without anyone asking him to do so. There is no evidence so far that that power has put him, the police or the public at any disadvantage. It is a longstop power that should be made available to someone of great distinction who is exercising an important role, such as that of the commissioner.
There are some oddities in the schedule and I draw them to the Minister's attention in the hope that at some stage it can be reconsidered. There are certain illogicalities: An example which affects my constituency is that whereas the Development Board for Rural Wales is included among the organisations about which complaints can be made to the commissioner, the Welsh Development Agency is not. It may have escaped the attention of the draftsman of the Bill that in my area the development board carries out almost all the functions of the WDA. In a sense, my constituents will be at an advantage compared with those who live in areas that are not under the aegis of the development board and who merely come under that of the WDA. It seems that there is no logic in that distinction.
1067 I am disappointed that the Civil Aviation Authority is not included in the schedule. There are many occasions when members of the public have reason to complain to Members about matters which fall within the authority's jurisdiction. I have in mind especially problems caused by aircraft noise and the timetabling of flights into civil airports. In my constituency of Montgomery there is not an international airport as yet, though I am reliably informed that a small airport is shortly to be built in Caersws. That being so, I may be faced with such complaints in due course. I know that many hon. Members receive complaints about matters which concern the CAA and it is disappointing that they cannot be brought to the commissioner's attention.
It is a matter of great disappointment to me that the Monopolies and Mergers Commission will not be open to the commissioner's scrutiny. The Select Committee recommended that the commission should be subject to it. In its response to the Select Committee the Government considered that the commissioner'sjurisdiction … should be extended to certain executive non-departmental public bodies".These would satisfy two criteria. One of the two inclusive criteria was that the body concerned should haveexecutive or administrative functions which directly affect individual citizens or groups of citizens (including companies) and which would be within the PCA's jurisdiction if carried out by a government department".The second criterion is that there should besome degree of ultimate Ministerial accountability to Parliament".In recent weeks and months great controversy has been raging in the House about matters concerning the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. It is of course fair to point out that controversy concerned ministerial decisions rather than the activities of the Commission. However, one can envisage many different circumstances in which the conclusions of that Commission and, more important, the way in which those conclusions are reached may be questioned. There are few remedies available. It is extremely difficult to obtain a judicial review of the way in which the Commission has reached its conclusions. I hope that early consideration will take place as to whether the Parliamentary Commissioners may scrutinise the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
I do not want to sound grudging in relation to this Bill, which is highly commendable. I am glad to be a member of the Select Committee that will have a wider range of interesting subjects to consider and face a greater challenge in terms of dealing with recalcitrant persons from a broader public body.
§ Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)
Twenty years ago, when you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, were in the House and I was not, the Parliamentary Commissioner Bill received Royal Assent. I must confess that if I had been in the House at that time I would have voted against the Bill. However, 10 years ago I had the good fortune to serve as a member of a Select Committee under the chairmanship of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck). It was during that time, as a member of that Committee, that I began to understand the worth and value of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967.
1068 I entirely agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) when he stressed the importance of the relationship between a constituent and his Member of Parliament. Of most notable importance is the fact that the constituent may say, "That is my Member of Parliament; that is the person who will champion me." I do not want to be led astray, but I wanted to say to my hon. Friend that I entirely agreed with his recommendation.
However diligent a Member of Parliament may be in championing the interests of a constituent, the ombudsman— whether the Parliamentary or Health Service ombudsman—is able to bring added resources to bear when championing the case of a constituent who has suffered injustice as a result of maladministration. Therefore, I am very pleased that the Government have decided to extend the scope of the Parliamentary and Health Service Commissioner.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the way in which he introduced the Bill. I hope that it will have a speedy passage because I believe that it will give additional protection and safeguards to constituents who have suffered injustice as a result of maladministration. I also pay tribute to the work done by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester, North and his Committee.
The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile)— whose serried ranks are beside him— mentioned that there were some omissions from the schedule. Before I suggest one or two deletions, I would ask my right hon. Friend to consider a further omission which should be remedied. Will he consider adding to the list the Boundary Commission?
Some hon. Members, including Members of the Labour party. believe that their constituents have suffered an injustice at the hands of the boundary commissioners. Though the boundary commissioners are distinguished, in many cases they are driven by an passion for drawing lines on a map and are ignorant about the true nature of the communities that the constituencies are designed to serve. A passion for equality and for lines on a map has disfigured and discredited much of the work of the boundary commissioners.
§ Mr. Dobson
I appreciate the concept about injustice. Would such injustice be remedied by a change in boundaries or the dismissal of the Member of Parliament who had been elected on the basis of those boundaries?
