HC Deb 15 April 1994 vol 241 cc601-9 1.50 pm
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

I beg to move amendment No. 4, in clause 1, page 1, leave out from end of line 24 to end of line 6 on page 2.

This is a probing amendment. It is designed to investigate how far the effects of the Bill will go. I welcome the Bill and I believe that it will be warmly welcomed generally. It remedies an important jurisdictional gap in the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Malone) on seeking to remedy that gap.

The origins of the amendment are deeply connected with the origins of the Bill. The gap that the Bill seeks to remedy is the gap that exists in the case of tribunals whose members are not appointed by the Lord Chancellor. In the case of tribunals that are appointed by the Lord Chancellor, the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990 enables the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration to investigate maladministration by the officials in the tribunals concerned. The Bill seeks to follow suit in the case of tribunals that are not appointed by the Lord Chancellor.

The words that I seek to remove are taken from the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990, and their purpose is clear. It is to give effect to the distinction between purely administrative actions taken by staff and actions that are taken in the course of the exercise of a judicial function. The purpose of the amendment is to investigate how far the ombudsman can go in investigating administrative actions and where the boundary lies between administrative actions and those taken in the exercise of judicial functions. The point will be important in the work of the courts, and needs to be clarified.

Mr. Gerald Malone (Winchester)

I think that I can satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison). He seeks to discover the depth of the principle by which the Parliamentary Commissioner can look at administrative acts and where the boundary lies between looking at administrative acts and acts that reach a judicial conclusion.

I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the report by the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration of 1990–91, which sets out the principle well. The Committee stated: all decisions of civil servants and others within appropriate departments and public bodies involving maladministration should be subject to investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner"— this is the important point— unless any constitutional principle … dictates otherwise. The principle that underlines the clause and at which my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere is looking is the principle of separation of responsibilities—the judicial process as separate from the administrative process.

I think that I can give my hon. Friend the assurance he seeks. The clause is simply a reiteration of the principle that was enunciated in the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967, which first put the Parliamentary Commissioner on to the playing field. The clause does no more than that. It means, in simple terms, that the legislation as it stands allows the Commissioner to look at administrative acts, but not at anything that could be interpreted as affecting the judicial aspect of any tribunal. In other words, it does not allow the Parliamentary Commissioner to act as another court of appeal.

The matters about which my hon. Friend is concerned are, in any event, always subject to appeal to other courts of law. I hope that that explanation is satisfactory for my hon. Friend, that he is reassured and that he will, on that basis, withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Clappison

On the basis of that assurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science (Mr. David Davis)

I apologise to the House as I will have to leave the Chamber at 2pm for a ministerial engagement. No discourtesy is meant by that.

Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)

I will miss the Minister.

Mr. Davis

The hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) says that he will miss me, and I am sure that that is correct.

I crave the indulgence of the House to make a personal comment. I last stood at the Dispatch Box in relation to this Bill in the debate on the money resolution. The House will not be surprised to learn that that motion was moved by Bob Cryer. I want to take this opportunity to place on the record my tribute to Bob Cryer. By his own lights and ideals as a socialist, he was a man of iron-hard integrity. He had great skill as a parliamentarian. I considered him to be a friend and I would like to express my admiration for his integrity and skill and the sense of loss of the House at his departure.

Clause 1 is the substantive clause in this two-clause Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Malone) on introducing this useful Bill, which I hope will receive support from all hon. Members. It is now 27 years since the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner was established. I am sure that most hon. Members will agree that his investigations have significantly strengthened the ability of hon. Members to protect the individual against administrative abuses. I commend the Parliamentary Commissioner, Mr. William Reid, and his staff for the valuable and painstaking work that they undertake.

The Bill is sound, and clause 1 is well drafted. There are good reasons in principle for allowing the Parliamentary Commissioner to investigate the administrative actions of the administrative staff in tribunals. The distinction that my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester has just made with respect to the judicial aspects is very apposite. The clause is aimed solely at administrative actions.

The clause will give members of the public an additional avenue of redress when things go wrong and it will demonstrate that the administrative functions and actions of tribunals are subject to the same public scrutiny as those of other Departments and bodies funded by Parliament, but without prejudicing the independence of tribunals so far as their decisions are concerned, or creating a secondary appeal process.

I take the opportunity in this clause stand part debate to welcome the Bill. I commend clause 1 to the House and wish the whole Bill as speedy a passage into law as is consistent with the proper use of this opportunity to review the protection that Parliament provides for the citizen and which is a very important part of the parliamentary function.

