HC Deb 10 March 1987 vol 112 cc206-18 7.15 pm
The Minister of State, Privy Council Office (Mr. Richard Luce)

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 5, line 48, at end insert— '(a) until the appointment of a new Commissioner or the expiry of the period of twelve months bginning with the date on which the vacancy arose, whichever occurs first; and'. This is a purely technical amendment which reinstates subparagraph (2)(a) of subsection (3) of clause 4, which was inadvertently omitted in printing, at the foot of page 5 of the Bill.

The three subsections of clause 4 deal in turn with the appointment of an acting Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, an acting Health Service Commissioner for England or for Wales, and an acting HSC for Scotland.

Hon. Members will see that these subsections are framed in virtually identical terms and the wording, of the reinstated sub-paragraph (2)(a) is identical with the wording of the sub-paragraphs (2)(a) in subsections (1) and (2).

The amendment raises no issues of substance and I commend it to the House.

Amendment agreed to.

Order for Third Reading read.

7.16 pm
Mr. Luce

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I hope that the House will agree that through the various stages of this Bill we have had some very good discussions and debates, not only about the purpose of the Bill but about the value of the parliamentary commissioner, the work that he does and the very effective liaison that he has with the House, and the excellent work that is done by the Select Committee which deals with the affairs of the parliamentary commissioner under the chairmanship of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck).

Mr. J. F. Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

I noted what my right hon. Friend had to say about the importance of the work of the commissioner and I am wondering if he intends to say a word about the way in which we might be able to publicise the excellent work that he does. This is clearly something which should be drawn more to the attention of the public. If they were aware of precisely what the commissioner does and the excellent work that he undertakes I am sure that many members of the public would contact him, to their considerable benefit.

Mr. Luce

My hon. Friend and other hon. Members said in Committee that it might be valuable to ensure that there is greater knowledge not only about the existence of the parliamentary commissioner and his task as Health Service Commissioner, but about his powers. As we discovered in Committee, there is a misunderstanding about the range and extent of the powers of the parliamentary commissioner, particularly in his capacity as Health Service Commissioner. I have certainly taken this on board and will draw it to the attention of the parliamentary commissioner and we shall see whether more can be done to get across the message to citizens of the country who can benefit from the existence of a parliamentary commissioner. I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

As the House knows, the main purpose of this Bill is found in clause 1 and its associated schedule. These extend the powers of the parliamentary commissioner to investigate the listed quangos and provide for the addition of further bodies in the future. In addition, the Bill provides an opportunity to bring forward procedural changes to ensure the continuance in an interregnum of the work of both the parliamentary commissioner and the Health Service Commissioner. It also introduces some minor improvements in procedures for handling complaints to the Health Service Commissioner.

We had a very valuable debate in Committee, which provided an opportunity for a useful exchange of views on the powers to conduct investigations of both the parliamentary and the Health Service Commissioners. It might be appropriate now to refer to a particular amendment tabled in Committee by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown). He suggested in his amendment that there should be scope for an exchange of information between the PCA and the Health Service Commissioner. I undertook to consider whether I could introduce a new clause on Report to safeguard the position if, at some stage in the future, those offices were not held by the same person, as they are at present. I undertook to come back to the House on that.

I have written to the hon. Gentleman but I should like to take this chance to explain to the House. There was some delay in being able to come forward with an amendment due to various technical and drafting problems. I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that those matters will be overcome shortly and that they will be dealt with during consideration of the Bill in another place. There is no lack of will on my part to ensure that the objective behind the hon. Gentleman's amendment is achieved.

One of the noticeable things about the Second Reading and Committee was the widespread support, which is reflected in the country, for the work of the parliamentary commissioner and his staff. It is interesting that it is exactly 20 years since the Act was passed which established the first ombudsman in this country, and his work, particularly as a parliamentary commissioner, is well known. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) pointed out, it may be less well known in terms of the Health Service. The commissioner and the House work closely and effectively together in the interests of the adequate protection of the citizen against maladministration. That outlet for complaints against maladministration works well.

