15 May 2001

Q7 Alison Halford:

What discussions has the First Minister had with the Secretary of State for Wales over the proposed review of public sector ombudsman services in Wales? (OAQ11347)

The First Minister:

I refer you to the written answer that I provided to this question, at least in part, on 1 May. I wrote to the Secretary of State about this at around the turn of the year, proposing that we jointly carry out a review of public sector ombudsmen in Wales, the main purpose of which would be to ensure that we have a service that meets Wales’s needs in this new century. That review is now underway.

2.30 p.m.

Alison Halford:

Thank you for that, Rhodri. I welcome the review that you are undertaking with the Secretary of State. Will you take this opportunity to underline our commitment to impartial scrutiny? At present, a local council chief monitoring officer is able to hold the additional post of chief legal officer and clerk to the local police authority. It could be argued that more furtive ground for conflict of interest is hard to imagine and that there is a possibility, were issues of corruption to arise, that that individual may need to investigate him or herself. The problem at present is that it is impossible to get one ombudsman to deal with all the multi-competences raised by this issue. The Assembly, through the establishment of the office of Children’s Commissioner for Wales, has proved its commitment to open and accountable scrutiny. Therefore, will you ensure that this commitment to transparency and accountability is continued in the review of the services of ombudsmen?

The First Minister:

I hope that I can satisfy your request, Alison. However, I cannot relate this issue specifically to the question about the status of a clerk to a police authority. A clerk to a police authority is not outside the jurisdiction of the ombudsman, but the ombudsman can only look at certain categories of complaint. Matters such as staffing fall outside that jurisdiction, as do amounts paid in compensation by a police authority to members of the public, which are subject to district audit rather than ombudsman investigation. Police authorities, in principle, are audited in the same way as other public bodies and come within the jurisdiction of the district auditor.

Janet Davies:

In view of the number of bodies of varying legal status that receive considerable amounts of public money to deliver services, are you considering or engaging in discussion so that means for redress of complaints may be made more comprehensive?

The First Minister:

I hope that that would be an outcome of the review of public sector ombudsman services. We need a college of ombudsmen to cover the waterfront and to ensure that there are no gaps between the areas that each ombudsman covers. It is important that the public is satisfied that the different parliamentary origins and dates on which legislation is written do not result in some complaints that do not have any mechanism for redress. That is what we intend to do, with the full co-operation of all the people in Wales with responsibilities similar to those of an ombudsman. They believe that this is the right way forward and, as this system has grown like Topsy since 1967, when the original parliamentary ombudsman was instituted, that we must conduct a review in order to modernise the system with a view to comprehensive coverage for the twenty-first century.

David Melding:

Do you agree that members of the public—and some Assembly Members—do not have a good understanding of the work of ombudsmen, and that more work needs to be done to publicise this important function?

The First Minister:

I would be only too happy to arrange visits for cross-party teams of AMs to the different ombudsmen offices, for a half-hour or hour-long seminar or explanation of their work. As the function of an Assembly Member, similar to that of a Member of Parliament, is critical in helping the public to understand how to secure their rights when they feel they have been done a bad turn by the authorities, in whatever guise, it is important that we are able to reassure people with some expertise. Therefore, if that is the general wish of the Assembly, I am sure that we can make the appropriate arrangements, and I will be glad to assist.

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