Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill enables the National Assembly to set up an independent champion for older people. The position will be the first of its kind in the UK and, indeed, possibly in the world. It is modelled on the highly successful post of children’s commissioner—another first for Wales. The post was a key commitment in Labour’s 2003 manifesto for the last Assembly elections, and the Bill delivers that commitment.
The Bill is the latest milestone in our commitment to older people in Wales. It will provide a platform for further progress, building on what we have already achieved. When we took office in 1997, one in four pensioners were living in poverty, and pensioner inequality was wider than it had been for 30 years. That is why, for the past nine years, our No.1 priority for older people has been to tackle the scourge of pensioner poverty.
I very much welcome the Bill and the partnership between the National Assembly for Wales and this Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend envisage that the commissioner’s role should include raising awareness, as many pensioners do not apply for means-tested benefits? I accept that we are moving away from means testing, but I am concerned that when we apply the earnings link many of those poorer pensioners will be left behind. Does he believe that the commissioner should assist pensioners in those circumstances?
Indeed I do, and my hon. Friend makes a very important point, which is as applicable in his Ynys Môn constituency as it is in mine. A proportion of pensioners have not taken advantage of pension credit, which has lifted literally millions of pensioners across the UK and tens of thousands in Wales out of poverty. Yes, the commissioner for older people could have an important role in championing the opportunities that are available, perhaps putting greater pressure on the bureaucracy to deliver more.
We have also made huge strides in reversing the terrible legacy of pensioner poverty that we inherited from the Tory Government, lifting nearly 2 million pensioners out of absolute poverty and 1 million out of relative poverty. As a result of the measures that we have introduced, the average pensioner household is £1,400 a year better off than it would have been under the Conservative Government, and the poorest pensioners are £1,900 a year better off.
We are now spending on pensioners £10.5 billion more in real terms than when we took office. We are spending on the minimum income guarantee, the pension credit, the £200 winter fuel payment and increases in the basic state pension. Those are just a few of the measures that have boosted the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of older people right across Wales, with a massive 160,000 pensioner households receiving the pension credit and more than 460,000 households benefiting from the winter fuel payment.
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there is generous council tax benefit for the lowest income pensioners, which helps them to avoid the large council tax bills that they would otherwise face. The council tax was introduced, especially in Wales, after local government reorganisation by the hon. Gentleman’s party. In my constituency, a discriminatory settlement was imposed on the borough of Neath Port Talbot in comparison with Swansea when the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) set up local government and imposed the council tax structure on Wales.
When that was introduced, the Chancellor made it clear that it was intended to deal with the particular problem of high council tax bills at that time. It was welcomed and I think that the hon. Gentleman’s own party welcomed it. We have since kept council tax rises very low, especially in Labour-controlled areas and under Labour councils, in comparison with Conservative and, even more, with Liberal Democrat councils, so I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman raised that matter.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, not least because three years ago almost to the day I introduced a private Member’s Bill to set up an older people’s rights commissioner, which embraced similar issues. Can the Secretary of State reassure me that, in promoting and safeguarding the rights and dignity of older people and tackling poverty in Wales, some aspects of the Bill will allow investigations and enforcement to take place over the English border? Will it not create anomalies unless and until we have an older persons’ rights commissioner covering England as well?
I intend to deal with that matter later in my speech, but I can point out to my hon. Friend that the focus of the UK Government is on a Cabinet Sub-Committee on ageing policy, which is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. That is driving forward a UK-wide strategy, obviously including England and my hon. Friend’s own constituency. Devolution allows for, as it were, a policy laboratory to take place right across the UK and to great effect. The Children’s Commissioner for Wales was, because of its very success, subsequently copied in England. Likewise, policy on driving down waiting times was more successful in England than in Wales until similar policies were adopted in Wales. I believe that devolution has brought great benefits in that respect.
The Secretary of State forgets that Wales has been used by the Labour Government as a laboratory because Wales had the revaluation, which badly affected pensioners, and we have yet to have the revaluation in England. We will take no lessons from the Secretary of State on what the Government have done for pensioners, when those I talk to have been so badly affected by the revaluation in Wales.
In that case, why did the Welsh Conservatives, along with the Liberal Democrats, support that revaluation when the Assembly decided to conduct it? Under the new touchy-feely Conservative party, are we not entitled at least to a bit of repentance or consistency from the hon. Lady when she intervenes?
The Government have also taken action to protect people who are let down by the private pensions market—people such as the workers at Allied Steel and Wire in a scandalous case—by setting up the Pension Protection Fund and the pensions regulator and by increasing the financial assistance scheme from £400 million to £2.3 billion. At the Assembly, too, Labour has shown that it is the party best placed to improve the lives of older people in Wales. Many of the Assembly’s most ground-breaking and innovative policies have been aimed at older people, including free swimming, health promotion, the strategy for older people and the independent national partnership forum for older people.
On the ASW case, in welcoming the huge increase that has gone into the financial assistance scheme, which will increase the number of ASW pensioners who benefit, does my right hon. Friend also accept that some of my constituents, because they started their working lives young and do not fall within the 15 years before retirement criterion, will not benefit at all? Will he do all he can to extend the provision to those people?
Indeed. The former workers of ASW and their families are grateful to my hon. Friend for championing their interests so well. It is a scandalous case and one of the worst examples of how the pensions market can collapse. The abuses that followed affected some workers who had spent all their adult working lives with the company, in some cases leaving them with absolutely nothing. At least we have taken an important step along the road. The fivefold increase in available funding will mean that even more of my hon. Friend’s constituents will benefit, but I accept that some have been left high and dry by the collapse.
In the ASW case, the Government completely disregarded the conclusions and recommendations of the independent parliamentary ombudsman. What guarantee do older people in Wales have that the UK Government will not show equal disregard for the recommendations of the commissioner for older people?
We would not set up the commissioner for older people only to take no notice, would we? I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome our proposal with his characteristic generosity. I acknowledge, to be fair, that his party has supported it in principle. Indeed, as I shall argue later, there is all-party support for the Bill. I believe that the Government deserve credit for introducing the fund and for providing £2.3 billion. I agree that ASW workers were treated scandalously, but at least we are the first Government to try to provide some assistance where we can.
I am listening with great interest to the Secretary of State’s speech and Conservative Members support the measure. He has concentrated on pensioners, but the Bill refers to a commissioner for older people. How does he define older people? At what age do people become old? Surely that is an important issue.
Of course it is. If the hon. Gentleman had taken the trouble to inquire into the Bill, he would know that the age of 60 is the one that applies.
Just like the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, many of the policies that I have been explaining have blazed a trail right across the United Kingdom. Policies such as free bus travel for older people that were pioneered in Wales are now being copied in England. The recent pensions White Paper, published last month, shows that only Labour is capable of helping older people to respond to the challenges of the future.
We live in an ageing society. By 2050, the number of pensioners will have risen by 50 per cent. At the same time, as many as 12 million people are failing to save enough to guarantee a decent income in retirement. Unless we take action now and plan for the long term, millions of people face an uncertain future. That is why we are building a national consensus around pension reform, and the Bill is part of that. For example, our recent White Paper includes a number of important, far-sighted proposals to help us to meet the pensions challenge and provide for tomorrow’s pensioners, as well as today’s.
A new national savings scheme with compulsory contributions from employers and auto-enrolment for employees will boost savings rates for the future. A higher, fairer state pension re-linked to earnings—the earnings link was broken by the Conservatives—will provide a foundation for further saving. A higher retirement age will help us to meet the challenge of an ageing society, and the least well-off will continue to be helped by a guarantee credit linked to earnings.
I understood that the Bill related to establishing a commissioner for older people and devolved matters. Is the Secretary of State now telling us that he is planning to devolve pensions to the Welsh Assembly? Obviously, if he is making such a fuss about the Government’s pensions arrangements, they must be passing them to down to the Assembly, because they have nothing to do with the Bill.
Dream on. The pensioners of Wales will benefit from this pioneering Bill—probably one of the first such Bills in the world—and I am setting the context for this very important initiative. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady finds it embarrassing to have to listen to the incredible record of success of our Labour Government in protecting our senior citizens and lifting millions out of poverty. She does not like to recognise that, bearing mind the miserable record that she was part of under the Conservative Government. Against that backdrop, however, in the way that I have been describing it patiently and carefully—
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, while he is still considering the Bill’s background. Does he agree that the Government are the first Government to recognise the problem of poverty for women in old age? Does he not applaud the Government’s proposals that will lift so many women out of poverty?
Well, if the right hon. Gentleman did not say it, he will have the opportunity to do so when he returns to the Dispatch Box. He does me an injustice because I am very happy to listen to an older worker telling me what he is planning to do from the other side of the Dispatch Box. I should just like to remind him that when I was a very junior Minister, I had responsibility for older workers and introduced a campaign to get older people back into work and to try to stop discrimination against older workers, so at least I have a proud record of dealing with that problem— not a record to which the right hon. Gentleman probably ever wants to admit.
I thought, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you were going to remind all Members that there is a World cup match coming up; but to respond specifically to the hon. Lady’s rather graceless jibe, I will, of course, be supporting England with enthusiasm. I am flying an England flag, not out of my house in Wales, but out of my flat in London. Of course several Chelsea players are playing for the England team, and I will be watching them with enthusiasm if she allows me to do so and if hon. Members are co-operative on this matter. Of course the match starts at 5 pm—I just remind the House.
By the way, I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s contribution; it is just a shame that the rest of the pension support was so terrible and that so many pensioners in Wales were plunged into poverty. If we ever have to face the iniquity of a Conservative Government again in decades to come, let us hope that we have an older person’s commissioner who can fight against the merciless assault on pensioners’ rights that the Conservatives will doubtless be responsible for in the future, as they were in the past.
Surely the Secretary of State highlights the weaknesses of the Bill? The commissioner’s proposed powers will not allow that person to speak directly to Westminster Ministers on issues such as pensions, which are so important to the elderly in Wales. Our noble Friends tried to put that weakness right in the other place, and we will try to put it right in the House.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is not recognising the devolution settlement. The devolution settlement—for which the people of Wales voted, albeit narrowly, in a referendum in which he and I were on the same side in campaigning for a yes vote—did not include the devolution of pensions. Of course it did not. Nor did it include tax and social security policy and a lot of other things. Therefore, it would be entirely wrong to give the older person’s commissioner for Wales powers and duties in respect of non-devolved matters
Equally, however, the commissioner will be able to make representations to me, as the Secretary of State, or to the hon. Gentleman, as a local Member of Parliament, and Westminster Members and Ministers can take up those matters. For example, if a patient is placed by a Welsh commissioning authority—a local council or health authority—across the border in an old persons’ home or perhaps a hospital and complaints arise, the older person’s commissioner will also be able to make representations to the Welsh commissioning body for it to take up with the provider across the border in England. It is interesting that the children’s commissioner for England and the Children’s Commissioner for Wales have worked out satisfactory co-operation arrangements, and all those sorts of things will be possible in future, on a common-sense basis.