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)

I want to follow up a point made by the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey). I share his view that the parliamentary commissioner does a marvellous job. However, he asked the Minister about ways of letting people know that the parliamentary commissioner is there. That would bring him more and more work. If the work is there it should be dealt with. However, my main point in Committee was that if work is going to pile up in that Department, the manpower in the Department needs to be examined. I hoped that the Minister would say something about that, bearing in mind what I and other hon. Members said in Committee.

Mr. Luce

I know of the hon. Gentleman's close interest in this since he serves on the Select Committee and follows the issues fully. I am happy to take this chance to reiterate what I said in Committee in answer to his probings. It is our objective to ensure that the parliamentary commissioner has adequate resources and staffing to do his job. As the hon. Gentleman may know, there has been a staff review of the work of the parliamentary commissioner and that can be taken into account when he considers whether he requires more staff.

I understand that it is difficult to establish what extra work load will flow from the passing of the Bill. However, I have heard an estimate of about an extra 15 per cent. It is impossible to establish that at present. Only experience will tell. We have added into the Bill about 50 quangos. Most of them have a good record in terms of their relationship with the public so there is no knowing what the extra work load will be. All I can say is that I can assure the House that adequate resources will be made available to the parliamentary commissioner to enable him to do his job.

I wish every Bill could go through the House with such an atmosphere of friendliness, and in this time span. It has been a constructive debate and with that in mind I warmly commend the Bill to the House.

7.25 pm
Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)

The Bill commands considerable support in the House and there is no reason why it should he inordinately delayed. As the Minister said, the Committee stage was good natured and constructive. Indeed, there has been no organised lobby against the Bill. Since the Bill's intended victims are inefficient administrators, by definition one would not expect an organised lobby against the main thrust of the Bill.

Those of us who have reservations have them about matters of detail and certainly not about matters of principle. Almost all the issues raised in Committee related to the scope of the Bill, and the most often raised objection was that the Bill did not go far enough in a specific area. The Minister did his best to deal with our anxieties, and he did so with some effect.

I shall deal first with the issues relating to the parliamentary commissioner. The main thrust of the Government's argument, as I understand it, is that they wish to separate those bodies which have a primarily commercial or contractual nature to them. They wish to place those outside the commissioner's orbit and to place other bodies as recommended by the Select Committee inside the commissioner's orbit. As we said on Second Reading, that was not the retiring ombudsman's view and I still remain unconvinced that it is wholly necessary to place bodies whose main function is commercial or contractual outside the ombudsman system. That does not mean that I object to the inclusions we are discussing.

I think that the Government's distinction has got them into some difficulties at the margins where the reason for including some bodies and excluding others is a very fine one. We explored that at some length in Committee and I do not wish to retrawl the areas we explored then except for one example—the Civil Aviation Authority. I am using that as an example of a type of body. That is not the only body of its nature, but perhaps it is the best example.

The ombudsman's reports refer specifically to complaints about low-flying aircraft and the difficulties that he has in dealing with matters of that sort. I accept that some of the duties of the Civil Aviation Authority are, as the Minister will say, commercial or contractual in nature, but that authority also has a duty to regulate the flight patterns of civil aircraft and to make sure that they are keeping to the routes—

Mr. Pawsey


Mr. Brown

Let me finish my point and then I shall give way.

It has to make sure that they are keeping to the routes that they are supposed to keep to. It ought to be possible for the ombudsman to investigate matters that are purely administrative in nature, even taking account of the Government's criteria and excluding everything to do with commercial or contractual considerations. There should still be scope for the ombudsman to intervene in a case of maladministration where there is specifically a question about how the authority has handled the complaint of someone who was, for example, arguing that aircraft were flying too low over his or her home.

Mr. Pawsey


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes, I remind the House that we must stick to what is in the Bill. It would not be in order to go into detail about what is not in the Bill. That is a matter for earlier stages.

