§ [Relevant documents: First Report from the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration of Session 1993–94 on the Powers, Work and Jurisdiction of the Ombudsman (House of Commons Paper No. 33–1 and-11), the Fifth Report from the Committee of Session 1993–94, containing the Government's reply thereto (House of Commons Paper No. 619) and the Sixth Report from the Committee of Session 1993–94 on the Report of the Health Service Commissioner for 1992–93 (House of Commons Paper No. 42)]7.13 pm
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a sum not exceeding £4,277,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund, on account, for or towards defraying the charges for the year ending on 31 March 1996, for expenditure of the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the Health Service Commissioners for England, Scotland and Wales on administrative costs.—[Mr. Robert G. Hughes.]
§ Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)
I welcome this debate; the first since 1991. Clearly that is far too long an interval and the House should be given greater opportunity to consider the work of the Parliamentary and National Health Service Commissioners, especially since the duties and the powers and responsibilities of the former have indeed been considerably increased.
Currently, the posts of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the National Health Service Commissioner are held by one and the same man—a case of two persons in one being, or as I have heard him described, the dynamic duo. It may be for the convenience of the House and for the purpose of brevity were I to use the more common name, the ombudsman, as I refer to those posts in my speech.
I shall briefly outline some of the powers and duties of the ombudsman. The office of ombudsman was created in the United Kingdom in 1967. Since that time, his role has evolved and changed. Therefore, I shall first refer to the parliamentary ombudsman. The Select Committee, of which I have the honour to be chairman, is responsible for some of changes which are now taking place to the ombudsman's duties. Let me immediately pay tribute to Mr. William Reid, the current holder of the office. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am delighted to hear hon. Members across the Chamber agreeing with that general sentiment. He brings to his position an enormous capacity for hard work and a great insight into the workings of Government. Under his careful direction, the office has grown as the work load has increased. I have discovered that he has a very sturdy Scottish independence of mind, which has been of particular benefit to English complainants.
This may be an appropriate opportunity to mention Mrs. Jill McIvor, the Northern Ireland ombudsman, who does sterling work in the Province, often in extremely 1126 difficult circumstances. The House may wish to know that from time to time we visit the Northern Ireland ombudsman to take evidence.
The workload of the Select Committee has substantially increased over the past two years or so. The Committee now meets once or twice each week. Evidence has been taken from a range of Ministers, from the Secretary of State for Health to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. It has also taken evidence from the Legal Aid Board, the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Inland Revenue and many others.
The Committee, in its first report in the past Session, has undertaken the most comprehensive study for some 25 years into the powers, work and jurisdiction of the ombudsman. Our report was published on 13 January this year; a more auspicious date than perhaps it may sound. I am pleased to advise hon. Members that the Government have accepted many of the report's recommendations, and they are contained in our fifth report of last Session. They are designed to reform the way in which the ombudsman is appointed and his office financed and also to ensure that all Government Departments learn from the ombudsman's reports.
The principal recommendations were that Government and Parliament would meet the requirements for the funding and resources necessary for the ombudsman's enlarged responsibilities. I know that the House will welcome the information that the PCA's cash limit was increased to more than £5 million for 1993–94 and for 1994–95 it will rise to some £9.5 million. That additional figure will take into account the PCA's much enlarged responsibility.
The Committee recommended that the two offices of the parliamentary ombudsman and the health service ombudsman should continue to be held by the same person. I must, however, strike a warning note for, as the workload increases, it may at some time in the not too distant future be necessary to split the two offices so that the responsibilities are no longer borne by one office holder. The Government also agreed that the relevant statutes should be amended to refer to "the Parliamentary Ombudsman" and "the Health Service Ombudsman". I know that that helpful clarification will be much appreciated both inside and outside the House.
The Committee recommended thatthe Government introduce legislation to meet the expenses of the Office from moneys voted directly by Parliament on estimates prepared by a 'Public Administration Commission'.I am delighted to say that the Government have agreed to accept that recommendation, and will amend the statutes as opportunity presents itself. The Committee also recommendedthat epitomes of the Parliamentary Ombudsman's reports be circulated by the Office of Public Service and Science to all Government departments".The Government accepted that recommendation, too. In his response, my hon. Friend the Minister may wish to refer to a development that was welcomed by both the Select Committee and the Government.
The Committee suggested that the public bodies and departments reported upon should be required to publish a report to the ombudsman describing ways in which identified maladministration has been rectified. I am happy to say that that suggestion, too, was accepted.
1127 The House will appreciate that time permits me to mention only a small number of the Committee's recommendations; and those who want more detailed information must refer to its reports. I have received correspondence about the recommendations from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, which relate to the recommendations that will be published in our first special report of this Session.
Not all has been sweetness and light. The Committee was somewhat disappointed when the Government rejected its request that a debate be held each Session on the work of parliamentary, health service and Northern Ireland ombudsmen. I believe that, in that instance, the Government's action was somewhat short-sighted, and did not acknowledge the ombudsmen's substantially increased workload and responsibilities. I am pleased to see that the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle), the Opposition spokesman, agrees with me; again, my hon. Friend the Minister may wish to comment.
It strikes me as anomalous that the work of the Comptroller and Auditor General is debated annually in the House, while the reports of the ombudsmen are not. Recent special reports issued by the parliamentary and health service ombudsmen have served to highlight the need for effective scrutiny and standards of administration in the public service, to which my hon. Friend the Minister may wish to refer.
Not content with merely making recommendations to Government, the Select Committee also made six specific recommendations to the parliamentary ombudsman. The most important referred to the length of investigations: the Committee urged the ombudsman to makeevery effort … to reduce still further the time taken … to meet the nine months target.The ombudsman fully shared the Committee's objectives, but made the point—which I know to be valid—that the matters that he investigated were complex and contentious, dealing with the seeking of redress, and could stretch over many years.
The Committee also recommendedthat the Ombudsman's Office conduct a survey into public awareness of the Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman and Health Service Ombudsman",and thata 'consumer satisfaction' survey be conducted into the attitudes of complainants who have had their cases investigated by the Ombudsman.The ombudsman responded by saying that he always sought, through the media, to improve public awareness of his office and the way in which it provides a service to the public.
I am happy to say that the Government accepted the Committee's recommendation that the ombudsman's office produce publications on good administration. That, the Committee said, would have the dual aim of publicising the ombudsman's work and improving administration.
The Committee conducted a major survey of the attitude of Members of Parliament to the ombudsman's work. Some 333 Members responded, and 79 per cent. said that they considered the work and record of the PCA to be either very successful or quite successful. What the Committee found more worrying was the reply to the question, "How often do you refer complaints to the PCA?" We were dismayed to learn that only eight Members of Parliament frequently did so, that 174 1128 sometimes did so and that no fewer than 150—45 per cent. of those who responded—seldom or never did so. I found that particularly worrying, because it may mean that Members of Parliament are still unaware of the assistance that is readily available to them from the ombudsman—and, through them, to their constituents.
Let me say to hon. Members who fear that the ombudsman may weaken or impair the relationship that exists between an individual Member of Parliament and his constituents that that will not happen. All Members of Parliament naturally defend that relationship, and pursue constituents' cases with the utmost vigour; but the ombudsman provides a Rolls-Royce service that is truly invaluable, especially in the difficult and protracted cases with which we must all deal from time to time. He has the facilities for detailed examination that are denied to the individual Member of Parliament, with his secretary and researcher.
The Select Committee devoted considerable time to the issue of the "MP filter"—the device that ensures that a complaint can be passed to the PCA only by the Member of Parliament involved. After considerable deliberation, it was decided that the filter should be retained. Let me add a note of warning, however: the justification for its retention will be damaged if more Members of Parliament do not refer cases to the PCA.
It may now be instructive to turn to the ombudsman's report for 1993. Some 208 investigations were completed in that year; we discovered that that was the highest number for some 12 years. The number of complaints referred to the ombudsman by Members of Parliament was 986—the highest number for some 13 years. Paradoxically, however, the number of Members of Parliament referring complaints fell: 31 fewer than in the previous year.
The PCA reported that the number of complaints under investigation at the end of 1993 was some 333—the highest number ever. The increased work load meant, however, that the length of time taken to complete an investigation increased to 13 months. I know that that was a source of disquiet to both the ombudsman and the Select Committee. They found the increase in the time taken to resolve complaints particularly disappointing in view of the nine-month target time.
A recent innovation was the publication of details of fast-track cases—cases referred to the commissioner that did not require the full investigative treatment. They were resolved by an exchange of letters or telephone calls. At this point, I must pay tribute to the Northern Ireland ombudsman because it was her idea to introduce the fast track and it has clearly been accepted by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration.
Of the 208 cases completed in 1993, 107 led to financial or other tangible redress for the complainant involved. Of the investigations completed, 61 per cent. were found to be wholly justified while in 35 per cent. of cases the complainant was found to be partly justified. The House will not be surprised to learn that the ombudsman's "best customers" were the Department of Social Security and the Inland Revenue. They certainly 1129 generated a considerable number of complaints, which is not surprising as they impinge on the public to a much greater extent than most other Departments.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
Before my hon. Friend discusses particular Departments, will he reflect on our constituents' satisfaction with the ombudsman system? The Committee heard no evidence to suggest that constituents ware not able to find Members of Parliament to take up their grievances. Will he confirm that a constituent does not have to refer a matter to the ombudsman through his or her own Member of Parliament if that Member of Parliament is unwilling?
§ Mr. Pawsey
My hon. Friend is extremely knowledgeable in these matters and is an assiduous attender at Select Committee sittings to which he makes useful contributions. He is right in his supposition that it is not necessary for a constituency Member of Parliament to pursue his constituent's case. Should that Member of Parliament refuse to do so for whatever reason—there are justifiable reasons from time to time—it is usual for the complainant to write to the chairman of the Select Committee and for him to pursue the case.
Members of the Select Committee often see tangible expressions of pleasure displayed by complainants because of the way in which their cases are handled. I am thinking especially of health service cases when the Committee takes evidence from various witnesses, usually health authorities. As colleagues will know, the complainants are often in the Committee Room listening to the discussion and often make it clear that they are pleased with the Committee's response.
In 1993, four special reports were published. That is the largest number ever issued by the ombudsman in a single year. A special report is currently being produced on the Child Support Agency, which was the subject of an earlier debate today. It will be published early next year. The Select Committee has been concerned for a considerable time about the fairly obvious maladministration within the CSA and I am certain that the ombudsman's report will have a substantial bearing on any future agency reforms.
The Select Committee also decided to set up thematic inquiries, the first being on redress. It will be recalled that the citizens charter promisesbetter redress for the citizen when things go wrong".The Committee therefore invited a number of Departments and other bodies to submit memorandums describing their practices with regard to redress. Additionally, those memorandums were supplemented by oral evidence. The report will shortly be produced and will certainly serve to highlight the many anomalies that we discovered between the various Departments as to how they regard redress and the way in which the anomalies could be resolved.
Further examples of the additional workload accepted by the PCA and the Select Committee have emerged from the White Paper on open government which was published in 1993. The House will recall that it introduced a non-statutory code of practice on access to Government information. The code establishes the right of citizens to request information from Departments relating to their policies, actions and decisions. It is policed by the Parliamentary Commissioner.