It is not a question of a formal right. I have received letters from the Children’s Commissioner for Wales—of course I have; I am a Welsh Member of Parliament, like the hon. Gentleman—and of course he can write to me, as the Secretary of State, although he has no formal power to make representations. It is important that we do not undermine the devolution settlement and that we recognise that common-sense arrangements apply. I can assure the House that, if the commissioner identifies concerns about pensioner poverty in Wales, he or she will be able to take action to fight for older people’s rights and to fight their corner with the Government.
Against that backdrop of Labour achievement and forward thinking, the proposals for a commissioner for older people should be seen, and by establishing a commissioner Welsh Labour is, once again, leading the way in responding to the challenges that face older people. Over the next 20 years, the concentration of older people in Wales will increase, with over-60s forming nearly one third of the population. Over the same period, the number of people aged 85 and over will increase by a third. Changing family living patterns, fewer children and the increasing number of single people will also change the shape of our society in Wales.
My right hon. Friend may be aware that the UK charity Counsel and Care has expressed concern that the Government’s social exclusion agenda fails to address the needs of the elderly. I understand what the commissioner’s role will be, as far as we know it before we debate it today, but will my right hon. Friend ensure that the role specifically includes assessing the needs of the elderly and banishing their social exclusion where it occurs? I appreciate that the charity is UK-based and is speaking on behalf of all UK senior citizens, but will he take the advantage of the Bill to ensure that the commissioner has that role in Wales?
Indeed. The commissioner will certainly be able to take into account that important agenda and any issues that my hon. Friend might raise with the commissioner on behalf of her constituents, or that that charity might raise in respect of Welsh pensioners, and the wider implications.
The demographic changes that I have described mean we must adapt our ways of working to engage older people fully and plan for the significant social and other changes that we face. At present, many older people in Wales are unable to live the lives that they want or deserve because they feel marginalised and discriminated against, with too many barriers preventing them from making a full contribution. Those barriers prevent older people from using their knowledge and skills for the benefit of our economy and everyone in our society.
It is therefore essential that we enable older people to play the fullest possible role by establishing an independent champion for all older people in Wales. Furthermore, older people are as diverse as any other group in our society, with the needs of one varying widely from the needs of another. The vital role that older people play therefore needs to encompass a wide range of issues, from employment, housing, and transport, to education and sport, as well as health, social services, pensions and long-term care.
Here again, the commissioner will have a vital role to play, ensuring that our public services are able to provide the best possible service to all older people, helping them live as full a life as possible and making sure that they have access to all the resources they need.
Older people today are more likely to be healthy, to be working, to be better off, and to be contributing to society as a volunteer, school governor or carer, for example. Nevertheless, there are still many older people who suffer ill health, poor housing, lack of access to services or some other disadvantage. That is particularly true in Wales, with our industrial heritage, our significant rural population, and our greater number of older people, compared with the rest of the United Kingdom. A commissioner will be a powerful advocate for those people in Wales, ensuring that their voices are heard.
The idea for a commissioner was one of the recommendations of the advisory group on a strategy for older people in Wales. The idea was then translated into a firm commitment to establish a commissioner, made in the Welsh Labour manifesto for the 2003 Assembly elections. An advisory group subsequently chaired by the Assembly Deputy Minister with responsibility for older people, John Griffiths, and involving key stakeholders, older people and experts from across Wales, produced a report on the role and responsibilities of a commissioner. That was published for public consultation in May 2004 and contained 17 recommendations.
The responses to the consultation showed that respondents were overwhelmingly in favour of the concept of an independent commissioner and the functions proposed for the office. Help the Aged said that the establishment of a commissioner for older people
“will place Wales at the forefront of achieving equality and justice for older people”
“will aid the good practice across sectors by engendering a culture of equality and dignity for older people”.
The Bill has already been the subject of consideration in the other place. As a result, it has benefited from a number of amendments that clarify and strengthen the powers of the commissioner. Important changes have been made to enable the commissioner to work jointly with other commissioners and ombudsmen and to establish an internal complaints procedure.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee on the draft Bill last year, and it was also considered by the Health and Social Services Committee of the Assembly. Although its members raised a small number of issues for further consideration, the Assembly Committee was generally supportive of the Bill and its provisions.
The Bill proposes the establishment of a commissioner who will be independent of Government and of the Assembly, and who will be able to speak on behalf of older people in Wales, helping to raise their profile and increase awareness of their needs. The Bill is firmly based on the model of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales and provides for a commissioner for older people with a similar set of powers.
The commissioner will be able to review the effect on older people in Wales of the discharge, or proposed discharge, of functions of public bodies, such as the Assembly, local authorities, local health boards, NHS trusts and further or higher education organisations in Wales. That will ensure that the work of public bodies has a positive impact on, and takes full account of, the needs of older people. For example, where the commissioner suspects the occurrence of elder abuse, as well as working with the police and local authorities, the commissioner will also be able to review the way a local authority has implemented its policies and procedures for dealing with abuse, and to make recommendations for the future.
Today is world elder abuse awareness day, and I am proud that we are able, through this debate, to send a very clear message that elder abuse, wherever and however it occurs, is indefensible and unacceptable. The commissioner will have an important role in projecting this message and improving existing protection.
The Bill also gives the commissioner a power to help to ensure that organisations that provide certain services to older people have arrangements for whistle-blowing and complaints that safeguard and promote the interests of older people. The commissioner will also have the power to check up on advocacy services provided in Wales.
Another important element of the Bill is the power that it gives to the Assembly to enable the commissioner to examine individual cases and to require information, explanations or assistance from persons about the case—powers equivalent to those of the High Court. That will enable the commissioner to help individuals experiencing service failure to gather the evidence they need to press for charges or to press for change.
The Bill also enables the commissioner to work jointly with other commissioners and ombudsmen where they may both be entitled to examine individual cases. That will prevent duplication and ensure a joined-up approach to any examination. At present, the power extends to the public services ombudsman for Wales, and there is provision for the Assembly by order to apply it to other commissioners and ombudsmen in the future. For example, the Assembly might want to add the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. That would then clarify on the face of the Bill the powers of the commissioners to act together, to share information and to prepare joint reports. Furthermore, we envisage that the working relationship between the commissioner and those other commissioners and ombudsmen will be formalised by a memorandum of understanding.
Other powers in the Bill include the discretion to assist an individual in making a complaint or representation, to undertake research or educational activities, to issue guidance on best practice and to make reports to the Assembly on the exercise of the commissioner’s functions.
The Bill also provides for the commissioner to consider and make representations to the Assembly about any matter—this was the point raised by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price)—relating to the interests of older people in Wales. This will allow the commissioner to raise non-devolved issues relating to the interests of older people with the Assembly, which could then take them up with the UK Government. In fact, Assembly Ministers and the Under-Secretary have already corresponded on the matter and we are committed to ensuring that the process of responding to representations made by the commissioner works as effectively and efficiently as possible and in a common-sense way, as the children’s commissioner has pioneered.
In addition, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I will invite the commissioner to approach us, as UK Ministers responsible for Wales, about any non-devolved matter affecting older people in Wales, just as we have done in the case of the children’s commissioner—a point also raised by the hon. Gentleman. However, it is important to note that the commissioner will not be able to exercise his or her functions directly in relation to non-devolved issues. Those matters are properly the responsibility of the UK Government and it would not be appropriate for a commissioner established by the Assembly and for Wales to have such a remit. The provisions of the Bill therefore preserve these clear lines of democratic accountability. That is important.
The geography of Wales means that issues affecting older people often cross local authority boundaries, as we have heard, and sometimes national boundaries, too. We have paid particular attention to ensuring that the commissioner is able to assist an older person in Wales with issues that cross the border—for example, the commissioning of care services in England by Welsh local authorities.
The Bill defines an older person as someone aged 60 or over. That includes people who are entitled to receive winter fuel and pension credit benefits, women aged 60 receiving the state pension, and those covered by the Assembly’s free swimming and bus pass schemes, which also start at 60. This age limit strikes exactly the right balance. If it were any lower—there were demands for that—it would have significant implications for the commissioner’s potential work load. If it were any higher it would miss an important and growing section of older people. By setting the limit at 60, we will ensure that the commissioner is able to play the most effective role possible in championing the interests of older people.
This important Bill has attracted a good deal of support in Wales from older people and their representatives and all the parties in the National Assembly. I hope that it will receive a similar degree of support on both sides of the House today in the interests of not only senior citizens in Wales, but hon. Members who want to watch England win their World cup match at 5 o’clock.
The commissioner will provide a vital step forward in addressing ageism and discrimination against older people. The Bill provides the necessary powers to enable the commissioner to play an effective role in turning the tide against such attitudes, and it will improve the quality of life for many older people. It will deliver a real champion for the rights and interests of Welsh senior citizens, to whom Wales owes so much, and I commend it to the House.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for taking the House through the details of the Bill—never before have I seen a man so desperate to escape from the Dispatch Box to get to the television box!
I commend the Government’s choice of date, because this is international elder abuse day, which is apposite. International elder abuse day is being marked by the Conservative party in Wales—the leader of the Conservative group in the Assembly, Nick Bourne, is going to county hall in Monmouthshire with our older people’s champion, Nick Ramsay, who, at age 31, is a fine example of a young man who is taking on the responsibilities and concerns of older people in our community.
I am delighted to be joined on the Front Bench by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) who will make the winding-up speech, and I hope that the House will give him a warm welcome. I apologise to the House because I shall be leaving before the winding-up speeches. I have informed the Secretary of State about the situation, which depends not on a football match but a train time—I do not have the advantage of a chauffeur-driven car to take me to Wales, so I must rely on the excellent train service this afternoon.
I broadly welcome the Bill, but there are points of detail that it will be helpful to explore in Committee. The Bill has already been subject to detailed scrutiny in another place, and I want to place on record Conservative Members’ gratitude for the sterling work of my noble Friend Lord Roberts of Conwy. In another place, he intimated that he has a vested interest in the creation of a commissioner for older people, but, notwithstanding that personal interest, I hope that he remains a champion of Welsh people, young and old, for many years to come.
