As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.
I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 13, at end insert—
‘(ca) keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness of provision for those older people who are disabled.’.
This is a simple amendment that I tabled in order to probe the Minister on two specific aspects of the Bill. I hope that the drafting will require the commissioner to give special consideration to disabled people when promoting best practice in the treatment of older people in Wales.
I start by looking into the position of deaf people in Wales. The number of people in the UK estimated by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People to be deaf or hard of hearing is a phenomenally large 8,954,000. Of those, 688,000 have severe hearing difficulties or are profoundly deaf. The RNID does not publish separate figures for Wales, which again poses the question of disaggregated statistics. My first question to the Minister is whether he will look into the opportunities afforded to the commissioner’s office, his own office or, indeed, the Assembly, to produce accurate, separate disaggregated statistics, particularly on deaf and blind people in Wales.
As it is not easy to get the statistics by a readily identifiable route, I was helped by the Library. It told my researcher, Guy L’Etang, that it had done some calculations based on the population of Wales and estimated that approximately—I stress approximately—440,000 people will be deaf or hard of hearing and that of those, 34,000 will have severe hearing difficulties or be profoundly deaf. As there is a disproportionately large number of older people in Wales, we are not entirely sure of those figures, but it is there or thereabouts, which puts the whole situation in proportion. What responsibilities is it envisaged the commissioner will have for certain aspects of provisions for the deaf, particularly in respect of interpreters? I hope that both English and Welsh language interpreters are covered. That leads me to my next question for the Minister. What arrangements will be in place and what influence will the commissioner have in ensuring that, in respect of lip speakers, deaf-blind interpreters and deaf interpreters, both languages are used in Wales? Dealing with the bilingual situation could be extremely important.
British sign language was officially recognised as a British language in 2003, but there is no one national list of qualified professionals who work for deaf people. That can result in deaf people waiting for communications support to be sourced and in unqualified people being supplied to provide communications. I have an excellent qualified professional in my constituency, Diana Smith, who is particularly concerned about these matters in England, so it seems apposite to raise them in relation to Wales. Could the commissioner establish a single register of language service professionals for deaf people, including providers of British sign language, English interpreters, lip speakers, deaf-blind interpreters and deaf interpreters? I also wonder whether it is within the commissioner’s powers to encourage the institutions to protect by law the professional title of those who are qualified to work as language service professionals for all deaf people. I appreciate the fact that those are detailed questions, and if the Minister cannot come up with the answers now, I am quite willing to let him write to me with any information that he may have.
I should like to know what powers the commissioner can take with regard to the Home Office and the police. In Committee, we established that the commissioner will not have any power that is directly linked to Ministers of the realm. The commissioner will deal with Assembly and devolved matters, as opposed to those that are reserved to this House. That raises a specific issue with disabled people, particularly deaf people: most constabularies in Britain do not hold a list of qualified, security-cleared BSL-English interpreters and lip speakers who can be called to a police station for arrested people who are deaf. The Minister will appreciate that that causes problems. It usually results in deaf detained people being held in custody for many hours without access to communication or representation, and some deaf victims are severely delayed in being able to make their statements to the police.
I understand that such arrangements do not exist in Wales—the problem is widespread in England and Wales—so if those people happen to be elderly, I need to know what influence the commissioner could have over such things, which could be quite crucial to an increasingly large older and deaf population. What are the current arrangements in Wales and what influence will the commissioner have in ensuring that deaf people get equity of access when held by the police under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and under the forthcoming disability equality scheme? At what level of detail will the commissioner have an influence over the rules and regulations or the mode of practice that needs to be operated in our police stations and by our police services throughout Wales? I hope that that deals with the specific situation for older people who have a hearing disability.
Turning to the other matter that I wish to raise under the auspices of the amendment, I was approached by the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. I believe that the Minister is familiar with the briefing that came from that estimable organisation. It was very pleased to provide a brief to many hon. Members, so I claim no credit for raising these points, other than to say that it seemed apposite to raise them through the medium of the amendment, perhaps to express some of its concerns and to ask questions on its behalf.
The association is very pleased with the Bill. The prevalence of visual impairment increases dramatically with age, as we all know. Indeed, it is only with the aid of the 16-point typeface on my computer that I am able to read the script that is in front of me without the aid of glasses. The Minister obviously relies on glasses. I am told that, at some stage, my eyesight will stop deteriorating, and I am looking forward to that day because it seems to deteriorate daily.
No thanks. I appreciate the offer, but I have got big print in front of me.