1130 When my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave) was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster he said:Citizens will thus have an independent investigator working on their behalf. The ombudsman will be able to report to Parliament if he finds that information has been improperly withheld".The White Paper also specified, perhaps somewhat unusually, a role for the Select Committee in the operation of the code. My right hon. Friend said:The Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration will be able to call Departments and Ministers to account for failure to supply information in accordance with the code, as they can now call them to account for maladministration and injustice.One of the key issues in the freedom of information debate is, of course, enforcement and it is clear that both the ombudsman and the Select Committee have a key role in the enforceability of the code itself.
One of the fundamental differences between the two offices is the fact that the Health Service Commissioner may receive complaints directly from a member of the public. It is not necessary for complaints to be fed to him by a Member of Parliament. That is an extremely important distinction. As the House will appreciate, it means that there is no "MP filter" in the operation of the Health Service Commissioner. May I say how delighted I am that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) is here tonight in his usual place. His presence is a sign of the importance that Departments attach to the ombudsman's reports.
I found it especially significant that, in his report for 1993–94, the ombudsman said:Almost every ombudsman has found in recent years an increase in the complaints referred. We live in a querulous and questioning age but it is noteworthy that the level of complaint against the NHS is still remarkably low when judged against the enormous numbers of admissions to hospitals for in-patient or day treatment. In 1993–94 more complaints were sent to me than in any year since the Health Service Commissioner was called into being".To put that in perspective, I think that I am right in saying—the Under-Secretary will correct me if I am wrong—that something like 8 million people were treated in NHS hospitals in that time.
In a memorable turn of phrase, which I know that colleagues will remember, one witness who came before the Committee said:Complaints are 'jewels to be treasured'.The Select Committee and the ombudsman have seen many jewels over the past two years. However, it should be remembered that complaints serve to ensure that citizens receive better service.
While taking evidence we too often found that there was a defensive attitude towards complaints. People who come before the Committee should understand that we recognise that no one is perfect, and a little less defensiveness and a little greater acceptance of fault would go a long way.
Members of the Committee were concerned about the attitude occasionally displayed by bureaucrats, who sometimes seemed so wrapped up in their own armour that they would not accept, or did not appear to accept, some of the criticisms levelled against them. I found one specific case especially disturbing, and it might be helpful if the Committee made representations directly to the Secretary of State about it.
1131 Interestingly, the review committee set up by the Government under the chairmanship—
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Bowis)
I am sure that the Secretary of State would be pleased to receive such a communication, because it is her wish, and that of the NHS, that every case be looked at and lessons learnt. As evidence of that, I can tell my hon. Friend that the commissioner's latest report will be going from the chief executive of the NHS to every health service chief executive in the country—as an early Christmas present, perhaps.
§ Mr. Pawsey
It certainly will not constitute light bedtime reading.
My hon. Friend has been kind enough to intervene in my speech and talk about the circulation of the report. Circulation of the report is one thing, but perhaps he can tell me how we can ensure that notice is taken of its contents. Like my hon. Friend, I believe that the reports could do much to improve the quality and the standard of the service that patients receive in hospital. But if that is to happen, it is of paramount importance that the reports be read, studied and digested, and that their findings be implemented. If that does not happen, there is no point in producing them.
I was about to mention the review committee set up by the Government under the chairmanship of Professor Alan Wilson, which suggested that clinical judgment be brought within the ombudsman's jurisdiction. The same review committee, in its report published in May, supported the Select Committee's recommendation to extend the health service ombudsman's jurisdiction to general practitioners. We shall await the Government's response to our recommendations on the reform of the NHS complaints procedure. We revisited that issue following the report of the Wilson committee, and our further comments on the reform of the NHS complaints procedure are contained in the sixth report from the previous Session.
Much of the Select Committee's time was devoted to obtaining evidence from the health authorities that figure in the ombudsman's report. Objectively, I must tell the House that some of the cases that we considered were truly appalling. At times it seemed that a contempt for the patient was displayed; some of the evidence obtained was dreadful, and there were times when I felt ashamed of the service that the complainant had received. If some of my hon. Friends are successful in catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, they may wish to enlarge on that aspect of the Committee's work.
In his report for 1993–94, the ombudsman said that he had received a record number of new complaints, amounting to 1,384—an increase of about 12.8 per cent. on the previous year. He accepted 203 for investigation, compared with 164 in 1992–93. As a result, the time taken to complete investigations rose to 48 and a half weeks.
In many cases investigated, the ombudsman criticised management for abdicating their responsibilities and for breakdowns in communication. The cases published in the report undoubtedly provide lessons for Ministers and senior management on the pitfalls that should be avoided. That comes back to the point discussed earlier; the public are certainly entitled to expect that the NHS will learn from the ombudsman's investigations. The epitomes of 1132 selected cases are widely circulated throughout the NHS and there is no excuse for health service managers not knowing of their content.
§ Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central)
As my hon. Friend knows, members of the Select Committee see complaints covering a range of services, but does he agree that the national health service is unique in that complaints in that area are invariably about events that have affected somebody's health, or a relation's health, or even somebody's death? We must remember the importance of the subject matter to the people concerned. That is not quite the same with the Inland Revenue or any other service that, although important, is different in that crucial respect.
§ Mr. Pawsey
My hon. Friend makes a telling and valid point. He is right to remind the House that we are talking about human beings with feelings. There are times when I feel that we may lose sight of that, and I am delighted to accept my hon. Friend's point.
The health service commissioner published a special report in February, the first on an individual case. It was about the failure by the Leeds health authority to provide care for a man left highly dependent following a stroke. After about 20 months of acute care, the hospital discharged him to a nursing home. The commissioner found that long-term nursing care should have continued to be provided by the health service, so the health authority concerned was invited to reimburse the man's wife for the costs incurred following his discharge. 1 am happy to tell the House that that recommendation was accepted. In addition, the health authority undertook to review its entire policy on the provision of continuing care for such patients.
I have referred to that specific case in some detail because it has important implications for the health service as a whole. I think that the Under-Secretary will agree that it is unacceptable for long-term patients to be discharged from hospital into the care of nursing homes purely on the ground of cost. I am delighted, although not surprised, to see that my hon. Friend is nodding in assent.
§ Mr. Bowis
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The case led not only to that particular health authority reinstating the patient so that he received the care that he needed and deserved, but also to my Department drafting a circular reminding health authorities of their continuing responsibilities in that regard. That has been out for consultation and we shall shortly produce a final version to be distributed so that people receive the care that they need and deserve from the health service.
§ Mr. Pawsey
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that helpful and timely intervention.
I mentioned earlier the increase in the number of complaints being referred to the NHS ombudsman. There is a growing awareness of his existence, but I suspect that there are still many dissatisfied complainants who are unaware of his office. It remains a sad fact that some NHS authorities, and even community health councils, cannot provide the ombudsman's correct address. Some authorities do not make clear in their own procedures—that includes their leaflets—the patient's right to take a complaint directly to the ombudsman.
I mentioned poor communication earlier, and there is little doubt that that is a major cause of complaint. I know that members of the Committee will recall, for example, 1133 a case in which differences of view emerged about who was responsible for telling a patient's next of kin about a deteriorating condition.
The Select Committee has long been concerned about the inadequacy of records. Sadly, that continues to be a source of great disquiet, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will take the point on board.
One of the intentions of the debate is to make Members of Parliament and citizens more aware of the work of the ombudsman.
§ Mr. David Nicholson
My hon. Friend just mentioned the lack of communication in the health service. As my hon. Friend the Minister is present, may I put it to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) that we hear much criticism these days about the number and cost of managers in the NHS. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely vital that that vast service, which spends more than £30 billion a year and which has so many staff, is properly managed and that there is proper accountability for mistakes, for communication and for dealing with patients and telling them what is happening?
§ Mr. Pawsey
My hon. Friend draws on his wide experience of the House in order to make a point which my hon. Friend the Minister will have heard.
Increasingly, there is less reason to suffer in silence. That applies to patients in hospital as much as to taxpayers at home. Those who believe—there are many of them—that their particular case has not been handled correctly or that they have suffered maladministration, can obtain redress. In the case of the parliamentary commissioner, that redress comes through a Member of Parliament. In the case of the health service commissioner, the complainant can go directly to him.
Whatever route is taken, the ombudsman will ensure that the complainant's case is thoroughly investigated and that a detailed report of the findings is produced. It is the duty and responsibility of the ombudsman to defend and protect citizens against what can be a sometimes over-bearing and bureaucratic state. Justice is what the ombudsman is about—and that is justice for the citizen.
§ Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock and Burntwood)
I apologise for the fact that, due to an unavoidable and pressing engagement shortly, I shall not be here for the duration of the debate.
Sweden first acquired an ombudsman back in 1808. We managed to do so in 1967. There was a good deal of debate at the time as to whether we should acquire one. It is perhaps worth recalling those days to obtain a sense of the system about which we are talking today.
An ombudsman system was recommended in a report by Justice. The Government of the day did not think that it was a good idea and set their face against it. A new Government were elected in 1964 and promised institutional reform. They embraced the idea of the ombudsman as part of that reform and passed the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967.
Although that legislation may seem to be an established part of the system now, and something to which we all nod assent and take collective credit for, it is worth 1134 recalling that it was a highly controversial measure at the time. I am trying very hard not to make this a partisan point because, happily, we have moved on from the days that I am describing. However, many people, especially among the then Conservative Opposition, thought that the procedure was a dangerous constitutional innovation. They thought that it would subvert the constitution and the relationship between Members of Parliament and their constituents. They also thought that it would damage the efficiency of government.
During the passage of the legislation, that line was taken by the Conservative Opposition led by Quintin Hogg who said that:the new machinery will undermine the position of the individual Member of Parliament vis-à-vis the Executive, and it will undermine his position vis-a-vis his constituents."—[Official Report, 18 October 1966; Vol. 734, c. 74.]In the interests of fairness and justice, I should add that by Third Reading an educative process had taken place and, on behalf of the official Opposition, he said that he had become simply "grudgingly agnostic."
§ Mr. Lord
I am listening very carefully to the hon. Gentleman. However, the position taken by the Conservative Opposition at that time was not necessarily a dishonourable one. In a sense, they were anxious about their role and anxious to preserve their responsibility as Members of Parliament. It could be argued that, by accepting the role of the ombudsman, a Member of Parliament's role, load and responsibility are lessened. In a sense, it is easy to look back in the way that the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright) has done today, but I do not believe that the Conservative Opposition necessarily adopted the wrong position at the time.
§ Dr. Wright
That is a very interesting point which I would love to explore at length.
The system involves major constitutional issues. The system may seem to be fairly dry and dusty, but it was thought to be a major constitutional innovation at the time. Indeed, it was thought to be threatening to the traditional way in which we did things. It was argued that there were traditional ways in which Members of Parliament took up complaints on behalf of constituents. They did that through seeing Ministers, questions and Adjournment debates. It was thought that they were adequate mechanisms and that to introduce an external element, albeit established by the House and filtered through Members of Parliament—a provision included at the outset for that very reason—would somehow be threatening and damaging.