§ Mr. Soames
My hon. Friend will remember the long-running saga of Bewbush when, last year, the Boundary Commission changed my division of Crawley. There was a good deal of local discussion on whether the change rendered by the Boundary Commission was fair to me. The change was fair for the people who came into my 1069 division but was unfair to me because of the nature of the people who live in the Bewbush ward—they are more likely to be associates of the Labour party. My hon. Friend should speculate on whether it would have been possible for me to make a complaint through the commissioner in respect of the boundary changes? In fact, that avenue was effectively blocked off. If I were a deer forest owner, I could complain to the Red Deer Commission.
§ Mr. Gow
My hon. Friend is correct. The Red Deer Commission is included in the Bill. It would be possible for my hon. Friend, as a citizen, to complain to the Parliamentary Commissioner if he thought that he had suffered an injustice as a result of the maladministration of the Red Deer Commission. Any citizen, including a Member of Parliament, can complain through his Member of Parliament—he could complain to himself—to the Parliamentary Commissioner of Administration if he has suffered an injustice. A Member of Parliament is not excluded from making an application to the Parliamentary Commissioner, through his own Member of Parliament, if he believes he has suffered an injustice.
I believe that if the people of this country have suffered injustices as a result of the decision of the boundary commissioners because they have to make long journeys to see their Member of Parliament, that is because of the passion for equality and parity that seems to be one of the characteristics of the boundary commissioners. This is one suggestion for a extra body in the public sector that could be included in the Bill. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will address himself to that.
In the Chamber is my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Sir P. Holland). He is a good illustration of what the Boundary Commission has done. His constituency had a distinguished name— Carlton— but it has been changed to a gelding—
§ Mr. Gow
I deliberately substituted the "1" for the "d". That illustrates why the Boundary Commission should be brought within the scope of the Bill.
Has my right hon. Friend included too many bodies in the Bill? You. Mr. Deputy Speaker, are better than I am at mathematics. I tried to add up the number of bodies in schedule 2 and I am sure that the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery will correct me if I am wrong—and I counted 105. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling has been most assiduous in attacking quangos and I am sure that he shares my hope that before the Bill completes its passage in another place the Government, inspired by my hon. Friend, will have disposed of some of the bodies.
I want to leave one thought in my right hon. Friend's mind—
§ Sir Philip Holland (Gedling)
While I applaud my hon. Friend's plea for the abolition of more quangos, I nevertheless strongly approve of tighter control being exercised.
§ Mr. Gow
My hon. Friend and I are in total accord.
I want to leave one thought in my right hon. Friend's mind. What heroic purpose is served by the Co-operative Development Agency? My right hon. Friend may say that it is a sterling body applauded by the Opposition. Is the Crafts Council essential to the progress of mankind? Does the Crofters Commission render signal service to the 1070 human story—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I have received my answer from Opposition Members. What useful purpose is served by the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges? Could we not privatise that body? Opposition Members are nodding in agreement. Do the folk come from Venezuela, Ecuador or San Salvador—Latin American countries well known to my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones)? Does the British Film Institute have to be in the public sector? I argue in favour of privatisation, a cause dear to the heart of my hon. Friend—not the Member for gelding, but for Gedling.
What useful purpose is served by the Economic and Social Research Council? I put that question especially to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester, North who is Chairman of the Select Committee. Does that body have to be in the public sector? My hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for sport is not in his place, but page 9 of the Bill lists the Sports Council, the Scottish Sports Council and the Sports Council for Wales. What happens to the poor people in Northern Ireland? Why do they not have a sports council?
I commend my right hon. Friend the Minister to make a diligent study of those bodies. It is not that I want them to be excluded from the range of inquiry by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, but I wonder whether some of them might be privatised and some of them abolished before the Bill reaches the statute book.
I repeat my warm welcome for the Bill, I repeat my conversion to the cause of the Parliamentary Commissioner, I repeat my tribute to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester, North, and I hope that the Bill, subject to the changes that I have suggested, will soon reach the statute book.
§ Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)
I shall be brief because of the time factor and the number of hon. Members who wish to speak. It is a great pleasure to serve on the Select Committee. It is a worthwhile Committee, which I believe to be the best Select Committee because of its membership and its work in overseeing the whole of the administration of Departments.
I wish to associate myself with the remarks about previous commissioners. I was lucky enough to be apponted to the Select Committee when I first came to the House, when Sir Cecil Clothier was doing a marvellous job on behalf of the people whom we represent. When Sir Cecil left, I welcomed the appointment of Mr. Barrowclough, who also did a first-class job.
We must not overlook the service to the Committee of its Clerks. We must cover the whole spectrum because we had good Clerks in the past and we have a first-class Clerk now. The Clerk does a really good job and gets stuck into the work so that hon. Members have the information that they require.
I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) when he recommended that the Minister should look at the long list of bodies with a view to excluding some of them. However, the hon. Gentleman also suggested that the Boundary Commission should be included. I know that Conservative Members want to include other bodies. I discovered that from the hon. member for Rugby— I think it is Rugby— after the Select Committee meeting yesterday—
§ Mr. Pawsey
I do not really need any encouragement. My constituency is Rugby and Kenilworth— a point that I had intended to make to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow). If I am fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall elaborate on that later.