Regrettably, I need to inject a note of disharmony into proceedings. I cannot help contrasting the proper scrutiny that this Bill, which has widespread support, is receiving with what will happen to future legislation for Wales. If the Secretary of State gets his way, this Bill is likely to be the last of its kind, because the procedures set out in part 3 of the Government of Wales Bill will reduce scrutiny in this House to a one and a half hour debate on a Order in Council, which we will simply be invited to rubber-stamp. Although future provisions may be more complex and controversial than this Bill, they will receive less scrutiny on the Floor of the House here in Westminster. As the Secretary of State is all too aware, the House will return to that issue shortly.
The Bill is relatively non-contentious. The proposal to appoint a commissioner for older people, the first anywhere in the United Kingdom, has attracted widespread support. I have read many of the contributions that have been sent in during the passage of the legislation, and it is good to see the level of support right across the board. Indeed, the idea is so good that I do not understand why the Government are not applying it uniformly across the United Kingdom, because the commissioner will not have the ability to scrutinise matters that are not delegated. Some probing will therefore be necessary in Committee to explore the Government’s thinking and the reasons for not covering, for example, the whole of England and Wales.
I have mentioned common-sense arrangements. The Children’s Commissioner for Wales already has informal relations with the police and the Prison Service, although those functions are not devolved, and I foresee similar opportunities for the commissioner for older people to do the job that they want to do in the way in which they want to do it. However, it would not be right to include non-devolved matters within the remit of the commissioner for older people in Wales.
I understand that point, which prompts the question why there will not be a commissioner for England and Wales, because someone who lives 2 yd across the border in England will not have the same protection as their neighbour. I appreciate that the matter concerns devolution, but devolution does not have to act to the detriment of people on one side of the border. It would be interesting to know why the appointment of a commissioner for England was not considered.
This is one of many pioneering bright ideas from Wales and from Welsh Labour. Who knows what might happen in the future, because the children’s commissioner, which was another bright idea from Welsh Labour, was transposed across the border to England? The Conservative party has not been an enthusiastic advocate of devolution, but we need to adopt a common-sense approach.
Methinks that I have given the Secretary of State an opportunity to make a little party political broadcast, which was not my intention. Many of the organisations that have contributed to the thinking behind the Bill would resent the Labour label.
Conservative Members would normally look sceptically at a proposal to establish yet another commissioner—there is a commissioner for everything these days. In this instance, however, I shall leave aside my natural scepticism, because it is possible to make a convincing case for this commissioner. As the Secretary of State has said, Wales has a growing proportion of older people compared with other parts of the United Kingdom. Currently, just more than 22 per cent. of the population of Wales—about 600,000 people—is aged over 60 compared with 20 per cent. of the population in the United Kingdom as a whole, and more than 17 per cent. of the Welsh population is aged over 64 compared with just under 16 per cent. of the UK population. Looking ahead, demographic changes in the next 20 years are expected significantly to alter the balance of the population, with the proportion of people aged 60 or over expected to reach 28 per cent.
According to research carried out for the Welsh Assembly Government, 430,000 households in Wales—one in three—will include someone aged 65 or older by 2017. In the same year, nearly 150,000 households will be headed by a person aged 75 or older, and about 50,000 households will be headed by a person aged 85 or older, which would be an increase of 56 per cent. on current figures.
That point is valid. The Government should be thinking about how they will cope with the pensioner households in England as well as in Wales. They should be thinking outside the box and not only inside the territory.
Many people in Wales aged 50 and over suffer from problems associated with poor housing, poor nutrition, lack of opportunity for employment, and inadequate transport services. I know from personal experience as a junior Minister in the last Conservative Administration that age discrimination in employment is often rife, especially when someone has been made redundant in their 40s or 50s. Older people also suffer from being denied pay rises or proper training opportunities on account of their age. Several organisations—Action on Elder Abuse, Help the Aged, Age Concern, the British Institute of Human Rights, and public bodies such as the Commission for Health Improvement—have cited examples of older people’s basic rights being violated.
What relationship does my hon. Friend predict that the new commissioner will have with the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, which recently decided not to approve quality of life improving drugs for people suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease? Increasing numbers of people are in need of those drugs, which also benefit their carers. People often suffer for many years because although their general health is good, those particular drugs have not been approved by NICE. Does my hon. Friend foresee that the commissioner will continue the campaign to try to get them approved?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It will be interesting to see exactly what the commissioner can achieve over and above Members of Parliament and Ministers, and other representatives of older people. We shall be expecting rather a lot of this commissioner, and I am afraid that they will be expected to deliver. There is a very strong feeling, no matter where one’s constituency is, that there is discrimination against older people in terms of the way in which drugs are approved for handing out and the demands made on the health service. It will be interesting to hear what the Minister has to say when we probe these issues further during the passage of the Bill.
Because of the problems that older people have experienced and reported over the years, and because many of them are reluctant to complain about bad service or poor treatment, several organisations have argued for a dedicated commissioner who can stand up to defend and enforce older people’s rights and promote age equality in service provision across the board. However, we should be under no illusions, and we certainly should not try to kid the people of Wales into believing that the commissioner will be a panacea for every problem faced by older people. Several people have rightly argued that the commissioner will be no substitute for improvements such as a better basic state pension or improved personal care. Indeed, when the Bill was published, Help the Aged warned that
“pensions reform and an end to means-tested pensions would do more to improve the lives of pensioner households”.
Nor will the commissioner do much to alleviate the swingeing 94 per cent.—or £467—increase in band D council tax that has hammered many older people in Wales, or to sort out the chronic problems of the health service in Wales, where older people are reckoned to account for about 60 per cent. of spending. Moreover, legislation alone will not eradicate discrimination overnight. That requires a change of attitudes, which will, unfortunately, take time. However, anything that the newly appointed commissioner can do to speed up the process will be welcome.
The Secretary of State outlined the various stages through which the Bill has passed, but rather than dwell on those I want to touch on some of the issues that arose as it made its way through the other place and which we may wish to explore in Committee. I am still not entirely clear about the precise role that the Government envisage for the commissioner or what is the primary function of that office. Is the commissioner a kind of Ofwat or Ofcom for the elderly, or something more? I am interested in what the Secretary of State said about the practical and common-sense operation of the system. How does he envisage that working?
The Government call the commissioner an “independent champion” of older people and have given him a wide range of quasi-judicial powers. For example, clause 13 provides him with sweeping powers of entry, while clauses 9 and 11 confer on him, in carrying out some of his duties, the same powers as the High Court. In other words, in certain cases he, or she, may have the power to act as investigator, judge and jury. We will want to examine the circumstances in which those powers are to be exercised, as well as the extent of the envisaged operations of the commissioner’s staff. Another of the commissioner’s principal functions will be to make representations to the National Assembly on matters affecting the interests of older people—almost, in effect, usurping at worst, or duplicating at best, the role of Ministers. We will seek clarification on those areas and on the way in which the commissioner and his staff will work with, or across, the Welsh Assembly Government, the Welsh Assembly and other organisations.
The Bill predates by some months the publication of the Government of Wales Bill, which formally ends the corporate Assembly and establishes the executive and legislative functions by establishing a Welsh Assembly Government as a distinctive entity. Does the Secretary of State envisage that the commissioner’s main representations will be made to the relevant Minister in the Assembly Government or to the Assembly itself, and how will that relationship work?
Finance is another matter of concern. The office of the commissioner will be funded by the National Assembly out of money that has already been allocated to it under the block grant from Westminster. Start-up costs are estimated at £500,000, with annual running costs for the commissioner and a predicted staff of about 30 estimated at £1.5 million. We will want to know exactly what limits will be placed on that expenditure, how the office will operate, and what limits will be placed on the number of staff that the commissioner can employ. What discussions have been held with the First Minister and Members of the Welsh Assembly Government to establish where the money to run this operation will come from, and which areas of expenditure in Wales will be cut or sacrificed in order to find it? What could have been done with that money if it had been spent directly on older people and their needs? What other Departments in the Assembly will make cuts in their services to the elderly to pay for the new operation? Will they face some reductions in order to accommodate the large amount of money that has to be found in the budget for the commissioner?
We believe that the commissioner should be independent and should make representations about the effectiveness of the operations of the Welsh Assembly Government and Ministers. But how can that happen if he is funded directly by the same Welsh Ministers upon whose performance he will be delivering a critical analysis? That is the scenario as a consequence of schedule 1 of the Bill and schedule 11 of the Government of Wales Bill. Responsibility for funding the commissioner will be transferred from the Assembly to Welsh Ministers, as it will in respect of the children’s commissioner. As my noble Friend Baroness Noakes pointed out in the other place, the result is that in future the commissioner’s funding is to be transferred to the very people from whom they are supposed to be independent. I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that that is illogical and undermines the Government’s argument that the commissioner will be an “independent champion” of older people. We should explore that in Committee.
It is particularly relevant to repeat that the work of the commissioner will not act as a panacea given that, under clause 2, the commissioner’s powers to make representations on behalf of older people will, as the Secretary of State confirmed, be confined to matters that are devolved to the National Assembly. He must be aware that a great many of the issues that affect older people in Wales will still be decided here in Westminster—pensions and benefits being two obvious examples. In addition, the limitation on the commissioner’s exercise of powers to devolved areas only is unrealistic as, in the words of my noble Friend Lord Roberts:
“Individual cases do not…fall neatly into devolved or non-devolved areas.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 February 2006; Vol. 678, c. 1240.]
My noble Friend speaks with considerable experience of political life in Wales, both as a long-serving Member of this House and as a Minister.
Rather than simply making representations to the Assembly, which will then decide what, if any, action to take, would not it make sense to adopt a more pragmatic approach? I sense that the Secretary of State is considering that. Could we not amend the Bill so that, in some circumstances, the commissioner could have direct access to the relevant Secretary of State if he or she deems it necessary? I hope such an amendment will be considered in Committee without the Government appearing to lose face. We hope that we can work together constructively to get the measure right before it reaches the statute book.
Perhaps I can help the hon. Lady. It is important that we do not blur channels of accountability. The commissioner is appointed by the Welsh Assembly Government through the normal, independent Nolan-type procedures. He or she is not a puppet of that Government but an independent figure, as the hon. Lady acknowledged. However, one cannot serve and be accountable to two authorities—the United Kingdom Government and the Welsh Assembly—at the same time. However, as I said, that has not been a problem for the children’s commissioner and it will not be a problem for the commissioner for older people in championing the rights of senior citizens.