As I have said, we have moved on from there to such an extent that there are ombudsmen everywhere. Everywhere we look we see ombudsmen. Indeed, we have to search around for a collective noun to describe such a galaxy of ombudsmen. My best idea so far is to describe them as a complaint of ombudsmen, but I am sure that other hon. Members can do better than that.
There are public sector schemes like the parliamentary commissioner and the local government ombudsman, and private schemes such as the banking and insurance 1135 ombudsman. We also have mixes or hybrid schemes such as the legal services ombudsman and the building societies ombudsman. There are a variety of schemes.
§ Mr. Lord
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman's flow, but I should like to take him back to an earlier point. I have just been advised that it is never too late to learn. A report of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration in the Session 1993–94 contains a letter from Lord Hailsham of St. Marylebone in which he says:I was very critical of the Ombudsman system when it was first introduced. But, in its present form, I think it has justified itself and commands public confidence.
§ Dr. Wright
As I said, there was an educative process, although in some cases it was a rather prolonged process.
I will argue in a moment that we need to strengthen and extend the system. The point made by the hon. Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) is a timely warning. People who might oppose such strengthening and extension now, may come back in 20, 30 or 40 years time and say that such strengthening and extension was right and that it was what we should have done.
Ombudsman schemes have proliferated. We have them here and there are similar schemes abroad. Almost every country has an ombudsman and they come in all shapes and sizes. The other day I heard that there is an ombudsman in Pakistan who sits with a great scoreboard behind him which registers the number of complaints with which he is dealing. He is always into the tens of thousands. As one watches, the scoreboard turns round as new complaints go through the system.
We can see why this great contagion is sweeping the world. The state is very big and citizens are very small. Private corporations are very big, but citizens are very small. Citizens need help and ways to access the system to find redress when they believe that they have been adversely affected.
Sometimes the development and growth of the system is confusing. The Select Committee tried to take a fairly robust view about the use of the term ombudsman. We take a dim view of the fact that, despite our protestations, within the Government there was still as post known as the prisons ombudsman. We also still have an ombudsman appointed by the Government for housing corporations, despite the confusion that is caused. We much prefer the notion of adjudicators and adjudicator schemes such as the Inland Revenue's excellent scheme which members of the Select Committee saw this week.
Several factors distinguish the real article from imitations. First, ombudsmen must be independent. That is absolutely crucial. They must be independent from the system that they supervise and monitor. Secondly, they must be able to enforce their recommendations. Thirdly, they must be comprehensive. They must not deal with just a bit of the issue; they must have full access and jurisdiction. Those are precisely the attributes of our own parliamentary ombudsman scheme.
If possible, ombudsmen should have another attribute—the ability to improve the systems which give rise to complaints in the first place. That has become an important feature of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. Ombudsmen must be able not only to deal with individual complaints but to examine the systems and malfunctions which give rise to complaints. Just as 1136 we had the great booklet issued in Whitehall entitled, "The Judge over your Shoulder", to deal with judicial review, it is good that we are to have a booklet entitled, "The Ombudsman in your Files", to make sure that Whitehall knows what maladministration is and how to avoid it, based on the experience of the ombudsman system.
We are dealing with a model system which has been outstandingly successful in enabling citizens—we must never lose sight of the individual dimension—to have their complaints against public organisations and great Departments of state investigated by an Officer of the House who has access to every person and every paper that he needs to investigate, to report, and to have his recommendations implemented. That individual approach is sustained also by the ability to address systems failures.
The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth rightly mentioned the disability living allowance and a case involving slaughtered poultry when the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food did not want to pay but the ombudsman, in effect, made it do so. We should never forget that the official error concession does justice to every taxpayer in the land when the Inland Revenue makes a mistake. That came directly out of a recommendation by the parliamentary commissioner. We have heard also about the extremely important case of NHS continuing care, which has had a decisive effect on the debate.
We have an impressive institution and an outstanding track record, but we must now strengthen and extend the system, which means again having the arguments that we had in 1966 and 1967 when the original Bill was before the House. Many things that need to be done are mentioned in the Select Committee's comprehensive report on the functions and powers of the ombudsman. We have argued, for example, that we must put the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration into the same constitutional position as the Comptroller and Auditor General in relation to the House and his funding. In 1967, it was claimed that there would be an exact analogy between the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the Select Committee sustaining that post, and the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Select Committee sustaining that post. It is a source of neglect and shame that that has not happened. There has been no parliamentary debate on the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration since 1991.
We have recommended that all public bodies need to come under the jurisdiction of the ombudsman. The principle should be that, wherever there is public administration—and thus, by implication, the possibility of public maladministration—the ombudsman's writ should run. We should turn around the legislation to define exclusions and not, as now, merely specify matters that the ombudsman can examine. That would be an extremely important change.
We believe, too, that the ombudsman should have power to initiate investigations. Again, that happens routinely in ombudsman systems elsewhere. It makes no sense to have to wait to receive a complaint when there is conspicuous maladministration. We have an instrument to investigate maladministration and we need to be more interventionist in using it.
1137 The deepest, most important and most delicate territory of all, which takes us back to the foundation experience, is the so-called "MP filter". The need for citizens to reach the ombudsman through the services of a Member of Parliament was built into the system at the outset to meet some early constitutional fears. In Committee, we robustly discussed those matters and a view was arrived at, but the debate will continue. Every organisation which gave its opinion on the matter said that it no longer made sense to enforce a route through Members of Parliament for citizens to reach the ombudsman. It is almost unique and it is no longer sustainable. Indeed, the ombudsman himself no longer believes it to be a sensible arrangement. In the House Magazine of 14 March, he said:I am amazed that more Members do not find a use for my services in helping their constituents who complain that they have suffered injustice through maladministration.He feels the constraint of that limitation. He considers that the services that he offers are not universally available because there is dependence on Members of Parliament to access the system.
The National Consumer Council spoke to the Committee. I will not quote its evidence, but it is emphatic. The council said that it simply filters out vast numbers of complaints. If one has to go through such hurdles, it is no wonder the take-up of the system, in international terms, is so restricted. The filter is built in.
§ Dr. Wright
Frankly, in no way would that interfere with my relationship with my constituents. It would simply enable me to point them in an additional direction if they wanted to approach me about it, but they would not require me to do that. We have the anomaly that in relation to the Health Service Commissioner there is direct access. It is absurd to have direct access in the health sector but a filter for other matters. That makes no sense at all.
§ Dr. Wright
When we consider the size of our population it is striking how few cases come before the British ombudsman. That is why we can talk glowingly about the Rolls-Royce treatment that people receive from the ombudsman. That is the kind of system that we have established. But I am also interested in the Ford Cortinas and the Minis—I want the system to be accessible to everyone. It should not have to accessed through Members of Parliament.
1138 We conducted a survey among Members of Parliament some time ago which received a high rate of return. The wholly depressing finding was that some 45 per cent. of Members of Parliament seldom or never refer cases to the Ombudsman. That is a strikingly high figure. Some 100 Members of the House never use the services of that parliamentary institution, and thus deprive their constituents of a service that was set up for their benefit. It is time that the House looked again at the obstacle course that it put in place in 1967.
§ Mr. David Nicholson
I respect the hon. Gentleman's interest and experience in this area of public administration. I draw his attention to another filter. Because of the way in which the ombudsman's powers are circumscribed by the legislation to which the hon. Gentleman referred—which is now 25 years old—the ombudsman is unable to investigate a number of matters which come near to being cases of maladministration. Therefore, constituents are dissatisfied or have to resort to the court process— and the hon. Gentleman and I know what a hazardous and difficult process that is.
§ Dr. Wright
I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman's support. There is no doubt that we must find alternatives to the court system which will enable people to find justice. That is why mediation schemes are being developed in the area of civil justice. It is a growth area. People must be able to seek redress through mechanisms in the public and private sectors for a whole variety of grievances for which they are not able to seek redress through the formal mechanisms of the court system.
The challenge for the House is to examine whether our system is designed for the convenience of Members of Parliament or that of our constituents. I think that the system we have put in place is designed to protect Members of Parliament, and that was the verdict of our survey. On the whole, hon. Members said that they preferred the indirect route to the ombudsman. However, that finding sits alongside evidence about lack of usage by a considerable number of hon. Members, which also involves a denial of access to constituents. It means that the system is designed for the convenience of Members of Parliament and is not allowing citizens access to the ombudsman.
§ Mr. Lord
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He has used phrases such as "for the convenience of Members of Parliament" and "to protect Members of Parliament". I do not see what Members of Parliament have to lose in agreeing with him and allowing him to have his way. Members of Parliament are concerned that their constituents will lose—not that they themselves will lose power, protection or convenience.
§ Dr. Wright
That is a most interesting argument. I cannot conceive of any means whereby our constituents would lose by directly accessing the ombudsman; they could only gain. They could retain our services—the grievance chasing and righting of wrongs in which we engage every day—but they would have the additional 1139 opportunity to access another system. From the citizen's point of view— if not from that of the Member of Parliament— that is pure gain.
§ Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that our constituents look to their Members of Parliament as advocates and therefore feel better if their Members of Parliament are prepared to write to the ombudsman in support of their cases?
§ Dr. Wright
That would not change. Under a new system, Members of Parliament could discuss with constituents whether issues would properly be addressed to the ombudsman, as is already the case with the Health Service Commissioner. Although my constituents do not need to access the Health Service Commissioner through me, I find that they often do so. It is often after discussing the matter that we decide that it would be sensible to consult the Health Service Commissioner. I think that citizens will gain under a new system; I cannot conceive of any loss.
§ Mr. Nirj Joseph Deva (Brentford and Isleworth)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Is he not missing the most obvious point in the argument? The Member of Parliament filter is an asset to the ombudsman. After all, people do not elect the parliamentary ombudsman; they elect Members of Parliament and we are accountable to them.
§ Dr. Wright
Before this debate I did not understand why there was so much opposition to the original legislation. Now I am beginning to glimpse it. Hon. Members fear that a doctrine of responsibility is somehow being undermined. I think that the roles of Members of Parliament can only be enhanced under a new system. If we are looking for stronger accountability and responsibility and increased responsiveness by public services to need in the community, we can only gain under a system of direct access.
Several other issues are integral to our reform agenda. We know that the Parliamentary Commissioner is responsible for monitoring the system of open government. It is clear from his preliminary report that the system is not working well. The Commissioner talks about a series of obstacles, as in our previous discussion, through which citizens have to pass to access the open government provisions. There has been an appalling lack of publicity about the system, so it is not surprising that take-up has been low. The charging regime is inconsistent and is excessive in some cases. I am glad that the Select Committee intends to inquire into the operation of the open government code.
The Select Committee has done more than any other forum to reveal how appalling the present national health service complaints system is. It concluded:The current complaints system in the National Health Service seems designed for the convenience of providers of the service rather than of complainants.I express regret that so far the Government have not responded to the Wilson Committee report. Everyone who heard the evidence given before the Committee and who is familiar with the report understands that we need urgent reform in that area. I wish that the Government had already advanced some proposals.