§ Mr. Haynes
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for that information. I am worried about the extension of the activities of the Parliamentary and Health Service Commissioners. That has worried me ever since I became a member of the Select Committee because although it is easy to pile work on to a Department, if the manpower to deal with it is not available the whole process will slow down. Indeed, that has been a complaint in the past.
I am keeping my remarks brief because the Bill will now go into Committee. I am sure that I am the first to be able to say that I will serve on that Committee. That is almost a certainty. I look foward to the Committee's debate on the Bill.
The present and previous Parliamentary Commissioners have not been afraid to speak their minds, and neither have hon. Members been afraid to do so. When it is necessary, it must be done—whether or not that upsets people. Even if it involves high-ranking professionals, it does not make any difference. I remember when the Select Committee summoned the chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue to appear before it. He had a rough ride. He did not like coming before the Committee, and he will not like doing so again. However, the job had to be done, and the Parliamentary Commissioner and hon. Members made sure that it was done.
I look forward to the Committee stage and am sure that we shall have a first-class debate. I hope that when the Bill reaches the statute book it will be satisfactory, not only to hon. Members, but to the people whom we represent.
I agree that we should discuss the Department and reports on it more often in the House. That would give us the opportunity to speak about the people who serve us as Members. It is right and proper that the House should know about the first-class service that we received in that Committee.
§ Mr. Warren Hawksley (The Wrekin)
I do not intend to delay the House, but I should like to welcome the Bill and especially the extension to the list of the bodies that the parliamentary ombudsman can investigate. I begin by admitting a slight reservation about the effectiveness of commissioners or ombudsmen, whether local, parliamentary or health ombudsmen. The famous man on the Clapham omnibus may expect to find that he has a case of maladministration against a public body, but often when the commissioners investigate it they do not necessarily seem to follow the logical conclusion, as it would appear to that average person. In some cases, where partial success is achieved by the Commissioners the public body involved does not necessarily respond with quite the enthusiasm that our constituents would wish.
Before and since the Government's White Paper, Cmnd. 9563, which was published in July 1985, I have argued strongly for the inclusion of the new town 1072 corporations and especially for the one in my constituency of Telford, in the list of public bodies that the ombudsman can investigate. I was slightly worried by the reply to a written question that I put down on 4 December 1985, column 268. The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment said that legislation would be introduced, in due course, to bring the new town corporations under the control of the parliamentary ombudsman. Therefore, I congratulate the Government and my right hon. Friend for bringing forward this legislation and for making sure that the phrase "in due course", which put fear in my mind, means the next parliamentary Session.
There is a strong need for new towns to have an appeal body to which constituents can go if they consider that there has been maladministration by the corporation. I hope that schedule 2, which talks about aCommission for the New Towns,means the commission for each individual new town. I believe that it does. I gathered from previous answers that Ministers have given me that that was their intention.
In a constituency such as mine, if maladministration is committed by the Wrekin district council, the constituent has the right of appeal to the local government ombudsman. However, if the Telford development corporation, commits that maladministration, my constituents have no such rights. I hope that I shall receive assurances that they will have that right once the Bill is on the statute book.
I am not especially critical of the Telford development corporation. I do not believe that it is any worse, or any better, than the district council. However, it is important that we should clarify the rights that constituents have when they take appeals further than the corporation itself.
I should like to ask the Minister two questions, to which I know that my constituents would like to know the answers. First, if the Bill receives a speedy passage through both Houses—we all hope that it will—when does the Minister expect that it will be effective? Will it cover any maladministration that could be going on now but about which my constituents may not he aware, but which could become apparent to them later, although the date of the maladministration could be before the passing of the Bill?
My second question concerns page 10 of the Bill and the issues raised in the notes. Note 7 states:In the case of the Commission for the New Towns, a development corporation for a new town, or the Development Board for Rural Wales, no investigation shall be conducted under this Act in respect of any action in connection with functions in relation to housing.Why has housing been excluded? It would have been desirable to include it despite the fact that one appreciates that new town housing will go to other bodies in due course. That may not happen for one or two years, but if that is the reason, I should hope that consideration could be given to the inclusion of housing as one of the areas that the ombudsman might consider. I should like to reiterate my full support for the Bill and my belief that it is a move in the right direction. I hope, and believe, that it will receive not only all-party support but a speedy progress through both Houses.
§ Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)
I did not have the opportunity to serve on the Select Committee, and to that extent I am at a disadvantage compared to other hon. Members who are in the Chamber.