RNIB Cymru has estimated that there are 100,000 people with serious sight loss in Wales. As the prevalence of visual impairment increases so much with age and as the number of older people in Wales is predicted to increase dramatically over the next few years, it follows that a dramatic increase is likely in the number of visually impaired older people. It is surprising that, despite the ageing population, the standard of rehabilitation services for blind and partially sighted people remains variable in Wales and, indeed, throughout the UK. The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association has said that, in some cases, it is indeed very poor.
There are rehabilitation services for visually impaired people. Rehabilitation training is designed to introduce and maintain a level of independent functioning by enabling blind and partially sighted people to develop the skills that they need to meet their aspirations. Appropriately trained rehabilitation workers play a crucial role.
Independent research has been carried out and shows a far from pleasing picture. The state of rehabilitation service provision for blind and partially sighted people is not good. There is a chronic shortage of rehabilitation workers. Local authorities are not investing in the necessary training and many authorities in Wales do not have adequate or dedicated services. Since 1995, there has been a shift away from local authority spending on services for people with physical and sensory needs. The result is that many blind and partially sighted people are forced to stay in their homes and are unable to go anywhere without a guide, leading to exclusion from work, social and civic life. What influence will the new commissioner have in that area?
The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association has set up a UK-wide rehabilitation project. It has been very inventive and has a Welsh steering group that is set to take forward the objectives of the rehabilitation project group in Wales. It is also working to secure the future of professional training for rehabilitation workers in several educational institutions, but specifically in Cardiff. What influence will the commissioner have in encouraging Cardiff to secure the future of professional training at that university? Will the commission be able to work with the association and the rehabilitation project on the benchmarking report that was commissioned by the Welsh Local Government Association, the Assembly Government and the Wales Council for the Blind? That is an important group which is carrying out a worthwhile exercise. I would like to ensure that the commissioner has the opportunity to work with that group and the Welsh steering group, so that the quality of life of many thousands of blind and partially sighted people in Wales can be improved.
I hope that the Minister will be able to put on the record the fact that the commissioner will be encouraged to look at this area and give it a high priority when he takes up office and establishes the commission. I hope that he will be able to reply to both points that I have raised in relation to the deaf and the blind. I hope also that he will take the amendment in the spirit in which it was tabled. I have no intention of pressing it to a vote; it was intended as a vehicle for the Minister to provide reassurance to people outside the Chamber on those two issues.
I am grateful for the way in which the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) introduced her amendment. It seeks to provide the commissioner with a general power to keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness of provision for those older people who are disabled. That would be an entirely appropriate function for the commissioner and one that I am happy to reassure the House is already provided for in the Bill. The amendment is therefore not necessary.
Clause 2 enables the commissioner to promote the provision of opportunities for, and the elimination of discrimination against, older people. That would include discrimination against those older people who were disabled. The commissioner’s general function to
“promote awareness of the interests of older people in Wales and of the need to safeguard those interests”
and also to
“encourage best practice in the treatment of older people in Wales”
will also support and enable his work in that area. In addition, the commissioner will have powers to review the effect on older people of the discharge of the functions of key bodies, such as the Assembly and local authorities. He will ensure that they fulfil their statutory duties and that they take the needs of disabled older people into account.
The hon. Lady asked a number of detailed questions, and I shall be more than happy to write to her if I omit some of the issues in my response. She mentioned the discussions that she had had about older people who have hearing problems or who are profoundly deaf, and she asked about statistics. I shall certainly try to find out who, if anyone, keeps such records for Wales, but it is part of the commissioner’s remit to establish how many people in Wales suffer from the disabilities to which she referred. I am sure that he will try to access what information is available and, if he is unsuccessful, that he will commission research to determine the relevant figures.
The hon. Lady also raised important issues about a register of signers and lip speakers. She said that profoundly deaf people who had suffered crime or had been arrested for committing a crime often have great difficulty with communication, and that a local police register of those able to assist in such circumstances would help to ensure that deaf people were not detained unnecessarily in police stations. I shall certainly raise the matter with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to see what can be done in that respect, with a view to addressing the problem as soon as possible.
The hon. Lady then asked about people who have poor sight or who are blind. I have read the parliamentary brief from the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, which raises some important issues. The association wants to know whether the commissioner will be able to look into the adequacy of rehabilitation services for visually impaired older people, and the answer is yes. For instance, he could review the processes adopted by a local authority to assess the needs of visually impaired older people, or review how it discharges its training functions in respect of those who provide rehabilitation services. Incidentally, the commissioner will be able to do the same for people with hearing difficulties.
The commissioner’s other functions include undertaking research into rehabilitation services for visually impaired older people. He will also examine individual cases, and publish a report with recommendations about each. I hope that that reassures the hon. Lady that the commissioner will have the power to carry out investigations of that nature. I am sure that he will work closely with organisations such as the Royal National Institute of the Blind, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. They will raise issues with him on behalf of disabled older people, and draw his attention to any shortcomings that they identify.