§ Mr. Bowis
The Wilson committee was set up by the Government in response to the sort of messages that we have heard from the Health Service Commissioner and 1140 from the Select Committee. We are taking the issue seriously, and we have been looking carefully at it. It will not be long before my Department comes forward with our response to the Wilson committee.
§ Dr. Wright
I am grateful to the Minister, and I know that Professor Wilson himself has expressed disappointment at the lack of progress in the area.
We have an institution here with a most distinguished record. We have, if I may say so, a holder of the post now who, on any reckoning, is the most distinguished there has ever been. His industry and application are outstanding, and I hope that that will be understood and recognised.
In conclusion—I say that because my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) is looking at me anxiously—the time has come for the success story to be built on. Now is the time to move forward. That was summed up in one sentence from Justice, the organisation responsible for moving the Government on the original system, which said to the Select Committee that the full potential of the ombudsman had "yet to be realised".
Our view is that new legislation is required, but :it is wrong for the Government to suggest that it can be done casually and, they hope, by the private Members' route. As in 1966–1967, it requires a great reforming Administration and a Leader of the House with vigour and imagination—the era of citizens charters deserves no less.
§ Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central)
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright). Although we have different opinions—as became clear during his speech—I have noticed how hard he works, and how keen and involved he is with all that the ombudsman is trying to do. It was interesting to hear what the hon. Gentleman had to say this evening.
I welcome the debate and, like the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood, I think that it is long overdue. I shall not repeat the points made by the hon. Gentleman, but clearly the role of the ombudsman is moving increasingly towards the centre stage. I am delighted to take part in the debate. I should like to start by saying how much I support the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration or ombudsman—a much better title—and all the valuable work done by him and his staff.
I understand that the ombudsman has the power of a High Court judge and, like the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood, I think that we are fortunate in having our present ombudsman. Mr. Reid and his staff bring to the task a degree of precision and a clarity of expression, both verbal and written, which make the task of the Committee so much easier. I 'should also like briefly to mention Mr. Reid's counterpart in Northern Ireland, Mrs. McIvor, and to congratulate her on the excellent work that she does there.
Real efforts are now being made on all sides to improve the delivery of services in every area of national life. I welcome that, and also the vital role that the ombudsman is playing in the process.
I shall say a brief word about the Member of Parliament filter, which has been talked about this evening. It is an enormous subject. I am very much in favour of retaining the filter. Arguments can be made for people to have free 1141 access to the ombudsman, but that would bring with it all sorts of problems. It is an easy concept to put over, but the consequences flowing from it would perhaps call for a certain amount of caution.
I believe that the filter system works well. If all 651 hon. Members look after their constituencies in the way that they should and if they are diligent—I am sure that most hon. Members are—the existing system, although perhaps not perfect, might be as good a system as one can have in a democracy. I am not denying the role of the ombudsman, nor that that role should be expanded.
The role of the ombudsman has been described as a "bolt in the armoury" for an hon. Member. It is rather more than that now. It is an office with which we should arm ourselves and use when necessary. But I am concerned about the effect of constituents being able to go directly to the ombudsman.
§ Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)
Will the hon. Gentleman consider that some constituents in a Labour constituency may prefer not to go to a Labour Member of Parliament—for whatever reason—and that the same might apply in a Conservative constituency? The constituent might then approach a neighbouring Member of Parliament, for whatever reason. That may be already acting as a filter. We would all prefer our constituents to come to us regardless of party, but a filter is starting to be built in, with hon. Members from other constituencies putting cases forward. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the case for a filter at least needs a rather more open mind?
§ Mr. Lord
I do not know how many cases the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) has come across where that situation has applied. Putting to one side the ombudsman's role, that situation might arise quite often when people have problems, but it is not one that I have come across as a Conservative Member. I am not aware that people who vote Labour do not come to me with their problems. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has found that Conservatives do not take their troubles to him. If he has evidence to support that—
§ Mr. Lord
If so, that justifies the hon. Gentleman's argument to some extent. I am not aware that that is the case.
It is essential that we use the ombudsman properly, as has been described already. The Member of Parliament filter, in my view, may be the best way to go for the time being. We shall return to that argument in the not-too-distant future.
The proliferation of ombudsmen—the subject has been touched on—is something that I am worried about. Our ombudsman was originally a unique institution. It is no longer unique. The growth in the number of ombudsmen of one sort or another is damaging that uniqueness and, as a result, is damaging the ombudsman's effectiveness as well.
1142 I received a note—which was supposed to be helpful—from the National Consumer Council, which was aware of the debate this evening. It referred to ombudsmen here and there, and in one paragraph it said that theNCC believes that consumers should have direct access to the Parliamentary ombudsman, so bringing this scheme into line with other ombudsman schemes.The point made earlier was that there has been a massive proliferation of ombudsmen. If the House will forgive the pun, I am coming to the conclusion that if ombudsmen are becoming ten a penny, the coinage will almost certainly be seriously debased.
At the very least, we must ensure that people who call themselves ombudsmen are genuinely independent. They cannot be attached or linked to the organisation that they are seeking to scrutinise, as that would be a total denial of the whole principle. I am anxious about that proliferation, and I must say to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench that the whole Committee—myself certainly, and I suspect the other Committee members—was rather disappointed by the Government's attitude to the problem. The Committee felt that ombudsmen should not be allowed to proliferate in the way that they are, but the Government seem to be rather too laid back about it for my liking.
I shall say a few words about the Health Service Commissioner. I feel, as an hon. Member who served on the Select Committee, that we were uniquely placed to see the cross-section of complaints and problems that came before us. I should like to mention some of the lessons that I learnt from being a member of the Committee.
I should like to preface my remarks about the national health service by acknowledging the great amount of good work that it does. Our Chairman mentioned that the NHS deals with 8 million cases a year. We are guilty of carping if we dwell too long on the complaints about the NHS, but our Committee exists to study such complaints and to lift the blanket to see what is going on underneath. The debate is about complaints.
I agree with other hon. Members that the biggest cause of the problems in the NHS is a lack of proper communications. There is a crying need for a clear line of responsibility from the top to the bottom. Everyone in that chain should be able to communicate with one another, from the chairman right down to the patient. That, sadly, does not always happen for a variety of reasons and the Committee sees what happens when things go wrong.
I know that today is not the time to dwell on specific cases, but this week our Committee considered a case in which it had taken a complainant four and a half years to get satisfaction. When we questioned the witnesses, we were far from convinced that they had learned their lessons from that complaint. I was certainly not convinced that, should another complaint be made to that organisation, it would not take another four and a half years to sort it out. I hope that our questioning of those witnesses, under our excellent chairmanship, was sufficiently precise to leave them in no doubt about our concern not just about the complaint but about their reaction to it.
1143 One of the problems in the NHS is the growing use of jargon. Professionals in the health service are developing their own language; they and their colleagues know what they are talking about, but to outsiders it sometimes sounds like mumbo-jumbo. In Committee, we frequently have to interrupt witnesses in the middle of their answers to ask what a set of initials or a job title means.
Job titles are a problem in themselves. The professionals may understand them, but it difficult for the ordinary mortal to know what is going on. We now have nurse directors, nurse managers and line managers. After one Committee sitting, when I had asked someone about jargon, I was accompanied in the lift down to the Lobby by the policeman who sat at the back of the Room. That officer told me how much he had enjoyed hearing our questions about jargon. He said to me, "Do you know, I've got a line manager now. I used to call him my sergeant." That sums it up. Imagine dashing into a police station and saying, "Please may I see your line manager?" That is the ridiculous state that we have reached.
The health service puts increasing reliance on structures and systems; they are obviously important, but they are no substitute for individual responsibility. There is little point in sounding efficient if one acts inefficiently.
I should like to make a special plea on behalf of matrons, which will come as no surprise to some of my colleagues on the Committee. In 1989, I tabled an early-day motion calling for the return of matrons, which attracted 129 signatures. In the same year, I also tabled an oral question asking that matrons be brought back, which was answered by the then Minister of State, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor). His reply was rather facile:I recall that that paragon was usually played by Peggy Mount in the films. However, there is nothing to prevent a hospital that is seduced by my hon. Friend's arguments from calling its senior nurse manager a matron, as some hospitals do.I was not impressed by that response and nor, I am glad to say, was my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight), who said in a supplementary question:I suggest to my hon. and learned Friend that it does not matter a row of beans who played the part of the matron in a film. Many people think that almost the biggest mistake ever made in the National Health Service was to get rid of the matron."—[Official Report, 21 February 1989; Vol.164, c. 822.]In 1990, following the snatch of a baby from one of our London hospitals, the Evening Standard carried an article stating:Once the title of Matron spelt discipline and respect in hospital life. Now it has been replaced by a management number, and it is the patients who suffer".My heart lifted when, in 1991, the Nursing Times reported:Guy's Hospital in London has reinstated the title of Matron.A groundswell of public opinion has brought back the matron. More formally described as director of nursing at Guy's Hospital, London.According to Lewisham and North Southwark Community Health Council, the health watchdog which covers Guy's, the return of matron is one of the most frequent demands from local patients complaining about services.Assistant secretary Mick Rolfe says the fastest growing area of complaint to the CHC is about attitudes of nursing staff. Those complaining see the demise of the matron figure as one of the root causes of their concern.1144 I have gone on at some length about matrons, with the tolerance of the House, and I hope that if the Minister is listening carefully, he will take on board my remarks. I am beginning to think that perhaps we shall have to go backwards for progress. I know that that is a contradiction, but the House knows what I mean. I hope that the Minister will consider not just acquiescing but recommending to hospitals that they seriously consider reinstating the matron wherever possible.
The Chairman of our Committee repeated what one of our witnesses said about complaints being jewels to be treasured. We all know what that means, because complaints should not necessarily be horrifying to us. Do hon. Members believe, however, that patients will complain about the service that they receive at the time when they are undergoing treatment? I have serious doubts about that for all the obvious reasons. They may complain afterwards, but then, of course, it is too late.
To complain about something when one is under treatment is different from complaining about anything else. One can take back a shirt to Marks and Spencer and exchange it for another one, or two, or get one's money back. If one has a complaint about the Inland Revenue, it is possible that financial restitution will be made later on. The health service is different and we must come to terms with that dilemma. What is needed is a cultural change within our hospitals.
In a recent case before our Committee, we were told how a relative of a patient sat outside the ward for a number of hours while people walked to and fro, around her; generally ignoring her. That person seemed to be no one's responsibility. That would not happen in a bank, building society or retail shop. Someone would come up and say, "What do you want? Can I help you?" We need that culture in the health service. I know that it is difficult to create that. There are, for example, all sorts of historical reasons for the patient-doctor-nurse relationship. We need to foster that culture, because patients will not complain while they are receiving treatment.
It is particularly difficult to gain redress in the health service because clinicians and medical practitioners of one kind and another sometimes find it extremely difficult to admit fault and to apologise—to do what the Committee would like them to do—because they are anxious that that admission might impact on future litigation or legal problems.
We must resolve that, otherwise it will damage the whole system. We may have to consider the possibility of no-fault compensation, which exists in other countries.
On complaints, we do not want simply to build a huge complaints industry, otherwise the service will not improve because the person delivering it will be aware that the recipient can complain if he does not like it. Ultimately, we need the service to improve and complaints to reduce.