I appreciate that intervention. However, we need to examine that independence carefully, especially when we consider schedule 1(3)(3), which provides for amounts to be payable at the Assembly’s discretion. We need to explore details, perhaps to satisfy my understanding rather than to be dogmatic about anything. I still maintain that access to the relevant Secretary of State would not blur lines of communication but deal holistically with pensioners and senior citizens in Wales because older people in Wales come under two regimes. We need to have a debate about that in Committee.
Those of us with some limited experience of local government know that the trend is increasingly to provide a one-stop-shop service for our constituents. In Kettering, anyone who wants to complain about the county council goes to the borough council offices and there is an agreement between the authorities that the complaint will be taken up. People in Wales will become confused and disappointed if the commissioner cannot advance their cause.
My hon. Friend is right that there is a danger of that. There is a question about points of access to the system for individual citizens. It appears as though there may still be an opportunity for confusion and the role is not as cohesive as we envisaged when we first considered the matter. The devil is in the detail and the Government must have the opportunity to assure us that what we fear is not the case or show us that there will be a cohesive point of entry into the system for older people rather than the divided one that an initial reading of the Bill suggests.
The Secretary of State mentioned that, under the Bill as drafted, an older person is defined as someone who is 60 or older. When reading the valuable contributions that such a wide variety of organisations made to the consultation process, it is clear that many people wanted the age limit to be reconsidered. I appreciate that there was not general agreement and that proposals ranged from 50 years of age to 55, 60 and 65. However, many problems that face older people, especially discrimination in employment, occur at a younger age than 60.
The Government’s consultation document, “Opportunity Age: Meeting the challenges of ageing in the 21st century”, referred to several problems that face people over 50. They have not changed since the time when I dealt with such issues. In Committee in the Lords, my noble Friend Lord Roberts called for the definition of an older person to be reduced to 50. The Government responded by saying that that would automatically extend the commissioner’s remit from approximately 600,000 people to more than 1 million. Ministers in the other place also argued that 60 is the age at which people become entitled to numerous benefits, such as winter fuel payments and, in the case of women—for now at least—the state pension.
Again, I wonder whether there is not some case for flexibility by enabling the commissioner to take action to help those over 50 when he or she deems it appropriate. I hope that the Government will take a pragmatic approach so that we can explore whether the age limit in some instances could be loosened instead of sticking rigidly to an age limit of 60.
The Bill is welcome but it is something of a vehicle for Ministers’ party political broadcasts so that, at the next Assembly elections, they can say, “Look at what we've done for older people in Wales—we’ve given you a commissioner.”
My hon. Friend looks eternally young to me and I shall always remind the Secretary of State that I am younger than him, as I told him when he asked my age behind the Chair earlier.
Despite the Government’s best intentions, older people in Wales will face the same problems and the Bill will not address, let alone resolve, many of them. Many problems have been created by a Labour regime in Wales that has been unable to bring itself to embark on the reforms necessary to deliver the improved public services on which so many disadvantaged and vulnerable people depend.
Although the measure has a great deal of merit, it should not pass through the House without detailed scrutiny. I want to ensure that the establishment of a commissioner for older people in Wales does not replace the work of Assembly Members or Ministers in this House or the Assembly. I hope that we can produce a good Bill that will, in turn, establish something beneficial for older people in Wales.
The Bill is not perfect and requires more work. However, with that proviso, I am pleased to wish it well. The Secretary of State and all hon. Members who are looking forward to the football match will be happy to know that I have no intention of opposing Second Reading.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak in the important debate on establishing a commissioner for older people in Wales, and especially for letting me do so early, because I need to resume my duties in Committee this afternoon.
I am sure that we are all aware of the way in which older people make an extremely valuable contribution to our communities. Many older people provide support for their sons and daughters, many help with the grandchildren and many are carers for their parents or other elderly relatives. Many help to fill the skills gap by continuing to work. Older people are the backbone of many of our voluntary organisations and cultural groups.
When I go to any groups of pensioners or retired people, I always find that we have a lively debate, which covers a range of issues. When older people get into campaigning mode, they can be a formidable force and will not take no for an answer. Recently, users of St. Paul’s day centre in my constituency got wind of the fact that the county council was considering the possibility of closing it. They immediately set to work, organising a petition, enlisting the support of local councillors, Catherine Thomas—the local Assembly Member—and me. They organised a coach so that the day centre users could go to lobby councillors at county hall and arranged to address the full council. I was proud to be there with them and proud to be sitting by Mary Williams when she gave a speech, which was well argued and came straight from the heart. It could not have failed to move every councillor there. The result was that a decision was taken to keep the centre open five days a week.
Things do not always work out so well, however. Older people do encounter difficulties, come up against discrimination and get pushed to the bottom of the pile. That is why it is so important that we establish a commissioner for older people who will, among other things, scrutinise public services and public bodies in Wales to ensure that they are discharging their functions properly in relation to older people, and who will provide help to older people when they make complaints against the health service or a local authority in Wales. The commissioner should also issue best practice guidance to the public bodies and public services in Wales, to help to promote and safeguard the interests of older people. It is for those reasons that I am pleased to support the Bill, which represents a significant step forward in implementing our manifesto commitment to security and dignity for all in old age.
Welsh Liberal Democrats also welcome the Bill and will not oppose its Second Reading. However, we shall raise a number of points in Committee because we believe that the Bill could be strengthened to protect older people in Wales.
I would like to acknowledge the long hours and hard work that the noble Lords have put in on the Bill in the other place. I particularly want to pay tribute to the dedication and tenacity of Lord Roberts, Lord Livsey and Lord Thomas, who performed their duties with great energy and enthusiasm.
When the Government revealed their White Paper last year, the Secretary of State described it in his usual understated way as a “trailblazing” Bill for Wales, and I think that he used the term again this afternoon. I wish that we could share his excitement. However, we must question exactly what kind of a trail the Bill is blazing for Wales. The Prime Minister has famously said that his greatest political regret was not going far enough with his policies on reform. In my opinion, the Bill comes close to falling into that trap. Like the Government of Wales Bill, it moves us in the right direction but falls well short of where it should be. This is progress by pigeon step rather than a great leap forward. I think that it was the Prime Minister who also said that the Labour Government were at their best when they were at their boldest. The Bill does not show the Government being bold; it shows them at their most timid.
Wales has a large and growing population of older people. More than 20 per cent. of the population in Wales is over 60, with that population likely to rise in the next 20 years. By 2021, nearly 500,000 households in Wales will contain at least one person over the age of 65. Policies directed at helping to improve the lives of this large sector of Welsh society are very welcome, not least because many older people in Wales are vulnerable, financially and socially. We applaud the Government’s intentions with this policy, but we have some serious reservations about the Bill.
For the commissioner to be effective, he must have a sufficiently broad remit and sufficiently tough powers, and he must be given a voice in the relevant corridors of power. The most pressing failure of the Bill is the commissioner’s relatively weak powers in relation to non-devolved matters. At present, the commissioner’s input on issues such as pensions, benefits and employment is significantly compromised. Let us imagine that the commissioner had been in place last November, and had seen the Turner report, the Government’s response and the new pensions White Paper all come and go. According to the Bill, the commissioner would have had no right to communicate directly with the Ministers responsible for an enormously influential step change in pensions policy. His voice would have been limited on an issue of seismic importance for the people he was paid to represent. I still find it incredible that a pensioner in Wales will be able to write to the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, yet the commissioner will not be allowed make any such input to them directly.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I apologise to the hon. Lady for butting across her, as it were.
I should like to help the hon. Gentleman, and possibly the hon. Lady, by saying that I made it clear earlier that the commissioner would be able to write to me or to the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger). That is our job; as Secretary of State for Wales and Minister in the Wales Office, we are the gateway to the rest of Whitehall. That has long been an established practice, and it has been widely used by many independent bodies and individuals across Wales.
We understand what the Secretary of State is saying, but we wish that the Bill were able to improve and increase the devolved settlement, and to enable it to become more mature. We wish that it would allow the commissioner, who will necessarily be an independent officer, to have more powers.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will agree that a reply often comes from the Secretary of State for Wales saying, “This is not my responsibility.” In response to a question on prisons, for example, he would say that it was a matter for the Home Secretary. There will be issues over access to the commissioner. The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill, which started in the House of Lords, is coming to this House on Monday. I wonder how the commissioner will relate to the independent barring board that that Bill introduces. This will be of great concern, because the measure involves people being barred from working with vulnerable adults. There is such complexity to these issues, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that they are not addressed by this Bill.
I agree with the hon. Lady, and I am sure that we will raise these points in Committee. Our constituents in Wales want the commissioner to have direct access to the person who is likely to be able to achieve a result, either for themselves on a personal basis or for a group of people involved in a particular issue. The hon. Lady has pointed out one of the issues involved, namely the barring of people from working with vulnerable persons.
Figures obtained by the Welsh Liberal Democrats suggest that, of all the complaints made by older people to citizen’s advice bureaux, 80 per cent. are concerned with pensions and tax credits. Needless to say, neither of these subjects is devolved. As well as being unable to meet directly with Ministers on these issues, the commissioner will be unable to take up individual cases on non-devolved matters. On the basis of those figures, and of the information from the citizen’s advice bureaux, the commissioner would be able to help with only one in five of the cases brought to him.
Giving the commissioner the power to make direct representations to UK Ministers would give greater support to elderly people in Wales. Because of that, we would like the commissioner to have the ability to make direct representations to Westminster Ministers. He will be paid and employed by the Assembly and have the right to comment on the implications for older people of actions taken by a whole range of bodies, including the Assembly, the Environment Agency, and local health boards and trusts. Why should he not have the right to give direct feedback to the one body that will arguably have a greater effect on the lives of pensioners in Wales than any other: the UK Government?
We are slightly concerned to note the number of amendments tabled by the Government in the other place, and the fact that the Assembly plenary debate on this issue took place on the day after the Bill’s Second Reading in the House of Lords. That could lead people to suppose that the Government were rushing the Bill through, or that they had got their procedure mixed up. Confusion will arise, because people in Wales will not know what the commissioner’s role is in relation to devolved and non-devolved matters. It needs to be absolutely clear, not only to us and to the Lords, but to the older people in Wales who will be using this service, what the commissioner can and cannot do. We in this place usually know the difference between what is devolved and what is not, although I sometimes have difficulty when constituents ask me a question about a particular issue. I do not have the Government of Wales Act 1998 ingrained on my soul at the moment.
