Schedule 15
Legal Services Bill [Lords]
2:45 pm

The Office for Legal Complaints

Photo of Henry Bellingham

Henry Bellingham (Shadow Minister, Constitutional Affairs; North West Norfolk, Conservative)

I beg to move amendment No. 300, in schedule 15, page 222, line 35, leave out sub-paragraph (2).

Schedule 15 details the arrangements for setting up the Office for Legal Complaints, and deals first with membership. It states:

“The OLC is to consist of the following members...a chairman appointed by the Board with the approval of the Lord Chancellor, and...at least 6, but not more than 8, other persons appointed by the Board after consultation with the chairman.”

Paragraph 1(2) states:

“The Lord Chancellor may by order amend sub-paragraph (1) by substituting, for the limit on the maximum number of persons for the time being specified in paragraph (b) of that sub-paragraph, a different limit.”

The amendment would remove the provision that enables the Secretary of State to alter the number of members of the OLC. Why should the Secretary of State have any role in fixing that number? Such a provision might have made sense as an emergency power over the LSB but, plainly, it is totally unnecessary here.  The LSB is in charge of the OLC; the OLC is responsible to it. It does not make any sense to have the Secretary of State in the chain of command. The amendment would simply delete paragraph 1(2).

Photo of Bridget Prentice

Bridget Prentice (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice; Lewisham East, Labour)

The amendment is similar to one that was tabled twice in the other place. It would completely remove the power to change the maximum size of the OLC by order. There seems to be a fear that the Lord Chancellor would have undue influence over the OLC by setting the size of the membership. I do not believe that to be the case, or that the amendment is necessary.

The OLC is a non-departmental public body and as such is ultimately accountable to Parliament. It must therefore be right for the Lord Chancellor to have a minimum involvement—I deliberately used the words “minimum involvement”—in how the body is constituted. The Lord Chancellor does not have a role in approving the OLC’s rules, such as those about how claims will be handled, apart from the rule on case handling fees. He will also not have a role in handling individual complaints. I do not see that the fears about the Lord Chancellor having undue influence are substantiated.

I hope that hon. Members will appreciate, even if the amendment does not, that there is a need for a mechanism by which to change the size of the OLC membership. Such a mechanism is important because it will allow the OLC to adapt to changing demands, for example, by increasing its expertise and knowledge. It was suggested in the other place that such action could be taken if the matter was left to the LSB; I do not agree.

The OLC is a non-departmental public body—I shall not call it an NDPB because I am worried about the number of abbreviations that I am using, and concerned that I might be beginning to speak a different language altogether. A non-departmental public body is described in “Public Bodies: A Guide for Departments” as a

“body which has a role in the processes of national government, but is not a government department, or part of one, and which accordingly operates to a greater or lesser extent at arm’s length from ministers...The distance of NDPBs from government means that the day-to-day decisions they make are independent as they are removed from ministers and Civil Servants. Ministers are however ultimately responsible to Parliament for a NDPB’s independence, its effectiveness and efficiency”.

As the Lord Chancellor will ultimately be responsible to Parliament for the Office for Legal Complaints, he, not the board, should have a role in changing its size. In practice, he will not make that decision without the board giving its views; that is obvious because the board will have to make the appointments.

Even if the Lord Chancellor wanted to be mischievous and to create a board twice the size of the one that is presently constituted without telling the Legal Services Board, he could not do it, because the board is under no obligation to make those additional appointments. For those reasons, it cannot just be left to the Legal Services Board. The hon. Gentleman and his noble Friends should have more faith in the Lord Chancellor and how he exercises his role. On that understanding, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

3:00 pm
Photo of Henry Bellingham

Henry Bellingham (Shadow Minister, Constitutional Affairs; North West Norfolk, Conservative)

We do not have a great deal of faith in this Lord Chancellor and I suspect that he will not be around for much longer as things stand. But it isnot for us to speculate on that matter in this Committee.