1073 Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister will forgive me if I begin by asking him why the Health Service Commissioners for Scotland, England and Wales are referred to in the Bill, but no reference is made to Northern Ireland? Is that because, under the heading "Northern Ireland Office" which appears in a schedule, the Northern Ireland Health Service is subsumed into that title, or will a separate body cover Northern Ireland? If so, will the changes in the Bill be incorporated into that Bill and will it soon be brought before the House so that Northern Ireland can be put on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom?
I should like to concentrate my remarks purely on the Health Service Commissioner. I do so although I am aware that the Health Service Commissioner and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration are, in fact, one and the same person.
Secondly, clause 2 enables the Crown to part with the services of the Parliamentary Commissioner and the Health Service Commissioner for medical reasons, presumably on the grounds of physical or mental incapacity. How will that action be taken? Who will decide whether the Parliamentary Commissioner is no longer mentally or physically able to do his job? In other words, who appoints him and withdraws from him his right to do that job? What appeals procedure will exist for him? It would be a rather curious situation if the ombudsman required an ombudsman of his own to protect his rights. As I can find nothing in the Bill to cover that point, I should like to know whether he could appeal if he disagreed with the judgment about his physical or mental condition. The clause refers to the monarch making that decision. However, I cannot help feeling that it is unlikely that Her Majesty would make that decision, and I should be pleased to know whose responsibility that will be.
I welcome the contents of clause 3. It seems absolutely right that a Member of Parliament who has taken a complaint on behalf of a constituent to the Health Service Commissioner should be informed of the commissioner's findings, as is the case with the Parliamentary Commissioner. That seems a long overdue reform.
The question on this clause to which I should like to direct my remarks relates to the role of the Health Service Commissioner. What exactly is he doing, what can he do, and is he fulfilling an especially useful role? To that extent I want to follow the remarks of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), with whose comments I am broadly in agreement.
In the Health Service Commissioner's annual report about his activities there are certain figures that are surprising, if not worrying, bearing in mind that in 1984–85 there were no fewer than 9,000 written complaints relating to the Health Service. Assuming that in 1985–86 there were the same number of complaints, of those 9,000 written complaints only 926, or 10 per cent., were directed to the Health Service Commissioner. Of those 926 complaints, 454 were rejected, 273 were referred back or closed and the Health Service Commissioner issued reports on only 137. That is a minute number of complaints for such a powerful body to have investigated, dare one say it, at a high cost to taxpayers. Of those 137 reports, 50 per cent. related to grievances about nursing.
We talk about maladministration being the touchstone on which we decide whether or not the ombudsman has a role, but I wonder whether grievances about nursing can fairly be described as maladministration. Moreover—I 1074 must ask the House to forgive me if I refer to myself—as a result of the Hospital Complaints Procedure Act 1985, my private Member's Bill, I wonder whether those complaints will go to the ombudsman.
I introduced the Bill because no discernible stress was laid on complaints procedures such as may have existed in hospitals where I was a patient for over eight months. But now, as a result of that Act, every hospital has a statutory duty to produce a complaints procedure and to make it known by leaflet to every patient. In those terms it seems that the 50 per cent. of cases relating to grievances about nursing which the ombudsman considered are not in future likely to go his way. As my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) said when she was in charge of Lords' amendments to my Bill:Over time, as the health authorities obey the instructions set out in clause 1 and introduce a complaints procedure and tell people about it, the ombudsman may be unable to take up cases because the Secretary of State and the health authorities have pre-empted him."—[Official Report, 5 July 1985; Vol. 82, c. 641.]In other words the ombudsman may soon find that he does not have a genuine role as a Health Service Commissioner. If that is the case—I hope that the Government will consider this matter with care—is it not reasonable to suggest that perhaps a new role should be found for the Health Service Commissioner which might make his work more valuable than it appears it will be in the future?
From those figures it appears that the ombudsman has been involved in only 10 per cent. of the complaints that arose in the Health Service in a particular year, and that of those complaints or issued reports he looked at only 1 per cent. Therefore, the idea that he stands as some bastion for the patients or those who suffer from maladministration in the Health Service is far-fetched, to say the least. Yet there is a genuine need for a complaints procedure over and above the Hospital Complaints Procedure Act. At present that job is being done by Action for Victims of Medical Accidents, which looks at thousands of complaints that are brought to its notice by ordinary people who have found themselves unable to get an explanation from their local hospital or regional health authority about the circumstances in which either they or members of their family have found themselves disadvantaged in hospital.
It does not seem reasonable that a private body should consider such a large number of complaints when the Health Service Commissioner looks at such a tiny number. There is a mismatch somewhere. Either the work of the Health Service Commissioner is not properly understood, or his remit is drawn so narrowly that he cannot effectively provide a service which makes the NHS more sensitive to the problems of patients.