I hope that the hon. Lady will agree that the Bill already deals with the subject of the amendment. The amendment is therefore not necessary, and I ask her to withdraw it.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response, and I look forward to receiving more detail on certain matters in writing. However, I remain concerned that the commissioner may not be able to influence the availability of signers and interpreters in police forces, given that his responsibilities are so clearly linked to matters that have been devolved to the Assembly. The Minister knows that I am concerned about what will happen in practice, and about whether the commissioner will be able truly to represent the interests of older people where they cut across into other areas for which it is not anticipated he will have responsibility. I hope that, by drawing attention to that issue in this fashion and by continually reinforcing my fears, I have at least ensured that the commissioner, in establishing the office, can look back on these debates and know that there is the will to address the problems that he or she will face.
I look forward to hearing further from the Minister, particularly on Home Office matters, but I am very willing to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Research and educational activities
I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 6, line 25, at end insert—
‘But no assistance shall be given for research or for educational activities to any political party or to any person, group or body that is engaged in political lobbying nor for any research whose aim or purpose either runs contrary to or is likely to undermine the existing policy of the Assembly.’.
The purpose of the amendment is to limit the scope of clause 9, which relates to giving assistance for research or education, so that research or educational activities cannot relate to any political party or person who is engaged in political lobbying, or to any aim or purpose that runs contrary to the policy of the Assembly, or which is likely to undermine it.
In general, I applaud what the Government are doing. I support the Bill’s thrust and it is no intention of mine to seek to wreck this measure. I wish to tease out of the Minister whether the Bill needs further improvement, which, in essence, is why I have tabled the amendment.
I want the commissioner to be a champion for older people in Wales, and it is clear that his role should include the ability to ensure that all older people can access their legal rights. I understand that, in that context, research and educational activities should be supported, but the commissioner should not become an innovating trailblazer. He should not introduce new policy initiatives and, in effect, usurp the duties and responsibilities of the Assembly and its democratically elected Members. One would hope that a good commissioner would appreciate and understand that, without having to have these limitations imposed in writing in the Bill.
However, for the avoidance of all doubt, it is appropriate that Parliament should say that it expects the commissioner’s role to be above party politics and outside the world of professional lobbyists, and certainly that he or she should not be in cahoots with any political faction or party. That is why I tabled the amendment. The commissioner should work with, and be seen to be working with, the Assembly and should not use the powers in clause 9 to undermine—intentionally or unintentionally—the Assembly’s policies. Therefore, the reason for the amendment is caution. Its purpose is to make it clear that there should be respect for the democratic process that elects Assembly Members, and to express my concern at the possible abuse of this power and the accompanying waste of public money.
I hope that the Minister agrees with those aims. He might be able to tell the House that the caution that I have expressed can be dealt with in other ways, such as through the commissioner’s terms of service or by making sure that his functions are clearly set out and that the research must relate only to those functions. I do not mind how those aims are achieved; if there is another vehicle for achieving them other than the amendment, I will gladly not push it to a vote. I hope that the Minister can accept the aims that I have identified and tell me how they will be delivered.
We very much welcome the addition of clause 9 to the Bill in the other place. It has been widely welcomed.
The amendment raises a valid concern, although it goes very much against the grain of our debates on Second Reading and in Committee on protecting the commissioner’s independence. Whether it is a probing amendment or a matter that may be carried further, it raises a valid point on how we ensure that the dividing line between legitimate lobbying groups, such as Age Concern Cymru and Help the Aged Cymru, and the commissioner is taken into consideration. How does the Minister envisage the commissioner working with groups such as those to protect the commissioner’s independence?
I welcome the interest shown by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) in the effective working of the Bill. Despite my fears about the growing one-party state that we may or may not have in Wales, I cannot imagine circumstances in which a commissioner would sensibly commission research from the Labour party research department. The Conservative party, of course, appears no longer to have a research department, following the announcement a few days ago. I understand the intention behind the amendment and will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.
I offer a little caution, however. I am not sure whether the amendment, in seeking to ensure the independence of the commissioner, might not actually lead to the commissioner being somewhat circumscribed in his ability to look legitimately not at areas of policy debate—which, as the right hon. Gentleman said, is clearly and rightly the remit of the elected members of the National Assembly—but at grey areas between policy and delivery and how a policy is carried out or what model of delivery is used. Those are legitimate areas where the commissioner could commission research and create a debate, which would of course eventually be resolved by the elected representatives in the National Assembly. I understand the intention, but I am not sure that the amendment would not lead us down a road that would create additional problems.
