Investigation of complaints by the Ombudsman

Prisons and Courts Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 29th March 2017.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

With this it will be convenient to discuss clauses 10 to 20 stand part.

Photo of Sam Gyimah Sam Gyimah The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

We have discussed the benefits of putting the ombudsman into legislation. I will briefly set out the remaining clauses that establish the ombudsman’s statutory role. Clause 9 sets out the eligibility criteria for individuals who wish to lodge complaints with the ombudsman and the powers of the ombudsman in relation to complaints. It also provides a power for the Secretary of State to make regulations about the type of matters that fall within the ombudsman’s complaint remit. This clause will give the ombudsman the discretion required in conducting these investigations and the power to act and enable the Secretary of State to reflect necessary changes in the ombudsman’s remit without further primary legislation.

Clause 10 sets out the reporting requirements and powers following complaints investigated by the ombudsman. Importantly, the nature of reporting and publication will be determined by the ombudsman, so that he can maximise the effectiveness of the report in the light of the intended recipient. Clause 11 makes provision for the ombudsman to investigate matters that relate to the ombudsman’s functions at the request of the Secretary of State. This is a valuable function that we wish to retain in practice. Examples of its use include an investigation of a major fire at Yarl’s Wood in 2003 and a more recent suicide in prison.

Clause 12 will give the ombudsman the power to enter premises under his remit in the course of an investigation or to carry out his functions. That is one of the most important measures in the Bill, giving the PPO the right tools, for the first time on a statutory basis, to carry out its functions.

Clause 13 will provide the ombudsman with powers to acquire access to information that is relevant to an investigation. The ombudsman currently enjoys good co-operation with institutions, but these powers will put beyond doubt, and in law, that the ombudsman can require individuals to provide information relevant to his investigations.

Clause 14 makes provision for the ombudsman to certify to the High Court—or, in Scotland, the Court of Session—that a person has unlawfully obstructed the ombudsman in the exercise of his powers of entry or powers to obtain information. Although we do not anticipate that they will be required often, the powers will help to deter non-co-operation.

Clause 15 makes provision for the ombudsman to notify the police, or appropriate law enforcement agency, if he believes that there should be a criminal investigation into any matter. That will enable law enforcement investigations to be actioned quickly, while the ombudsman will retain the ability to stop an investigation in the light of other investigations.

Clause 16, which we should consider alongside clause 17, sets out restrictions on the information that the ombudsman can disclose and makes provision for the ombudsman to share information that he obtains in the course of his investigations. The clause encourages close co-operation between the ombudsman and other relevant bodies, which has important practical application. For example, in carrying out an investigation of a death, the ombudsman can share information with a coroner, as necessary.

Clause 18 makes provision for the ombudsman to produce an annual report based on the ombudsman’s work in the preceding year, and for the Secretary of State to lay the report before Parliament. That will enable Parliament to have oversight of the ombudsman’s activity that year.

Clause 19 sets out the clauses in the Bill that are not applied to secure children’s homes in Wales. As social services is a devolved matter and children’s homes in Wales are regulated by Welsh legislation, we have agreed with the Welsh Government that the requirements will be provided through Welsh legislation rather than in the Bill.

Finally, clause 20 provides definitions that are relevant to the Bill clauses related to the ombudsman, including setting out the relevant institutions that are covered by the ombudsman’s remit of investigating deaths and complaints and defining the person in charge of those institutions, which is relevant where the ombudsman must be notified of the deaths. I suggest that clauses 9 to 20 stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice) 2:45 pm, 29th March 2017

I want to make a couple of observations. We welcome the provisions, which are absolutely right and needed in the 21st century. I specifically want to thank the Government for putting the ombudsman on a statutory basis and giving him to the power to investigate deaths in immigrations centres, as well as those agencies that escort prisoners from immigration centres to other places, so that they are also covered. If somebody tries to obstruct the ombudsman, he can go to the High Court and the person causing the obstruction can be done for contempt of court. Those are really welcome provisions that we wholeheartedly support.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 9 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 10 to 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 21