Why are hospitals and regional health authorities so unwilling to come forward with evidence? It is because they fear that by doing so they may make themselves liable to prosecution. Therefore, as a patient put it effectively to me, they create a wall of silence around the incident that is being investigated. When a patient leaves hospital, he will find the greatest difficulty in breaking through that wall to discover the reality, although the reality may in itself be trivial and one which most of us would have said could be explained without difficulty. Every hon. Member present will have had constituents coming with problems, asking for an explanation and sometimes an apology, but 1075 finding the hospital or authority refusing to go beyond much more than an acknowledgement, for fear of giving grounds for liability.
I must stress the point because as medicine becomes defensive medicine, as it is in the United States of America, we shall see a greater unwillingness by the medical profession to come forward openly and say what happened, for fear of litigation. There is a role for the Health Service Commissioner. I may be told that I am talking about clinical judgment, but I am not. Action for Victims of Medical Accidents states that 60 per cent. of the cases with which it deals are not seeking financial compensation. They are seeking an explanation and occasionally an apology but not money. If it can fulfil that role, where litigation and the desire for financial compensation are not involved, why on earth cannot the Health Service Commissioner follow that course and take up that burden? The organisation is a privately funded body which lacks funds, but it does a most worthwhile job. The Health Service Commissioner earns a large salary and is replete with a full staff, yet at present he is handling what can only be described as a piffling number of complaints. I strongly urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to consider in particular the role of the Health Service Commissioner, with a view to making his task more effective and worthwhile.
I cannot end without saying that in the end we must move away from the concept of litigation for negligence in hospital cases. We should consider a no-faults compensation scheme. But I know that that is a different argument and outside the remit of the Bill.
In giving the Bill a welcome, I do not believe that we have recognised adequately that the Health Service Commissioner's job may become decreasingly important unless we give it some new definition which could make it a much more valuable instrument than it is at present.
§ Mr. J. F. Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)
I say to my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) that I have listened, as have other Members of the Select Committee, to what he has had to say. I am sure that members of the Select Committee will consider the points that he raised.
To my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) I say that the boundary commissioners do not always get it wrong. In Warwickshire they certainly got it right when they discovered an affinity which was not too obvious at the time to everyone living in the county and they decided to conjoin Rugby with Kenilworth. The gentrification that has taken place since then has been entirely to my advantage.
The hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) is a distinguished and robust member of the Select Committee, and I believe that he was entirely right to draw attention to the manpower implications of the Bill. I hope to deal with that. He believes that he will serve on the Standing Committee. I certainly hope that he will, and I look forward to joining him.
I welcome the Bill. I congratulate the Government and my right hon. Friend the Minister on its introduction. I believe that it is particularly helpful and that it will do 1076 much to strengthen and improve the powers of the Parliamentary Commissioner. It is an indication of his worth that this measure has now been introduced.
It might be helpful to look briefly at the office of Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. It was first set up in 1967 on the Scandinavian model to investigate maladministration in government. That was closely followed by the Health Service Commission, which was established in 1973 to investigate maladministration in the National Health Service. I thought that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) was being a trifle defeatist and not his usual cheerful self when he referred to the slowness with which the Health Service Commissioner sometimes dealt with cases. I have to say to him—he need not take my word for it, but that of his hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield who is sitting beside him—that the Health Service Commissioner's job is not easy. It is his job thoroughly to investigate complaints, and that takes time. That is probably why the cases are not always dealt with as expeditiously as he would like. It is also fair to say—again this can be confirmed by the hon. Member for Ashfield—that a substantial amount of the work of the Select Committee is represented by the work load of the commissioner who deals with the NHS.
In 1974 there was the creation of the third part of the Trinity, the Commissioner for Local Administration. I believe that the Bill is a further step towards providing citizens with much greater rights of redress against Government agencies. It is worth drawing the House's attention to the fact that there must be very few Select Committees which have had a report accepted almost in its entirety, as has happened in this case. That underlines, perhaps as nothing else can, the fact that the Parliamentary Commissioner discharges a most worthy function. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck), the Chairman of the Select Committee, said, it is a success story. He was right to use that phrase. Those of us who serve on the Select Committee believe that it is doing a most worthwhile job.
The report and the Bill argue that the non-departmental public bodies— quangos— should be brought within the jurisdiction of the Parliamentary Commissioner. I entirely agree. I believe that there is a powerful case for giving Parliament, through the commissioner and the Select Committee, the option of receiving and redressing complaints about the activity of powerful bodies, which range from the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service to Oftel and from the Medical Research Council to the tourist boards.
Many of the bodies listed in schedule 1 spend literally millions of pounds of taxpayers' money and their activities impinge on the lives of most, if not all, members of the public. Therefore, it is right that they should be subject to a complaints procedure. I believe, as other hon. Members clearly do, that no organisation can be all right, all the time. Therefore, complaints must be made from time to time. Where such a case exists, it will be examined in detail by the Parliamentary Commissioner.
