HOUSE OF COMMONS
Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
DRAFT OMBUDSMAN (NORTHERN IRELAND) ORDER 1996
DRAFT COMMISSIONER FOR COMPLAINTS (NORTHERN IRELAND) ORDER 1996
Wednesday 17 April 1996
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The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairman: Sir James Molyneaux
Barnes, Mr. Harry (North-East Derbyshire)
Bellingham, Mr. Henry (North-West Norfolk)
Canavan, Mr. Dennis (Falkirk, West)
Coombs, Mr. Simon (Swindon)
Cope, Sir John (Northavon)
Corbyn, Mr. Jeremy (Islington, North)
Gapes, Mr. Mike (Ilford, South)
Hood, Mr. Jimmy (Clydesdale)
McAvoy, Mr. Thomas (Glasgow, Rutherglen)
Maitland, Lady Olga (Sutton and Cheam)
Mans, Mr. Keith (Wyre)
Marshall, Mr. John (Hendon, South)
Merchant, Mr. Piers (Beckenham)
Needham, Mr. Richard (North Wiltshire)
Parry, Mr. Robert (Liverpool, Riverside)
Taylor, Mr. John D. (Strangford)
Wheeler, Sir John (Minister of State, Northen Ireland Office)
Wood, Mr. Timothy (Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household)
Worthington, Mr. Tony (Clydebank and Milngavie)
Mr. E. P. Silk, Committee Clerk2 3 Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation Wednesday 17 April 1996
[SIR JAMES MOLYNEAUX in the Chair]
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Sir John Wheeler): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the draft Ombudsman (Northern Ireland) Order 1996.
The Chairman: With the agreement of the Committee, it will be convenient to consider the draft Commissioner for Complaints (Northern Ireland) Order 1996.
Sir John Wheeler: May I welcome you, Sir James, to your first duty as Chairman of a Standing Committee? Both orders were laid before the House on 25 March. The orders repeal and re-enact with amendments the Parliamentary Commissioner Act (Northern Ireland) 1969 and the Commissioner for Complaints Act (Northern Ireland) 1969, which established the offices of Northern Ireland Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration investigates complaints of maladministration against the Northern Ireland Government Departments and their agencies whereas the Commissioner for Complaints investigates similar complaints against local and public bodies. Both offices are traditionally held by one person, commonly known as the ombudsman. The amended provisions derive mainly from similar changes enacted in Great Britain. Following acceptance of recommendations by the Select Committee, the title Northern Ireland Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration is changed to Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. The administrative actions of administrative staff in certain tribunals are brought within the jurisdiction of the ombudsman. The orders make provision for the removal from office of an ombudsman or Commissioner for Complaints who is incapable, for medical reasons, of carrying out his duties and is himself unable to resign. They allow for the appointment of an acting ombudsman or commissioner during a period when the post is vacant pending a permanent appointment. The original power to prescribe a fee for complaints to the Commissioner for Complaints was not exercised and has been removed as it is not now considered appropriate to charge for investigations. The time limit for bringing a complaint to the Commissioner for Complaints has been simplified and brought into line with the time limit in the ombudsman 4 order. The existing limit of two months from the time when the person aggrieved first had knowledge of the action in the complaint or within six months of such action is revised to 12 months from the day on which the person aggrieved first had knowledge of the matters alleged in the complaint. The orders also extend the list of authorities and bodies subject to investigation. I commend the draft orders to the Committee.
Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie): On behalf of the Opposition, I also extend our welcome to you in your new role, Sir James. It is good to see a young man starting out on a fresh career. It is appropriate to thank those people who have been operating the ombudsman service for the work that they have done and particularly Mrs. McIvor, who has now retired. I know that the Select Committee was very grateful for the service that she gave. We also welcome Mr. Burns to that role. The orders before us are dramatic stuff. The Government's proposals for amending the 1969 legislation could hardly be said to be radical. There is considerable disappointment that the Government did not see fit to consider the issues in a more radical way. One of the matters that I should like to draw to the Minister's attention is that we started our proceedings by agreeing unanimously to consider both orders together. Immediately, one wonders why they are separate in the first place. Why do we have two orders when one person is involved? Why, after 25 years, has some thought not been given to amalgamating the two positions, given that one person does both jobs? The legislation even seems to require that a person's salary should be abated if he or she holds another position, even though we know perfectly well that one person is doing the two jobs. I hope that the Minister can deal with that point, which seems a very odd way of going on. No doubt there is a simple explanation, but it eludes me. The situation is not strictly comparable with that in Great Britain, as a single Department is responsible for health in Northern Ireland. There is no similar separation of that function in Great Britain. The report on the ombudsman in Northern Ireland from the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration referred to the central problem with the ombudsman service, which is that we can pass the legislation but we cannot make people use the service. Mrs. McIvor herself said with some regret that only about 10 per cent. of the people in Northern Ireland seemed to be aware that it was possible to make a complaint to the ombudsman service. Have the Government given that matter further thought? The previous ombudsman expressed her concern in the Select Committee report and said that she had commissioned a complainants survey, which is due to report about now. Can the Minister tell the Committee about the report's findings as to complainants' 5 satisfaction—or otherwise—with the ombudsman service? Are the results known, and what do they show? An example of the service's credibility is that in 1994, two complaints were received about health in Northern Ireland, In 1995, the total was four. The health service in the Province would be remarkable if there were really only two instances of maladministration in 1994. Not even the most perfect service could be that good. Mrs. McIvor put the result down to the special nature of Northern Ireland; to put it crudely, people did not want to complain because the same surgeon might have to operate on them again. That might give rise to an element of fear in people's responses, but we must investigate why so few people known about and use the ombudsman service. The ombudsman department is small, comprising only 14 people. Such a department cannot contain the resources to have all skills. The Northern Ireland Office has considerable public relations resources, and perhaps it could assist the ombudsman's department in finding ways in which to give the ombudsman service more prominence and publicity. We are dealing with professional matters, and one would not expect the head of the ombudsman service to be an expert at projecting the service to the rest of the community. As all the people in the ombudsman service are seconded civil servants, perhaps some consideration should be given to the possibility of civil servants from the Northern Ireland Office going into the ombudsman's office on a short-term basis to examine how to publicise the service more fully. I have a few short questions. Perhaps the Minister could tell us specifically which new organisations have been swept in under the revised legislation—which are additional? I can spot one or two; I assume that the Catholic Commission on Maintained Schools, a relatively new organisation, is one that has been swept in. Unless I have misunderstood the legislation, the Northern Ireland Office is not listed as a body about which one can complain. I wonder whether there is a ready answer among the papers that are appearing from all directions over the Minister's shoulder. Article 12 refers to compensation. In examining the legislation and the awards that were made by the ombudsman where people had made complaints, my impression was that the awards were generally quite puny—they were quite small scale, given the quite significant abuses of people that occurred, for example, in major planning cases. Has any consideration been given to upping the level of compensation that can be paid or ordered by the ombudsman? Finally, will the Minister explain why, some years after the Northern Ireland Assembly ceased to exist, the decision has been made to rename the ombudsman the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland? Does the minister know something about the future that the rest of us do not? Why has that decision been taken? I should be grateful for responses to those points.6
Sir John Wheeler: It is always a pleasure to respond to the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), the pronunciation of whose constituency I have not forgotten. The hon. Gentleman always raises helpful and pertinent questions to which I hope to have detailed answers. The hon. Gentleman inquired why we have two separate offices. Both offices were created, as I have already suggested, by the 1969 legislation and there has been no pressure either within the ombudsman service in Northern Ireland or from any other quarter in Northern Ireland for the two positions to be formally amalgamated. Indeed, the two offices broadly reflect the Great Britain situation where there is both a Parliamentary ombudsman and a locl authority commissioner. In so far as it is proper and appropriate, there is always a desire to keep legislation that affects Northern Ireland, as well as the accompanying arrangements, broadly in line with what prevails in Great Britain.
Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Glasgow, Rutherglen): Surely the Minister is saying that because nobody has applied pressure, nobody—including Ministers who are responsible for running the Departments has actually examined the situation to see whether the proposal is a possibility and whether it should be enacted. Surely there is more to life than accepting the status quo without question and without subjecting it to monitoring. I refer to the amalgamation, of course.
