Finance Committee told to check their sums as more work’s needed on Ombudsman Bill

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Communities Committee
Stage 1: Public Services Ombudsman Bill (pdf)
Published: 12th March 2018

See also: Giving the Public Watchdog more bite

1. AMs should agree to the principles of the Bill

A majority of witnesses supported the Bill, though there was some dissent from Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg that the Ombudsman isn’t “subject to sufficient accountability and scrutiny”, so therefore caution was needed before extending their powers (this could be due to a dispute between the Ombudsman and the Welsh Language Commissioner).

The Committee agreed with the general principle of the Bill, subject to improvements.

2. The Ombudsman should consult with regulatory bodies before starting their own investigations

One of the key clauses in the Bill is to allow the Ombudsman to undertake their own investigations.

While there was support from witnesses for the proposed expansion of investigatory powers, this wasn’t unanimous – mainly because Ombudsman investigations might duplicate investigations carried out by respective regulatory bodies (i.e. Social Care Wales, Healthcare Inspectorate Wales) – which would waste time and money.

The Ombudsman believed there was already a risk of this type of duplication and as part of their role already had to meet with regulatory bodies and Commissioners. The Committee recommended this be formalised on the face of the Bill.

3. Complaints made to the Ombudsman should be properly recorded and verified

The Bill will give people the right to give evidence in person/orally – which might make the complaints process less daunting for those with literacy problems or learning difficulties.

Healthcare Inspectorate Wales and Social Care Wales argued that oral complaints needed to be properly registered and verified in order to avoid disputes on the accuracy of oral evidence and to ensure that recorded complaints properly reflect the issues raised by a complainant.

4. There was a “missed opportunity” to merge social palliative care investigations with general investigatory powers

Some witnesses questioned why social and palliative care hadn’t been merged with general investigatory powers within the Bill, instead of maintaining a separate regime. These witnesses weren’t overly concerned as long as there were “no practical differences” in how complaints were dealt with. However, the Welsh Government (who didn’t introduce this Bill; the Finance Committee did) felt it was a “missed opportunity” to create a single investigatory regime.

The member in charge – Chair of the Finance Committee, Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) – argued that as the Assembly had set out these provisions in a specific way as part of the Social Services & Wellbeing Act 2014 he was reluctant to change it. Merging the two regimes could also potentially make the legislation too complicated and technical.

The Committee agreed that this was a “missed opportunity” but didn’t call for the two regimes to be merged into one.

5. The Auditor General should be protected from defamation claims too

The Bill specifically protects the Public Services Ombudsman from defamation claims (as do the Welsh Language Commissioner and Older People’s Commissioner).

The Wales Audit Office and Auditor General, however, don’t have this protection and have been threatened with defamation legal action in the past, only being protected if they lay reports before the Senedd.

The Committee believes protection from defamation should be extended to the Auditor General.

6. More work needs to be done on the Bill’s costings

There was a commitment from the Ombudsman and Member in Charge that the Ombudsman would not seek any more than 0.03% of the Welsh block grant for their own funding.

The Ombudsman felt the service provided “good value for money”, but it was unclear where the additional cost burden from an increase in caseloads would fall (in light of public spending cuts), while Cymdeithas yr Iaith questioned why the Ombudsman could see an increase in funding while other Commissioners see budget cuts.

The Welsh Government said they wouldn’t table a financial resolution in the Senedd (which is essential to get a law passed) until more work was carried out on the Bill’s costs (Regulatory Impact Assessment) and it properly aligned with Treasury Green Book rules – which for the Finance Committee is perhaps a little embarrassing.

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