As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester, North said, nothing in the Bill prevents a Member of Parliament, if he so wishes, from actively pursuing a constituent's case directly with the body concerned. The Parliamentary Commissioner is an alternative route that can be followed and it does much to allow constituent's cases to be examined. It is important 1077 —this was touched on by the hon. Member for Ashfield— that the Parliamentary Commissioner has additional staff that will reflect the additional work load generated by the Bill. I am convinced that the House does not wish to see the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner brought into disrepute by inadequate staffing levels or by the long delays caused by too few people investigating too many cases. That was mentioned by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras.
The fourth report of the Select Committee is interesting. On page VII, paragraph 9 it states:while there may be procedures for appeal against formal decisions, these are not necessarily an adequate substitute for the investigation of administrative actions … Further, 'public bodies which exercise functions neither on behalf of the Crown nor on behalf of local authorities have been deliberately set up at arm's length from either.'In an arm's-length operation, the public need specific protection and I believe that the PCA provides that.
Paragraph 10 of the report states:There should be no possibility of shelter behind technical 'non-departmental' status.It is because the quangos— non-departmental public bodies as they are referred to on the face of the Bill— are not directly answerable to Parliament, that I believe the PCA is necessary.
Paragraph 14 of the report excludes nationalised industries. I have some reservations about that exclusion. I am certainly not satisfied that the consumer bodies set up to safeguard the interests of the public have the necessary sharp teeth to enable them to discharge their work in an entirely reasonable way. One has only to look at the difficulties that exist in trying to persuade British Rail to give details of the punctuality of trains to make a case in point. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) who has just taken his seat on the Opposition Front Bench, evidently agrees with me on that.
I now come to the point made by the hon. Member for Ashfield. It seems that there is a case for the British Broadcasting Corporation to be included in the scope of the Bill. Clause 1(6) does not automatically exclude the corporation. I would very much appreciate the thoughts of my right hon. Friend the Minister when he winds up, for I would have thought that it would be helpful if the BBC was brought within the terms of the Bill.
As I said at the outset, I welcome the Bill, but would like to see some additional measures, particularly as they apply to local authorities. Members of the Select Committee will know that from time to time local authorities have been before the Committee, and I found it unhelpful that in certain cases those local authorities had totally disregarded the findings of the commissioner. Even when the commissioner made further representations to those local authorities, such representations were still, and deliberately, ignored. I believe that the commissioner dealing with local authorities should possess more teeth than at present. I make that point to my right hon. Friend the Minister so that he may take it on board, if not for this Bill then for a future Bill. When local authorities ignore the ombudsman, they bring the office of the ombudsman into disrepute. That disrepute must spill over on to this House, because we are responsible for setting up the ombudsman. If we fail to ensure that he has adequate powers to ensure that his findings are met, we are not discharging our responsibilities properly.
1078 The ombudsman is a success within the closely defined limits which surround him. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury. I have considerable sympathy with the case that my hon. Friend argued and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will consider that. We have hedged the ombudsman too closely, and perhaps we should be seeking to extend his general responsibilities. So often we find that matters are raised which one would have thought should be examined, yet the ombudsman states they are outside his specific terms of reference.
Many cases are referred to the ombudsman, but not all are accepted. that is a classic variation of the theme "many are called, but few are chosen." That results in considerable dissatisfaction. The House could usefully consider two suggestions. First, the area in which the commissioner operates should be better and more effectively publicised. Secondly, greater publicity should be given to his existence, particularly in light of his new responsibilities. That point was referred to earlier.
The Parliamentary Commissioner undertakes a most useful function. However, too often it is found that people are unaware of his existence or, if they are aware of his existence, they do not understand the specific area in which he operates. Therefore, it is important that a greater effort is made to publicise the office of the Commissioner. The public should be aware that there is a watchdog and that that watchdog is now operating on a slightly longer chain.
I welcome clause 3, as other hon. Members have done tonight. It will allow copies of reports to be seen by the initiating Members. It is an entirely logical step for an hon. Member to see the end of the chapter that he has brought forward.
I commend the Bill and hope that it will speedily be enacted and put on to the statute book to provide more protection for our constituents.
§ 9.1 pm
§ Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)
We all have our illusions shattered at some time and, having learnt during the course of the debate that the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) does not own a deer forest, life seems somehow diminished.
My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) quoted Milton. Milton also wrote that it isbetter to reign in hell, than serve in heav'n.In responding to the debate for the Opposition, I want to say at once that the Bill's main purpose, as the Minister perfectly properly explained, is to extend the jurisdiction of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration to non-departmental public bodies or quangos. I am sure that that is worthwhile, but no doubt in Committee we will want to consider in more detail which bodies are to be included and which are not. Indeed, the Committee may want to debate what constitutes a non-departmental public body. In the Bill, the Government have adopted a criterion different from that of the Select Committee, as a number of hon. Members quite properly observed today.