People will assume that an older people’s commissioner will deal with all issues affecting older people. I imagine that there will be a great deal of surprise in Llandrindod when they learn that the commissioner for older people will not be able to speak to the Government about pensions, for example. The issue of clarity is paramount, and I would grateful if the Minister expanded on how he envisages the older persons’ commissioner working alongside similar posts, such as the public services ombudsman and the parliamentary ombudsman. The Secretary of State touched on that issue, which is a significant one. We are all aware of the dangers of excessive bureaucracy and service duplication, and it is important that the Bill should not create further confusion and complication for service users.
There are other limitations in the Bill that could seriously affect the commissioner’s ability to do his job successfully. As has been mentioned, today is world elder abuse awareness day, and I am sure the whole House will join me in congratulating its organisers on their great work in highlighting what is a very serious problem. The Action on Elder Abuse helpline tells us that, in 2003-04, 22,000 people in Wales aged over 65 resided in care homes. Some 45 per cent. of those care homes were independently funded, 34 per cent. were run by local authorities and provided nursing care, and 21 per cent. were run by local authorities with no nursing care provided.
In 2004, the Action on Elder Abuse helpline received 280 calls reporting 428 instances of alleged abuse, 37 per cent. of which related to psychological abuse, 21 per cent. to financial abuse, 16 per cent. to physical abuse, 12 per cent. to neglect and 2 per cent. to sexual abuse. Some 20 per cent. of such abuse occurred in care homes, and 36 per cent. of those suffering abuse in care homes who complained of such abuse identified paid workers as their abusers. Help the Aged has noted that residents in any care home funded or owned by a local authority can exercise their human rights. However, those in privately run care homes, or those who are placed in local authority-run care homes but who pay for their care, are not legally protected by the Human Rights Act 1998. As many as nine out of 10 care homes in the UK are operated by private organisations. Two thirds of people living in those homes are paid for by local councils. This is an issue for the 1998 Act, but it also raises the question of where the commissioner will fit in with dealing with it. He needs to contribute to a change in the law; if he does not, he will be nothing but a toothless tiger.
Help the Aged has expressed concern about the question of the commissioner having power to enter such homes. We will get back to Help the Aged on this issue, because it is still voicing some concerns. We will have to examine the relevant clause in Committee.
Is this Bill the right way forward for the Government to improve the lives of older people in Wales? There is much that the Government should be doing to aid older people. Scrapping council tax would be a start, as that regressive and unfair tax hits Welsh pensioners harder than anyone else. When the Lyons report concludes later this year, I hope that the Government will review their reactionary approach and radically reform that punitive Tory tax policy.
I shall now make mention of a constituency issue relating to the elderly. People who live in park homes—most Members have park homes in their constituencies—are often very vulnerable. The council tax revaluation hit park home owners hard. A number of sites where there were no park homes in any band other than band A now have homes in bands A, B, C and D, which has led to huge increases in the council tax paid. Many people move into park homes later in life to get some capital out of their bricks-and-mortar homes and to have a cheaper lifestyle. The legislation that sets out how council tax valuation should be done covers England and Wales, yet it seems to be implemented differently in Wales from how it is in England. If the commissioner looks into that issue, that will be of great benefit to elderly people living in park homes.
On pensions, many of the Government’s new proposals are welcome and in line with Liberal Democrat policy. But those new proposals will still lean heavily on the broken crutch of means testing, which is failing Welsh pensioners. Currently, as many as 150,000 Welsh pensioners are not getting the pensions that they need and are entitled to because of failures in means-testing. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) has highlighted how many pensioners in Wales are not applying for the pension credit. As a body, Welsh pensioners are probably losing almost £200 million a year.
Labour’s Government in the Welsh Assembly promised free personal care for the disabled, but they have reneged on that manifesto pledge, refusing to help many of those who are unable to help themselves. In Scotland, where the Liberal Democrats are in power with the Labour party, all older people get free personal care, thus easing the burden on hospital services and granting to some of the most vulnerable people in our society quality care in their own homes, and removing the threat of having to sell their homes to fund their care.
I make those points because they raise further questions about the role of the commissioner for older people. We know, by and large, what problems older people in Wales face. They face disproportionate tax burdens, an inefficient tax credits system and an unhelpful health system. The commissioner can help to raise the profile of these issues, but his appointment cannot be a substitute for direct and progressive policy changes on pensions, benefits, housing and welfare. An old people’s commissioner who cannot give direct feedback to Ministers on a matter as important as pensions is like a transport commissioner who cannot speak directly to the Secretary of State for Transport. Unless the commissioner can pass direct judgment on the primary issues affecting older people, his ability to represent older people in Wales will be compromised.
The Bill has potential. A commissioner with teeth, and with a broad mandate and an expanded field of vision, could play an important role in representing the one in five people in Wales who are over 60 years old. We will support the Bill today and we will table amendments in Committee to enhance the scope of the commissioner’s role. If implemented in the right way, the new role could have a genuinely beneficial impact on older people in Wales; if it is not, the commissioner is in danger of being a classic new Labour project—one of surface over substance, publicity over reform, and symbolism over action. Unless we lend due clarity and muscle to the commissioner’s role, we risk making him a toothless tiger who is unable to exert any significant influence on devolved issues such as pensions, benefits and employment, all of which are vital to pensioners in Wales.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. I promise that I shall be brief, so that Members can get to their television sets and so that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) can catch her train. She clearly knows very little about Wales if she thinks that First Great Western runs an excellent train service there; it is one of the worst operating in the UK. However, let us move on.
I want to begin by referring to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), whose private Member’s Bill of three years ago set the scene for today’s debate. I want also to acknowledge the role that John Griffiths, AM, who has recently been appointed carers’ champion in the Assembly, has played in bringing this Bill before the House today.
Before entering this House, I spent 30 years working with vulnerable people alongside my colleagues in social services and the Care Standards Inspectorate for Wales, providing services and seeking to drive up standards, and spending far too much time investigating abuse—the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) referred to this issue—specifically abuse of older people.
I, too, want to acknowledge that today is world elder abuse awareness day. Unlike the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, I think that the role of commissioner for older people will provide critical extra value for Wales in protecting vulnerable individuals. It will not weaken one iota the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill that we will consider on Monday—I hope to be called to speak on that Bill, too—if anything, it will strengthen it.
I have considered the Bill as someone with a background of work in raising standards and awareness of the problems people face. We need people with tenacity and a willingness to look for problems and find solutions. It is a sad fact that too many people, especially on issues of abuse, do not want to accept what happens. They would prefer to find a way not to look for or find such problems. That is why I welcome the general functions outlined in clause 2(1)(a) to (d), which are wide ranging. The review arrangements outlined in clause 5 are also comprehensive.
Advocacy is a much underrated function and when I was an inspector care home owners had not really begun to appreciate how vital it is. I welcome the commissioner’s role in tackling the issue and the fact that he or she will be able to consider the availability of advocacy and the training for those working as advocates. The job requires specific training and the capacity to undertake the role. The competency of those working as advocates must be examined and the commissioner will have the opportunity to do so. The functioning of advocacy services and their general availability across Wales will also come under the purview of the commissioner, and we should all welcome that.
The commissioner will also be able to consider complaints. When I was an inspector I used to tell care home owners, who do not like receiving complaints, that they were their best friend. A complaint tells them what they can improve, what should be changed and what is not working. Unfortunately, too many people see a complaint as a threat.
Complaints can also be a way of discovering underlying abuse. For example, I inspected a care home and the complaints book said that a service user had complained that her bath water was cold. Alongside was the handwritten report of the investigation of the complaint by the staff at the care home, which said, “Add more hot water.” That seems a simple solution, but I asked the owner of the home to bring me her monitoring records for the water temperatures in the home. The records revealed that water temperatures were incredibly low—little above tepid. I pointed out to the owner that it would not have mattered for how many hours the hot tap had been run, the bath water would still have been cold. The handyman for the home said that he thought that as long as water temperatures were below the required maximum temperature they were all right. The staff had not checked and a doubly incontinent service user, who needed frequent bathing, had been forced to suffer the indignity of cold baths. That is the sort of abusive and neglectful treatment that can be picked up through casual examination of complaints. I am glad that the commissioner will also have the ability to examine complaints, because that will help to raise standards and support service users.
Whistleblowing will also come under the commissioner’s purview, and it is, all too often, the way abuse is revealed. It is often the capacity to retain anonymity that allows someone to come forward with information on something about which they are not happy, so that something can be done. I agree with the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire that the commissioner will have a vital role in considering how best to assess people to determine who should be excluded from working in care settings, so that Wales has the most robust system possible. I have had experience of whistleblowing on hours worked by staff, some of whom worked for more than 90 hours a week caring for vulnerable people, including those who were aggressive and difficult to manage. When staff are that tired, they do not provide the best quality of care.
Why do we need a commissioner? After all, we already have care standards inspectors, protection of vulnerable adults procedures, an ombudsman and complaints procedures. The question can best be answered by giving an example of why we needed the children’s commissioner. It is a case that I deal with personally and shows how the necessary change would not have been made without the involvement of the children’s commissioner. I was leaving the House one Thursday to travel back to my constituency when I received a telephone call from a constituent, asking me to call back as a matter of urgency. I was in a taxi, which was not the right place for the call, so I asked my office to deal with it. The caller was a gentleman whose father-in-law had died more than a year previously and who, six years before his death, had worked as a support worker taking vulnerable young children to school. When clearing the deceased man’s house, the family discovered that, only a few days earlier, he had been sent a full report of every child with a disability and who needed to attend school in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). The list included the children’s names, addresses, dates of birth, schools attended, details of their disabilities and the times of collection from home and return from school. Imagine if such information had got into the hands of someone who wanted to abuse children.
I went to the local authority’s chief executive, but he did nothing and passed it on to the department responsible for sending out the tender. It said that it was merely following standard industry practice. I went to the local authority’s leader—who is, I have to say, a Liberal Democrat—who was initially very concerned, but then discovered that it had happened under the Labour administration and so was less concerned because she could not be held accountable for it. No action was taken. The director of personal services was unable to carry out an investigation because it was August and people were on holiday. I went to the information commissioner, who was also unable to do anything.
