HL Deb 16 September 2004 vol 664 cc1362-7

2.14 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton rose to move, That the draft regulatory reform order laid before the House on 24 June be approved [24th Report from the Regulatory Reform Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the order is brought forward under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001, by the Wales Office. There are three Welsh public sector ombudsmen: the Welsh Administration Ombudsman, the Health Service Commissioner for Wales and the Commission for Local Administration in Wales. The purpose of the order is to enable the same individual to be appointed to all three public sector ombudsman offices in Wales as an interim step to establishing, when parliamentary time allows, a unified office led by a single individual—a public services ombudsman for Wales.

Your Lordships will know that the Commission for Local Administration in Wales is more commonly referred to as the Local Government Ombudsman or the Local Commissioner. What is not so well known is that the commission actually consists not only of the Local Commissioner but also, ex-officio, the Welsh Administration Ombudsman and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. But it is only the Local Commissioner who is empowered to undertake investigations that fall within the jurisdiction of the commission. The effect of this is that the Local Commissioner and the Welsh Administration Ombudsman cannot be one and the same person, but that is precisely what needs to happen if the ombudsman offices are to be brought together.

Therefore, the purpose of the order is to amend the Local Government Act 1974 to remove a restriction, the effect of which is to prevent the Welsh Administration Ombudsman, although a commissioner, from undertaking investigations as the Local Commissioner. Its practical effect would be to allow the two offices of Local Commissioner and Welsh Administration Ombudsman to be held simultaneously by the same person. Legislation already provides for the office of Welsh Administration Ombudsman and Health Service Commissioner for Wales to be held by the same person. The order would apply to Wales alone.

There has been extensive consultation, both on the overall policy objective to unify public sector ombudsman services in Wales and on the proposal to enable a single individual to be appointed to all three offices now. There is unanimous support for both. The House will wish to note that the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform agreed that the Local Government Act imposed a burden by preventing the Welsh Administration Ombudsman from acting as local commissioner and should be removed by way of the proposed order; agreed that it would not remove any necessary protections or any rights or freedom which a person might reasonably expect to continue or exercise; and agreed that adequate consultation had taken place.

However, the committee considered that a requirement in the Local Government Act, that the local commissioner is appointed only after consultation with the appropriate representative body, is a form of protection that should be retained. The committee is satisfied that the order before the House has been amended to provide that the person appointed as Welsh Administration Ombudsman can be the local commissioner only if that appointment is made following consultation with the appropriate representative body—which, in this instance, will be the Welsh Local Government Association.

The Regulatory Reform Committee in the House of Commons unanimously agreed that the order be approved. In conclusion, I thank members of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform for the time they spent scrutinising the proposal and for recommending the proposal to the House.

In commending the draft order to the House, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, to the Front Bench to speak for the Liberal Democrats. To have one Lord Roberts is a benefit; to have two is more than one can hope for. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulatory reform order laid before the House on 24 June be approved [24th Report from the Regulatory Reform Committee].—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, I, too, welcome the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, to the Front Bench on the Liberal side of the House. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, for her presentation of the order.

We fully appreciate the purpose behind the order, which is to enable the combination of the three ombudsman posts and the eventual establishment of a public services commissioner for Wales to cover the devolved areas of government. The proposal has been talked about since 1998, when it was first proposed to the Secretary of State by the National Assembly advisory group.

There has, as the noble Baroness said, been extensive consultation on the order, as required by the Regulatory Reform Act 2001. The Regulatory Reform Committee in the other place and the similar committee in your Lordships' House have thoroughly examined the issues and the Government have accepted their recommendations regarding consultation with the National Assembly and local government.

We assume that the Government are satisfied that the three posts can be combined to advantage and without loss of functional efficiency and effectiveness. I take it that the Government are of the view that a single commissioner can do the job properly and effectively; that it will not be too onerous or so burdensome that the work cannot be adequately performed. Of course we are aware that the Parliamentary Commissioner—the fourth commissioner, as it were—will remain to deal with complaints arising from the non-devolved areas of Government.

Perhaps the Minister can give us a firm assurance on the point that the development will, not remove any necessary protection or prevent any person from continuing to exercise any right or freedom", although those words are in the preamble to the order. I ask because the duties performed by the commissioners are of the utmost importance to individual citizens who have a complaint of maladministration against central, regional or local government or health authorities, all of which are subject to examination by the commissioners.