The task of the ombudsman and our Select Committee is to make all those involved in delivering the service conscious of their impact on people's lives. As our Chairman has already pointed out, justice delayed is justice denied, and the Committee is aware of that fact. A week or month's delay in receiving a form or letter may not mean a great deal to officers dealing with a matter but it means an awful lot to a person with a problem who goes to the letter box every morning waiting for that letter or form to arrive.
1145 I am privileged to belong to the Committee and thoroughly enjoy its work. I have said how well I think of Mr. Reid and all his staff, and I look forward to him and his organisation playing a greater part in those matters as time goes by.
§ Mr. Mike Watson (Glasgow, Central)
I, too, welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate and to discuss the role and activity of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the Health Service Commissioner—or "ombudsmen", as the Committee secured the right for them to be called. I am all for demystifying Government jargon in whatever form it appears, and that is an important step forward.
As the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) said, it has taken 11 months—since the publication of the report on the powers and jurisdiction of the ombudsman—for time to be found to debate this report in the House. That may be apposite, as it simply happens to be midway between the average amount of time taken to deal with complaints by the health service ombudsman and the parliamentary ombudsman. The Committee has urged the ombudsmen to achieve an average of nine months, and they are working towards that. I should be happy to settle for a 12-month gap between debates in the House on issues relating to the ombudsmen, provided that we had such a debate annually.
In their response to the report, the Government rejected that suggestion, saying that they could not find time to debate the matter on a regular basis. That is regrettable because the issues that come before the ombudsmen need to be openly debated regularly as they are increasing not just in number but in importance. The number has increased consistently in the past three and a half years since the House last had an opportunity to consider the ombudsmen's reports.
§ Mr. Watson
Yes, I accept that, although I suspect that we are having this debate simply because of the special report that has been produced. It is three and a half years since the last debate and we should debate the ombudsmen's work and the Select Committee's scrutiny of their work annually, not just when a report is produced.
I do not wish to cite a list of figures, but the number of cases being referred to the parliamentary ombudsman or directly to the health service ombudsman has increased in recent years. The most revealing figure is that, in the part of the current year for which figures are so far available, the parliamentary ombudsman's cases have increased by 31 per cent. and the health service ombudsman's cases by 34 per cent. Those figures are not just increasing but are increasing apace, which emphasises the need for more time to be given to debating the work involved in the House.
One reason for the increase in complaints is the current climate of complaint, which may not have existed five years ago. I fully recognise that that is largely due to the 1146 fact that the Government have introduced citizens charters during that period. Furthermore, the White Paper on open government published in 1993 led to the introduction of a code of practice on access to official information, which has also opened up many other avenues for individuals to highlight issues or events that concern them. That underlines the fact that we need more time to deal with those issues.
Interestingly, just last month the ombudsman published the first of his reports relating to open government—an area that will be of increasing concern to both him and the Select Committee.
§ Mr. Watson
I shall take the hon. Gentleman's intervention, but, to allow as much time as possible for others to participate in the debate, I should like to continue uninterrupted afterwards.
§ Mr. Watson
They are a potentially good measure, but they are not fully utilised and contain a lot of padding and window dressing. I am prepared to accept that the intent is well meant.
§ Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)
We made the initial suggestion.
Mr. Watson: My hon. Friend points out that citizens charters were originally a Labour suggestion. That is indeed so, but there is a long way to go before they fulfil their potential.
The parliamentary ombudsman's reports reveal many of the concerns of ordinary men and women and their ability to articulate those concerns. They also reveal the effectiveness of the ombudsman's work in securing redress and of administrative reform in areas where it is shown to be lacking. Anyone who cares to read the reports will see that numerous examples are given. I particularly welcome the ombudsman's willingness to produce those special reports, which are a relatively recent innovation. For example, the parliamentary ombudsman's fourth report in the 1992–93 Session on compensation to farmers for slaughtered poultry, which was mentioned earlier in the debate, catalogues a succession of errors by the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The report not only succeeded in securing the redress that otherwise would not have been open to farmers but acted as a shot across the bows to other Departments to show them that they could not act with the impunity with which they believed they could act in the past. The general public now have greater expectations, and the Select Committee has greater expectations that those matters will be brought into the public domain.
A second example of that type appeared in the form of the parliamentary ombudsman's sixth report in the same year, which related to delays in handling disability living allowance cases. That was an amazing case, as it followed the most appalling bureaucratic bungles, and the system virtually ground to a halt. Many hon. Members simply swamped the ombudsman with complaints on behalf of constituents, many of whom were in a distraught state and some of whom were in desperate financial straits through no fault of their own. Eventually, the ombudsman ensured that those who were hardest hit received redress. Sadly, 1147 however, the lessons that should have been learned by the Department of Social Security—the Minister's incompetence reached breathtaking levels—have not been learned if what we now hear in relation to the Child Support Agency, details of which are just beginning to emerge, are to be believed.
I note that the ombudsman is to report to the Committee in January on the Child Support Agency. He has recently had to refuse to accept complaints by some hon. Members on behalf of their constituents simply because, if he accepted more, they would slow down his current investigations. Cases not investigated in that way will benefit from any decision at which he arrives, but that fact highlights the extent of the problem and the fact that lessons are not necessarily learnt even if they are particularly forcefully drawn to Departments' attention.
Those special reports, therefore, have a special function which I hope the ombudsman will use more in future if the need arises.
I believe that the effectiveness of the ombudsman in his role is strengthened—as he has said—by the role that the Select Committee plays in helping to highlight some of the cases that come to the ombudsman, and which he places in his reports. Cabinet Ministers and departmental Permanent Secretaries appear before us, and we subject them to rigorous questioning. That further serves to ensure that those Government Departments are fully aware that maladministration will not be tolerated, and that we remain willing to highlight maladministration wherever and whenever it appears.
As a result of the report to which I referred earlier, Departments in which maladministration has been shown to have occurred, and which has been highlighted to them, must now publish a report to the ombudsman describing how the maladministration has been rectified to ensure that there is no repetition.
The role and the importance of the Select Committee, linked with the role of the ombudsman, should not be underestimated. It has grown considerably in weight and stature in recent years. In the period during which I have been involved, the Committee's operations have become more effective and more public than was hitherto the case—although I claim no personal credit for that.
The Committee spent all last year taking evidence for the report from a wide range of organisations and individuals. Many Members of Parliament contributed to the survey, to which the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth referred earlier. We made 36 recommendations, some of which the Government have accepted. I especially regret the fact that they have not accepted two of the recommendations.
One of those recommendations concerns the right of the ombudsman to initiate investigations after the Committee has raised a matter formally with him. That does not mean that the ombudsman does not retain his right to decline to follow up certain investigations, but I believe that the Government have been unduly cautious by rejecting that proposal, simply stating in their response:Citizens will normally complain where alleged maladministration occurs.That may be so, but there may well be reasons, as we heard in the exchange between hon. Members earlier, why individuals choose not to bring complaints. For instance, they may not be aware of their right to complain. It is 1148 important that that door is left open. I hope that the Committee will return to that recommendation some time, because I do not believe that the Government's case is strong, and if we pushed again on that subject we could easily assemble a case that would convince the Government that the powers of the Committee—indeed, the powers of the ombudsman—should be increased in terms of such initiation.
Secondly, as a Scot, I find it not simply an anomaly but unacceptable that administrative acts of court staff in Scotland lie outside the ombudsman's role. I know that that exclusion arises from the different constitutional position in Scotland, where court staff are not appointed by the Lord Chancellor, who is a Minister, but by the Lord President of the Court of Session. None the less, as a Scot and on behalf of my constituents and those of other hon. Members from north of the border, I find it unacceptable for Scots to be denied a right granted to their fellow citizens in England and Wales. No doubt the Committee will return to that issue, because it is one about which we felt strongly, and argued vigorously in our report. I shall also pursue that through other means, directly with Ministers, but it is a clear anomaly that must be tackled.
I have been a member of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration for five years, which I have found rewarding and stimulating. I have gained much from it and I hope that I have made a contribution to the Committee. Those remarks preface my decision to tender my resignation from the Committee, which I shall do in the next few days to the Chairman. That is not for any reason other than that I have been appointed to another Committee of the House and shall shortly take up those duties, and find it impossible to combine the two. I believe that the experience that I have gained in the Committee has been valuable and will stand me in good stead on the Committee to which I am moving.
I pay tribute to my fellow members of the Committee, regardless of party divisions. It has been a good Committee with which to be involved. We have undertaken serious work in a sometimes lighthearted, but never anything other than effective, manner, and I have especially appreciated the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth, who has made meetings enjoyable but has been forceful when putting witnesses under the spotlight.
In passing, I pay tribute to the commissioner, Mr. William Reid, whom I am pleased to see in the Strangers Gallery, and Mr. John Avery and Mr. Richard Oswald, his assistants. I have always found their contributions essential to the efficient working of the Committee and I have already paid tribute to the work that the commissioner and his staff do. There are several staff, and I am glad to note that, with almost a doubling of the resources of the commissioner's office, the number will grow in the near future. The role that they play should not be underestimated.
It would be remiss of me, in leaving the Committee, not to pay tribute to the Clerk to the Committee. It was Mr. Colin Lee in my earlier years on the Committee; it is now Mr. Yusef Azad. No Select Committee can work without an efficient Clerk, and I am sure that there is no more efficient Clerk in the House than Mr. Azad.
1149 I wish the Committee and the hon. Members who continue to serve on it well. They have an important task ahead of them. Part of that is to convince the Government that due weight must be given to the Committee, its members and the job that they do. Part of that, to repeat an earlier remark, is to ensure regular debates in the House on the working of the Committee, and I very much hope that that will become a feature in the not too distant future.
§ Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green)
I begin by associating myself with remarks made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Watson), especially with his comments about the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the excellent work that he does, and about the marvellous work done by our Clerk of the Committee, under the excellent chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey).
I shall miss the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central in our deliberations. In the comparatively shorter time in which I have been a member of the Select Committee, I have been enormously impressed by the way in which the Committee tackles many extremely complex and often detailed issues that the commissioner brings before it, and by the way in which the commissioner and his team examine and dissect extremely complicated cases, often with great precision, so that the individual can be assured that someone is standing up for him against the system.
I shall dwell on that aspect briefly, because frequently, in our deliberations in the House, we talk about the way in which the Government or the Executive work. I would like to associate myself with remarks made by one or two of the earlier speakers, who said that one of the real values of the work done by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration is that he can tilt against windmills on behalf of the individual. It is a question of the individual against the system, particularly where the system can be proved to have gone wrong or to have treated the individual wrongly. In that respect, I want to discuss the role of the ombudsman and my belief that the House should use his services more often and debate his reports with rather more seriousness and regularity.
When the Committee, as we have already heard, was first thought of and introduced in the House, it was with the idea that it would, in many ways, mirror the work done by the Public Accounts Committee on the Comptroller and Auditor General. Looking back, I would have supported that strongly because if the House regularly discusses the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the deliberations of the Public Accounts Committee, whose primary duty is to ensure that money is correctly spent by the Executive, surely it is the duty of the House to treat with equal seriousness the work of the ombudsman and the Select Committee, who examine how the money is spent on the services that we offer.