Mr. Pawsey

I thank the hon. Member for giving way in such a courteous fashion. I noted carefully the point you made, Mr. Deputy Speaker, about what is in the Bill rather than what has been left out. However, the hon. Gentleman touched on a matter that affects my constituency closely—the incidence of low-flying aircraft. I know from bitter experience how difficult it is to register complaints on that particularly important matter. The hon. Gentleman has a reputation for being fastidious about the geography of the United Kingdom and must be well aware that Rugby and Kenilworth are separated by two envelopes, one covering the west midlands flat area, the other covering the area of the American base around Oxford. Therefore, aircraft tend to be funnelled into a fairly narrow area over my constituency, to the grave disadvantage of my constituents. I well understand the excellent point made by the hon. Gentleman. Speaking from bitter experience, I hope to discuss this aspect with my right hon. Friend the Minister. I hope that the Gentleman will say more about what might be in the Bill.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Before the hon. Member does that, I hope that he will recall that I said that, on Third Reading. hon. Members must stick to what is in the Bill.

Mr. Brown

You have touched on the main thrust of my argument, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The ability of the ombudsman to investigate matters of a purely administrative import is much wider than is generally believed. This point was brought home to us in Committee by the Minister's assurances. The Civil Aviation Authority's role in dealing with complaints of this nature, even at the administrative level, is probably still outside the scope of the ombudsman's function — but only just outside. However, administrative aspects of clinical judgment and family practitioner committees fall just inside the ombudsman's sphere of activity and are thus included within the scope of the Bill. This fine dividing line does a disservice to the Bill, the main thrust of which I wholly support. I hope that the Minister will be able to address my point about the purely administrative role.

I welcome the Minister's assurance that he will bring forward an amendment to deal with a small anomaly which concerns whether information held by the ombudsman acting in one capacity can be imparted to the ombudsman acting in another capacity. It may seem ridiculous to outsiders that we should be discussing whether a man can talk to himself. Different offices may not always be held by the same person. In any case, these matters are sometimes raised not by the holder of the office in chief but by subordinates.

A number of Committee Members were a little disturbed that in some matters the ombudsman seems to be taking an over-cautious view of his role, functions and powers. It seemed a shame that the Government should have to legislate to ensure that Members of Parliament can receive copies of reports. The risk to the ombudsman of a defamation suit seems to be fairly remote, especially as there would probably be a need to prove malice, and how one would do that is beyond me.

Most of the debate was on the activities not of the parliamentary ombudsman but on the Health Service ombudsman. The reason is simply stated. Many hon. Members feel that there is not an easily discerned or accessible way of dealing with complaints against hospitals or general practitioners. Some of us look to the ombudsman system to remedy the lack of a one-stop agency to deal with complaints. There is a division of opinion among those who follow these matters as to whether clinical judgments should be included within the ombudsman's remit and whether the contractual relationship between general practitioners and the family practitioner committees should be included.

The Minister made a number of very helpful comments in Committee. He gave an assurance that it was for the ombudsman himself to determine the extent of administrative matters with which he had to deal. That means that if there was an administrative aspect to a complaint which also had a clinical aspect, it was open to the ombudsman—indeed, the House would encourage him—to make sure that he did investigate rather than was unduly deferential to the medical profession. The Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. and learned Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck), stated succinctly in Committee: From time to time the medical profession pushes its luck." — [Official Report, Standing Committee E, 19 February 1987; c. 23.] That sentiment was widespread. I hope that this debate and the debate in Committee fill the Health Service ombudsman with renewed vigour to boldly go where perhaps he should have been going before.

The other matters we touched on in Committee—the right to investigate personnel matters and to deal with matters that relate to contract—could have been dealt with but were not, and I shall make no further reference to them. There was widespread support for the ombudsman in his office. Any criticism—it was muted if there was any at all — was in the desire to see the ombudsman exert himself to make full use of his powers rather than take a more narrow and confined approach to his duties, specifically in his Health Service role.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) mentioned resourcing. It would be wrong to extend the areas into which we expect the ombudsman to delve and then not to give him the resources to do so. There are difficulties in calculating precisely the extra resourcing that the ombudsman will require to explore what is asked of him. Nevertheless, I am grateful that the Minister has given an assurance that resourcing will follow demand and that the Select Committee will not be returning to complaints that the ombudsman could have done more if the resourcing was available.

I wish the Bill well and a speedy passage in the other place.