Mr. Garrett

I will also be brief. I welcome the Bill to extend the scope of the ombudsman. Flicking through a book that I wrote on Parliament not all that long ago, I found, on page 81, that I proposed this very measure. There is foresight for you.

However, the Bill is really only a palliative which happens to suit the Government. There are several defects in the ombudsman system, which I hope the Government will give their views on when they reply to the Select Committee's report of November 1993. I believe that we are due for a report on that within a month or so.

As the Lord Chancellor said in his Hamlyn lecture: Ombudsman schemes have gained the confidence and imagination of the public. Some of the defects go wider than the Bill and I cannot refer to them at length. I am concerned that the Select Committee's proposal that the ombudsman should be able to initiate studies—not on a complaint—should be followed up. That is important. Personally, I believe that the MP filter should be removed, because it is clear from the eccentric distribution of cases taken up by hon. Members that many never reach the ombudsman because of the views of an hon. Member, which may not be appropriate.

As we have already heard, the Bill is concerned about jurisdiction. It enables the ombudsman to examine administrative matters which at present are outside his jurisdiction. The Bill proposes that the staff of more tribunals should be brought within that jurisdiction and it proposes enabling powers, which I particularly welcome, exercisable by order which would enable further tribunals to be added later to the list of those that would fall within the scope.

In his 1993 report, the ombudsman identified a much more substantial problem with jurisdiction, the rapid growth of quangos, not all of which he was told about the creation of—if that is English. I am sure that hon. Members will understand what I am trying to say. In the report, the ombudsman says that to the best of his knowledge the following were added to his jurisdiction: the Welsh Language Board, the Director of Passenger Rail Franchising, the rail regulator, the Office of the Director General of the National Lottery, the Commissioner for Protection against Unlawful Industrial Action and the Urban Regeneration Agency.

He goes on to say that those bodies are within his jurisdiction to the best of my knowledge", because he is seldom consulted about such accretions, and it is usually through the good offices of the Office of Public Service and Science that he is told.

For all we know, a number of quangos are within the jurisdiction of the ombudsman of which he has not been notified. The matter is important, as quangos are on a rising curve again after a recent war against them. The number of quangos will increase from about 2,000 to 7,700 by 1996. We find that there is no mechanism for identifying what is within the ombudsman's jurisdiction.

2 pm

We also have another problem. A curious feature of the unelected state, which is growing so rapidly, is that, with the growth in market testing, more private bodies apparently continue to fall within the scope of the ombudsman but not the National Audit Office. That means that public and parliamentary accountability is out of balance. We can call the entities to account for their decisions, but not their spending.

I should like to know what the Government think. I realise that the Minister will be absent—he has already gone—but perhaps he could write to me about what machinery is proposed to notify the ombudsman of the increases in his jurisdiction.

Mr. Malone

The Bill gives a secondary power to specify through secondary legislation additional bodies that can come within the remit of the Parliamentary Commissioner. That is an extremely useful measure, and it should deal effectively with the problem raised by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Garrett

The measure is useful, but it is not useful enough. The Select Committee said: We consider that the evidence suggests that the current system of jurisdiction is both bureaucratic and confusing & Any obstacle to clear and transparent access to the Ombudsman is to be deplored. It is the case that a large percentage of matters referred to the Ombudsman are not pursued because they are outside jurisdiction either as bodies or as subjects, and this has a negative effect on access and usage. The Select Committee therefore proposes that the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 be amended to specify exclusions in the jurisdiction of the ombudsman, rather than inclusions. That is by far the better way to do it. When the Government reply to the Select Committee, I hope that such a reform will be introduced.

Finally, as in so many of our institutions, it is time that power moved from Whitehall to Westminster. It is wrong that the expenditure of the ombudsman's office is sanctioned by the Treasury and the ombudsman is appointed by the Crown on the advice of the Prime Minister. The position should be put on exactly the same footing as the Comptroller and Auditor General, where the Public Accounts Commission decides on the expenditure of the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General.

The ombudsman is an Officer of the House and is appointed by a motion of the House. As the Select Committee says, there should therefore be a public administration commission on exactly the same basis with the same powers. Why should the Government have anything to do with the scope of the ombudsman? Is it not wholly a parliamentary matter? The matter should be presented to the House by the Speaker, whose independence is woefully unexploited and undeveloped in this place; in other words, it should be wholly a parliamentary matter and the Government should stay out of it altogether.

The unfortunate thing is that Parliament exists to scrutinise and call to account the Government's actions simply to the extent to which the Government will allow. I do not think that that is good enough, and the whole business should be under the control of Parliament.