Although my name is not attached to the amendment, I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say. Both in this Bill and in the Government of Wales Bill there are widely drawn powers of patronage and financial assistance that, in this case, the commissioner—the Assembly Ministers in the case of the Government of Wales Bill—can use to disburse funds to any organisation and to anybody at any time. The amendment strikes me as sensible in ensuring that we have a discussion because yesterday, in discussion of the Government of Wales Bill, a piece of Labour-sponsored, Labour-bought research from the Bevan Foundation was prayed in aid to support it. It is not, then, outwith the possibilities that individuals in Wales, which certainly is not going to remain a one-party state for any length of time, could commission materials for political purposes. For example, the commissioner could ask the Labour party research department or researchers to produce information on older people as members of the Labour party itself. We would not want to see funds flowing from the taxpayer into the back pocket of the Labour party in that sense. The Minister’s response will be interesting.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), who takes a great interest in these matters, tabled the amendment so that the Minister can give us his full interpretation of the clause. The Opposition always try to work constructively and if the amendment can improve the legislation I shall be only too happy if the Minister adopts it, or proposes one of his own, to ensure that we have the right protection for taxpayers’ money.
The amendment would restrict the commissioner’s ability to provide assistance for undertaking research or educational activities in circumstances where the resultant research or education might challenge the policies of the Assembly Government or involve the commissioner in supporting political lobbying.
We cannot accept the amendment. We are clear about the necessity for the commissioner to be independent of the Assembly Government, and for him to be able to exercise his functions without being constrained in the way proposed—the point to which the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) referred. It will, therefore, be for the commissioner to act as he thinks appropriate and to defend his actions, if necessary, consistent with his powers.
By establishing the commissioner, the Government and the Assembly seek to raise standards and to ensure that a wide range of public bodies, the Assembly included, work to respond to the wishes and needs of older people in Wales. It is thus imperative that the policy and operational decisions of the Assembly Government can be challenged by the commissioner if he considers that they are not in the interests of older people in Wales. For instance, the commissioner might want to review the Assembly Government’s discharge of their functions in a particular matter, or review the adequacy of legislation they have made. He might want to suggest an alternative policy objective in a particular area by means of a representation on the subject. The ability to undertake or commission research and educational activities will be an important tool in enabling him or her to do that.
The commissioner will be able to fund research or educational activities only in support of his other functions in the Bill and in the interests of older people in Wales. Funding of party political activities would clearly fall outside the commissioner’s remit.
Restricting the commissioner’s ability to fund research undertaken by bodies that are also engaged in “political lobbying” is, we think, a step too far.
In our debate on amendment No. 1, we talked about the involvement of organisations such as the Royal National Institute of the Blind and the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, and I am sure that Members would not want the commissioner to be precluded from providing funding to respected bodies, such as Help the Aged or Guide Dogs for the Blind, to undertake a research project simply because they also engage in lobbying the Government and the Assembly Government about policies they consider would benefit older people in Wales.
Absolutely. In our debates, nobody has questioned the fact that the commissioner should be open and transparent. The commissioner should be independent both of any political influence and of the Assembly as a whole, and should be able to commission research that he or she feels necessary to work as a champion for older people in Wales.
Does the Minister think it legitimate for an unelected commissioner to campaign against policy priorities set by democratically elected politicians, as, for example, the Children’s Commissioner is campaigning against antisocial behaviour orders, saying that they are ineffective and inappropriate for under-18-year-olds in Wales?
Let me finish the point. I am not sure that it is fair to characterise the Children's Commissioner as campaigning against antisocial behaviour orders in general. I have seen some of the comments that have been made. They are certainly not a blanket rejection of the concept of antisocial behaviour orders. The commissioner takes the view that those should be a last resort. I do not recognise that as a campaign against antisocial behaviour orders. Does the hon. Gentleman still wish to intervene?
I think that I have covered the point that the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) raised. A number of organisations will have already carried out research, including Help the Aged, Age Concern and charities that look after the interests of disabled people. The fear is that if the amendment were accepted, the commissioner would be precluded from asking those organisations, which are effective lobbyists of Government at all levels, for help and information.
It needs to be emphasised that the commissioner is there to do a clear job: to scrutinise the work of local authorities and the Assembly. The fear is that the amendment could constrain him from doing that work. Therefore, I ask the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), although I understand his concern and the need to throw some light on the issue, to withdraw the amendment.
We have had an interesting debate. I assure the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) that my interest in Wales is of long standing, although, because of my other duties, regrettably it has been intermittent.