As I understand the Government's view, and the Minister may wish to respond to this point in his summation, they do not wish to extend the jurisdiction of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration to non-departmental public bodies which operate in a commercial or contractual manner. Why should bodies 1079 which operate in that way not be scrutinised by the ombudsman? The distinction is hard to maintain in practice and has no moral foundation in any possible theory. Is the Government's objection that there could not possibly be any wrongdoing in the commercial area, or is it that the tests of standards of behaviour which the ombudsman applies are somehow unsuited to the commercial world?
There may be a fear in some quarters that if the principle was allowed for the public sector's commercial activities, sooner or later something similar will be applied to the private sector. Certainly, the retiring Parliamentary Commissioner, Sir Cecil Clothier to whom tribute has been paid in the debate, saw no reason why bodies that operate in a commercial or contractual manner should not be included in the ombudsman's area of responsibility. He said as much in his final annual report.
I believe that the Government's distinctions are also difficult in practice. The hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) and the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) referred to that. The Government have departed from the Select Committee's recommendations by excluding the British Museum from the ombudsman's area of responsibility. However, they have included the British Library as an extra. They have excluded the Scottish and Welsh Development Agencies, but have specifically and additionally included the Co-operative Development Agency.
What process of decision making lies behind the change to exempt the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, whose inclusion was recommended by the Select Committee, but has led to the inclusion of the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission, whose inclusion was not suggested by the Select Committee? Does this not have more to do with political prejudice than any judgment of the issues of public administration?
The hon. and learned Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck) referred to the worrying issue of resources, and I support him in what he said. There is no point in an ombudsman if his office is so overworked that delays become another focus of public discontent to add to the grievance that took a complainant to the ombudsman's door in the first place. Although the resourcing of a parliamentary commissioner does not require further legislation, this is an important matter to which Mr. Barrowclough drew attention in his report for 1985–86. Parliament must be committed to resourcing the extra duties it places on the ombudsman. There is no point in doing anything less.
Clause 2, which deals with medical incapacity of the commissioner, is not the subject of any controversy. However, on the Health Service Commissioner, the Bill is significant more for what it leaves out than for what it includes. Clause 5, which changes the time period for health authorities to raise matters with the ombudsman from three months to 12 months is not objectionable in itself but it is not a sweeping reform either. Nor is clause 3, which will enable Members of Parliament to get copies of reports on cases that they take up without the risk of the ombudsman being sued for defamation. I thought that the ombudsman might have taken a chance on that, as the hon. and learned Member for Colchester, North properly pointed out.
1080 The hon. and learned Gentleman also referred to clinical complaints. It is interesting that Sir Cecil Clothier had something to say about this in his final report, in which he reflected on his own experience and that of the office on its 10th anniversary. One of the topics he covered was clinical complaints. He declined to answer the question whether he should take such complaints, arguing that this was a matter of political discussion and discussion with the professionals. However, he discussed whether he could do so and concluded that it was practicable, although expert assessors would he needed. That is important, and we could return to it in Committee.
The family practitioner committee complaints have been properly touched on. The Health Service Commissioner discussed these matters in his annual report of 1983–84, in paragraph 10. Referring to the statutory regulations governing the formal family practitioner complaints procedure, he said:Those regulations are complicated and the ordinary citizen frequently finds them hard to understand.The report goes on to say that the time limit, the formality of the procedure, its complexity and its adversarial structure all combine to make the complainant feel disadvantaged. The commissioner tells us that complainants look to him for redress, but in vain, because the actions of contractors to the family practitioner committees are outside his power.
As with complaints about clinical judgment, there can surely be little doubt, certainly among ourselves, that there is a public desire for an easily understood, non-adversarial mechanism for dealing with the issues. I accept that there is controversy as to what the mechanism should be, but there can be no doubt about that public desire. The Health Service Commissioner could provide such a mechanism, and I am sorry that the Government have not seen fit to include this in the Bill.
Both the Select Committee and the Health Service Commissioner have urged that personnel and contractual matters be included in the scope of the commissioner's responsibilities. This would not require legislation as it could be done by Order in Council, but the Government seem to have no intention of doing anything of the sort, although I accept that they would not have to do that in the Bill. Nor does the commissioner look like getting the power to investigate matters concerning the Health Service on his own initiative when there has been no complaint. Although the Select Committee did not back him on that point, I can see the strength of it and perhaps we will be able to explore it further in Committee. The contents of the Bill are not so onerous or so wrong as to cause us to press the matter to a vote.
§ Mr. Luce
I have enjoyed listening to the debate, not least because it seems that in all parts of the House there is strong support for the purposes of the Bill. I was glad to hear the speeches by the hon. Members for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) and for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) and by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile). They all gave broad support to the Bill and raised a variety of points which can probably be more easily explored in Committee.