Conservative Members, especially under our new leadership, believe in smaller Government, and we do not believe in Ministers having so much power. On the other hand, our leader has told us not to be confrontational, so I will be Cameron-compliant on both counts. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 42, in schedule 15, page 224, line 29, at end insert—

‘The terms of appointment of the chairman or any other member may provide for the Board to pay, or make payments towards the provision of, a pension, allowance or gratuity to or in respect of that person. If the Board thinks there are circumstances that make it right for a person ceasing to hold office as chairman or another member to receive compensation, the OLC may pay that person such compensation as the Board may determine.’.

No. 43, in schedule 15, page 224, line 42, at end insert—

‘The OLC may pay compensation for loss of employment to or in respect of an ombudsman (or former ombudsman), or a member (or former member) of staff appointed under paragraph 11.’.—[Bridget Prentice.]

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Simon Hughes (Party President, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice & Shadow Attorney General, Ministry of Justice; North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

I beg to move amendment No. 227, in schedule 15, page 226, line 15, leave out paragraphs 21 and 22.

This is another straightforward amendment to delete a two-part restriction on the powers of the Office for Legal Complaints, which effectively says that it cannot have any dealings with land in that respect. Life should be simple whenever possible, and I see no justification for the proposal. It is entirely reasonable that if a body is being set up it should be given the power to do what it needs to do; even though one cannot envisage the circumstances, such a power might be needed in the future. I am intrigued to know why the Minister thinks we need to tie the hands of the new body so that it cannot do something for five years. It is likely that three and a half years down the track, it will discover that it needs to do something and amending legislation will be necessary to put that right. Would it not be better to take out the appropriate paragraphs, as the amendment suggests?

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Bridget Prentice (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice; Lewisham East, Labour)

The amendment would remove the requirement on the OLC to obtain the Lord Chancellor’s consent in the acquisition or disposal of any interest in land during the first five years and the provision that it cannot borrow money except with the general authorisation of the board and the consent of the Lord Chancellor.

I am resisting the amendment because the location of the OLC is important; it has implications for the successful establishment of the ombudsman scheme and for the staff working within the present framework. In recognition of that, on 26 June last year, I made a written ministerial statement to the House explaining that the Government’s preferred location for the OLC is the west midlands.

That statement also made it clear that Leamington Spa would not be considered. That was to ensure that the OLC will be seen to be a new organisation, independent of the existing framework, and that it will be able to take advantage of a larger local labour market and the benefits associated with moving to a new site. The business case for the west midlands was extraordinarily strong—far stronger than that for any of the other four locations that we considered. It was built on the availability of suitable skills and experience, value for money, commitment to the principles of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981, and the enforced presumption against locations in London and the south-east following the Lyons review.

Schedule 15(21) deals with the acquisition and disposal of land, and its intention is to ensure, in legislation, that the OLC is bound by the Government’s announcement. In light of the strong business case on which that announcement was based, it is appropriate and necessary. However, I recognise what the hon. Gentleman says about changing circumstances and the requirement on the OLC to seek authorisation from the Lord Chancellor that is imposed by paragraph 21, which is a sunset clause.

On the conditions placed on the borrowing powers of the OLC, paragraph 22 provides that any borrowing must be subject to safeguards. It must have the consent or general authorisation of the board, and the board must have the consent of the Lord Chancellor. Amendment No. 227 would remove that requirement. Removing those appropriate precautions would mean that, should the OLC face exceptional circumstances that require it to borrow money, it would be able to do so without first requiring the express consent of the board and the Lord Chancellor. We expect the levy to be the OLC’s principal source of funding. Consequently, we do not expect the OLC to exercise its borrowing powers often if at all. However, unforeseen circumstances could arise in which borrowing is the most appropriate way to deal with an issue. It is entirely sensible, therefore, to provide for the OLC to borrow money. It is equally sensible and necessary to comply with Government accounting regulations dealing with borrowing by public bodies to ensure that any borrowing that is done is subject to the appropriate safeguards. In the case of the OLC, it is clear that that should be provided through the oversight and control of both the board and the Lord Chancellor. For those reasons, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

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Simon Hughes (Party President, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice & Shadow Attorney General, Ministry of Justice; North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

I am grateful for the Minister’s reply and I understand it. I shall not seek to divide the Committee. However, I shall be grateful for just one more bit of information along the lines of those that the Minister has volunteered.