Then I wrote to the children’s commissioner. In fairness, he initially thought that it could not be happening. He could not believe that such information was being sent to taxi companies, some of which had gone out of business or changed address. In the example of my constituent’s father-in-law, he had been dead for more than a year and had not been not involved in school transport work for six years before that. The information was lying around in the public realm. Once the children’s commissioner appreciated the risk, it took him two minutes to make the commitment to change the situation. He was the only person who did and that is reason enough to have an older people’s commissioner in Wales to perform a similar function on their behalf. That is the sort of person we need as commissioner—someone who wants to take the bull by the horns, grapple with problems and insist on change taking place. Incidentally, the children’s commissioner found that Bridgend was not the only local authority in Wales operating that policy. It was happening in other local authorities and the commissioner was able to ensure that children in other areas were protected.
Clause 16 provides for the commissioner for older people to work with the public services ombudsman for Wales. Some might claim that that is duplication and that I could have gone to the public services ombudsman.
I also welcome clause 8 on assistance and clause 10 on the examination of cases. It will be necessary to examine closely the regulations on those functions, but I welcome the provision of assistance to older people in making complaints, because that will make a big difference. Those clauses also mean that the commissioner will assist older people and that they will not be required to find their way through a difficult and complex process on their own. The local government ombudsman focuses on maladministration and personal injustice, but is passive rather than proactive.
I shall illustrate that with another constituency case of mine. I sent a complaint to a highly respected voluntary organisation about the way in which my local authority had dealt with a particular matter. The local government ombudsman had been sent a number of papers and appropriate information, but the only proactive step that he took before he decided that he needed to do nothing was to ring up a local authority officer. The officer said that the authority had been worried about the matter for ages and that everything was fine—and that was it. One telephone call was made, and no further action was taken. I spoke to the ombudsman on the telephone, and got the impression that he did not think that it was vital that he got a letter of confirmation from the local authority officer about the actions that the authority had taken.
In contrast, the commissioner will be proactive rather than passive. He will support people who make complaints, and help them to put the evidence together. He will seek information and mount challenges on older people’s behalf. That is the big strength of the role, and it is something that we have been missing.
However, I have some concerns about schedules 2 and 3, which list those persons whose functions are subject to review under clause 3, and to review and monitoring under clause 5. Neither schedule mentions the Care Standards Inspectorate for Wales. Other bodies that have recently been absorbed into the Assembly’s functions—such as the Wales Tourist Board and the Welsh Development Agency—are included in schedule 3, so why is the CSIW missing? I hope that the Government accept that it should be included.
I raise that point for two reasons. First, clause 3(1)(c) refers to
“the discharge or proposed discharge in relation to Wales of a relevant function of a person mentioned in schedule 2”.
I am worried that that would exclude the CSIW, as it is not mentioned there. Secondly, clause 3 (2)(c) defines a relevant function as
“any other person mentioned in schedule 2”.
Again, the CSIW is not mentioned in schedule 2. I recognise that clause 4 will allow the Assembly to add it at a later date, but it would be better to include it before the Bill leaves this House.
The reason why I want the CSIW to be included in schedule 2 is best explained by reference to an Adjournment debate held in June last year, just after I came to the House. I shall not mention the specific case involved, as it is still under consideration, but I want to refer to the general concept highlighted in that debate.
The Registered Homes Act 1984 set out the procedure when a registration authority wanted to remove a care home’s registration. It said that, at tribunal, the decision would be based on the situation in the home at the time that the authority made its decision to withdraw registration. Under the Care Standards Act 2000, however, the care standards tribunal must make a decision based on the situation at the time of the tribunal hearing itself.
That would appear to mean that care homes are able to do nothing and make no changes until the tribunal hearing. When the tribunal sits, they can make a few changes and demonstrate that they will make improvements, with the result that they can no longer be deregistered.
We must find ways to change that requirement. Some homes play the game and do not protect vulnerable people—they do not meet required care standards or they use legal niceties to avoid their responsibilities to older people. Such homes must be challenged. I hope that the older people’s commissioner will use clause 2(1)(d)—which requires him to
“keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness of law affecting the interests of older people”—
to tackle the problems posed by the Care Standards Act 2000 and make the changes needed to protect those who live in old people’s homes in Wales.
The older people’s commissioner will have 30 staff. Start-up costs are estimated at £0.5 million, and running costs in the first full year of operation at £1.5 million. I assume that the funding will come from the Assembly, and Opposition Members have asked about the services that will have to be cut to meet the cost. That is an appalling question, given that £1.5 million is a drop in the ocean when compared with the need to protect older people. The commissioner and his 30 staff members will proactively fight for older people and represent their needs. They will make sure that the necessary services provided to older people are of the requisite standard.
With this Bill, the Government are recognising that Wales is a small country with a high percentage of older people. They are giving those people priority, and making it clear that they are valued members of the Welsh community. We must insist that older people—in this generation and in times to come—get the best quality services. Establishing a commissioner for older people is the way to ensure that that happens.
In the interests of Anglo-Welsh relations—and of any Wrexham supporters who might be in our midst—I too shall try to keep my comments fairly brief.
I and my party support the principle behind this important Bill, and the model of the commissioner that is emerging is worth celebrating. Indeed, my party is calling for a language commissioner as well.
There is a difference between an ombudsman and a commissioner. The ombudsman model was developed in Scandinavia around the beginning of the 20th century, and was designed to provide a complaints procedure in cases of maladministration. The commissioner will not be a quango; the post has no role in delivery and is therefore entirely independent of the Executive, whose policies are to be investigated. The commissioner model includes elements of the traditional ombudsman role, but it has a much wider remit to investigate general matters of public policy, and I am sure that the Assembly will apply the commissioner model to other policy areas in the future.
It is great to see Wales engaging in such an important form of social innovation, and on a global scale. There are ombudsmen for older people in other jurisdictions, but the commissioner for older people in Wales will be the first post of its kind to be created in the world, and that is a credit to the Assembly Government.
The proposal to establish a commissioner for older people has all-party support. It was a Labour party manifesto commitment—one of the few that the Labour Government in Cardiff Bay are on course to deliver.
I want to echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams). By and large, my party supports the principle behind the Bill, although we have some concerns about the responsibility for non-devolved areas. Moreover, I bristled a little when the hon. Gentleman called for the commissioner to have teeth. In this context, that is slightly insensitive and might fall foul of anti-discrimination measures—[Laughter.]—but I think we got the point.
We are revisiting a problem that arose in our debates on the children’s commissioner: in these post-devolutionary times, how do we ensure accountability when there is some blurring of the lines of responsibility? Given the still complex nature of the devolution settlement in Wales, we—let alone our constituents—often struggle to get our minds around such issues. The children’s commissioner does not have full powers to investigate where a child is placed in care through the courts, but has such powers in relation to a sibling who is in care voluntarily. That is the type of problem that will arise if the Bill’s provisions on non-devolved matters remain as they are.
Clause 2(2) states that the powers of the commissioner
“are exercisable only in relation to fields in which the Assembly has functions”.
That is clear. The commissioner will not have those powers in relation to anything that is non-devolved. There will be no power to promote awareness or provision, to encourage best practice or to keep under review any non-devolved matter. On non-devolved matters, the commissioner will have the right only to make representations, under subsection (3); there will be no power to investigate. That is the key issue.
Indeed, clause 10(2) makes it clear that the commissioner will have no power to investigate individual complaints relating to non-devolved matters. Under clause 15(2) the commissioner will have no power to make reports on non-devolved matters. Another clause provides that the commissioner will have no power to initiate research in relation to non-devolved matters. Those are critical points. The commissioner will, of course, have the right—like the 3 million people of Wales—to make representations by writing a letter to the Secretary of State or the Minister, but the key issue is the basis for such representations. If the commissioner has no power to review a non-devolved policy area, no power to commission or conduct research on a non-devolved power relating to older people in Wales and no power to investigate individual complaints, on what basis will the representations be made?
The Government rightly support the principle of evidence-based policy making. Without those statutory powers the commissioner for older people in Wales will be open to legal challenge. The commissioner will be acting ultra vires if he or she initiates research or undertakes a review of non-devolved policy. If the commissioner merely writes to the Secretary of State, the Secretary of State will have the perfect right to say, “Well, what’s your proof?” There will be no proof because the commissioner has no power to investigate. That is the key issue.
Of course, as the Secretary of State said, representations can be made informally. I am sure that the door of the Wales Office is always open, even to members of my party from time to time, when we behave ourselves. The key issue is not the right to write a letter or to go to see the Secretary of State; it is whether the commissioner has the right to investigate and the power to make a report, which will give a formal basis for a structured discussion with Westminster Ministers.
The commissioner will have the power to make representations to the Assembly, but there is no requirement for the Assembly to respond, nor for it to pass such representations to the Westminster Government and thus, at the end of that rather circumlocutory process, for the Westminster Government to respond at all. The key problem is that the Bill gives us no confidence about non-devolved matters, many of which have been mentioned. Some aspects of health and education have been devolved but others are non-devolved. Under the Bill, there is no clear process whereby the commissioner will be able to consider those matters comprehensively, which seriously weakens the Government’s stated intent for the measure. It weakens the independence of the commissioner. If he or she has no right to communicate directly with the Government but has to go via the Assembly Government, not only will there be questions about the commissioner’s independence from the Assembly Government, but the comprehensiveness of the commissioner’s role as champion and advocate will be weakened.
Older people, like younger and middle-aged people in Wales, are not necessarily constitutional experts and might not understand the intricacies of the devolution settlement. They see services—whoever provides them—and they want the older people’s commissioner to take up their problems, regardless of whether Westminster or Cardiff Bay is accountable according to the settlement. That is the problem facing the Government under the Bill as currently drafted. Indeed, it is line with what the people of Wales are saying.
One of the questions in the consultation exercise conducted by the National Assembly for Wales was:
“Do you agree that the new powers establishing the Commission should include the power to make representations directly to the UK Government on issues of importance to older people in Wales?”
One hundred and thirty-nine respondents agreed that the commissioner should have the formal power to make direct representations; only two disagreed. It is absolutely clear that stakeholder and representative organisations, including Age Concern and Help the Aged, support the principle that the commissioner be given formal powers on non-devolved matters. That was the position of the Welsh Assembly’s advisory group on setting up the older people’s commissioner and it was also taken by a majority of the Assembly’s Health and Social Services Committee, including its Labour members. There is wide consensus in Wales that the commissioner should have the power to initiate research and make reports on areas of non-devolved policy. That would be the basis for the fireside chats down the road at Gwydyr House.