This issue involves a fine balance. I am not entirely convinced by what the Minister has said, but I accept that there is some force in his argument that one does not want to over-fetter the commissioner, particularly if he uncovers something that he regards as in serious need of addressing which the Assembly is not addressing and he wants to devote some research to it. I see the other side of the coin.
Conservative Members will keep an eye on the issue and on what the commissioner gets up to. If we feel at any stage that he is exceeding his remit or using the powers unfairly or unreasonably, I promise that we will be back on this very issue. With that indication, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Power of entry and of interviewing
I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 8, line 25, at end insert ‘with or without notice.’.
This is in essence a probing amendment that is aimed at teasing out from the Minister exactly how he sees the commissioner exercising his powers. Of course, all interviews with older people should be conducted with sensitivity and compassion. Such interviews should always be with the consent of the older person, as the Bill recognises. In addition, if that older person wishes someone else to be present when an interview is taking place, that request should be accommodated.
The timing of a visit is important, too. The Bill accepts that by saying that a visit should always take place at a reasonable time. I hope that that is a subjective test, so that it is a reasonable time for the older person, not a young member of the commissioner’s staff. However, I fear that there are cases in which it is inappropriate to provide notice of a visit. There is a risk that before a visit an older person will be subject to duress by someone who does not want a complaint to be pursued. That person may put pressure on them and instruct them not to say anything during a visit, because they do not want them to rock the boat. Such arm twisting may occur and, in some cases, there may be more serious threats or unpleasant reprisals if the older person speaks out.
The commissioner should have the power to arrive unannounced if he deems it appropriate to do so. As I said, the Bill acknowledges that the older person can refuse a visit, but the amendment would prevent someone of less than benign intent from having the opportunity to bamboozle them or subject them to duress before a visit. En passant, new clause 1 has not been selected because I failed to table it in time, but its powers go wider than the amendment as there is an even stronger case for the commissioner to make an unannounced visit when premises are being inspected. We all know the story of the hospital that is to be visited by the Queen—it gets a lick of paint and everything is perfect on the day before it goes back to the way in which it usually operates. Similarly, that happens with organisations and establishments that look after older people. If they know that a VIP is coming, they change things for the duration of the visit. The commissioner should have power across the board to make unannounced visits. If the Minister does not accept the amendment, I hope that he envisages that the commissioner will have those powers in any event.
The amendment seeks to make explicit the provision that the commissioner, or someone authorised by him, may enter premises to interview an older person either with or without notice. It is not necessary, because the Bill already allows the commissioner flexibility in the matter. We accept that there may be occasions on which, because of the nature of the concerns or allegations about which the commissioner wishes to interview an older person, he wishes make an unannounced visit. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) failed to table new clause 1 in time, but he alluded to the need to give the commissioner greater powers on entry and inspection. It is not appropriate to give powers for entry and inspection to the commissioner, as that is the responsibility of the Care Standards Inspectorate for Wales. If a complaint was received by the commissioner and an older person was at risk, he would immediately contact the inspectorate and, depending on the nature of the threat, police and social services, which have the necessary power of entry. It is for those authorities to make an unannounced visit to investigate the complaint.
The Minister said that the powers were already in the Bill. Does he mean that they are written into the Bill, and if so, could he direct the House to where they are, or does he mean that he envisages the powers being included in some regulations or rules that are to be introduced?
I am assured that the powers are in the Bill. I cannot direct the right hon. Gentleman to the exact clause, but the commissioner has the power to enter premises—not private premises, but premises where care is provided, and so on—[Interruption.] I am advised that the relevant clause is clause 13. I should have read on in my notes. Clause 13 places no requirement on the commissioner to give notice of his intention to enter to interview, but leaves that to his discretion depending on the circumstances.
I take the Minister’s point. I was concerned about the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) because it seemed to me that that was properly the purview of the Care Standards Inspectorate. The Minister will recall that on Second Reading I raised the matter with him. It seems to me that, to a large extent, in this area the powers of the commissioner cut across those of the Care Standards Inspectorate. Is it therefore anticipated that the rules that will be made governing the activities of the commissioner with clarify his relationship with the Care Standards Inspectorate?
There are two distinct roles. If there is a complaint by an older person in a care home about the conditions, the care that he or she has been receiving or poor standards in the home, or an allegation of elder abuse, that complaint may initially go to the commissioner, but I should have thought that if it is an issue of abuse, the police should be involved. If the complaint is about the standard of care or the quality of the home, that should be addressed immediately by the Care Standards Inspectorate. The interview that we are discussing relates to a wider complaint that may be made by an older person. I do not think there is a blurring of powers. With that explanation, I ask the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire kindly to withdraw his amendment.
The Minister referred me to clause 13, but that is silent on whether the power of entry or of interviewing may be exercised with or without notice, so I can only conclude that he is saying that the silence gives consent. I accept his interpretation.