We also heard from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck) who played 1081 such a prominent part in chairing the Select Committee. He and the other members of the Select Committee do an excellent job.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) made a characteristically colourful speech in which he asked me to justify the fact that the Red Deer Commission is incorporated. I shall find that slightly easier to answer in Committee after I have had a little more time to think about it. I noticed a great tremor of excitement and tension when my hon. Friend spoke about the Boundary Commission and asked why it was not incorporated. I know his feelings and to some extent I share them because of the shape of my constituency. The Boundary Commission is an advisory body and, in the context of the Bill, we are talking only about bodies with executive and administrative functions.
The striking feature of the debate is the great belief in the value of the ombudsman. We have had 20 years' experience of an ombudsman and, although the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras expressed doubts about the staffing, there was a unanimous view that Mr. Barrowclough and his staff do an excellent job. I shall deal in a moment with the questions posed about resources.
The most useful way in which I can respond to those hon. Members who asked why certain bodies were included while others were excluded is to remind the House of the broad criteria for selecting quango-type bodies for incorporation in the schedule to the Bill. As I said in my opening speech, such bodies would have to meet certain criteria. They should be subject to some degree of ultimate ministerial accountability to Parliament because they are dependent for finance and continuing existence on Government policy.
Clause I of the Bill sets out in detail how we interpret those criteria as a broad basis upon which to try to make a judgment. In addition, we must take into account the cardinal fact that they apply only to bodies with executive or administrative functions which directly affect individual citizens or groups of citizens. The complaints must also be based on evidence of sustained injustice as a consequence of maladministration. On the basis of those broad criteria, I have to make a judgment about which quango-type bodies should be included. Hon. Members would not wish me to detain the House by answering the questions posed about specific bodies, but we can make some judgments in that context.
Consider, for example, the Civil Aviation Authority, about which some of my hon. Friends raised questions. In carrying out most, if not all, of its functions, the CAA acts as a tribunal, subject to oversight by the Council on Tribunals. The Government fully endorse the Select Committee's view that tribunals should not be brought within the scrutiny of the PCA. I respect the fact that these matters can be examined in more detail in Committee, but I wish only to give some idea of the matter.
A question was raised about the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, which is principally an advisory body with no executive function. Again, it does not come within the criteria that I have set out.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) referred to the BBC. I accept that there are grey areas, but, largely, the BBC does not qualify within the broad category of executive and administrative functions, with the exception of misrepresentation and invasion of privacy. There is already an effective supervisory body, the Broadcasting 1082 Complaints Commission. Again, this matter can be probed in more detail in Committee. I select those bodies simply to illustrate the broad criteria that the Government have determined for the selection of this range of bodies.
There has been much discussion about quangos. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Sir P. Holland) is present. He played a most effective and prominent role—I do not know whether it is fair to say this or whether I shall come under some criticism for saying it— in hunting quangos. I have overall responsibility for the Government's policy on quangos. There has been a net reduction of just over 500 in the number of quangos in the past seven years. Much of the credit for that goes to my hon. Friend. The purpose of the debate is not to determine exactly how many quangos there should or should not be but to take into account what quangos there are and to consider whether they should qualify for inclusion in the Bill.
Some of my hon. Friends asked about the resources available to the ombudsman to undertake his task. It is clear that the ombudsman must have resources to meet his new responsibilities. There is no shadow of doubt about that fact. At this stage, it is difficult for the ombudsman to be sure about what increasing work load he will have, but he is making a careful assessment. There has been a review of the ombudsman's staffing needs. Careful account will be taken of the implications of the Bill when it is passed. I assure my hon. Friends that this matter is being taken fully into account.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) made an impressive speech, principally on the subject of the Health Service Commissioner and about whether his powers and tasks are sufficiently wide ranging. His speech was based, in a moving fashion, on his own experience—let alone that of his constituents—of the Health Service. It is my job to take into account what he said, although I hope that he will bear with me in accepting that the main purpose of the Bill is to seek to extend the jurisdiction of the PCA to include quangos. Therefore, some of the other points that my hon. Friend raised about the Health Service Commissioner should be considered seriously for the longer term.
I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for The Wrekin (Mr. Hawksley) and for Rugby and Kenilworth for their contributions to the debate. As I am unable to answer their questions in detail at this stage, 1 shall try to answer them by letter or in Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury asked who had the power to appoint the ombudsman. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister advises on the appointment of the ombudsman. He also asked why Northern Ireland has not featured in the debate. Northern Ireland had its own PCA, established under the Parliamentary Commissioner Act (Northern Ireland) 1969, who investigates complaints of maladministration by Northern Ireland Government Departments or authorities.
The Bill will become effective about two months after it has completed all its stages and, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin, it will be able to deal with complaints that are being made now by members of the public. I am delighted that it has received such a warm welcome. I look forward to examining the Bill in more detail in Committee. I warmly commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
1083 Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).