New Clause 3 — Applications for relief under section 15: legal aid

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 3:15 pm on 27th June 2007.

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Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice 3:15 pm, 27th June 2007

Those who are eligible for legal aid for a judicial review in the High Court will not be put at a disadvantage if the case is transferred to the upper tribunal. We will therefore extend the scope of legal aid so that they get legal aid. I hope that that answer is satisfactory to the hon. Gentleman. An amendment is not required.

On new clause 11, I congratulate and compliment the hon. Member for Newbury on taking the opportunity to draw public attention to such issues. I, too, think that to live in an affordable park home sounds like quite an agreeable lifestyle choice. The stories that we have heard about blackmail, bullying and people behaving badly and abusing their power are appalling. I am sorry that that goes on. I hope that I can bring forward a positive suggestion in relation to his constituents' difficulties with the fact that the only place for the resolution of disputes is the county court.

The hon. Gentleman has 11 mobile home sites within his constituency—I think that I have two—and he is an active member of the all-party group on the welfare of park home owners. He probably also knows that the Department for Communities and Local Government is working closely with representatives of both site providers and residents to try to develop proposals for alternative forms of resolution. If he did not know that, let me make clear that that is going on, and if wishes to get involved on behalf of the 11 mobile home sites in his constituency, I shall make sure that he has sufficient information.

Alternative ways of resolution other than the courts are being considered. Currently, disputes go to the county court under the mobile homes legislation. I understand that negotiations have thrown up some issues that both sides of the park home sector agree should remain in the county court. If that is so, those issues will no doubt stay in the county court. For the benefit of the hon. Gentleman's constituents, let me say that the county court has a small claims track, which is likely to be a route that can be taken by people in some of the predicaments that he has described. Its procedures are very much simplified, and the district judges who operate that track are proactive and immensely helpful to those who are unrepresented and not well versed in matters of law.

Many county courts also increasingly have mediation officers, to whom district judges can send cases that they think are appropriate for mediation. It sounds possible that some of the issues raised would be appropriate for mediation. Whether or not that is the case, if it is agreed at the end of negotiations that some issues should remain in the county court, that should not put off constituents who have a real cause for complaint, because the small claims track is not a fully bewigged, begowned, formal, "my learned friend" sort of experience. It is much more informal than that.

Once there is overall agreement on the best routes for dispute resolution, the Government can, and will be happy to, use the provisions in the Housing Act 2004 to transfer those disputes that it is agreed should be transferred to a tribunal setting. The tribunal will be the residential property tribunal service, which is an existing national tribunal service that already deals with issues such as rent and leasehold, so should be well versed in the kind of territory over which some of the disputes arise. Transfer can be achieved by an affirmative statutory instrument under the 2004 Act, making the amendment unnecessary. Of course, if that process is used there will be a debate allowing scrutiny of the proposed transfer.

The hon. Gentleman did not intend his amendment to be perfection incarnate, and it would be very expensive to set up individual tribunals for each of the 269 local authorities that have park homes, so the proposition I have described is much better. I hope that I have set the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest and that he will participate, on behalf of his constituents, in the discussions that are going on, so that in due course park home owners can have ready access to recourse when they are treated in the appalling way that he described.

I turn now to the general commissioners for income tax. I should make it clear that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Mr. Sutcliffe, will have responsibility for tribunals—at least for another couple of hours— and that is why he has discussed the issue with the commissioners. Amendment No. 9, tabled by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, would remove the reference to the general commissioners, while amendment No. 72 would enable compensation to be paid for loss of office as a result of this Bill.

The primary concern of both amendments is the question of compensation to clerks following the abolition of their office. I was impressed by the impassioned plea for the retention of the status quo made by the hon. Gentleman, but I believe that he generally supports the streamlining process in this Bill. It is a thin case to suggest that the issue of compensation means that the tax commissioners should be left out entirely.