My concern is that duress is an easy weapon to use on people—not physical duress particularly, but mental duress. I have seen it all too often in cases that were brought before me when I used to practise law, and anything that we can do to stamp it out should have support from every corner of the House. I am therefore pleased that the commissioner will have the power to enter premises other than a private home without giving notice. Without such a power, he would not be able to fulfil his job properly. On the basis of the reassurances that the Minister has given us today—
Before my right hon. Friend gets carried away with his rhetoric about how wonderful the provision is, does he accept that it is confined to the power to enter premises for the specific purpose of interviewing somebody in those premises, not to carry out a general investigation?
I accept entirely what my hon. Friend says, but a full-blown investigation may often start from evidence that is given in a one-to-one interview. That is why it is important that when an interview takes place, the older person is willing and able to tell the truth without fear of any reprisals. Today, the Minister has assured us that the Bill allows the commissioner to do so without my amendment, and I am prepared to take him at his word.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Order for Third Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
The Bill received its Second Reading on 15 June, and it was considered in Standing Committee on 27 June. It is a groundbreaking piece of legislation that enables the National Assembly to set up an independent champion for older people, who will play a vital role in addressing ageism and discrimination against older people.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales noted in opening the debate on Second Reading, the position will be the first of its kind in the UK and, indeed, possibly the world. The Bill is another milestone in our commitment to older people in Wales. The commissioner will be able to speak up on behalf of older people in Wales, helping to raise their profile and increase awareness of their needs.
The policy originated with older people themselves and their representatives, and it is firmly evidence-based. The report of the Assembly Government’s expert advisory group, “When I'm 64...and more”, recommended the establishment of a commissioner for older people. The policy became a key commitment in the Welsh Labour manifesto for the 2003 Assembly elections. The draft Commissioner for Older People (Wales) Bill was published in March last year and distributed to more than 2,000 stakeholders across Wales. The responses again demonstrated that there is a great deal of support for the proposals, with no fewer than 94 per cent. of respondents in favour of the establishment of the commissioner.
The draft Bill was also considered and debated by the Assembly’s Health and Social Services Committee and in a full plenary session, where the motion to welcome the Bill and endorse the commitment to establish a commissioner was overwhelmingly supported. My predecessor as Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee on the draft Bill, and I thank him for his role in bringing the legislation to fruition.
The Bill was introduced in the other place, where it underwent detailed scrutiny and was subject to amendment. Those changes were made for four main reasons: first, to take account of views expressed in the public consultation process; secondly, to clarify the arrangements for working jointly with other commissioners and ombudsmen; thirdly, to clarify the commissioner’s role in cross-border matters; and finally, to provide for the commissioner to establish an internal complaints procedure, as a matter of good public administration.
The rigorous debate that the Bill received in the other place, combined with the amendments that we have introduced to strengthen and clarify the legislation, have stood us in excellent stead for our debates in this House. Both sides of the House have adopted a positive and constructive approach to the Bill, and I am extremely grateful to all hon. Members who have participated.
The Bill was debated thoroughly in Committee. The discussion covered a wide range of issues, often in some detail. There was a high degree of consensus, and I am grateful to hon. Members for the spirit in which the debate was conducted. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) and the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr Hywel Williams) for the professional way in which they chaired the Standing Committee. It is a testament to their wise and skilful chairmanship, and to the constructive and concise contributions by Committee members on both sides, that consideration of the Bill was concluded in less than two sittings.
Opposition Members tabled a number of amendments, many of which were of a probing nature, where the intentions behind the Bill were explored to—I believe—the satisfaction of the Committee.
The Minister knows that innovative Welsh legislation is sometimes imitated in England—I am thinking of the Children’s Commissioner. However, I am not entirely light-hearted, because one of my constituents was removed to a home in England, and there were accusations that it might have been under duress. I have found it difficult to take that issue forward, and, as I understand it, the Welsh commissioner for older people would not be able to intervene on behalf of a Welsh person in English home.
That is not correct. The commissioner will certainly be able to intervene in relation to the local authority, the NHS, or whoever was in charge of commissioning the care for that individual. They will be able to investigate the circumstances surrounding the decision, although they would not be able to gain entry to the care home or hospital to which the hon. Gentleman’s constituent was moved.
The Bill will deliver a true champion for older people in Wales who will speak up on their behalf and work to ensure that older people themselves can influence the way in which important public services are managed and delivered. I commend the Bill to the House.