The quality of the service that we offer is surely, to the citizens who elect us, just as important as the way in which we spend the money to pay for those services and for that Administration. I ask the Government, particularly the Leader of the House, to look again at the issue so that 1150 the whole subject can be more regularly debated, if not for a whole day, perhaps half a day, as and when reports are presented to the House.
When the Government are concerned about the quality of services, whether through the citizens charter or the individual charters—for the health service or for anything else—it would send the wrong signal if we did not look seriously at the work of the ombudsman and his recommendations where services are proven to have fallen down. To be concerned only about the money that goes to pay for them would be remiss. I am sure that we would do our electors and the reputation of the House some good if we looked rather more carefully at that subject.
Like others in the debate, I strongly believe that the role and task of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration is most valuable precisely because, in a non-political fashion, the PCA brings to the attention of the Executive, by whatever possible political persuasion, complaints and examples of maladministration in services. Those examples can and do serve to improve the quality of those services and the Administration, provided that the PCA's reports are read and acted upon.
If the House debated the reports more regularly, it is more likely that they would be acted upon, because Ministers would be present to respond to them. I happen to believe that Ministers and politicians generally are too ready to take upon themselves the task of apportioning the defence of the indefensible. When things go wrong in an Administration or in Government service, a Minister will frequently be held by others to be immediately responsible or he or she will be encouraged to be extremely defensive on behalf of the Administration which he happens to represent.
Where complaints are made and upheld by the ombudsman, there is a good argument for a Minister or member of the Executive of whatever political persuasion to be able to say, "Yes, we see that there has been an error. We are glad to find that the error has been rectified but, in particular, these are the measures that we are now able to set before the House to show that we have listened and acted carefully on the ombudsman's advice."
I also believe that the ombudsman's work greatly enhances the consistency between Departments of treatment of complainants and redress where the system and the service concerned has fallen down. We surely should be concerned that, in whatever area of Government administration, our electorate is treated equitably and fairly as between one Department and another.
I therefore join the people who argue for the ombudsman's role and position to be extended to every sector of public administration. Furthermore, his role should be extended to Government-funded agencies and, dare I suggest, sometimes to the quangos through which Government money passes. It is within the brief of the Comptroller and Auditor General to examine how money is spent, so it is surely right that the role and remit of the ombudsman should include ensuring that quangos and agencies perform their task in a satisfactory fashion and that, if a complaint over maladministration arises, proper redress is given and citizens feel that someone can take up their case effectively and, where appropriate, obtain redress for them. I hope, therefore, that the Government will consider again the role and remit of the ombudsman and that time will be made available in Parliament to debate his work.
§ 9.5 pm
§ Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)
I hope that hon. Members who want to take part in the debate, especially those who are or who have been members of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, will be able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should like to welcome tonight's debates. We need to debate the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the Health Service Commissioners periodically on the Floor of the House and in the context of the Select Committee's work, which was admirably described by the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey), who chairs that Committee.
We need to raise the profile of the parliamentary commissioner—dare I emphasise the word parliamentary—to reaffirm that he is directly responsibility to Parliament and has a particular relationship with Members of Parliament as part of the accountability of our democracy. Let us have an annual debate and not leave it to others to initiate, as has been suggested, a discussion of the ombudsman in a private Member's Bill debate or Adjournment debate, when hon. Members usually raise individual cases.
It is perhaps appropriate that this debate follows immediately on the one on the workings of the Child Support Agency. More specifically, the debate is overdue. Last year, the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration conducted its most far-reaching inquiry into the work, powers and jurisdiction of the ombudsman since the establishment of the post in 1967. The inquiry's report was published last January with 36 recommendations, six to the commissioner and 30 to the Government. The Government reply to the recommendations was published in a report 5 July. Today, we have had the follow-up letter from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster dealing—helpfully I would say—with a few of the outstanding recommendations.
In the same period since 1991, the Government have published a White Paper on open government with a code of guidance to access to information. In July 1991, the White Paper on the citizens charter was published. Since then, some 40 charters have been published. It is tempting to add that we shall soon need a charters charter to find our way around them. Nor should the citizens charter be regarded as a substitute or replacement for the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. Rather, as he himself insisted in his recent annual reports, the chartersshould let people know how they can appeal to the Ombudsman via their Member of Parliament if they feel the administration has let them down, treated them unfairly, inefficiently or"—I note in his most recent report—discourteously, with rudeness, with an unwillingness to treat the complainant as a person with rights and with a refusal to answer reasonable questions.1152 The emphasis on rudeness, courtesy and decent answering of questions suggests that sometimes our exchanges at Question Time could merit a referral to the ombudsman.
§ Mr. Battle
As my hon. Friend suggests, it should happen all the time.
Each month, new bodies are added to the parliamentary commissioner's jurisdiction—most recently the urban development corporations, the director of passenger freight rail franchising, the rail regulator and, more topically, the Office of the National Lottery.
I hope that the Minister will reply to this particular point. Rather than change the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 to add every new body, would it not be better to draft the scope of the parliament commissioner's jurisdiction so that everything is included, unless it is explicitly and specifically excluded from his purview?
I hope that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will consider that point, because, in the table of respondents to the Select Committee questionnaire to hon. Members, it is obvious that between hon. Members elected in 1983 and those elected after 1983 there has been a decline in understanding the range of the commissioner's jurisdiction. In other words, hon. Members are less clear which bodies fall within his aegis. That should be spelled out in more detail. It would be helpful if the Minister could give a positive reply. Let us assume that everything is in and that only that which is specified is excluded. As the parliamentary commissioner mentions in his annual report, sometimes it is not even clear to the commissioner himself whether a new body is included. That needs to be clarified.
The new agencies are generating a huge increase in the parliamentary commissioner's workload. It was up by 25 to 30 per cent. this year. The Child Support Agency has led to an enormous number of complaints, and, as other hon. Members have said, in the future it will be subject to a special report. Social security is still a major subject of inquiries and in the past 10 years the Government have replaced the non-contributory invalidity pensions with the severe disablement allowance, the mobility allowance and attendance allowance with the disabled living allowance, supplementary benefit with income support, family income support with family credit and special needs allowances with direct payments from the social fund. That overhaul of the social security system has inevitably led to confusion, muddle and maladministration.
The Department of Social Security continues to account for the most significant part of the commissioner's work load. It accounted for 46 per cent.—nearly half the work load—in 1993. In one of his special reports published this year on the delays in handling disability allowance claims, the Department of Social Security's glaring shortcomings when introducing the new disability living allowance were revealed. On page 2 of his annual report the parliamentary commissioner said:The result was that, despite the Department's best intentions, thousands of disabled claimants found themselves for many months deprived of benefit.The Department eventually had to pay nearly £500,000 in compensation to some 30,000 claimants as a result of that special report.
1153 On page 3 of his annual report, published in March this year, the commissioner writes:It is a source of great concern that my investigations reveal one Department repeating unnecessarily another Department's errors. I therefore suggest to the Select Committee that the Office of Public Service and Science could and should be doing more to disseminate among Government Departments the practical lessons distilled from my reports.In other words, there needs to be some interdepartmental co-operation and some sharing of the information in the reports. Dare I say, there needs to be some joined-up thinking between Departments to ensure that they do not unnecessarily repeat errors and that they improve systems so as to identify problems clearly, and to recognise that, when an individual case is analysed, it can sometimes reveal what we might call a structural fault throughout the whole system, which needs to be tackled.
As more and more people become aware of the existence and the role of the commissioner, I predict that his workload will continue to increase rapidly. From 1989 to 1993 there was an increase of 46 per cent. in complaints referred. The number of complaints accepted has risen by 17 per cent. and the final reports issued increased by 12 per cent. I believe that our constituents should know who the ombudsman is. It is to be regretted that the term of ombudsman has been unhelpfully extended elsewhere, including into the Department of Environment and the Home Office. Avoiding confusion about the role, powers and jurisdiction of the ombudsman should be a primary objective. It is an objective that I know that the Select Committee has set itself, and it should be supported in the House.
I know that the parliamentary commissioner, Mr. Reid, believes that the public ought to be able to go direct to him—the subject of the debate across the Floor of the House tonight—without going through the Member of Parliament filter. Currently, a member of the public approaches the commissioner through a Member of the House of Commons. I know that the Select Committee also rejected that approach and I shall comment briefly on the relationship between Members of Parliament, their constituencies and the parliamentary commissioner.
One of the most valuable elements in our system of parliamentary democracy, flawed though it may be, is that direct constituency-member link between Members of Parliament and the specific geographical areas that they represent. Members of Parliament cannot be only names on lists, carried on the shoulders of others, nor can they be merely talking heads on television and radio or photographs in the paper; at once removed from direct contact with our constituents. That is why we hold advice surgeries, that is why we take on cases individually and have, in some instances, large case loads. I am currently in contact with about 2,500 people. In this age of politics—dare I say—as media spectacle, whether in the theatre of this Chamber, or in the stunts and set pieces outside, it is vital to our democracy that our constituents can buttonhole us; take us aside by the elbow and talk to us directly.
If the work of Members of Parliament can be roughly defined and described as making laws and budgets, that direct access to constituents is important as it often means that our constituents find out quicker than we do the detailed impact of our legislative decisions. They realise 1154 before we do, sitting here, the impact of our decisions. In a sense, those who pay the price can usually do the arithmetic. Evidence and information in the questionnaire given to the Select Committee showed that referrals via Members of Parliament were increasingly complainant-led. So, in a sense, Members of Parliament were not acting as a filter, they were passing more and more complaints straight on. People present their Member of Parliament with, as it were, a window on the workings of a particular Department and the commissioner provides the means for a parliamentary check on the systems and the structures without recourse to expensive, private litigation.
In the absence of a written constitution, electors in our parliamentary democracy have two basic rights. One of them, I gather, is to be able to go right into Central Lobby to try to lobby their parliamentary representative. The other is to sign a properly presented and properly addressed petition which can come before the House. Therefore, the "MP filter" is another key means of ensuring that, as legislators, our feet are firmly on the ground. It is of value to Members of Parliament to know what our constituents think of the impact of our decisions.
The powers of the commissioner are, of course, subject to the scrutiny of the Select Committee and accountable, through that Committee, directly to this Parliament. The arrangement depends basically on there being a good relationship between the commissioner and the Select Committee. When there is a good relationship, as I understand there is currently, it can mean, as at present, that the commissioner can and does take the initiative from the recommendations of the Committee. It can be a rather more fluid two-way process than has sometimes been suggested in discussing the "MP filter". The role of the Committee is to strengthen the accountability of the administrative bureaucracy within our parliamentary system through the role of the commissioner.
We need clarification of the whole sector of—what is the new term?—contractual and commercial matters. A change is beginning in the interface between the public and the private as services are contracted out. In practice, that means that the role of the commissioner is becoming less distinct. When the commissioner cannot touch matters relating to contractual and commercial relationships, they may well be referred to the courts; but we need to consider the way in which a whole sphere of Government policy is regularly changing that interface between public and private.