All Committee members know that there was a debate about where the new office for dealing with legal complaints would be. I accept that there was a proper assessment and that the best business case was that for the west midlands. However, the Minister knows what the political issue is. It is that part of the complaints system for solicitors has for some while been in Leamington Spa. It has changed its name, title and organisation, but effectively it is still the same sort of organisation in the same place. There is a concern about whether this is a fresh start or a continuation of  the old system and not just a rebranding or a repackaging that comes afresh.

Do I assume, as I have always assumed from what the Minister says, that the TUPE rules will apply, and that all the people currently working at Leamington Spa will be subject to the obligations of the new organisation to seek to employ them, and transfer them? If that is the case, can the Minister remind us how many people currently work for the organisation in Leamington Spa dealing with solicitors’ complaints and how the Minister and the Government hope that there can be a fresh start? It is going to be in the same region, although not in the same town—a matter of 20 or 30 miles away—but will be perceived as being a continuation of the same organisation, just around the corner, up the road. I would be grateful for facts and numbers, confirmation about TUPE, and the Minister’s intention for a new start from what is a continuation, as a result of us passing the Bill later this year.

Photo of Bridget Prentice

Bridget Prentice (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice; Lewisham East, Labour)

I shall take those three things in reverse order. First, although I have said it before in a written ministerial statement to all stakeholders, I make it absolutely clear that, under no circumstances, is this exercise to be a rebadging of Leamington Spa. If that were to be the case, it would greatly undermine some of the thrusts of the Bill. I want to make that absolutely clear.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman, who, like me, represents a London constituency, may not have the best knowledge of the transport links in the west midlands. I am told by some of my colleagues that although the new site might not seem that far away from Leamington Spa, it is not necessarily the most straightforward area, geographically, in which to get from one place to another. I shall have to leave it to others to be more precise about that.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is only right that we use TUPE. It is good employer practice and, although we are not the employers, we want the future employers to uphold good employment practice. That is why I said earlier that despite the fact that we are not obliged to do so, we would use TUPE to deal with the matter.

Thirdly, I should say that the OLC will be different in that it will have its own chief executive and a new board. That will make a big difference, so there is no way that there will be just a straight transfer of staff. In terms of numbers, my understanding is that in Leamington, there are about 300 members of staff. We envisage, according to the last figures that I have received, that up to 80 per cent. of staff will transfer. Some will take early retirement, some will do other jobs and some will decide that they have had enough of dealing with complaints about solicitors. Those are decisions that individuals and their families will have to make. I want to ensure that in the transitional period, we deal sensitively with all the people involved, because it is a time, or for some an opportunity, to think about what they want to do in terms of their careers. We must be responsible about giving them the support to do that properly, and we must be sensitive about people’s needs in that area. That is why we are trying to do this in this fashion, and I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman.

3:15 pm
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Simon Hughes (Party President, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice & Shadow Attorney General, Ministry of Justice; North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

I am grateful for the Minister’s confirmation about the answers. I entirely understand and agree with her points about the need to ensure that both the attitude of Government Ministers and parliamentarians is sensitive to the individual circumstances of all those who work there. They obviously argued that they should be allowed to continue, but that was rejected. I have argued a similar view

We need to have an end and a new start. It would help to have confirmation that, although it is not obligatory, two people should apply. It seems sensible. A move of location is clearly one way to indicate a new start. Things need to be done differently, even if with some of the same staff. Although I am not an expert, my recollection of the old geography—in old money, as it were—is that Leamington Spa and Coventry were both in Warwickshire. So far as I know, they still are. The minds of the people therefore cannot be far away, although I remember from bitter experience that, as we all know, traffic jams happen just as much in that part of the world as elsewhere. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 15, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 115 to 120 ordered to stand part of the Bill.