7.38 pm
Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

The attention of Standing Committee E was drawn to the fact that my right hon. Friend the Minister has special responsibility for preventing misuse of language and for trying to ensure much better standards in the use of English in Government Departments. It is therefore a strange irony that we note in schedule 2 one of the most unattractive new features of legislation. The heading of Schedule 2 of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 is Departments and Authorities Subject to Investigation". Schedule 2 of the Bill now before the House is Departments Etc. Subject to Investigation. The Bill's draftsman, apparently with the approval of my right hon. Friend the Minister in charge of decent English, has not even used the word "etcetera", which hon. Members may think is an unattractive word. But we now have the abbreviation "etc.", as though my right hon. Friend the Minister is giving his official seal of approval to a misuse of the English language. I hope that we shall cease to use that word in parliamentary documents, notably Bills. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Sir P. Holland) is nodding in approval. I must say in fairness to my right hon. Friend the Minister that he has not sinned quite as greatly as some of his right hon. and hon. Friends who have introduced legislations with the word "etc." in the long title.

Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford)

Oh, no.

Mr. Gow

My hon. Friend the Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household, from whom we do not hear sufficiently frequently in our debates, expresses disbelief that the Government, of whom my right hon. Friend the Minister is such a distinguished adornment, could possibly have introduced a Bill containing those words. I assure the House that the Government, who are almost blameless in every other matter, have not been blameless in the misuse of language.

There is another extraordinary feature. My right hon. Friend the Minister rightly said that it is almost 20 years to the day since the 1967 Act received Royal Assent, so we can find a commentary on what we have done. Under the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967, 44 departments and authorities were subject to investigation. As a result of the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Minister that number is to be increased to 105. I do not know whether we should congratulate or rebuke ourselves on the fact that in 20 years the number of bodies subject to investigation has risen so dramatically. I agree with what the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) said. It is likely that, because of this dramatic extension in the number of departments and bodies subject to investigation, there will be an increased workload. I very much welcome the comment by my right hon. Friend the Minister in moving the third reading that, if we need, as I am almost certain we shall, additional staff and staff of a high quality in the office of the parliamentary commissioners, they will be made available.

Despite my friendly rebuke of my right hon. Friend the Minister on the subject of the English language, I congratulate him on the way in which he has introduced the Bill and piloted it so successfully in committee. I look forward to the Bill being on the statute book at the earliest possible time.

7.42 pm
Mr. J. F. Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for his helpful comments in responding to my intervention. He will understand, however, that I deeply regret that the Bill contains no provision to give greater prominence to the work of the Select Committee and of the ombudsman. I rest assured, however, that he will make representations to the parliamentary commissioner and I hope that, as a result, we shall be given something firm and definite.

My right hon. Friend the Minister will understand that publicity costs money. Clearly, he will need to ensure that there are adequate funds to promote the parliamentary commissioner's work. Several times during our discussions the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) stressed the importance of making sure that reasonable funds were made available to the parliamentary commissioner. To derive the maximum benefit from the commissioner's work, there must be appropriate funding.

I draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister to the notes on page 10 of the Bill which refer to various bodies. Paragraph 6 states: The references to the Management and Personnel Office and the Treasury do not include the Cabinet Office". That is an extraordinary omission. I am puzzled about why the Cabinet Office has been so carefully left outside the Bill's terms. That is highly inappropriate. I do not understand why the people working in the Cabinet Office are operating and will operate outside the commissioner's umbrella. There is a strong argument to include them within the Bill's provisions. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will advise me on this important matter.

Clause 2 refers to the removal of a commissioner on the ground that he is "incapable for medical reasons". Should the House assume that those medical reasons include mental illness? The commissioner's job is particularly stressful and he operates under substantial constraints. Clearly, there is a substantial risk to his mental health. I should like, therefore, to be assured that "medical reasons" includes mental illness.

Clause 2 states: Her Majesty may declare the office of Commissioner to have been vacated if satisfied that the person appointed to be the Commissioner is incapable for medical reasons". Who will give Her Majesty appropriate advice on the parliamentary commissioner's mental and physical condition? This is a particularly fine point. The commissioner must not be subject to duress. Anyone examining the commissioner's physical or mental condition must act in a truly impartial way. There should be no risk of anyone seeking to remove the commissioner from his office on grounds other than illness or ill health, whether mental or physical. A little advice from my right hon. Friend the Minister would be helpful.