In the meantime—we must get on—this seems to me to be a worthwhile piece of legislation, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Malone) on introducing it. The Bill has the support of the Opposition, but the fact remains that there are some major outstanding matters with regard to the ombudsman and his powers, discretion, scope and jurisdiction which the House must discuss soon.

Mrs. Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

Briefly, I speak in support of the legislation which the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Malone) has brought to the House. I speak as a Member of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and, on behalf of the Committee, I want to put our thanks on record for the work done by the Parliamentary Commissioner and his limited staff. They cover a wide range of areas and Government Departments, and they do so assiduously. They constantly make every effort to do so as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) that it would be good to see an opportunity whereby the scope of the work of the ombudsman can be extended.This is a first step today. I obviously recommend the report of the Select Committee, and I hope that Government will take up some of those recommendations—and particularly that everything should be included unless it is excluded, if I may paraphrase a phrase that is used in other spheres. That way will give power not to the ombudsman but to the citizen, and that is what the role of the ombudsman is about. The Bill—as far as it goes—is a good step towards that happening.

I hope that before long Parliament will reflect the wishes of the citizens of this country by ensuring that any redress that they have will be had at the highest level through the independence and the professionalism which the ombudsman has shown. I support the Bill and I hope that it gets through its stages as quickly as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 and 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Order for Third Reading read.

2.8 pm

Mr. Malone

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

Now that the Bill is back in our safe hands and away from the care of my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, may I first take the opportunity to thank all of my colleagues who supported this measure from both sides of the House —and it is an all-party measure.

In response to some of the points that were made during the clause stand part debate, I can say that the Bill is by way of being a halfway house between implementing something that the Parliamentary Commissioner saw was necessary as a matter of some urgency, and the response that will doubtless be made in due course to the full and comprehensive Select Committee report that is being considered by the Government at present. The gap that the Bill plugs is rather a glaring one and it is in one of the areas where the public come most regularly into confrontation —sometimes constructive—and contact with the Government machine. That is the area of social security administration. Owing to an administrative oversight, which was ultimately identified as a legal loophole, it was necessary to bring the tribunals in that Department's jurisdiction into that of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration through primary legislation. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration drew the matter to the attention of the Government some time ago and I am extremely pleased that I had to opportunity to use a private Member's Bill to plug that loophole in fairly short order.

The Bill is highly relevant. For example, the tribunal that affects the Child Support Agency is one of tribunals that will come under the jurisdiction of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. As hon. Members on both sides of the House will know, there is great concern about the agency. It is important for the public to know, when they inquire into the administration of legislation that clearly affects them, that they have the fail-safe mechanism of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration behind them. As a consequence of this measure, we will achieve some rationality in a situation that was becoming fairly urgent.

The second purpose of the Bill is that it provides a useful clear-up measure. When it was made known that the legislation might be put before the House, I am grateful that the Government asked all Government Departments which tribunals should be brought within its jurisdiction immediately. That is why there are four extra tribunals in the Bill and I welcome that fact.

Perhaps I can reassure Opposition Members who have questioned this. A reserve power will exist to enable them to put some pressure on the Government—if not to bring forward Orders in Council—should the Opposition feel that a matter arises or a tribunal crops up that has not been noticed by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, or anyone else, but which he should supervise. The matter can be dealt with quickly and, should the Government be persuaded to do so, can be placed under his remit by secondary legislation.

It has been a privilege for me to be able to introduce this measure, which seems a small step, but which will have great practical applications and interest for the public.

I thank all those hon. Members from both sides of the House who sponsored the Bill and also those officials who assisted me in drafting the legislation. I use the term "assisted" loosely. It is a euphemism because they assisted me throughout the Bill, from points a to z, and I am extremely grateful. I hope that the House will feel that this worthwhile measure deserves its Third Reading.

2.11 pm
Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon)

First, I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Malone) for the fact that I was unable to be here when the Bill was considered previously. I am delighted to be here in time to contribute to this debate and to welcome the Bill, which is extremely valuable.

The measure is a tidying-up operation and is long overdue. The Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration has exerted considerable pressure, and none too soon. I suspect that we have had to wait until now for such legislation primarily because of pressures on Government time. That is always a problem and I hope that it is one which the Government will one day recognise and that they will allow time for such measures, which enable the House to come to terms with legislation that has fallen short of its intentions, perhaps only marginally but nevertheless in some important way.

I am glad to have this brief opportunity to address the House because of my concerns over one tribunal that will now be covered by legislation. This measure will bring the child support appeal tribunal under the remit of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester mentioned the tribunal and the great public concern about the workings of the Child Support Agency.