Finally, I want to touch on the definition of age, on which the shadow Secretary of State for Wales expounded. It is an important issue. In the consultation, the majority of the consultees came out in favour of the principle of flexibility and supported giving the commissioner the right to look at issues involving people aged 50-plus, although accepting the general definition of 60, which has not changed since the Bill was in draft form. There should be some flexibility, especially in employment-related matters where age discrimination is as serious, if not more serious, in Wales, due to our demographics. It is likely that the commissioner for older people in Wales will be up and running before the UK commission for equality and human rights, so I urge the Minister to look again at flexibility, possibly through regulation, in terms of age-related issues that affect people at 50 plus. That is the age for the starting-point of the Welsh Assembly Government’s welcome and innovative older people’s strategy, so there should be some flexibility under the Bill, too. Clearly, as has been mentioned, there are also health issues for the 50-plus cohort, particularly in relation to Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related diseases. I appeal to the Minister for flexibility in the definition of the age, if possible.
May we please give the older people’s commissioner the power to investigate quite legitimately areas of policy that traverse non-devolved and devolved matters? Clearly, they will be of concern to older people in Wales.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price). I welcome the Bill and see it as part of the Labour Government in Wales and the Labour Government in Westminster delivering for older people in Wales. I welcome the fact that there is all-party support for the Bill. I was heavily involved in setting up the children’s commissioner. I was on the Committee for the Care Standards Bill and then the Bill to set up the children’s commissioner. I welcome the fact that the commissioner for older people has been modelled on the Children’s Commissioner for Wales. As the previous speaker said, the role includes taking up complaints and fighting against injustice, but it also encompasses the power to advocate things in relation to wider issues.
In Wales, the children’s commissioner has generally been regarded as a success. The commissioner has been independent and the body has succeeded in influencing the Assembly. It has been highly critical of the Assembly over certain issues and has had a response. Peter Clarke has been seen as a champion for children and I hope that the person who holds the post that we are discussing will be seen as a champion for older people. I hope that the appointment process will draw in older people in the way that the appointment process for the children’s commissioner drew in children. Children played a vital role in the appointment of the commissioner.
We need a champion for older people in Wales because the elderly suffer from discrimination in many ways. A recent report by Age Concern said that 29 per cent. of people reported suffering age discrimination. That is more than any other type of discrimination. We are all living longer, which is a matter for rejoicing, but it does cause issues for society, particularly in relation to health and pensions. I am pleased that the Assembly’s policies have emphasised keeping older people active and healthy. The free bus travel, which was pioneered by the Assembly Member for my seat, Sue Essex, has been a huge success. My constituents have told me that it has enabled many of them to travel around, be active and get out in a way that they have not been able to do before. In the same way, the free swimming for older people is a positive affirmation of how older people can keep active and play a valuable role in society. The appointment of a commissioner for older people will emphasise the positive, valued contribution that older people make to society, as well as looking at all the problems that can arise in the health care service and the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) mentioned.
I want to raise a few specific points about the Bill with the Minister. Some of them have been covered already by several speakers and by the Secretary of State in his introduction. One of the main concerns for elderly people is finance in old age. We know that Wales, on the whole, is a poor country and many elderly people live in poverty. I strongly support the Government’s White Paper. It is a good basis on which to move forward for the future. It is important to recognise what a big step that White Paper is. If we look at the situation of women, we see that they have fared badly with pensions. We all know why that is: they have been looking after children or elderly people and have not been able to build up a pension contribution record.
It is difficult to separate the different strands in people’s lives—finance, caring and health needs. As other speakers have said, some of those issues are devolved and some are not. It would be helpful if, when he responds, the Minister could again spell out the routes by which those different aspects of people’s lives can be dealt with by the different people who are taking responsibility for them. We went through the debate about devolved and non-devolved issues when the children’s commissioner was set up and I do not want to go on about it any more today. However, the reason these different problems have surfaced when setting up the children’s commissioner, and now this commissioner, is linked to the devolution settlement. We have to find practical ways forward and the children’s commissioner has done that, but I would be grateful if the Minister could go over what mechanisms are going to be used.
The other point that I wanted to raise was about how the commissioner will relate to similar posts, such as the ombudsman who is in post at the moment and, in particular, the new equality and human rights commission, which is not mentioned in the Bill because it has not been set up yet. Given that that commission will have a specific responsibility for age discrimination, it is important that clear links are established between the two bodies. I assume that thought has been given to how they will relate to each other.
There is also the issue of support for the commissioner. As other speakers have said, this is the first post of its kind in the UK and possibly in the world. I hope that the other countries in the UK will follow, as happened with the children’s commissioner. However, when the children’s commissioner took up his post, there was an established network of children’s commissioners and ombudsmen throughout Europe and the world. Long before the children’s commissioner was appointed, I can remember an inspirational meeting in Cardiff with the Danish children’s ombudsman, at which the idea of a children’s commissioner in Wales was raised. When the appointment was made, the children’s commissioner had a network to relate to immediately and he was able to link in to the sort of issues that were being discussed on that network. He was able to get support from that organisation. He also relates to the children’s commissioners who have been appointed in all the other devolved bodies in the UK and now in England. It is quite important to think about where the commissioner for older people will fit in. Who will he relate to, who will support him, who will raise the issues and what will there be agreement on?
It is important that the commissioner makes links with elderly people in the different ethnic communities in Wales. I know that, older people in many of those communities are isolated, particularly if they cannot speak the language. It is important that the commissioner is for everybody in Wales, including the ethnic communities.
I hope that the commissioner will campaign on general issues, as well as dealing with problems in care homes and things that have to be put right. I hope that he will be able to campaign for a general improvement in the community and society. I know that one of the main issues that came up when Peter Clarke was going round talking to children about what was most important to them was the state of school toilets. He has campaigned about toilets and, in my area, there has been a considerable improvement in the toilets for children. I hope that the same thing will happen with elderly people.
One of the issues that elderly people bring up a lot with me is the lack of local facilities. As do many other people in the community, they bemoan the loss of small corner shops and the demise of small local shopping centres. I attended a packed meeting in the week before last in Birchgrove, which is in the Heath area of my constituency. Many of the people at the meeting were elderly, and they were protesting about another Tesco Extra coming to a street in the Heath outside the main shopping area. They fear that the local corner shops that they can get to easily will disappear because those shops will not be able to compete. They thus worry that they will lose the personal service that they receive. A lot of the worry about post offices came from elderly people who depended on being able to get to their local facilities.
I hope that the commissioner for older people will take up such issues because they affect the quality of life of many elderly people. Many such people have a good pattern to their lives. They go down to the local shop to get a newspaper and groceries, but that pattern of life has been disrupted in our area by the demise of some of the local shopping centres.
The Bill is good. We need to discuss aspects of it further, but they really relate to the fact that devolution has happened and we have an Assembly in Wales. We need to try to work out a way of dealing with devolved and non-devolved matters. I support the Bill.
As the father of two extremely avid Wrexham supporters, I assure the Secretary of State and everyone else in the Chamber that I will not detain the House any longer than is absolutely necessary.
We have had an interesting debate. It is clear that the Bill has received a broad welcome from hon. Members on both sides of the House. Indeed, it would be strange if that was not the case. The problems faced by older people in Wales and, indeed, the whole of the United Kingdom are well known and have been touched on by many hon. Members. Poor housing, poor nutrition, inadequate transport services and employment discrimination are but a few of the problems faced by older people, yet older people can—and do—play an important role in our national life. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) pointed out, many of them are extremely active and run businesses well beyond what would otherwise be their retirement age.
If the commissioner can make a difference that will improve the lives of older people, the role will be greatly welcomed in Wales. The proposal of appointing a champion for older people is thus broadly welcomed among Conservative Members, but I have to echo the note of caution and concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan). Such caution was also expressed in the other place by my noble Friend Lord Roberts of Conwy and by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) in the Chamber today. The note of caution is that we must not expect the commissioner to be able to achieve too much.
As the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr eloquently pointed out, the commissioner’s functions will be confined to devolved matters. That is the significant weakness of the Bill because the commissioner will effectively be able to do nothing whatever to intervene formally in respect of many aspects of life that are of specific concern to older people, two prime examples of which are crime and pensions. Indeed, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) pointed out that under the Bill as drafted, it would not be possible for the commissioner to make any meaningful response to the recommendations of the Turner commission.
Although pensioner poverty is a blight on the life of our nation, the commissioner will be virtually helpless to address concerns such as the consequences of the collapse of the Allied Steel and Wire pension fund, which the Secretary of State mentioned in his speech. I understand that informal channels will be opened up whereby the commissioner will be able to express concerns and advance the cases of pensioners such as those affected in that case, but it is perhaps surprising that the Government did not consider appointing a UK-wide commissioner, or at least, as the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr suggested, formalising the route by which the commissioner could approach UK Ministers. In the light of that, we should not be too ambitious. We must not expect the commissioner to be the ultimate answer to the ultimate question for older people in Wales. We must be realistic about the benefits that his appointment will bring.
The commissioner will, however, be able to inquire into the effect on pensioners in Wales of the rising levels of council tax, so I hope that he will do that at the earliest possible moment. That matter was mentioned by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire. We must not forget that Wales, uniquely, has experienced rebanding and the revaluation of dwelling houses, although pensioners in England have been spared that.
Order. We cannot have such general, casual conversation. I think that the House has taken the point.
We could to and fro on the point ad nauseam, but in my part of Wales, certainly, pensioners are paying significantly more as a result of revaluation and rebanding than would otherwise have been the case.
I echo the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham by querying the powers that the commissioner will have. Clause 10 of the Bill sets up sweeping inquisitorial and quasi-judicial powers that will be backed up by a panoply of legal weapons, including the reference of individual cases to the High Court with the possible ultimate sanction of committing individuals to prison for contempt. Such weapons are very powerful and should not—and will not, I am sure—be used capriciously or lightly. We will thus probe in Committee how the powers will be used and in what circumstances that will happen. Indeed, those powers are not possessed by Ministers. Although it might be appropriate for the commissioner to have them, we will want reassurances from the Government about the manner and circumstances in which they may be deployed.
My hon. Friend has already referred to the powers of entry in clause 13. Again, we will want clarification on how the powers may be used. There is specific worry about how the powers will interface with those that are currently vested in the Care Standards Inspectorate for Wales. That was mentioned by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), who has some experience of these matters.
We can envisage circumstances in which both the commissioner and the inspectorate might be concerned about what was going on in a particular care home. It would be extraordinary and, indeed, ridiculous if both the commissioner and the inspectorate decided to exercise their comparable powers at the same time. We shall want to explore the matter further in Committee, but the Government may wish to consider whether, in cases in which the inspector is concerned about the activities of a care home, he should have power to call for an investigation by the care standards inspectorate. I see that the Minister is nodding. Presumably that is why the CSI is not among the organisations mentioned in schedule 1.