If the commissioner is removed from office for medical reasons, what about his pension provision? Can we take it that when the commissioner leaves his job an adequate and reasonable pension provision will be made for him and his dependants? Those who have been hon. Members for a considerable period will be aware that we have argued about an adequate and proper pension provision for hon. Members. It is to be hoped, therefore, that the commissioner enjoys safeguards similar to those enjoyed by hon. Members. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will comment on those matters. Schedule 1 is headed: Schedule Substituted for Schedule 2 to the 1967 Act. I have sought in vain to find some common denominator in the interesting list under proposed schedule 2. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling in his accustomed place—

Mr. Haynes

Gedling? Do not insult Nottinghamshire.

Mr. Pawsey

I am tempted to say that it is impossible to insult Nottingham, but I shall not. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Sir P. Holland) in his accustomed place and posture. He has achieved a substantial reputation as a quango hunter. I wonder what emotions passed through his breast when he studied this substantial list and when he realised that many were missing from the list.

As my eye travelled down the schedule I saw that it included the Building Societies Commission and the Charity Commission. It also includes the Crafts Council. I have tried in vain to discover the connection between the Crafts Council and the Building Societies Commission. The data protection registrar is also listed and a little further down the list the Forestry Commission appears. I believe that there may be a case to argue for the insertion on the list of the Forestry Commission. It employs a substantial number of people. At times those people may be exposed to the risk of injury, bearing in mind the nature of their work and because so much of it is carried on outside. Obviously those employees must have a form of redress in the event of the maladministration of their compensation claims.

I have studied the list and I wish to know the basis of it. What are the criteria for membership of the list? Who requested admission to the list? Why were there such requests? How many people will be affected by the list? What was the test of admission to the list? I ask a direct question of the hon. Member for Ashfield: why was the BBC omitted from the list?

During the course of his excellent remarks my right hon. Friend said that he estimated—that was the word he used—that, as a result of the schedule, the workload may increase by as much as 15 per cent. Those of us who serve upon the Committee of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, and are assiduous attenders, will be aware that the workload of the Committee has grown. I wonder—indeed, the hon. Member for Ashfield shares my wonder—whether the 15 per cent. additional workload may turn out to be a gross under-estimate.

I believe that adequate provision must he made not just for more staff, as has been pleaded by the hon. Member for Ashfield over and over again, but for additional premises and further equipment. We should consider installing word processors or computers. We must ensure that the commissioner is adequately serviced not just by personnel, but with the appropriate equipment that will enable the personnel to discharge adequately their work.

I notice that the office of the Director General of Gas Supply is included in the list and that is a welcome inclusion. From time to time I have made reference to that office and I believe that its inclusion will be of substantial benefit. Further down the list I notice the Horserace Betting Levy Board and I find that a rather surprising inclusion.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

That's a turn up for the book.

Mr. Pawsey

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his witty intervention. It was an entirely appropriate remark. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman can find something illuminating to say about the Corporation of the Trinity House of Dartford Strond and the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses.

Mr. Dobson

Deptford Strond.

Mr. Pawsey

I am obliged for that gentle correction. I do not understand why those two bodies are included in the list. I can appreciate the reason for the inclusion of the National Debt Office and the Trustees of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, but again it would be helpful to have some knowledge of the number of employees involved in those various bodies.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Bearing in mind the inherent dangers in creating too many links between the various bodies listed in the schedule, has my hon. Friend noted No. 21 and 22 on the list? He will discover that the Commission for Racial Equality, which deals with matters relating to discrimination based on colour, is followed by the Red Deer Commission, which I believe is basically involved in calculating the number of red deer that may be culled at any one time. I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that some of the connections may lead to dangerous links.

Mr. Pawsey

There is another link to which my hon. Friend may have drawn attention — that between the Forestry Commission and the Red Deer Commission. It would appear that one commission will offset the other because I understand that red deer are partial to young trees. It may be that that could be investigated by another body on the list, the Medical Research Council. I certainly do not know of any red trees — most of the trees are green in my constituency.