I am pleased that we have reached Third Reading. I am grateful to the Minister for his kind comments on the conduct of its passage through the House, although I have to say that it has taken an awfully long time from start to finish. Its gestation period has been incredible—it started in another place on 25 May 2005 and it has taken some 14 months to reach this stage. That is an almost unprecedented length of time for an uncontentious Bill to take to go through this House. I know that the Secretary of State is somewhat preoccupied with getting Royal Assent for the Government of Wales Bill, but had he paid a little more attention to the passage of Bills such as this, he could perhaps have timetabled his business in the Wales Office in a more relaxed fashion that would have avoided him getting so hysterical about the closing stages of the Government of Wales Bill. However, I am pleased that we have reached this stage with this Bill and that it will shortly go for Royal Assent.
We live in an ageing society in which, for the first time, there are more people over 60 than children under 16. The diversity in our society is more clearly reflected in the older generation as, for example, the first generation of the immigrants of the ’50s are making up greater proportions of the over-60s. The demands from our ageing society are constantly changing in terms of the quantity and quality of services required. The independence and well-being of these members of our society is of paramount importance as the increasing impact on public services and access to them present ever greater challenges to us throughout the country. As a country, we need to respond to those matters. That was succinctly put in the Audit Commission report, “Older People—Independence and Well-being: The Challenge for Public Services” in 2004, which states:
“Either our countries will make decisions about adapting to our ageing societies, or these decisions will be made for us by the sheer force of demographics and economics. It becomes a question of whether we will manage change, or whether change will manage us.”
The Bill is an attempt to manage that change. As such, I am pleased to have joined Members from both sides of the House, and in the other place, in giving it a broad welcome. A commissioner for older people will be an important development for Wales.
Wales has a growing concentration of older people compared with the rest of the United Kingdom. Just over 22 per cent. of people in Wales—some 600,000 people—are over 60. Establishing the commissioner’s office will play a significant role in ensuring that the concerns and needs of older people will be heard and recognised and that more can be achieved with regard to offering the opportunities, services and assistance that they require. The commissioner will play a vital role in increasing awareness of the needs of older people and in raising standards.
It is clear that older people in Wales and across the UK face many difficulties—poor housing, poor employment opportunities and insufficient transport services, to name but a few. There are also problems to do with poor nutrition and health and with access to care facilities. The commissioner offers an opportunity to make a difference and to improve lives across Wales, and that in itself must be welcomed. Indeed, it would be difficult not to welcome the provisions that will now go on to the statute book.
However, I believe that it is important not to have excessive expectations of what the commissioner and the office of the commissioner can achieve. Furthermore, it is important to establish that the commissioner works alongside Assembly Members and does not simply get saddled with responsibilities that Ministers should discharge in the Assembly on behalf of the people of Wales.
I am delighted that the commissioner will be available to champion the interests of older people, but that must be in addition to Ministers’ roles in doing the same thing. As some of my amendments showed, I believe that we must ensure that the commissioner’s duty includes keeping under review the adequacy and effectiveness of provision for disabled older people. It is important for the commissioner to have influence over the provisions available for disabled people, given that that can pose sizeable problems for older people. Disability clearly adds to the difficulties that an individual faces and it should therefore be in the commissioner’s remit to tackle such issues. I was pleased with the Under-Secretary’s response earlier in the debate.
As has been discussed, the commissioner’s functions will be confined to devolved matters. For me, that raises significant worries because it means that the commissioner cannot formally intervene in numerous aspects of life that specifically concern older people. Pensions and crime are key examples. The commissioner could not respond to the Turner commission’s recommendations and will be cut off from parts of Government policy, the implementation of which causes some of the greatest difficulty for people throughout Wales.
That poses the question whether the commissioner can tackle the issues and problems that most affect older people. I still have a fear that the limitations on the commissioner’s general functions may seriously handicap attempts to discharge those functions as fully as possible and leave him or her toothless in some important matters. That is a significant weakness in the Bill.
The Government should have considered formalising the route whereby the commissioner could approach UK Ministers. The Under-Secretary did not answer the question of how the commissioner could obtain genuine representational opportunities about non-devolved issues. As a result of that limitation, we must be realistic about what the commissioner can achieve.
I continue to be worried about the way in which the commissioner will be funded. The Under-Secretary appreciates my reservations on the matter because the commissioner will be paid from ministerial budgets. I question whether it is right that an individual whose role is to scrutinise the actions of Assembly Ministers should have his or her salary paid by the people whom he or she could be examining. There is a question mark over the potential effect on the commissioner’s independence and impartiality, which is of paramount importance.
Having said that, I support the Bill, but not uncritically. I have sought to raise several questions that the measure poses. Some have been answered to my satisfaction but others remain unanswered. We must wait and see how, in its practical application, the office of the commissioner pans out.