Sir John Wheeler: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Why not look afresh at the situation and say that it should be changed? However, there is a longstanding belief that if matters are working well, there is no reason to interfere. The hon. Gentleman may conclude that if matters are working well, they are best left alone, especially if there is no pressure or desire for change. No great issue of principle is at stake here. When we consider the issue again in the future, we may well decide to put both offices together—perhaps some time in the next century. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy) also inquired about the lack of awareness of the ombudsman's role. Within the culture of Northern Ireland, people like to resolve problems locally or within the immediate authority of individuals with whom they are familiar. People do not immediately think of taking the awesome step of turning to the ombudsman. However, it is equally important that the public should be aware that high standards and competency of service are sought, and people should be aware of their rights to ensure that their grievances are properly considered. When we have the results of the satisfaction survey that is being carried out by the ombudsman, we shall give further thought to the issue. I do not have the results to hand. The ombudsman's office is certainly free to ask the Northern Ireland Department of Finance and Personnel for help and I shall ensure that the fruits of this idea are brought to the ombudsman's notice so that he can consider what further help he may need. As a new occupant of the office, he might arrange for some 7 suitably crafted articles to appear in local newspapers, explaining his role and purpose and the service that he is able to provide for the people of Northern Ireland. That is one way of bringing the importance of the office to the attention of the wider public. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) asked about the 14 new bodies that have been added to the list. I am delighted to tell the Committee that they include the Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland, the Fair Employment Commission for Northern Ireland, the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, the Health and Safety Agency for Northern Ireland, the Health and Social Services Councils, the Local Government Staffs Commission for Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council, the Northern Ireland Council for Postgraduate Medical and Dental Education, the Northern Ireland Fishery Harbour Authority, the Northern Ireland Museums Council, the Office of the Certification Officer for Northern Ireland, the Rural Development Council for Northern Ireland, the Staff Commission for Education and Library Boards and Ulster Sheltered Employment Ltd. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie also asked why the Northern Ireland Office itself is not subject to investigation by the Northern Ireland ombudsman. The answer is that the Northern Ireland Office comes under the remit of the Great Britain ombudsman because it is a Whitehall rather than a Northern Ireland Department.
Mr. Worthington: The number of bodies added to the list is greater than I expected. Some of them have been established for a considerable time. Is there a mechanism in the proposals whereby new quangos can be added to the list of bodies automatically? That would be better than having to wait for the next relevant delegated legislation in 25 years time.
Sir John Wheeler: That is an important point and I shall seek to give the hon. Gentleman an authoritative answer in a few moments. His suggestion is self-evident common sense. Why have we decided to use the term "Assembly" in the title, rather than "Parly"? in 1969, the office of the Northern Ireland Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration was established by the then Stormont Parliament. The commissioner reported to that Parliament, and when it was abolished and direct rule was introduced, the Northern Ireland Act 1974 provided for the commissioner to report to the Westminster Parliament during the interim period of direct rule. The change in the title from Northern Ireland Parliamentary Commissioner to Parliamentary Ombudsman for Northern Ireland can be construed only as a reference to the Westminster Parliament. Therefore, the change in title will be to Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, because, as during the interim period of direct rule, Northern Ireland legislation is drafted in the context of devolved 8 structures. The term "Assembly" has been used in almost all Northern Ireland legislation in the past 22 years. The order is, therefore, being used to update the 1969 Act and not in contemplation of a new Northern Ireland Assembly. Alas, I am unable to foretell the future—on this occasion at least.
Sir John Cope (Northavon): From what my right hon. Friend has just said, am I correct in thinking that article 9 provides that complaints can be referred to the commissioner only by a member of the Assembly, and that under the 1974 Act, to which he referred, for the time being that means a Member of the Westminster Parliament? I understand why it is written in such a way because not so long ago I had responsibility for some of these matters and recall them at least in part. I believe that I am correct in saying that although it would seem impossible, on the face of it, to get a complaint to the ombudsman because that can be done only through a member of the Assembly, which does not currently exist, under the legislation, the Westminster Parliament is put in place of the Assembly for the purpose of referring complaints and, indeed, for the purpose of the report.
Sir John Wheeler: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I recall with immense pleasure how knowledgeable he is about Northern Ireland and the service that he has given to it. He is right that complaints reach the ombudsman's door via a Northern Ireland Member of Parliament and not via an Assemblyman, because, for the time being at least, no such creature inhabits the earth in Northern Ireland—but who is to say what may happen in the future. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie asked whether the ombudsman would be able to determine the level of settlement to be paid. It need not be a monetary settlement: it could be—as in Great Britain—action to put the person back in the position he was in before he made his complaint. It could also be an apology or other relevant action to remedy the complaint. Even in ordinary court proceedings, settlements are not necessarily resolved by the awarding of a cash sum. Could the hon. Gentleman remind me of his final point?
Mr. Worthington: I think that all my points have been answered.
Sir John Wheeler: I cannot imagine why I thought that I had failed to answer any of the hon. Gentleman's questions in detail. As always, I am grateful to him for his thoroughness.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved. That the Committee has considerd the draft Ombudsman (Northern Ireland) Order 1996.
Resolved. That the Committee has considerd the draft Commissioner for Complaints (Northern Ireland) Order 1996
Committee rose at six minutes to Five o'clock.
THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:
Molyneaux, Sir James (Chairman)
Coombs, Mr. Simon
Cope, Sir John
Maitland, Lady Olga
Marshall, Mr. John
Wheeler, Sir John