The Science and Engineering Research Council is on the list and as a former engineer I am delighted about its inclusion. I certainly believe that that admirable council should be assisted in every way possible. With regard to residuary bodies I wonder whether they have inadvertently slipped into the list by error. I cannot understand why they should be included, but perhaps my hon. Friend will be able to tell me.

Mr. Rowe

Residuary body could be a description of this place.

Mr. Pawsey

That may be true.

Two thirds of the way down the second half of the list the English Tourist Board, Scottish Tourist Board and Wales Tourist Board are included. I favour tourism and I believe that it should be promoted to the maximum as it assists our balance of trade. It also ensures that people from other countries have a true understanding of what occurs in Britain. I am sure that if there were any tourists here today they would be especially interested in the Bill. They would be most anxious to take back to their Parliaments knowledge of what has taken place in this Parliament tonight.

I mentioned the inclusion of the Science and Engineering Research Council and if I may continue my reflections on the list for a moment longer, I also notice the inclusion of another engineering body — the Engineering Industry Training Board. I am extremely happy about that.

With regard to the notes on page 10 I should like to draw my right hon. Friend's attention to No. 4, which states: The reference to the Lord Chancellor's Department includes the department of the Accountant General of the Supreme Court and the department of the Public Trustee (whether or not either office is held by the Permanent Secretary to the Lord Chancellor). I do not understand why it is necessary for that to be defined so closely in that specific note. I am certain that there must be an admirable reason for it, but it does not readily strike me.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) rightly called for greater powers for the commissioner. One of the frustrations of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration is that present powers do not appear to encompass all the cases that could be brought before us. I can recall that when the office of parliamentary commissioner was established it was said that the office may trespass upon the work undertaken by individual Members. It is clear that that has not been the outcome. Indeed, quite the reverse has been so. Members of Parliament, recognising the importance of the office, have been only too happy to recommend cases to the commissioner so that they may be dealt with adequately. I join the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East—not for the first time and I am certain not for the last—in saying that the ombudsman should have additional and greater powers. I look forward to the occasion when another Bill may be brought before the House which gives the ombudsman the powers that hon. Members on both sides of the House consider to be appropriate.

There is so much more in this important Bill to which I could refer. I shall resume my place, however, in the hope that when my right hon. Friend the Minister replies he will touch upon some, if not all, of the issues which I have raised.

8.2 pm

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

First, I wish to apologise to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Privy Council Office for inadvertently missing his opening remarks in this debate, which crept up on me somewhat surreptitiously. In my experience, it is rare that complaints from my constituents require the ombudsman's intervention. That shows that in our public service there is still a high standard of administration. It is appropriate that we should pay tribute to the large band of civil servants and administrators in the Health Service who run their affairs in ways which lead to such comparatively few complaints.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) observed that the number of bodies to be investigated by the ombudsman has increased substantially. That is partly a consequence of a desire to devolve some of the responsibilities from central Government to subordinate bodies, and to that extent it is a healthy development. If I had a criticism to make of the Government, it is that there are moments when I fear that there is a slight impatience on their part which leads to a desire to take things into their own hands rather more than is sometimes wise. The devolution of power to many bodies, as set out in schedule 2, is a step in the right direction. There are bodies included in the list that are capable of acting unjustly and doing damage to individual citizens, whether by the grant of financial support or the refusal of it, or whatever, which means that we are right to have them open to inspection.

My disappointment with the ombudsman system is that in the collation and presentation of reports it is still arguable that not enough attention is paid to rules which, in their observation, are oppressive. The ombudsman is now employed to pass a judgment on behaviour which fits the rules even if the rules are oppressive. If there is a collection of cases caused by a rule which in itself is oppressive, it would be valuable if the ombudsman's reports drew rather more explicit attention to it. In my constituency, a business man is being oppressed in a way that would be unsusceptible to the intervention of the ombudsman. The authorities are behaving scrupulously, according to the rules, but the rules make it impossible for my constituent to receive justice. Where such cases cluster in the ombudsman's files, they should be brought out and exposed clearly to public view. I think sometimes that in the selection of cases for detailed report the ombudsman does not always do what he might. I should like my right hon. Friend to take note of that.