I have in the past read the commissioners' annual reports, which contain accounts of their investigations of individual complaints. They are always interesting and revealing. They often show the commissioners as the last resort of the citizen fighting to right a wrong he or she has suffered or believes he has suffered.

The areas covered by the commissioners are varied and extensive, but they are brought together by the common denominator of maladministration, which is the commissioners' real concern. There is no reason in my view why the diversity of subjects covered should prevent a combination of offices because maladministration is the same whether it occurs in a department of state, the National Assembly, a local or a health authority. It has the same characteristic features in all spheres.

The second assurance we seek is that there are positive advantages to be gained and that the combination is not simply a money-saving exercise. I am all in favour of saving taxpayers' money but not at the expense of taxpayers' rights.

Finally, I note that we may expect some primary legislation relating to this proposal to come before us in the near future. Bearing in mind the extensive and laborious consultation required for an order under the 2001 Act and the pressure on parliamentary time, it is surprising that the Government have not rolled all this into one parliamentary Bill. One is bound to ask why we must have this preliminary order when it is to be followed by primary legislation.

I believe the answer to some of the points lies in the present situation in Wales where the two offices of Health Service Commissioner and Welsh Administration Ombudsman are currently held by the same person, Mr Adam Peat, whom I had the pleasure of knowing as a very able, young civil servant when I was a Minister in the Welsh Office. It is intended that a third office—that of local commissioner—should be added to these two when the present incumbent of that office retires, which I believe is in the not too distant future. That combination then leaves the way open to create a single post of public services ombudsman for Wales and, as I have said, that will require primary legislation. I only hope that the Government will find time for it in due course.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno

My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome from the two Front Benches. It is a delight to be able to speak—I am sure, on a temporary basis—from the Front Bench. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, and I, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, are living holiday brochures. The Welsh Tourist Board should recognise us in some way or another.

As Liberal Democrats we welcome this reform. The co-ordination of services is useful and helpful. Already we know how effectively the complaints can be dealt with. I am told the latest local government report contained 183 allegations in Wales, of which 85 were accepted, and the health service had 180 complaints; so it is a worthwhile office.

When we have the united office, it will overcome confusion and overlapping. People have asked me, and I have myself asked, "Where do I complain? Who do I go to in order to redress this situation?". We hope that when the office of one public services commissioner is established the guidelines will be clear and easily available to all people who feel that they have some allegation or some complaint to make.

I look forward very much to reading soon the first report of the new public services commissioner. As the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, mentioned, we hope that that post will be established soon. Will the Minister tell us how soon that is likely to be?

I have consulted Assembly Members in Wales and they, too, welcome this reform and hope that it will be in place soon. I join in supporting the reform proposed by the Government.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

Thank you, my Lords. I recognise the value to tourism in Wales for those of us who frequently visit Wales on holiday. It is not necessary, but I fear that not everyone fully appreciates the beauty of Wales—yet. Both noble Lords can help with that.

The issues that have been raised are important. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, asked why we did not wait for the Bill. The offices fell vacant naturally last year, so we are taking advantage of an opportunity that has presented itself to take an interim self-contained step towards the longer-term policy objectives. A Bill will be presented as soon as parliamentary time is available.

Noble Lords also asked about the benefits of the reform. It will allow progress to be made in implementing the wider proposals for a unified office. One person will be better placed to raise the profile of the office and make easier the resolution of complaints that straddle the jurisdiction of the different offices.

There will be no impact on the right of individuals in this case. The time limit remains at 12 months from the time at which matters gave rise to complaint. The ombudsman already has discretion to extend that time limit. That goes for all three offices.

The time commitment of such a commissioner is not an issue. There is no reason to doubt that the office holder will not have every opportunity to exercise properly his respective jurisdictions. He must prepare annually a report to lay before the Assembly for debate on the performance of each office.

I do not think that any other queries were raised. I thank both noble Lords for their support. I have to say, declaring a former interest in my time deeply involved in local government in Wales, that the unanimity that this consultation has achieved is fairly rare. Individuals in Wales as elsewhere are perfectly able to raise objections if they wish. I am delighted that noble Lords are supporting the outcome of the consultation, which had such clear and unanimous support. I beg to move.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 2.35 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 2.29 until 2.35 p.m.]

Forward to