HC Deb 07 November 1995 vol 265 cc741-3

Lords amendment: No. 7, after clause 9, to insert the following new clause— .—(1) In the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967, insert after section 11A— "The Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme. 11B.—(1) For the purposes of this Act, administrative functions exercisable by an administrator of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme ("Scheme functions") shall be taken to be administrative functions of a government department to which this Act applies. (2) For the purposes of this section, the following are administrators of the Scheme—

  1. (a) a claims officer appointed under section 3(4)(b) of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Act 1995;
  2. (b) a person appointed under section 5(3)(c) of that Act;
  3. (c) the Scheme manager, as defined by section 1(4) of that Act, and any person assigned by him to exercise functions in relation to the Scheme.
(3) The principal officer in relation to any complaint made in respect of any action taken in respect of Scheme functions is—
  1. (a) in the case of action taken by a claims officer, such person as may from time to time be designated by the Secretary of State for the purposes of this paragraph;
  2. (b) in the case of action taken by a person appointed under section 5(3)(c) of the Act of 1995, the chairman appointed by the Secretary of State under section 5(3)(b) of that Act; or
  3. (c) in the case of action taken by the Scheme manager or by any other person mentioned in subsection (2)(c) of this section, the Scheme manager.
(4) The conduct of an investigation under this Act in respect of any action taken in respect of Scheme functions shall not affect—
  1. (a) any action so taken; or
  2. (b) any power or duty of any person to take further action with respect to any matters subject to investigation."
(2) In Schedule 3 to the Act of 1967 (matters not subject to investigation), insert after paragraph 6B— 6C. Action taken by any person appointed under section 5(3)(c) of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Act 1995, so far as that action is taken at the direction, or on the authority (whether express or implied), of any person acting in his capacity as an adjudicator appointed under section 5 of that Act to determine appeals. (3) The amendments made by this section do not affect the following provisions of this Act—
  1. (a) section 3(5)(b);
  2. (b) section 3(7)(b);
  3. (c) section 5(4)(b)."

Mr. Maclean

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

The amendment fulfils undertakings given during earlier Commons stages that we would bring the administrative actions of the administrators of the scheme and those supporting the independent appeals system within the jurisdiction of the parliamentary ombudsman. Although the amendment appears to be long and complicated, it is a simple measure to ensure that the administrative aspects of the new system come within the ken and purview of the ombudsman.

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Mr. Michael

We certainly take pleasure in this amendment because the Opposition pressed the Government strongly to ensure that the administrative functions of the authority and the appeals panel would come within the jurisdiction of the ombudsman. We strongly believe that that is necessary to ensure the proper administration and operation of the various elements of the Bill.

I should be grateful if the Minister could provide a little clarification on the exclusions contained in the proposed new clause. As he said, the wording is complex but the principle is clear. However, it is possible within complex wording for things easily to slip out of sight.

There are two elements on which I should like clarification. First, subsection (2) appears to exclude certain actions from investigation. How will that operate? Can we be absolutely certain that nothing will be excluded from the scrutiny of the ombudsman which this House would wish him properly to scrutinise? What will be the precise effect of the proposed new clause on the question of exclusion?

Secondly, subsection (3) refers to three places in the Bill where, effectively, the actions of officials are defined as not being taken by the Secretary of State or on his behalf. The Minister will recall that we commented on that when the House debated the Bill. We were concerned that the exclusion of actions of officials from being acts taken by or on behalf of the Secretary of State might mean that they were not properly scrutinised by the ombudsman. It appears that those actions are still omitted from the effects of the proposed new clause. Can the Minister reassure me on that point?

The Minister said that the new clause was a complicated addition to the Bill. We wish to ensure that something that we want scrutinised does not, through an oversight at this stage, drop off the agenda or be considered to be outside the capacity of the ombudsman. I should be grateful for as much clarification of that issue as the Minister can give me.

Mr. Maclean

We hope that there has been no oversight. The drafting is as accurate as parliamentary draftsmen can make it, but it has some clear aims. Through the drafting of the various subsections, we aim to apply the powers of the ombudsman, in full, to certain aspects of the scheme—the normal areas of government that the ombudsman can examine. What is not included is a decision on the merits of an award. Initially, that is a matter for the scheme officials to decide. It is not for the ombudsman to say, "I think Mrs. Smith should have got £20,000, not £15,000." Decisions on the merits are not for the ombudsman. Subsection (3) of the proposed new clause outlines the exceptions.

Similarly, as there is an appeals process built in, it is not for the ombudsman to become the appellate authority for people who are disgruntled with the quality of the decision on its merits. There is an appeal body for that. Nor is it the ombudsman's place to question ministerial policy, whether there should be a tariff scheme at all or whether it would be better done another way. We have therefore tried to apply in law the duties of the ombudsman to administrative action by the civil servants running the scheme.

We have attempted faithfully to make the powers that the ombudsman requires in this instance the same as in every other aspect of government. Administrative action would encompass things such as delays, failure to process the paperwork within a reasonable time or failure to process it at all, not implementing the scheme properly or failing to implement it as laid down. Those are administrative actions. We believe that we have got it right.

Mr. Michael

I should like a little more clarification. The Minister said that the merits of the case would perhaps lead a claims officer to decide whether an applicant should receive £20,000 rather than £10,000. He seeks to exclude that decision—the way in which a decision is made on the merits of the case—from investigation by the ombudsman. I understand what he is saying, but does he agree that the ways in which such a decision was reached—whether proper information was sought, whether clarification was sought if necessary, and whether the papers were examined properly—are administrative actions, as distinct from the judgment based on them, and would be a proper matter for the ombudsman? Clarification would be helpful.

Mr. Maclean

What the hon. Gentleman has described is, I suspect and hope, the exact legal position. A judgment on what a person should get is a quasi-judicial decision outwith the purview of the ombudsman. However, if in coming to that conclusion the official did not operate the scheme properly but failed to contact the applicant or check the forms and did not take a medical report as was perhaps required and then made a judgment based on that, it would seem prima facie to be a case of maladministration. That is the type of behaviour that ombudsmen are there to investigate. I hope that that clarifies the position for the hon. Gentleman.

Lords amendment agreed to.

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