8.6 pm

Mr. Luce

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall reply briefly to an excellent debate.

I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) for the tribute that he paid to the standards of the Civil Service. In carrying out my duties as Minister with responsibility for the Civil Service, I have nothing but praise for the work that is done by civil servants. When we consider the number of complaints, the number of civil servants in post and the wide range of duties that they undertake, it is clear that they do an outstanding and remarkable job. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Sir P. Holland) is in his place and listening to the debate. He is precluded from contributing to it because he played an important role, as Chairman of the Standing Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration Bill. As the Bill is principally about the extension of the powers of the ombudsman to deal with quangos, it is right that I should pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the remarkable work that he has done in reducing their number. It is interesting to note that over the past eight years there has been a reduction of 509 quangos, and much of that reduction is due to my hon. Friend's work in drawing attention to the number of unnecessary quangos there were in existence. I am sure that he welcomes the fact that about 50 of them that come within the terms of the Bill have been included in schedule 2.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) rightly said that there are a number of grey areas when it comes to considering which bodies should or should not be included in the Bill. This issue was drawn to my attention also by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey), who is a splendid watchdog of the work of the ombudsman. My hon. Friend made a probing and detailed speech in which he drew attention to the types of organisation that should or should not be included in the schedule.

It is worth reminding the House of the criteria for inclusion. First, bodies should be subject to some degree of ministerial accountability to Parliament because they are dependent for their financing and continuing existence on Government policy. Secondly, this should apply only to organisations with executive or administrative functions that directly affect individual citizens or groups of citizens. Clause 1 provides more detail for the criteria that should he provided. It is important to keep one's eye on the criteria that we are using to judge whether a certain body should be included or excluded.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East raised again the question of the Civil Aviation Authority. I understand the argument that he put forward, but we have to judge it against the criteria. The Bill makes it plain that nationalised industries are to he excluded from the jurisdiction of the ombudsman, for the reasons that I have given on many previous occasions. That is the principal reason why the Civil Aviation Authority is outside it, quite apart from the fact that many of its activities are subject to the Council on Tribunals which would in itself exclude it from inclusion in the Bill.

There is considerable consistency in the criteria which we apply, but there will always be a grey area. That is why it is important to remind the House that there is provision in the Bill to ensure that an Order in Council could be introduced, subject to negative resolution, at any time which would enable us to withdraw bodies from the schedule or to include new bodies. So there is considerable flexibility in the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby arid Kenilworth drew attention to several points, most of which I shall answer by letter. It might be as well to get one point on record. He referred to the fact that the Cabinet office is excluded from the provisions of the Bill and from the jurisdiction of the ombudsman. That is provided for in section 8 of the 1967 Act, which precludes the ombudsman from investigating the proceedings of the Cabinet or seeing Cabinet papers. It would be inappropriate to schedule a Department which deals primarily with ministerial consultations and Cabinet proceedings; in other words, the Cabinet office does not come strictly within the criteria of the jurisdiction of the ombudsman.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) gave me notice that he could not be here for my reply to the debate. I accept his strictures about the standards of plain English in our legislation. There could not be a more suitable person than my hon. Friend to be a watchdog of plain English, as he expresses himself with the utmost clarity. The House would do well to listen to his strictures, as I do. Certainly I believe, wearing my Civil Service Minister hat, that it is right to aim for legislation which is comprehensible. I think the House as a whole will accept the view that much of our legislation is not adequately comprehensible to the public.

I have sought to answer some of the points that were raised. We have had a fair crack of the whip in the amount of time given to this important debate on the powers of the ombudsman. There is widespread admiration for what he does. Questions about the basis upon which he might have to be retired are not an indication or reflection of anxiety about the health of the present ombudsman but relate simply to the circumstances in which it might be necessary to ask an ombudsman to retire on medical grounds or on grounds of mental health.

I warmly commend the Bill to the House. I hope that its remaining stages in another place will take place quickly and that the extended power for the ombudsman will be in practice before too long.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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