I am glad that we have had the opportunity to scrutinise the Bill thoroughly but I am saddened that the Government of Wales Bill, when it receives Royal Assent, will deny us the opportunity for such scrutiny in future. I join the Under-Secretary in thanking all hon. Members who took part in scrutinising the Bill. I also thank those who chaired our proceedings. I thank the Under-Secretary for his courtesy in the letters that he sent me during the Bill’s passage. I hope that the measure will be used to best effect and provide great benefits for the people of Wales.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) signalled on Second Reading that the Liberal Democrats would support the Bill, and I can confirm that we continue to do so. This has been an invaluable opportunity to explore the ways in which the interests of older people are represented and protected in Wales. The figures speak volumes, with 20 per cent. of the population in Wales being over pensionable age, compared with the UK average of 18 per cent. In my own constituency, 25 per cent. of the people would fall within the remit of the commissioner. In that context, the establishment of that role is very welcome.
The eager and enthusiastic language that we have used to describe the provisions has included terms such as “pioneering”, “trailblazing” and “a champion”, and I share the optimism and enthusiasm for the measure that many hon. Members have expressed. I also share some of the concerns that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) has just expressed, however. There is real concern about the limitations of the commissioner’s role, for example. In Committee, the Liberal Democrats argued the case for a strengthened role for the commissioner, and for his or her powers to extend far beyond those proposed in the Bill.
In a Wales-only setting, the commissioner’s powers come close to those that we would like to see. The commissioner will be able to investigate and make recommendations on the practices of local health boards, local authorities, further and higher education establishments, and many other important groups. He or she will also have the power to investigate individual cases in those areas. Although we would have given the commissioner greater powers of enforcement, the important point is that he will be able to interact directly with those bodies and to act as a real force for positive change, eliminating discrimination and malpractice.
There are areas in which we would have strengthened the commissioner’s powers further, even in a non-devolved setting. We tabled amendments to give the commissioner greater powers to stop elder abuse. We also argued that an investigated body should be required to give a response to the commissioner within six months. Our debates in Committee were quite repetitive, in that amendments kept being tabled on the same theme. Here we come to the crux of the debate. The theme was that the commissioner must be able to make a real difference to the lives of older people. To do that, that person will require a sufficiently broad remit, and sufficiently tough powers, in every area that affects those whose interests he looks after.
The Bill is not particularly different from the one that we saw on Second Reading, in that it still outlines proposals for a commissioner with two dramatically different spheres of influence. The commissioner’s powers in relation to reserved matters are markedly weaker, in that he or she will not have the power to require UK Government Departments to respond directly on non-devolved matters. Pensions, benefits and employment are all reserved matters, and we know from our surgeries that they are also some of the most important issues for our older people. Citizens Advice has told us that 80 per cent. of the cases that it deals with are connected with pensions and tax credits, yet the Bill still leaves the commissioner virtually impotent in those key areas.
Any member of the public can write to a Minister, but the commissioner will be prohibited from doing so in his official capacity. If an older person comes to the commissioner to complain about the administration of his pension, for instance, the commissioner will be unable to make representations to the relevant Minister at UK level. Nor will he have the power to summon witnesses and examine documents from the Department for Work and Pensions or Jobcentre Plus. Any recommendations that he makes will have to be made in general terms, and will have to get through two sets of gatekeepers, the Assembly and the Secretary of State, who will have no statutory obligation to respond. The fundamental issue is the accessibility of the commissioner to our constituents. Sadly, the Bill fails on that level.
The role of the Children’s Commissioner, which was established through a laudable piece of legislation, has often been cited as an example in our discussions. When the Children’s Commissioner appeared before the Welsh Affairs Committee on 22 April 2004, he said:
“I do not have my strongest powers in the area of non-devolved matters. I cannot require documentation to be given to me. I cannot require the attendance of witnesses to give evidence on oath if I am conducting an inquiry. From the point of view of being the most powerful children’s champion possible, it would be good from my perspective if the current Children Bill were amended to extend my powers over those matters”.
The experience of the children’s commissioner speaks volumes about what we have been trying to achieve during the passage of the Bill, and we may have to return to those matters in future. I hope that some of them will be addressed in the memorandum of understanding between the Assembly and the newly appointed commissioner. The appointment will be made soon, in 2007, which is to be welcomed.
The commissioner’s post will be the first of its kind in the world, and has huge potential to enrich people’s lives. Despite my scepticism—I do not want to be pessimistic—I support what is in the Bill. The Liberal Democrats wish the commissioner every success, and we sincerely hope that, through the Bill, the Government have given him the tools that he needs to do an effective job and, above all, to provide the accessibility to respond to our constituents’ demands.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, without amendment.