My postbag continues to be full of letters from constituents asking for my help in tackling the appalling difficulties that they face as a result of the formula that Parliament agreed should be the basis for the operations of the CSA. We must secure every possible means to ensure justice for what I can only call the victims of the CSA. Wherever we see a problem, it should be dealt with.

I have no reason to be concerned with the working of the child support appeal tribunal—it has hardly started its work yet—and I cast no aspersions on the work of those individuals employed to deal with cases brought to it. Nevertheless, enough brief exists on the dealings of the Child Support Agency to make us want to ensure that every possible means is available to give those who fall under its malign influence recourse to justice. An increasing number of people are resorting to the courts for justice. Only last week, one of my constituents went to court and achieved £1,000 compensation, having received a mere apology from the Child Support Agency for saying that he had fathered a child, now aged 16 years, which he had not. It was a complete mistake and the accusation, which had come in the form of a letter, had been opened by his wife and caused the marriage to come under considerable strain for a short time. I am glad that he took the matter to court.

I do not wish to stray too far from the subject of the Bill, but I am glad, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you allowed me to point out that people need recourse to justice and restitution when they are unfairly treated as a result of machinery that Parliament sets up. The Bill makes an important contribution in that respect. I am sure that, before long, other legal appeals against child support will be made. In due course, the European Court of Justice will inevitably be brought in to play because of the manifest unfairness of many of the formulae with which the Child Support Agency is currently required to deal. I hope that it will not be too long before the Government propose further changes in the assessment of child support.

It is important that we plug the gap in the powers of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration in order to protect the interests of our constituents, whatever they may be. I criticise none of the individuals who work for the tribunals, but we all know that mistakes happen in the best run families, as Dickens said. We must ensure that our constituents have recourse to justice in those circumstances.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester on his success in the ballot and on choosing this important measure. I am delighted to be here in the final moments of the Bill's passage through the House. I wish it good speed in the other place and, after the normal interval, into law where it will greatly benefit those few unfortunate constituents who, from time to time, need the services of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration.

2.17 pm
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Malone) on presenting the Bill. It has an important role and I, too, am delighted to see that it is widening its scope of jurisdiction.

I particularly appreciate the fact that the disability appeal tribunals will be brought under the Bill's remit. In the forthcoming year, when the arrangements of who will be entitled to disability benefits will change, arguments and delays may arise and the ombudsman's role will be important.

The list includes child support appeal, social security, and medical tribunals, but I was sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) did not move his amendments seeking the insertion of other areas of activity such as the commissioners of income tax, industrial tribunals and rent assessment tribunals. I understand that those could be included under an order, but, knowing the civil service as I do, I know that orders can take a long time. [Interruption.] Up to the Government then, but, none the less, the mechanics are such that it would be more helpful if we simply had an all-embracing remit, such as was suggested by the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mrs. Prentice), who asked, rightly, why not have all in until one has a situation when one leaves something deliberately out. There is some merit in that.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, East also mentioned a point with which I agreed, about trying to remove "the MP filter". I think that that was also said by the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett). I have been helping a constituent by putting him in touch with the ombudsman. Every letter has had to go via me, accompanied by enraged comments asking why he has to go through me, not through any disrespect, but because it is cumbersome and awkward and he needs a speedy response. I agree with him.

Yesterday I met the ombudsman, Mr. William Reid. I found him very impressive and capable, and he has mentioned that difficulty to the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. As a result, although he was unable to provide immediate direct access, none the less a dog-leg situation was arranged whereby the introductory and concluding letters had to go through the Member of Parliament, but the intervening mechanics between the ombudsman and what I call "the client" can proceed. None the less, I do not understand why I need to be the filter. It is helpful for me to be informed, as in the case of a general practitioner being informed by a consultant or the hospital that a patient visits, but after that they get on it. That is something that I should like to put into the thinking process. I hope that we shall consider it another time.

The work of the ombudsman is enormously important and he has had considerable achievements in bringing redress. It is impossible for me to list all the achievements that he has had in one year, but it is helpful to give one example of the work that he has undertaken.

A woman and her family were detained for questioning at a United Kingdom airport after security markings on her passport were found to be blurred. She was interviewed by immigration officers and the police, but, by the time that it was accepted that she was the holder of a genuine passport, not a defective one, she and her family had missed their flight, which meant that she lost money. The family had to buy new tickets and the upshot was that the ombudsman was able to intervene and to ensure that she was properly reimbursed for her financial losses resulting from a situation for which she was entirely blameless.

That is only one example of the important work that the ombudsman carries out. I am delighted that the Bill is now on the way and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester on getting it moving.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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