Urban development corporations provide an example. When can the commissioner intervene in regard to decisions that are seen to concern land that is purchased, or otherwise, and members of the public may wish to re-examine the work that has been done? The increasing blurring of the boundary between public and private is likely to generate future complaints, and more work for the commissioner. We need to be clearer about what is within his reach and what is outside it.
Members of Parliament are, in a sense, ombudsmen in their own right. I sometimes think that we are now the last resort for many of our constituents: people bring us problems connected with housing, social security, tax and legal matters such as disputes with neighbours. They approach us not as lobbyists, but because they feel that they cannot "get through" in any other way. They need someone to listen patiently and openly, to take them seriously and to represent them genuinely.
1155 In that sense, we Members of Parliament are already mini-ombudsmen; in that sense we are genuine filters. Those who suggest that our job is done only in this place neglect half the work that we are elected to do. Obviously, the work that we do so patiently in our constituencies is not glamorous and does not attract media attention; nor should it, in my view. But our letters and advice surgeries are the bread and butter of our work as public representatives, and the role of the parliamentary commissioner can reinforce it.
§ Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North)
Surely one of the great advantages of insisting that Members of Parliament are approached first is that they can take up an issue as a Minister's case. That ensures that the matter is dealt with at a higher level in the Department concerned. If that filter were not available, far more constituents would go directly to the ombudsman and cases that are currently resolved might not be.
§ Mr. Battle
I entirely agree. I think we should consider not just whether a person can send a letter directly, but the two-way process that also benefits Members of Parliament, through our inside access to the Administration.
The Government have responded to reports from the Select Committee with, for instance, today's letter about the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. Regrettably, the same cannot be said in regard to the work of the health service ombudsman, although the Minister has suggested that the Department will reply before long. The Government's response is overdue: we need replies to the Select Committee's original recommendations. The review carried out by Professor Alan Wilson of Leeds university published its findings in May, and was followed in July by the Select Committee's fifth report. We are now in December. I wish to draw particular attention to the Committee's recommendation that states:We consider it preferable for the two Offices of Parliamentary Ombudsman and Health Service Ombudsman to continue to be held by the same person".In its reply, the Department stated:The Government agrees that there should be no change for the present. This subject may need to be revisited at a later date when the extent of the work arising from the Open Government White Paper and the report by Professor Wilson on the Review of the NHS Complaints Procedure is known.Will the Minister state clearly that there will be a reply and, what is more, that we can debate it on the Floor of the House? That is necessary because there has been a significant increase in the number of complaints received by the commissioner.
Between 1989 and 1993, there was an increase of 74 per cent. in the number of people turning to the health commissioner. In 1992, 1,227 complaints were received and last year 1,384 were received, an increase of 13 per cent. The number of new investigations begun last year was up 24 per cent. on the year before.
Again, the changing interface between public and private is key to the changing landscape. As a result, the clinical administrative, definitional split is shifting. We are now under new regimes of NHS trusts and GP fundholders in which, speaking metaphorically, the knife could be wielded by an accountant as much as by a surgeon. The ground is shifting and we need to respond urgently to that shift in the context of the work, role and jurisdiction of the commissioner.
1156 Similarly, if the health ombudsman is to be, as Select Committee recommendation 127 proposesthe apex of any unified NHS complaints system that may be introduced",the role of health staff raising complaints with the health ombudsman on behalf of patients, which they can do, should be protected. They should not be pushed into the background as a form of unprofessional practice or worse, as happened recently, when staff in fear were reduced to appearing as silhouettes on television because they were too scared to be identified when speaking openly. That directly contradicts the Government's positive response to recommendations 23, 31 and 32 of the Select Committee's report.
The health commissioner's report should not only deal with individual grievances but be part of a setting of standards and supervision within the NHS. The alternative would be litigation which I believe that most, if not all, of us would deeply regret. The role of the health commissioner is to provide a safety valve. We urgently need a positive response to the Select Committee's proposals on the health commissioner and I hope that the Minister will take that on board.
There were some recommendations that the Government said would be implementedas soon as the legislative opportunity arises".In the light of the Government's legislative programme, I hope that the coming months will provide that opportunity, which should be grasped quickly—let us get on with it and get it out of the way.
It is gratifying to read in the response to the Select Committee's questionnaire that a consistently high level of hon. Members—75 per cent.—are either "very" or "quite" satisfied with the result of investigations. That is a compliment to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, Mr. Reid, and his staff, to standards in public life and, in particular, to the particular nature of our parliamentary democracy.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration is an important, although relatively new, institution and we should continue to seek ways to enhance the commissioner's role, regarding it as a means to strengthen not only democratic accountability but the political institutions of our particular style of constituency-based democracy. In other words, greater awareness of the role, powers and work of the commissioner could go some way to restoring faith in the process of politics in our society.
§ Mr. Nirj Joseph Deva (Brentford and Isleworth)
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) and privileged to be a member of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration under the excellent chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey).
Today's debate has been wide ranging, but, in the few minutes available to me, I shall try to cast the net even wider and consider the changing circumstances facing our parliamentary democracy as we go towards the millennium.
The work of the Select Committee is now at the forefront of the work on the citizens charter and of the work that we are doing for our electors on consumers' rights and citizens' expectations of the services that they 1157 obtain from the state. I am especially concerned to encourage the Government to consider recommendations 18 and 20 of the Select Committee report. May I be bold enough to say that the work of the ombudsman and of the Select Committee represents one of the most important institutions of our parliamentary democracy.
The instruments of governance and legislation, and our parliamentary procedures, were fashioned and honed in a different age, when the electorate consisted of people who were less well informed and less aware of their rights; sometimes, they saw the state and its agencies as their masters rather than as their servants. In 1979, when the Conservative Administration was elected to power, we said, "We want to set the people free." And we have, indeed, set the people free.
Today, much has changed; the electorate are as well informed about current issues as any Member of this august House and the people are as aware of their rights—if not, sometimes, of their duties—as any Member of the House. Our electorate and our citizens see an equal partnership between themselves and the providers of services from the Government, the state and their agencies.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made a signal contribution to promoting an equal partnership between the state and its citizens through the introduction of the citizens charter, which has been a success. The charter has increased the awareness of the providers of services that their primary duty is to their clients, the citizens of this country, and not to the institutions that employ them. The consumers are supreme, and have every right to be so.
When the citizens charter, to which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wrote the foreword, was launched in July 1992, it said:Through the Citizen's Charter the Government is now determined to drive reforms further into the core of the public services, extending the benefits of choice, competition, and commitment to service more widely.The range of mechanisms in the citizens charter covers, inter alia,published performance targets—local and national; comprehensive publication of information on standards achieved; more effective complaints procedures; tougher and more independent inspectorates".It is therefore fundamental that the citizens charter provides that all services, including those provided by local authorities, should have clear, well-publicised complaints procedures.
I had the privilege of serving on the National Consumer Council for six years before I entered Parliament, and during that time it developed what are now well-established consumer criteria. In brief, that phrase describes the importance of information, access, representation, redress, compensation and value for money.
Having set the scene, my central concern is to consider the future. Twenty years after establishing the consumer movement, as we now know it, we have in place the citizens charter. The next 20 years will herald more wide-ranging revolutions that will affect all our institutions. We have part of that today in the information technology revolution. Tomorrow, we expect the multi-media revolution. Those two are great harbingers of 1158 the way in which our parliamentary democracy will work, and the role of the ombudsman will be pivotal to the changes to come.
The information technology revolution and the multi-media revolution will increase exponentially public awareness of the issues and problems that confront citizens. Citizens will no longer be passive recipients of news; they will be news makers in real time. The entire nation will be exposed to any problem of maladministration, and the complainants will participate in multi-media news events beamed to each home. The audience will be asked to comment from home and to recommend to the nation at large remedies and actions to correct, redress and compensate for the maladministration.
In short, everything that happens to anyone will be accessible to the entire nation. No longer will it merely be a chat across the garden wall when Mrs. Smith says to Mrs. Jones that she went to the local hospital and was not treated properly, or Mr. Jones says to Mr. Smith in the pub that the ambulance that was called to take him to hospital was 20 minutes late.
After the multi-media revolution, everyone in a town or city will know everything that happens and, more importantly, everyone will express his or her own views and opinions to everyone else from home to home. An information time bomb is waiting to go off. As elected representatives of the people, are we equipped here to meet the challenges of the future using the rather archaic instruments and procedures that we have inherited from the 18th and 19th centuries? Are we equipped to maintain a force of representative and accountable democracy and a partnership of trust with our electors?
If the answer to that question is no, we must change the way we do things so that we are seen to be effective, efficient, accountable and competent to deal with people's everyday problems. That is why today's debate is so important and it is why I believe that the Government should accept, as only a first step in a long series of steps, all the recommendations in the Select Committee report which was published on 14 July.
In particular, I want to draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister to recommendation 20 which, as he knows, states:We recommend that the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 be amended so as to specify exclusions rather than inclusions to the Parliamentary Ombudsman's jurisdiction.I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has said that the Government will consider that very carefully. Having looked at it very carefully, is he ready to make a statement about it?
I congratulate the Government on accepting outright 20 of the 36 recommendations in our report. I acknowledge my gratitude for the fact that the Government have promised to consider a further six of our recommendations carefully. I believe that recommendations 18 and 20 are very important indeed.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva) for allowing me a few minutes to take part in this debate. I also welcome the fact that the debate is taking place. I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate and to have participated, for the past 18 months, 1159 on the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. The work has been very worth while and I hope to continue it.
I particularly welcome my involvement with the parliamentary commissioner, because his predecessor, Sir Anthony Barrowclough, is a constituent of mine who lives in Winsford. About a year ago, I made a short film for BBC2 about agencies that help Members of Parliament to do their job. I chose Sir Anthony as an example of the ombudsman and I chose the local Taunton citizens advice bureau which also carries out work which is very much adjacent to that of a Member of Parliament's. I would like to take this opportunity to praise the present ombudsman and his staff for their work which helps us greatly in our work on the Select Committee.
There has been much debate about the "MP filter". I strongly support, and will do so until there is decisive evidence to the contrary, the continuing of the "MP filter". I do not believe that there is evidence of specific unsatisfied demand for the services of the ombudsman resulting from the "MP filter".
My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) said that a dissatisfied constituent whose Member will not take up a case can write to the Chairman of the Select Committee or take the matter up with a neighbouring Member, possibly a Member of that person's own political disposition. However, I would deprecate any departure from the principle in our constitution that all Members of Parliament represent their constituents, whatever their views.
I made the point in Select Committee that the work of the Health Service Commissioner should be more specifically related to Members' responsibilities and the constituencies. The reports of cases by the Health Service Commissioner should be made available to hon. Members so that they know what is happening and what is going wrong with the health service in their constituencies. At election time, it is the Member of Parliament who is responsible for the success or deficiencies of the local health service.
My second point was referred to by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle). It relates to the frustrations that arise—I have personal experience of them—from the present restrictions on the jurisdiction of the commissioner.