We also have concerns about the staffing and funding of the commissioner’s office. The Bill, when enacted, will establish a fairly sizeable bureaucracy. We will wish to know whether the size of that bureaucracy is justified. For example, paragraph 4 of schedule 1 provides that the commissioner must appoint a deputy commissioner. Why is that provision mandatory rather than permissive? Why does the commissioner need a deputy? Will he not already be adequately supported by the remaining, no doubt sizeable, staff who will be provided from his £1.5 million per annum budget? Does he really need a deputy who will no doubt be furnished with a sizeable support staff of his own? What added value will the deputy provide?
Similarly, the commissioner is to be paid from ministerial budgets. Given that one of the commissioner’s primary duties will be to scrutinise the actions and activities of Welsh Assembly Ministers, is it right that Ministers should be responsible for paying his salary and those of the members of his team? What safeguards does the Government propose to ensure that the suspicion does not arise that he who pays the piper calls the tune?
Questions also arise over the commissioner’s period of tenure. Paragraph 2 of schedule 1 states that that will be a matter for regulations that will be made at some time in the future. The use of secondary legislation is something of an addiction of the Government’s. One must ask why the period of tenure could not and should not be stated in the Bill. There seems to be no good reason for that, and we shall invite the Government’s observations.
There are other matters that concern us. For example, clause 19 establishes statutory defences of absolute and qualified privilege to actions for defamation in respect of many of the commissioner’s activities. We will need to know why the commissioner should have such protection in every such case. He may, for example, make damaging criticisms of the activities of care home proprietors and staff while exercising his duties. Why should he have a defence of privilege if, as a result of his making allegations that subsequently turn out to be false, the lives and livelihoods of those people are blighted? With power comes responsibility, and, given the sweeping powers that are to be conferred on the commissioner—I must beg to differ from the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire: this is not a toothless tiger, but a tiger with very sharp teeth—it is only right that he should be called to account if he causes damage in exercising those powers. Indeed, I see no reason why he should not be subject to an action for defamation.
We share the broad welcome given to the Bill by Members, but we do not do so uncritically. We fear that from the “bonfire of the quangos” of which we have heard so much there has risen a new bureaucratic phoenix in the form of commissioners. Once the accusation was that Wales was quangoland; now it may fairly be suggested that it is rapidly becoming the fiefdom of commissioners. The more cynical might suggest that an important role of the commissioners would be to shoulder responsibilities that would otherwise fall on Ministers. We do not believe that that should happen. While it is welcome that Wales should have a commissioner who will champion the interests of older people, we would expect Ministers to act as champions for older people as well. If Ministers, whether here or in the Welsh Assembly, see that the interests of older people are being compromised, they should intervene and not simply leave it to the commissioner to take action. We, and the people of Wales, expect Ministers to be proactive and not just to await the criticism that may emanate from the commissioner.
As I have said, we broadly support the Bill, but we do not do so uncritically. In Committee we will seek answers to the questions that I have asked and, no doubt, to others.
I am grateful for all the contributions that have been made. I appreciated both their content and their brevity, bearing in mind what may be happening from 5 pm onwards. I am grateful to the House for its general support for the Bill. A number of important issues have been raised, and I am sure that they will be discussed in Committee. I shall respond to some of the larger themes aired in the debate, particularly those related to non-devolved matters.
The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) asked what role the commissioner would have in relation to NICE reports—for example, its report on drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s disease. The commissioner would not be able to make direct representations to NICE, but would certainly be able to take up such matters if a Welsh health board either allowed or, more likely, did not allow drugs on which NICE had made recommendations to be prescribed. The commissioner would be able to raise matters relating to a NICE decision via that channel.
The hon. Lady and others, including the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), whom I welcome to the Front Bench—I apologise for not having done so earlier—questioned the independence of the commissioner, given that the funding for the post would come directly from the Assembly, but in many cases the commissioner would be examining the policies and actions of the Assembly. The basic argument was that he who pays the piper calls the tune. However, the same arrangement applies to the children’s commissioner and, as my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) pointed out, where necessary the children’s commissioner has acted in a forthright way when dealing directly with Assembly actions and policies. I therefore do not think that the independence of the new commissioner will be fettered by the way in which his office is funded.
I hear what the Minister says, but there will be a difference. At present, the Assembly is a body corporate and is responsible for paying the children’s commissioner, but if the Government of Wales Bill is enacted that will cease to be the case. The Welsh Assembly Government will have their own budgets and the new commissioner will be paid from those ministerial budgets.
The hon. Gentleman is correct, but it would be an unwise Minister who cut the budget of a commissioner because he or she did not like a report that that commissioner had produced. I am sure that the commissioner will make that perfectly clear and that the Assembly would call a Minister who acted in that way to account. I believe that there are sufficient checks and balances to guarantee the independence of the commissioner.
The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham asked whether the commissioner’s role would be similar to Ofwat’s. The answer is no, it would not. Ofwat exists directly to protect the interests of water customers, whereas the role of the commissioner is to help and safeguard vulnerable older people and to improve the quality of life of all older people in Wales. That very different remit is clearly set out in the Bill.
Another question raised by the hon. Lady, which was taken up by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price), was why the Bill set the age threshold at 60. Both hon. Members spoke about age discrimination in work and said that, for many people, such discrimination starts before 60. The House should be aware that regulations on age discrimination in employment and training are being introduced, with effect from October 2006. Those regulations will be enforced by the new commission for equality and human rights. That is already being addressed. A limit must be set somewhere. If not, the number of people whom the commissioner would be covering would involve not only old or older people but younger people as well. I understand the idea of having flexibility, for example, but the real issue of age discrimination at work will be addressed by the commission for equality and human rights in terms of the regulations that it will be enforcing.
The main issue raised by the hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr, my hon. Friend for Cardiff, North and the Member for Clwyd, West was that of the role of the commission in relation to non-devolved matters, which clearly affect older people in Wales, whether these issues involve pensions or even the Care Standards Act 2000, whatever it may be. There are issues in which older people will clearly be interested.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire asked about the pensions White Paper and other matters. He went on to ask about the role that the commissioner would play in that context. He will be able to give his view on the proposals set out in the White Paper. Given who he is, and under clause 9, it would be possible to carry out research. That would lead to an authoritative contribution to the White Paper. He, like anyone else in the United Kingdom, will be able to make a direct and authoritative response to the White Paper. His position would clearly carry weight.
Clause 9 would allow, as I have said, research to be carried out, even in areas where the issue was non-devolved. A report would be made to the Assembly, which it could take up directly with the relevant UK Department. Alternatively, as we have said in relation to the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, if he wanted to report to my right hon. Friend or myself, we could take up the matter. The important thing is that he is not fettered from carrying out research if there is a real issue affecting pensioners in Wales because of the actions or legislation that are currently reserved. Representations could still be made, and those representations would carry a great deal of weight. I am sure that this is an issue to which we will return in Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend made an extremely well-informed speech, given her long professional involvement in these matters. She cited some excellent examples of how the Children’s Commissioner for Wales had been effective, and far more effective than the local authority or the ombudsman, for example, because he is seen as an advocate and someone genuinely representing children with particular problems.
I am confident that when the older persons commissioner is appointed, he will be in exactly that position and will be seen as a great advocate for issues relating to older people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend asked some specific questions, particularly in relation to the Care Standards Inspectorate for Wales. That name does not appear in the Bill and my hon. Friend is concerned that, therefore, the commissioner would not be able to investigate the actions of the CSIW. May I reassure her that, in fact, he can do so, because the Care Standards Inspectorate for Wales is accountable to the Assembly, which is covered by clause 3. If the commissioner is concerned about the actions of the CSIW, he can carry out investigations or make direct representations to the Assembly on behalf of any older person. I cannot comment directly on the Holly House case that my hon. Friend raised because, as she said, an appeal has been lodged with the tribunal. The commissioner could look at such issues, and if he found that the workings of the regulations under the Care Standards Act 2000 affected the welfare of individual residents, he could make representations to the Assembly. If the regulations were not working he could ask the Assembly to change them, or he could make representations to the relevant Department through the Assembly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or myself, so there are several channels to address those issues. I hope that my hon. Friend is happy with that explanation, but we can explore the matter in greater detail in Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire raised the issue of joint working, and they were concerned about the working relationship between the public services ombudsman for Wales and the new equality and human rights commission. Those bodies must work together, because the new commission will have responsibility for tackling age discrimination and so on. The children’s commissioner has a good relationship with other commissioners and the public services ombudsman, so I expect those bodies to develop links to avoid duplication and ensure that the new commission and the commission for older people are effective in exercising the powers given to them by the Government.
May I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North that although the post of commissioner for older people is a new one, the commissioner will learn from the experience of the children’s commissioner, whose work has received great support? No one has made any serious criticisms of the work that he has done, and the post is regarded as a huge step forward. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, it has been copied in England.
The Minister will accept that we have done nothing other than try to maximise the effect of the work of the new commissioner and, indeed, the children’s commissioner. If the commissioner for older people receives a complaint about pensions, will he pass it on to the parliamentary ombudsman? How will he act in such cases?
It depends on the nature of the complaint, of course. Clearly, if it is about the payment of a pension and something is wrong, that would be an issue for the Department for Work and Pensions, and ultimately, if there was no satisfaction, the parliamentary ombudsman. However, if the complaint is about more general issues, perhaps affecting more than one individual, although the commissioner would need to receive a complaint initially from at least one pensioner or their representative, as I explained to the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr, the commissioner could carry out whatever research he feels is reasonable and then make representations either through my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or me to the relevant Department or directly to the Assembly for it to make direct representation to the relevant body. That is the route that has come about.
The hon. Members for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr and for Brecon and Radnorshire referred to council tax. Again, on the effect of the revaluation that has taken place, if the commissioner had been in place then, he could have made direct representations to the Assembly.
The Bill to establish a commissioner for older people represents a landmark development in promoting policies for older people and is another example of how Wales is able to set an example, not only to the United Kingdom, but to the rest of Europe and possibly the wider world. The commissioner, as an ambassador and authority on older people’s issues, is part of an overall strategy to ensure that the interests of older people are fully integrated into the mainstream policies of the Welsh Assembly Government. I look forward to the House’s continuing support for this groundbreaking proposal, and I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.