I commend also the recommendation by the National Consumer Council that the parliamentary ombudsman should be able to investigate complaints involving contractual or commercial matters. A constituent, who seemed to be very dissatisfied with the service from a Department, has been unable to secure redress, despite my efforts to secure an investigation by the commissioner. He deemed what happened—I am sure that he was correct to do so—to result from a contractual relationship that my constituent had made. That is unfortunate. The NCC points out that, with the Government having contracted out a considerable proportion of their work to private companies or next steps agencies, it would be appropriate to extend the ombudsman's role to cover those aspects of public administration.
There might be other examples—perhaps the Select Committee should examine them—of present restrictions on the powers of the ombudsman, even when the constituent has made his case and the Member has put it to the ombudsman, causing frustration because he is not able to investigate successfully and effectively.
1160 My third point relates to the Health Service Commissioner. There is immense potential for good. Despite the fact that constituents are able to refer cases direct to the Health Service Commissioner—there is no "MP filter—I am certain that there is great unsatisfied demand simply because people do not know that they have that right and that power. We have had some very interesting and disturbing cases before us, as hon. Members have pointed out.
Of course, sometimes we are frustrated by the dividing line between maladministration, which the commissioner can investigate, and clinical matters, which, naturally, he cannot investigate. As recent cases have shown, that dividing line becomes blurred. That is particularly important as concern arises about the success of the care in the community initiative, which is to be the subject of legislation. I am a great supporter of that initiative, and in Somerset it has been very successful.
At page xv of his 1992–93 report, the commissioner referred to a disturbing case involving an absconding mental patient who, at 4 am, caused great damage to a private house next to the establishment where he was detained. What worried us was the health authority's failure to provide proper redress and the lack of knowledge of what became of that patient.
My hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) and for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) referred to the attitude of bureaucrats. There was evidence from a hospital in Glasgow on page xvii of that same report, and it appeared that complainants were discouraged from complaining. I am sure that neither the commissioner nor the Select Committee would tolerate that.
We regularly take evidence from the chairmen and chief executives of hospital trusts. There is sometimes an arrogant attitude, a lack of sympathy—even at that stage—and a failure to take responsibility. As I found when I served on the Public Accounts Committee, the officials who were responsible for what went wrong had moved on. I hope that the Select Committee will continue to examine that matter. I look forward to the reply of my hon. Friend the Minister.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science (Mr. Robert G. Hughes)
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this extremely interesting debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis), the Under-Secretary of State for Health, who has been present throughout the debate and has intervened in it, has also been extremely interested to hear the many important points that have been made.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) said, it is 27 years since the establishment of the office of the parliamentary commissioner for Administration and, indeed, of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. Experience has proved the great value of their respective roles. I join every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate in paying tribute to the Select Committee members and to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth for the dedicated work that he does in chairing the Committee.
The Government must set high standards for administration and must work continually to improve standards still further, thereby presenting new benchmarks 1161 for the ombudsman. The spread of the parliamentary commissioner's responsibilities has been enhanced in the past year by new functions connected with the code of practice on access to Government information, which some hon. Members mentioned during the debate and which I will mention in a moment.
I also pay tribute to Mr. William Reid, the ombudsman, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in my office shortly after I became Parliamentary Secretary. I was pleased to be able to pay a return visit to his office yesterday to see the work that he and his staff carry out.
I am pleased to say that our intent in establishing a code of practice on access to Government information was welcomed by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Watson). Since April, the parliamentary commissioner has had an important new role of policing the code. As Mr. Reid said last month:A prerequisite of good government is adequate openness combined with an external regulating mechanism which gives openness its credibility".Decisions about the release of Government information have been subject to independent review by the ombudsman, which I think is a good thing. The code and the reports published by the ombudsman show that the system is working so far. If there are not enough complaints, people say that the service was not well publicised; if there are many complaints, people say, "Obviously the Government are not being very open". Sometimes one feels that one cannot win.
Although the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright) criticised the lack of publicity given to the code, I recall signing answers to parliamentary questions in the past few months which have criticised the Government for spending too much on publicity in some areas. The Office of Public Service and Science has distributed more than 52,000 copies of the explanatory leaflet to more than 1,300 carefully targeted recipients, such as citizens advice bureaux and libraries. We have sent out 5,600 copies of the code and the parliamentary commissioner has done a great deal to publicise the code's existence. I think that the system is working well.
In the short time available to me, I will try to answer a number of specific points raised during the debate. If I fail to do so through lack of time, I will write to the hon. Members who raised other points.
I will use as my basic script the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth. He questioned the use of the term "ombudsman". That point was raised also by the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) and the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle).
The Government agree that the term "ombudsman" should not be used in organisations which are subject to the jurisdiction of the parliamentary ombudsman. The citizens charter unit within the OPSS wrote to Departments earlier this year to ensure that they were aware that all charters contain and draw attention to the role of the parliamentary ombudsman.
Although my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central said that the Government are not taking up that point, in fact my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the 1162 Duchy of Lancaster wrote to the Committee Chairman on 19 August assuring him that we took the point extremely seriously. We have copied that letter to members of the Cabinet, the Attorney-General and the Cabinet Secretary and we have made it very clear that they should avoid confusion and should not use the term "ombudsman" for organisations which are subject to the jurisdiction of the parliamentary ombudsman.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth raised the point about epitomes of Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration cases. He is absolutely correct: it is extremely important that people should know what the ombudsman is doing and saying. The hon. Member for Leeds, West said that it is important that when mistakes happen in one Department, they are not merely repeated in other Departments because of a lack of knowledge of what has been said.
The Government have accepted the recommendation, and the OPSS—with the help of the parliamentary ombudsman's office—has adopted a procedure to circulate epitomes of cases to Government Departments and other bodies within the parliamentary commissioner's jurisdiction. The first batch was circulated in November. As well as that, we hope that the booklet "The ombudsman in your files" will be ready for circulation to Departments and agencies by the summer.
A point made by my hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and Kenilworth and for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves), and by the hon. Members for Glasgow, Central and for Leeds, West was that a debate should be held each Session. I understand the desire for that. The first problem is that it is not a matter for me, but for the Leader of the House, who doubtless always considers matters that are put to him. But it is easy for Members to demand a debate every year, or whatever frequency we want, for every subject which we regard as important.
This is an important subject, of course,but I wonder how much demand there would be from Members for a full day's debate. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central that it would not have to be full day's debate. But, with cross-party agreement that we should proceed with much of the Jopling Committee report, the time for such a debate will be restricted. It is important that Members take that on board when asking for more debates on different areas.
The Member of Parliament filter is vital. I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and Kenilworth, for Suffolk, Central and for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), and with the hon. Members for Leeds, West and for Cannock and Burntwood. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton is crucial, and the hon. Member for Leeds, West also referred to it. The position of an hon. Member is crucial. I cannot think why any Member would refuse to pass a case on to the ombudsman. It ought to be clear to everyone that, regardless of a Member's political view, he is elected to be a Member of Parliament and he should take up any case on a constituent's behalf. If he is not able to make progress or if the constituent is not satisfied, the last resort should be the ombudsman, who will give the matter thorough consideration and decide whether something can be done.
I regard the Member of Parliament filter as very important. I refer again to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth, who talked about the charter and 1163 redress. It is a charter principle that when things go wrong in the public services, they should give an apology, a full explanation and an effective remedy.
Under the citizens charter, the Government are actively encouraging a greater awareness of the complaints procedure. That is partly why the amount of work going to the ombudsman is increasing. As has been said by hon. Members, we are empowering the users of public services and giving them more information. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva) said that we are making sure what service the public should get and how they can complain if they do not get that service.
Another point made by the hon. Member for Leeds, West and picked up by the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood and by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth is the complex matter of whether there should be inclusions to a list of jurisdictions, or whether we should simply exclude those areas where we do not want the parliamentary commissioner to operate. The Government are prepared to consider carefully whether the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 could be amended as proposed. As the purpose of the Committee's proposal was primarily to reduce confusion, however, we will first explore whether publicity could describe the position more clearly. We are still studying the matter and considering ways in which to clarify which bodies come within the PCA's jurisdiction. I hope that members of the Committee in particular will recognise that this is not a simple matter and that most hon. Members may not think it appropriate for the security intelligence services, the Cabinet secretariat and nationalised industries to come within the commissioner's jurisdiction.
The hon. Members for Cannock and Burntwood, for Glasgow, Central and for Hall Green argued that the ombudsman should be in the same position as the Comptroller and Auditor General. The Government agree and that change will happen when we have an opportunity to legislate. I was grateful to the hon. Member for Leeds, West, when he said that the Opposition will give all the Bills in this Session a swift passage through the House to enable time to be made available for that specific legislation. I am sure that the business managers also took note of that assurance. We all recognise the difficulty in finding time in the parliamentary timetable, but when an opportunity presents itself, we will legislate to make that change.
The hon. Members for Cannock and Burntwood and for Glasgow, Central asked whether the parliamentary commissioner should have the power to initiate investigations. It is not clear to me why that is necessary. The PCA can, if necessary, take up a deserving case with a member of the Select Committee. As for the question of the "MP filter", I believe that hon. Members should take a case to the ombudsman only after they have taken it through the appropriate stages. I am not sure that the power to initiate investigations would add anything to the ombudsman's role.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal, who complained about the use of initials, acronyms and jargon. That drives us all absolutely mad. In common with other hon. Members present, I spent some time in local government and it is awful when people talk in a language completely incomprehensible to anyone not part of the same organisation. It is not just local government which is guilty of that. According to the 1164 Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, the way in which we have changed the whole structure of government through the next steps initiative has been the most successful reform in recent decades.
I accept, however, that we could have come up with a clearer name than "next steps". If we intend to put examples of what the parliamentary commissioner has said at the disposal of people, I wonder whether calling them epitomes is the most clear way of describing them.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Central raised the difficult case of court staff in Scotland. He recognised the constitutional difficulties, but he will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland wrote to the Chairman of the Select Committee on 8 December to say that he has decided to review the position and is consulting the Scottish judiciary. He will contact the Committee again in due course.
The hon. Member for Leeds, West and my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton spoke about commercial and contractual matters. The Government believe it appropriate to continue to exclude them from PCA jurisdiction, other than those concerning the compulsory acquisition of land or the disposal of surplus land acquired compulsorily. I will write to the Chairman of the Committee and hon. Members about that specific matter in more detail.
The points that hon. Members have made about the health service are extremely important and they have been noted by the Under-Secretary of State for Health. He has already made it clear today that the Government will respond soon to the Wilson report. Hon. Members will appreciate, however, that 600 responses have been received and it is important to ensure that they are considered carefully.
The debate has revealed our common belief that the parliamentary commissioner plays an important role in assisting Parliament to protect the individual citizen against the effects of maladministration. Sometimes he plays a crucial role in issues of national importance, but sometimes he plays a role in putting right a problem for an ordinary citizen which, to him or her, is equally important.
I express what I believe is the sense of the House: that Parliament has been well served by those who have been appointed ombudsmen, those who serve him on his staff and hon. Members on both sides of the House who serve on the Select Committee.
It being Ten o'clock MADAM SPEAKER proceeded to put forthwith the Questions which she was directed by paragraph (5) of Standing Order No. 52 (Consideration of Estimates) to put at that hour.